Some notes on popular culture

“Popular culture” is a term I see all the time and sometimes use myself, but I can’t think of a clear definition of it, and after doing a quick web search I don’t think Google can either. I mostly use it to mean TV shows, Hollywood films, and books, newspapers and magazines (paper or online) that are really well-known, the ones that you expect pretty much everyone will have heard of.

The Simpsons (the popular US cartoon family) sitting on their couch, watching TV.
I may not know how to define “popular culture” but I know it when I see it, and the Simpsons are definitely popular culture.

Articles on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia often have a section called “In popular culture” which relates the article topic to things the reader is likely to know about. For example, the Wikipedia article on Hadrian’s Wall (the 2000 years old stone wall that was built to separate Roman Britain from the Scottish “barbarians”) mentions that it was the inspiration for the great Wall in the popular fantasy series Game of Thrones.

This XKCD comic pokes fun at Wikipedia’s “In popular culture” sections, prompting the questions: isn’t Wikipedia itself part of popular culture? And, come to think of it, what isn’t in popular culture – isn’t everything popular culture now? And if so, why don’t we just call it “culture”?

An cartoon drawing of a Wikipedia article.
“In popular culture” by Randall Munroe at xkcd.com, licensed CC BY-NC, click through to see the original.

A possible answer: popular culture is everything that doesn’t belong to the “official culture”. Here in the west, popular culture includes the Simpsons and Beyonce and James Bond films, while the official culture includes Aristotle and Shakespeare and Mozart and Jane Austen. Of course the official culture also includes currently living scholars and artists who are producing new cultural works, but they must nevertheless follow the official culture’s centuries-old rules and traditions, in order for their works to be included in the official culture’s canon.

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