Mass Culture

Are we being manipulated through our consumption of mass culture

Mass Culture Mass Culture

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Table of contents

    This was the major question of the sociologists of the Frankfurt School. They alerted society to the mass-produced and profit-driven low culture that has replaced colourful folk culture in the age of industrialisation. Their theories and sociological criticism were part of mass culture theory that we will discuss below.

    • We will start by looking at the history and definition of mass culture.
    • Then we will consider the features of mass culture.
    • We will include examples of mass culture.
    • We will move on to mass culture theory and discuss three different sociological perspectives, including the views of the Frankfurt School, the view of elite theorists and the postmodernism angle.
    • Lastly, we will look at key theorists and their ideas on the role and influence of mass culture in society.

    Mass culture history

    Mass culture has been defined in many ways, by many different theorists in sociology, since Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer created the term.

    According to Adorno and Horkheimer, who were both members of the Frankfurt School of sociology, mass culture was the widespread American 'low' culture that had developed during industrialisation. It is often said to have replaced agricultural, pre-industrial folk culture.

    Some sociologists claim that mass culture was replaced by popular culture in postmodern society. Others argue that today 'mass culture’ is used as an umbrella term for all folk, popular, avant-garde and postmodern cultures.

    Features of mass culture

    The Frankfurt School defined the following main characteristics of mass culture.

    • Developed in capitalist societies, in industrialised cities

    • Developed to fill the void left by the disappearing folk culture

    • Encouraged passive consumer behaviour

    • Mass-produced

    • Accessible and understandable

    • Created for the people, but not by the people. Mass culture was created and spread by production companies and wealthy businessmen

    • The goal is to maximise profit

    • The lowest common denominator: safe, predictable, and intellectually undemanding

    But what is considered mass culture? Let's consider some mass culture examples below.

    Examples of mass culture

    There are many examples of mass culture, such as:

    • Mass media, including films, radio, television shows, popular books and music, and tabloid magazines

    • Fast food

    • Advertising

    • Fast fashion

    Mass Culture, Image of colourful tabloid magazines, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Tabloid magazines are a form of mass culture.

    Mass culture theory

    There are many different views around mass culture within sociology. Most sociologists in the 20th century were critical of it, seeing it as a danger to ‘real’ authentic art and high culture as well as to the consumers, who are manipulated through it. Their ideas are collected within mass culture theory.

    Mass culture theory argues that industrialisation and capitalism have transformed society. Previously, people used to be closely connected through meaningful common mythologies, cultural practices, music, and clothing traditions. Now, they are all consumers of the same, manufactured, pre-packaged culture, yet unrelated to and disintegrated from each other.

    This theory of mass culture has been criticised by many for its elitist views of art, culture, and society. Others produced their own approaches to mass culture and its role in society.

    The Frankfurt School

    This was a group of Marxist sociologists in Germany during the 1930s, who first established the terms mass society and mass culture. They began to be known as the Frankfurt School of sociology.

    They developed the idea of mass culture within the concept of mass society, which they defined as a society where the people - ‘the masses’ - are connected through universal cultural ideas and goods, instead of unique folk histories.

    The most important figures of The Frankfurt School

    • Theodor Adorno

    • Max Horkheimer

    • Erich Fromm

    • Herbert Marcuse

    The Frankfurt School built their theory on Karl Marx’s notion of high and low culture. Marx thought that the difference between high culture and low culture is a significant one that needs to be highlighted. The ruling class states that their culture is superior, while Marxists argue (for example) that the choice between opera and cinema is a purely personal preference.

    Once the people realise this, they would see that the ruling class forces their culture on the working class because it serves their interest in exploiting them, and not because it is in fact 'superior'.

    The Frankfurt School found mass culture harmful and dangerous because of its ways of distracting the working class from their exploitation in capitalist society. Adorno and Horkheimer coined the term culture industry to describe how mass culture creates the illusion of a happy, satisfied society that turns working-class people’s attention away from their low wages, bad working conditions, and general lack of power.

    Erich Fromm (1955) argued that technological development in the 20th century made work boring for people. At the same time, the way people spend their leisure time was manipulated by the authority of public opinion. He claimed that people lost their humanity and were in danger of becoming robots.

    Mass Culture, Image of Robot Woman staring at lines of code, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Erich Fromm believes that people lost their humanity in the 20th century and they are in danger of becoming robots.

    Herbert Marcuse (1964) observed that workers have integrated into capitalism and become thoroughly mesmerised by the American Dream. By abandoning their social class, they have lost all resistant power. He thought that the state creates 'false needs' for people, which are impossible to satisfy, so they can keep people under control through them. Art has lost its power to inspire revolution, and culture has become one-dimensional.

    Elite theory

    Elite theorists of sociology, led by Antonio Gramsci, believe in the idea of cultural hegemony. This is the idea that there is always a leading cultural group (among all the competing ones) that determines value systems and patterns of consumption and production.

    Elite theorists tend to believe that the masses need leadership in terms of cultural consumption, so they accept the culture created for them by an elite group. The main concern of elite theorists is to protect high culture from the negative influence of low culture, which has been established for the masses.

    Main scholars of elite theory

    • Walter Benjamin

    • Antonio Gramsci

    Americanisation

    Proponents of the elitist theory argue that the U.S. dominated the world of culture and overthrew the different cultures of smaller social groups. Americans created a universal, standardised, artificial, and superficial culture that can be adapted and enjoyed by anyone, but that is not deep, meaningful, or unique in any way.

    Typical examples of Americanisation are McDonald’s fast-food restaurants, found all over the world, or globally popular American fashion brands.

    Russel Lynes (1949) divided society into three groups in terms of their tastes and attitudes to culture.

    • Highbrow: this is the superior group, the cultural form that all society should aspire to.
    • Middlebrow: these are the cultural forms that want to be highbrow, but somehow lack the authenticity and depth to be so.
    • Lowbrow: the lowest, the least refined forms of culture.

    Features of mass culture according to elite theorists

    • It lacks creativity and is brutish and backward.

    • It is dangerous because it is morally worthless. Not only that, but it is a danger to high culture in particular.

    • It encourages passivity instead of active participation in culture.

    Criticisms of elitist theory

    • Many critics argue that one cannot make such an easy distinction between high culture and low/mass culture as elite theorists claim.

    • There is a lack of convincing evidence behind the idea that the culture of the working class, which equals mass culture in elitist theory, is 'brutish' and 'uncreative'.

    • Elite theorists’ idea of vibrant folk culture - happy peasantry - is criticised by many, who claim it is a glorification of their situation.

    Mass culture in sociology: postmodernism

    Postmodernists in sociology, such as Dominic Strinati (1995) are critical of mass culture theory, which they accuse of perpetuating elitism. They believe in cultural diversity and view popular culture as a very appropriate field for this.

    Strinati argued that it is extremely difficult to define taste and style, which is different for everybody depending on their personal history and social context.

    There are a few points on which he agreed with elite theory. Strinati defined art as the expression of an individual vision, and he believed that commercialisation rids art of its aesthetic value. He was also critical of Americanisation, which he claimed is also a problem for leftist thinkers, not only for conservative theorists.

    Mass Culture Image of Hollywood Sign StudySmarterFig. 3 - Strinati criticises Americanisation and the overwhelming influence of Hollywood in the film industry.

    Strinati also agreed with the concept of cultural hegemony and with F. R. Leavis (1930) that it is the responsibility of a conscious minority in academia to uplift the public culturally.

    Popular culture

    Instead of taking a critical or supportive stance, John Storey (1993) set out to define popular culture and analyse ideas of cultural theory. He established six different historical definitions of popular culture.

    1. Popular culture refers to the culture which is loved by many people. It has no negative undertone.

    2. Popular culture is everything that is not high culture. It is therefore an inferior culture.

    3. Popular culture refers to mass-produced material goods, which are accessible to the masses. In this definition, popular culture appears as a tool in the hands of the ruling class.

    4. Popular culture is folk culture, made by and for the people. Popular culture is authentic, unique, and creative.

    5. Popular culture is the leading culture, accepted by all classes. The dominant social groups create popular culture, but it is the masses that decide whether it stays or goes.

    6. Popular culture is a diverse culture where authenticity and commercialisation are blurred and people have the choice to create and consume whatever culture they please. This is the postmodern meaning of popular culture.

    Mass Culture - Key Takeaways

    • The Frankfurt School was a group of Marxist sociologists in Germany during the 1930s. They developed the idea of mass culture within the concept of mass society, which they defined as a society where the people - ‘the masses’ - are connected through universal cultural ideas and goods, instead of unique folk histories.
    • Examples of mass culture are mass media, fast food, advertising, and fast fashion.
    • Mass culture theory argues that industrialisation and capitalism have transformed society. Previously, people used to be closely connected through meaningful common mythologies, cultural practices, music, and clothing traditions. Now, they are all consumers of the same, manufactured, pre-packaged culture, yet unrelated to and disintegrated from each other.
    • Elite theorists, led by Antonio Gramsci, believe in the idea of cultural hegemony. This is the idea that there is always a leading cultural group (among all the competing ones) that determines value systems and patterns of consumption and production.
    • Postmodernists such as Dominic Strinati (1995) are critical of mass culture theory, which they accuse of perpetuating elitism. They believe in cultural diversity and view popular culture as a very appropriate field for this.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Mass Culture

    What are examples of mass culture?

    There are many examples of mass culture, such as:


    • Mass media, including films, radio, television shows, popular books and music, and tabloid magazines

    • Fast food

    • Advertising

    • Fast fashion

    What is the definition of mass culture?

    Mass culture has been defined in many ways, by many different theorists, since Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer created the term. 


    According to Adorno and Horkheimer, who were both members of the Frankfurt School, mass culture was the widespread American low culture that had developed during industrialisation. It is often said to have replaced agricultural, pre-industrial folk culture. Some sociologists claim that mass culture was replaced by popular culture in postmodern society.

    What is mass culture theory?

    Mass culture theory argues that industrialisation and capitalism have transformed society. Previously, people used to be closely connected through meaningful common mythologies, cultural practices, music, and clothing traditions. Now, they are all consumers of the same, manufactured, pre-packaged culture, yet unrelated to and disintegrated from each other. 

    How does mass media influence culture?

    Mass media has grown to be one of the most influential genres of culture. Mass media is understandable, accessible, and widely popular. Some sociologists thought it was a dangerous medium as it spread commercials, simplistic views, even state propaganda. It contributed to the commercialisation and Americanisation of culture due to its global accessibility and popularity.

    What is mass culture in sociology?

    Mass culture has been defined in many ways, by many different theorists, since Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer created the term. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who was not part of the Frankfurt School?

    Cinema is part of mass media. True or false? 

    Who created the term and theory of cultural hegemony?

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