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What is the History of Popular Culture? (iv)

Dai Smith, senior lecturer at University College, Cardiff, offers his thoughts.

Twenty-five years ago 'popular culture' was something you popped into a new-fangled holdall bag labelled 'Social History'. Nowadays it threatens to emulate its early protector by evolving into a separate discipline to be studied with the help of such stern interlocutors as the sisters Sociology and Semiology. One definition of the history of popular culture lends itself readily to this treatment: it is the description and analysis of the popular tastes, customs, folk beliefs, manners and entertainments within any given social order. In short, it is the culture of most of the people as opposed to the culture organised, thought and transmitted by various elites. Matters become more interesting when we refine the definition to account for the ambiguity that will necessarily accompany the history of popular culture if we insist on its prior and continuing relationship to the material formation of society as a whole.

In his rich compendium, Peasants Into Frenchmen (1977), Eugen Weber demonstrated, with a wealth of example, how the rural population comprehended the particularities of their world through the forms of their own popular culture. He also stressed the tortuous relationship between that 'authentic' way of life and the ‘artificial’ one being created for them in the wake of the urbanisation and industrialisation of France. An earlier process of change in Britain could be dismissed, by some in the 1930s, as the degeneration of a natural, organic culture and its replacement by a mass one which, in turn, could only be purified by a conscious, culturally equipped minority. The cultural equipment was, of course, possession of an English literary tradition as selected by F.R. Leavis and fellow scrutineers.

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