The term “popular culture” always runs the risk of being confused with popular arts.  The term “popular arts” refers to any form of cultural activity or cultural production that is framed in terms of its status as a cultural product or performance.  This includes but is not limited to:  the performing arts (dance, theater, music, storytelling, comedy), the visual arts (painting, sculpture, handicrafts, cartoons, music videos, whether intended for consumption by locals or tourists), certain forms of popular fiction and film, and certain forms of decoration, (including graffiti, houses, taxis, bodies).  These categories are thus a sub-set of the larger category of popular culture, which in addition to everything mentioned above, also includes oral-based forms of cultural expression (rumors, sayings, language, jokes, prayers), public forms of festivity and competition (such as sports, carnival, beauty pageants), and everyday practices and gestures which transcend ethnic-based categories of “folklore” or “tradition”.  Popular culture is integrated into large-scale social and commercial networks and is accessible to a large number and wide variety of consumers, regardless of their ethnic or linguistic origin.

With this definition it is possible to distinguish “popular culture” from “culture” in a strictly anthropological sense, where the latter is generally associated with a system of beliefs, values and practices, and the former most often takes the form of a product or performance.  Because popular culture is often implicated in large-scale networks of commercial production and distribution, it enables us to see larger structural processes such as the formation of national identities, the movement of international capital, and the commercialization of cultural products and performances.  Its ability to circulate widely makes popular culture a kind of trace element for thinking beyond local boundaries (White 2002).  At the same time, the study of popular culture gives us privileged access to information about how identities are constructed and constrained within these larger global structures (Jules-Rosette et al 1997).  In this sense popular culture can be seen as a corrective to received cultural theory (Fabian 1998), not only because it sheds light on new areas of cultural production, but because it forces us to think of culture as something that takes place at the intersection of local experience and “larger impersonal systems” (Marcus & Fischer 1986). The challenge from the point of view of anthropology is to show what Tsitsi Dangaremba refers to as popular culture’s capacity to “point unsystematic fingers at the conditions of the times” (1988: 4).

Ultimately, however, popular culture is more than just a solution to academic problems.  It is a way of bringing anthropologists closer to the political implications of the work we do as self-appointed observers of other people’s cultures.  By its very nature, popular culture leads us to ask difficult questions about relations of power, unequal access to resources, the role of the state, and the complex processes by which culture is produced, re-produced and made public.  It urges us to confront our discomfort with the products of mass commercial desire and with cultural practices that are too often dismissed as being derivative or inauthentic.  It compels us to critically examine the decisions that we make before we ever get to the field, decisions concerning what type of phenomena are to be considered  “cultural” and our options in terms of how to engage with them (Hannerz 1992: 251).  Following Lila Abu-Lughod, I want to argue that the most important reason for studying popular culture is that it belongs to a world in which, in some sense, anthropologists are also natives (2005: 52).

(Excerpt from Rumba Rules, Duke University Press, 2008)


Selected References :

Abu-Lughod, Lila.  2005.  Dramas of Nationhood:  The Politics of Television in Egypt.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

Barber, Karin, ed.  1997.  Readings in African Popular Culture.  Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press.

Coplan, David.  1985.  In Township Tonight:  South Africa’s Black City Music and Theater.  New York:  Longman Publishers.

Dangaremba, Tsitsi.  1988.  Nervous Conditions.  New York:  Seal Press.

Diawara, Mamadou.  1997.  “Mande Oral Popular Culture Revisited by the Electronic Media.”  In Readings in Popular Culture, edited by Karin Barber.  Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 1978.  “Popular Culture in Africa:  Findings and Conjectures.”   Africa 48(4).

_____.  1996.  Remembering the Present:  Painting and Popular History in Zaire.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

______.  1998.  Moments of Freedom:  Anthropology and Popular Culture.  Charlottesville, VA.  University Press of Virginia.

Hannerz, Ulf.  1992.  Cultural Complexity:  Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning.  New York:  Columbia University Press.

Hebdige, Dick.  1979.  Subculture:  The Meaning of Style.  New York:  Methuen.

Hecht, David and Maliqalim Simone.  1994.  Invisible Governance:  The Art of African Micropolitics.  Brooklyn, NY:  Autonomedia.

Jewsiewicki, Bogumil.  1995.  Cheri Samba:  The Hybridity of Art.  Montréal, Québec:  Galerie Amrad African Art Publications.

Jules-Rosette, Bennetta and Denis-Constant Martin.  1997.  Cultures populaires, identités et politique.  Paris:  Les Cahiers du CERI / 17.

Keil, Charles and Steven Feld.  1994.  Music Grooves.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

Mankekar, Purnima.  1999.   Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Manuel, Peter.  1993.  Cassette Culture:  Popular Music and Technology in North India.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, George and Michael Fischer.  1986.  Anthropology as Cultural Critique.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Martin, Denis-Constant, ed.  2002.  Sur la piste des OPNI (Objets politiques non identifies).  Paris:  Karthala.

McCracken, Grant.  1988. Culture and Consumption:  New Approaches to the Symbolic Character to Consumer Goods and Activities.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press.

Ortner, Sherry.  1984.  “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties.”  Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1): 126-166.

Schulz, Dorothea.  1999.  “Pricey Publicity, Refutable Reputations:  Jeliw and the Economics of Honour in Mali”.  Paideuma 45:275-292.

Taylor, Julie.  1998.  Paper Tangos.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Vianna, Hermano.  1999.  The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music and National Identity in Brazil.  Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press.

Wade, Peter.  2000.  Music, Race, and Nation: Musica Tropical in Colombia.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

Walser, Robert.  1993.  Running with the Devil:  Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.  Wesleyan University Press.

Waterman, Christopher.  1990.  Juju:  A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music.  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

White, Bob W.  2004.  “The Elusive Lupemba: Rumors About Fame and (Mis) Fortune in Mobutu’s Zaire.” Reinventing Order in Kinshasa, edited by Theodore Trefon. New York :  Zed Books.