In the last two articles, we discovered some of the means by which to understand and define the concept of popular culture. As a practice, it has existed for a long time. For example, in Renaissance England, theatre—from Shakespeare to other contemporary writers—and bear baiting were some of the popular forms of entertainment for the populace. However, the very practice of popular culture has evolved over time.
In response to several significant social and cultural changes, popular culture developed into something different. Now, we will discover four significant social and cultural changes – industrialization, urbanization, mass media and US mass culture –
which played a strong influence on the emergence of the present practice and concept of popular culture.
Industrialization changed societal structure in many ways and on several levels, which enabled the creation of the context within which the current practice and concept of popular culture emerged.
It marked the shift into the modern era. Beginning in Europe—especially the United Kingdom— in the 18th and 19th centuries, the industrial revolution resulted in a change from an agrarian society, dependent on agriculture as the dominant source of economic revenue, to an industrial society, which relied on the manufacturing sector. As the economy changed from a primary one to a secondary one, more people ended working in factories instead of the farming sector. These changes had several flow-on effects.
The industrial revolution resulted in a significant redistribution of economic classes in society, starting initially in the United Kingdom. Previously, economic power belonged to land owners. Non-land owners had limited options to make money. The industrial revolution changed this situation: more people were working in factories instead of working in the agricultural sector. This allowed a whole new group of people to find themselves making money who would not have been able to achieve this without the industrial revolution. This led to a considerable change in the structure of European society: whereas the dominant class was previously the bourgeoisie, the middle class was rising as the new dominant class.
The middle class, which kept growing throughout the industrial revolution, had more money. Previously, the aristocrats and bourgeoisie were those able to pay for entertainment, leisure and art. The cultural artifacts in which they invested were considered high culture: theatre, opera, visual arts, etc. With the rise of the middle class, a new profile of people had the money to invest in culture. Their interests differed from those of the previous and current upper class. Their culture, which was previously marginal, became more visible as the demand for it increased. This was a significant phase in the evolution of popular culture.
Furthermore, the new and rising middle class had a different attitude to work. While people previously lived in there or for their work, the middle class workers of the industrial revolution started to approach work as a means to actually live outside their work. In simple words, work became a means for people to earn money to spend on activities that interested them. Workers would work together and have free time at the same time. They shared a common leisure time, thereby enabling them to attend the same cultural activities.
The rise of the middle class, which was a class of people with more spending money, and the increase in leisure hours created the perfect context for popular culture to emerge. People had the time to indulge in popular culture and they also had the money to spend on it. The culture this new social and economic group searched for and invested money in differed from the culture enjoyed by those of upper class. There was no longer a shared culture as a gap emerged between the culture of the upper class and the culture of the middle class, of which the latter would develop into popular culture.
A result of the industrial revolution was urbanization and this shall be further discussed in the next article of the series.