Popular Culture in Perspective
A blind spot that limits contemporary analyses of mass culture was anticipated by Tocqueville's remarks on the fact-finding obsession of the American mind a century ago:
The practice of Americans leads their minds to fixing the standard of their judgment in themselves alone. As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot comprehend; which leaves them but little faith for whatever is extraordinary and an almost insurmountable distaste for whatever is supernatural. As it is on their own testimony that they are accustomed to rely, they like to discern the object which engages their attention with extreme clearness; they therefore strip off as much as possible all that covers it; they rid themselves of whatever separates them from it, they remove whatever conceals it from sight, in order to view it more closely and in the broad light of day. This disposition of mind soon leads them to condemn forms, which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth.1
My plea on behalf of these "veils" takes the form of five unsystematic groups of observations: I shall indicate that (1) the discussion of popular culture has a century-old tradition in modern history; (2) the historical locus of popular culture today will be fixed; (3) an attempt will be made to evaluate the over-all approach of empirical research to the social function of contemporary popular culture; (4) the current philosophical, qualitative, nonresearch analysis of popular culture will be summarized briefly; and (5) some programmatic notes will be offered on the relationship between social criticism and social research.
The first published version of this chapter appeared as "Historical Perspectives of Popular Culture" in The American Journal of Sociology ( January 1950). Copyright 1950 by the University of Chicago.