Power, cultural industries, and popular culture

The relationship between power and culture is at the core of several sociological and communication studies. In order to understand how mass modern societies stay together sharing values, beliefs, and images of the world among their citizens, researchers and theoreticians have looked at how culture is produced, distributed, and consumed, what are the characteristics of that culture, and how that culture has been used for controlling/organizing societies. Wile exploring these questions, the terms “cultural industries” and “popular culture” have emerged to emphasize the political and economic distributions of power. 

Horkheimer and Adorno (1944) elaborated one of the most radical attacks to the culture of mass societies and the power of capitalist industries. Having a political economy approach they coined the term “cultural industry” in order to emphasize the mechanical aspect of the production, distribution and consumption of culture in capitalist modern societies. The cultural industry is a system for domination and control, it is totalitarian, violent, and barbarian. Its products have a very low aesthetic quality and have been standardized in order to deceive the masses of consumers with amusement, entertainment, and false ideas of success. Standardization was possible due to the mechanical technology that allowed the industry to repeat the same effects and tricks again and again, at a fast pace of production. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the cultural industry is a result of the economic power of capitalist industry and its business model. Technically and economically the cultural industry merged with advertising turning the cultural product into propaganda slogan. Popular culture, in this sense, is culture for the masses, designed, produced, and distributed by a capitalist industry, and it is totally dehumanized. 

Understanding the cultural industries as the mass media, Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948), also elaborated a critic of modern capitalist culture. For them, a mass media system ruled by advertisements and economic powers was dangerous because it could be used for disseminating propaganda and psychological exploitation. By recognizing the social functions of media (conferring status, enforcement of social norms, narcotizing disfunction) they expressed their concern about media ownership and control by commercial interests. They also recognized the impact of the media upon low popular taste and, in this way, suggested the existence of a popular culture based on massive entertainment and art.

More recently, and in the context of globalization, Schiller (1991) has also elaborated a criticism of the popular culture produced in a capitalist economy of global scale. In particular he addresses the issue of cultural imperialism and domination by transnational corporations, especially American ones. For him, although the cultural industries come in national and transnational sizes, there is an unequal distribution of power that determines the domination by the latter ones. The transnational cultural industries are the ones that end setting the agenda of production, distribution and consumption of popular culture. Therefore, popular culture around the world ends being homogenized a la Americana (USA).

Although Gramsci (1929-1935) did not directly mention the cultural industries and popular culture, he developed an analysis of the capitalist society that highlighted the importance of culture in political domination. By introducing the concept of hegemony, he located power in a ruling class that succeeded in persuading the other classes of society to accept its culture and worldview, its ideology.  The class who exercises hegemony, the bourgeoisie in capitalist societies, controls the other subaltern classes (consensual control) by creating a dominant and pervasive “common sense.” In this sense, it could be argued, in a Gramscian way, that the cultural industries are the instrument of the ruling class for exercising and reinforcing hegemony. However, since Gramsci believed in a continuous social and class struggle, it is not possible to say that popular culture is the same as hegemonic culture. On the contrary, popular culture could be understood as the culture of the subalterns.

An interesting reading and interpretation of Gramsci that precisely tries to clarify the understanding of popular culture as different from the hegemonic one, has been made by Martin-Barbero (1993). He puts attention to what the people (subalterns) are doing in the everyday life and reveals that the popular classes have a power for reorganizing and filtering hegemonic culture. According to Martin-Barbero popular culture is “remnant and style,” it is creative, resistant, and rich in symbolic meaning. Therefore, popular culture is a strategic terrain where the hegemonic culture that is being spread by the cultural industries (mass media) is challenged.  

Another scholar who has understood popular culture as a complex field of negotiations instead of a rigid domination is Raymond Williams. In his study of television, Williams (1975) has argued that the process of social struggle and development creates the cultural form of television.  On the one hand, he recognizes the power that the cultural industry (planners, programmers, producers) has to shape popular culture with the content they broadcast (transmission). On the other hand, he acknowledges the power that the audiences have to turn the switch on and off, to change the channels, and to construct their own experience of reception. Therefore, popular culture ends being transformed and redefined by the society as a whole. 

Some scholars have avoided taking a critical position for understanding the relationship between power and culture. Lippman (1974), for instance, has argued that propaganda should be used for governing democratic societies. Although he does not mention cultural industries and popular culture in his text, he does spend a lot of time claiming that public opinion must be organized by a selected group of experts, an elite. This elite has to organize the fictions, maps, symbols, and pictures of the world that will be transmitted by the press, or other cultural industry, to the rest of the population.  Thus, the majority of people in a democracy, say the public, is merely a mass of passive spectators who cannot understand the world by themselves.

Finally, although technological determinist analyses tend to be uncritical of the relationship between power and culture, they provide new framework for thinking about it. In his description of the post-industrial society, Bell (1983) brings to the table the notions of data processing (information) and knowledge as the central resources for social and economic exchanges. I think it is possible to say that the power in the information society is dispersed among several technical elites that form a knowledge class that is diffuse and large. 


Bell, D. (1983).  The social framework of the information society.  In Forester, T. (Ed.), The Microelectronics revolution.  Cambridge:  MIT Press, 500-549.

Gramsci, A.  (1987).   Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gransci.  New York:  International Publishers.  (Various excerpts on intellectuals, economism, philosophy).

Horkheimer, M. and T. Adorno (1987).  The culture industry:  Enlightenment as mass deception.   In Dialectic of enlightenment.  New York:  Continuum,  pp. 120-167 (originally published in 1944).   

Lazarsfeld, P. and Robert Merton (1984). Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action. In Schramm, W. and D. Roberts (Eds.), Process and effects of mass communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 554-578 (Originally published in 1948).

Lippman, W. (1974). The world outside and the pictures in our heads. In Schramm, W. and D. Roberts, The Process and effects of mass communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 265-286 (Original chapter published in 1922).

Martin-Barbero, J. (1993).  Communication, culture and hegemony:  From the media to  mediations.  Newbury Park:  Sage.  

Schiller, H. (1991).  Not yet the post-imperialism era.  Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 8, 13-28.  

Williams, R. (1975).  Television:  Technology and cultural form.  New York: Schocken Books.  

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *