Humans, consciously and subconsciously, are always striving to make sense of their surrounding world. Symbols—such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words—help people understand the world. Symbols provide clues to understanding experiences. They convey recognizable meanings that are shared by societies.
The world is filled with symbols. Sports uniforms, company logos, and traffic signs are symbols. In some cultures, a gold ring is a symbol of marriage. Some symbols are highly functional; stop signs, for instance, provide useful instruction. As physical objects, they belong to material culture, but because they function as symbols, they also convey nonmaterial cultural meanings. Some symbols are only valuable in what they represent. Trophies, blue ribbons, or gold medals, for example, serve no other purpose other than to represent accomplishments. But many objects have both material and nonmaterial symbolic value.
It may seem obvious that there are a multitude of cultural differences between societies in the world. After all, we can easily see that people vary from one society to the next.
High Culture and Popular Culture
Sociologists use the term high culture to describe the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in the highest class segments of a society. People often associate high culture with intellectualism, aesthetic taste, political power, and prestige. In North America, high culture also tends to be associated with wealth. Events considered high culture can be expensive and formal—attending a ballet, seeing a play, or listening to a live symphony performance.
The term popular culture refers to the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream society. Popular culture events might include a parade, a baseball game, or a rock concert. Rock and pop music—“pop” short for “popular”—are part of popular culture. In modern times, popular culture is often expressed and spread via commercial media such as radio, television, movies, the music industry, publishers, and corporate-run websites. Unlike high culture, popular culture is known and accessible to most people. You can share a discussion of favourite hockey teams with a new coworker, or comment on American Idol when making small talk in line at the grocery store. But if you tried to launch into a deep discussion on the classical Greek play Antigone, few members of Canadian society today would be familiar with it.
Although high culture may be viewed as superior to popular culture, the labels of “high culture” and “popular culture” vary over time and place. Shakespearean plays, considered pop culture when they were written, are now among our society’s high culture. In the current second “Golden Age of Television,” (the first Golden Age was in the 1950s and 1960s), television programming has gone from typical low-brow situation comedies, soap operas, and crime dramas to the development of “high-quality” series with increasingly sophisticated characters, narratives, and themes (e.g., The Sopranos, True Blood, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones).
Contemporary culture is frequently referred to as a “postmodern culture.” In the era of modern culture, or modernity, the distinction between high culture and popular culture framed the experience of culture in more or less a clear way. The high culture of modernity was often experimental and avant-garde, seeking new and original forms in literature, art, and music to express the elusive, transient, underlying experiences of the modern human condition. It appealed to a limited-but-sophisticated audience. Popular culture was simply the culture of “the people,” immediately accessible and easily digestible, either in the guise of folk traditions or commercialized mass culture. In postmodern culture this distinction begins to break down and it becomes more common to find various sorts of “mash ups” of high and low: serious literature combined with zombie themes, pop music constructed from samples of original “hooks” and melodies, symphony orchestras performing the soundtracks of cartoons, architecture that borrows and blends historical styles, etc. Rock and roll music is the subject of many high-brow histories and academic analyses, just as the common objects of popular culture are transformed and re-presented as high art (e.g., Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans and Marilyn Munro pictures). The dominant sensibility of postmodern popular culture is both playful and ironic, as if the blending and mixing of cultural references (in the television show The Simpsons, for example) is one big “in” joke.