mass culture

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mass culture

relatively standardized and homogeneous cultural products, and the associated cultural experiences, designed to appeal to large audiences.

One important conception of mass culture is the idea that goods mass-produced for consumption (including even gramophone records, reprints of great art, etc.) provide inherently inferior experiences. This has a long history, and is seen in the perspectives of literary critics such as F. R. Leavis, or neo-Marxists such as ADORNO, HORKHEIMER and BENJAMIN (see also MASS SOCIETY). In general, sociologists have dissented from such extreme views, usually regarding mass culture as a far more complex phenomenon. See POPULAR CULTURE, CULTURAL STUDIES.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Mass Culture


in philosophy and sociology, a concept that refers, in general, to bourgeois culture since the mid-20th century. Substantial advances in the mechanism of bourgeois culture are reflected in the concept of mass culture, including the development of the mass media (radio, motion pictures, television, illustrated magazines with very large circulations, cheap paperback books, and phonograph records), the industrial and commercial production and distribution of standardized cultural commodities, the relative democratization of culture and the rising level of education of the masses, the increase in leisure time, and the increase in recreational expenses in the average family budget.

Under state-monopoly capitalism the mass media make culture a branch of the economy, transforming it into mass culture. The system of mass communication makes it possible for mass culture to reach the overwhelming majority of the members of a society. Through the unifying influence of fashion it directs and subjugates all aspects of human existence, from the style of dwelling and clothing to the type of hobby and from the choice of ideological orientation to the forms and rites of intimate relations. Mass culture aspires to cultural “colonization”—that is, to enveloping and subjugating the culture of the whole world.

The products of mass culture have a number of specific features, including a primitive characterization of human relations and a tendency to reduce social and class conflicts to entertaining clashes between “good” and “bad” people whose goal is to achieve personal happiness at any cost. Almost without exception there is a happy ending. Comic strips, popular books and magazines, and commercial motion pictures are pervaded by escapism, sheer amusement, sentimentality, and a naturalistic delight in sex and violence. The unconscious and the instincts are emphasized—possessiveness, the sense of property, national and racial prejudices, the cult of success, the cult of the strong personality and, at the same time, the cult of mediocrity. Conventionality is important in mass culture, as is primitive symbolism (the “bad guy’s” black costume in the Western, Superman’s square jaw in the comic strips, and the “fairy-tale” quality of James Bond). Superficial details that separate “ours” from “theirs” (for example, clothing, setting, house, neighborhood, make of car) are extremely important. Although these and other features have been inherent in bourgeois culture since the beginning of the general crisis of capitalism, their concentration in the mass output of cultural commodities has given rise to new cultural characteristics that make it possible to apply the concept of mass culture only to recent years.

Mass culture affirms an equality between material and moral values, both of which appear to become mass consumer goods. In mass culture the concept of the best seller has become universal. Mass culture is characterized by the emergence and accelerated development of a specialized professional group whose job is to use the content of consumer goods and the technology of their production and distribution to subordinate the mass consciousness to the interests of the monopolies and the state and to distort and stifle protest.

The mass-culture system includes the research, planning, and commercial and organizational work of highly qualified specialists. Research in social psychology supplies the monopolies with data on changes in the preferences and antipathies of different categories of consumers and on the effectiveness of devices used to mold mass consciousness. For example, the influence of packaging on the choice of a commodity, the effect of “persuasive” advertising formulas on the scale of tourism, and the effect of televised political debates on undecided voters are studied.

Designers continually create new models of everything that the consumer sees and hears, from the covers of phonograph records to the layout of towns and from museum exhibits to festivities on national holidays. The commercial organizational element of mass culture, or marketing, applies the latest methods of capitalist organization in production and trade to the cultural commodities industry. Marketing has a decisive influence on theater repertoires, the financing of films, television programming, the issuing of books and records, and young people’s fashion. As an element of mass culture marketing has made cultural processes into a “sport,” involving all types of creativity in the rise and fall of “stars” and “idols.” Although it caters to the general public, the mass-culture system differentiates its intellectual commodities strictly, aiming different products at different groups of consumers.

In bourgeois philosophy mass culture was first interpreted by O. Spengler (Germany), J. Ortega y Gasset (Spain), and T. Adorno (Federal Republic of Germany), who linked mass culture to mass society and heralded the downfall of “higher” culture in a clash with the “mass,” or the “mob.” Since the 1950’s a critical analysis of mass culture from the standpoint of traditional bourgeois liberal humanism has prevailed (E. Fromm, D. Riesman, E. van den Haag, and H. Marcuse [USA] and E. Morin [France]). Mass culture is interpreted by these philosophers as an extreme expression of a lack of intellectual freedom and as a means of alienating and oppressing the individual. Exaggerating the role of the mass media, the critics of mass culture separate the media from the bourgeois character of the culture and, at the same time, ignore the dual nature of mass culture. Unquestionably, mass communication gives millions of people an opportunity to get acquainted with works of literature and art and with scientific achievements. The dual nature of mass culture provides a foundation for apologetic concepts justifying the differentiation of cultural output and contending that mass culture corresponds to the needs of the mass consumer (T. Parsons, USA). The Canadian sociologist M. McLuhan maintains that mass culture brings spiritual values to masses of people who were once alienated from the dominant culture and that it sets relatively high standards for its products. Rejecting the “civilization of written language” from a romantic point of view, McLuhan paints a picture of a “global countryside,” where mass communication promotes the emergence of an idyllic contact among people free of individualism.

In many “anti-utopias”—nightmarish, cautionary books in Western literature—mass culture is depicted as a monster that devours everything human (works by G. Orwell, A. Huxley, R. Bradbury, and R. Sheckley, for example).

Progressive democratic forces in capitalist countries have made the struggle against mass culture, an openly antidemocratic movement, one of their important theoretical and practical tasks. Since the mid-1960’s, Marxist philosophers and sociologists have successfully developed their analysis and criticism of all forms of mass culture.


Ashin, G. K. Mif ob elite i “massovom obshchestve.” Moscow, 1966.
Davydov, Iu. N. Iskusstvo i elita. Moscow, 1966.
Glazychev, V. L. “Poeziia robotov.” In the collection Iskusstvo nravstvennoe i beznravstvennoe. [Moscow, 1969.]
Glazychev, V. L. “Problema ’massovoi kul’tury’.” Voprosy filosofii, 1970, no. 12.
Morin, E. L’Esprit du temps. Paris, 1962.
Riesman, D. The Lonely Crowd, 7th ed. New Haven [Conn.]-London, 1963.
McLuhan, M. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto, 1967.
Marcuse, H. One-Dimensional Man, llth ed. Boston [1969].
Toeplitz, K. T. Akyrema, 2nd ed. Warsaw, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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