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Popular Culture: A User’s Guide, International Edition is a lively and engaging introduction to popular culture. It provides the tools and knowledge for an analysis of the contemporary cultural landscape across a range of disciplines, from literary theory and cultural studies to philosophy and sociology.

The text covers a broad range of key topics, such as the underlying socioeconomic structures that affect media and our consciousness, the politics of pop culture, the role of consumers, subcultures and countercultures, and the construction of social reality. It examines the ways in which individuals and societies act as consumers and agents of popular culture. It is also filled with a variety of helpful learning features including case studies, real‐life examples, suggested activities, boxed features on specific topics, and a glossary of terms. Popular Culture helps readers navigate the complexities of twenty‐first century popular culture, arming them with the awareness and ability to critically evaluate everyday life and practices.

IMRE SZEMAN is Canada Research Chair of Cultural Studies and Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is also Adjunct Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, Canada. He is the founder of the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies and a founding member of the US Cultural Studies Association. He is the author or editor of more than 16 books, including Cultural Theory: An Anthology (Wiley Blackwell, 2010) and After Globalization (Wiley Blackwell, 2011).

SUSIE O’BRIEN is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Canada. Her research and teaching focus on postcolonial and environmental cultural studies. She has published on postcolonial literature, the slow and local food movements, scenario planning, and the temporality of globalization. She is co‐editor of Time, Globalization and Human Experience (forthcoming 2017).

Popular Culture

A User's Guide, International Edition


Imre Szeman

Susie O’Brien








Preface: A User’s Guide to Popular Culture: A User’s Guide

The goal of Popular Culture: A User’s Guide is to provide readers with an introduction to the critical study of popular culture. Our aim is to give readers the analytical tools to understand the everyday texts and practices that surround them, as well as their own roles as consumers of and participants in popular culture.

Why does anyone need a guidebook to popular culture? Don’t we all already know not only what is meant by popular culture, but also how to consume and use it? Guidebooks are supposed to make mysterious lands with unusual customs more familiar, or help us learn how to navigate complex tasks (like building a deck or planting a good‐looking garden) with greater ease. Popular culture, on the other hand, is, well, popular. When it comes to watching films, listening to pop music, shopping, or sucking down cups of coffee, we believe that we know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it. Like our native tongue, popular culture is something we know how to “speak” without resorting to lessons, audiotapes, courses, or guidebooks. So what can a user’s guide tell us about popular culture that we don’t already know?

In many respects, it is precisely the intimacy and familiarity with which we engage in contemporary popular culture that require critical reflection, exploration, and analysis. After all, knowing how to speak a language because we are immersed in it does not mean that we are necessarily able to read or write it, or that we understand its syntax and structure. Reading and writing take an enormous amount of effort to get right. And once we have learned how to read, we are faced with other questions, such as how written language on a page can convey information about real and imagined worlds.

As with language, so, too, with popular culture. Because we are immersed in it, popular culture is both uniquely accessible and frustratingly opaque; it is hard to get a critical purchase on something we inhabit so completely and, most of the time, more or less unconsciously. To help us understand the “syntax” and “grammar” of popular culture—the unacknowledged but crucial structures that give popular culture its shape, meaning, and significance—this book attempts to help readers see this familiar terrain more acutely and with greater insight. Our familiarity with popular culture tends to hide some of its most important features and its relationship to broader social, political, and economic currents. Popular Culture: A User’s Guide will help readers see parts of the contemporary cultural landscape that they may have been looking at all along without really perceiving them.

This book aims to take readers beyond the “commonsense” approach to popular culture, an approach that is defined by an odd mix of cynical knowingness and complacency. We are working from the premise that readers today possess an unprecedented level of media literacy. We are all aware, for example, that certain forms of media, such as advertising, operate according to particular agendas that may or may not reflect our own interests, and we also believe that we are smart enough to resist. This book seeks to create a level of awareness that goes beyond cynical complacency, not only to make readers aware of the underlying socioeconomic structures that determine the shape of media and, by extension, consciousness, but also to make them recognize the myriad ways in which popular culture manages to maneuver around these structures. We want to give students the tools to understand their role not just as consumers, but also as agents of popular culture.

We also want to showcase the full range of activities and practices that can be considered part of contemporary popular cultural experience. Unlike “high culture,” which is generally understood to refer to a discrete body of books or artworks that are unified by their adherence to specific aesthetic and cultural codes, the field of popular culture is diverse and uneven, comprising texts and practices ranging from commercial media to subcultural styles to the activities of everyday life (eating, shopping, drinking coffee, recreational activities, etc.).

Many books about popular culture are actually surveys or overviews of academic or theoretical approaches to the study of popular culture. In other words, what such books offer is a roughly historical account of a specific academic discipline (what is now often called cultural studies) and the individuals and theories that have been important to the development of that discipline. While we certainly discuss and make use of many of the most important theories of popular culture, we have chosen to emphasize practical strategies for understanding and interpreting the popular. Working from case studies and examples, this book aims to provide readers with a critical vocabulary and methods of analysis that will allow them to perform independent readings of cultural texts extending far beyond the sampling we offer here.

The specific analyses we provide in each chapter exemplify ways of using and adapting critical and theoretical materials to address the issues and problems at hand. The text is organized mainly around broad themes rather than specific genres or forms of popular culture (television, music, film, etc.), and is bookended by chapters that focus on the prehistory of contemporary popular culture (Chapter 1) and on the complexities that the current historical context introduces for the study of popular culture (Chapters 9 and 10).

A number of other features make this book a distinctive contribution to the study of popular culture. There is, first, an emphasis throughout on the politics of popular culture—that is, on the way in which popular culture is always connected to practices and discourses related to the exercise of and struggle over power and recognition in contemporary society. Second, there is an unapologetically Canadian flavor to this book. One reason for this is practical: both authors grew up, and currently work in, Canada. Though we have both lived and worked elsewhere, and much of our research is focused on places outside of Canada, the premise of this book that popular culture is ordinary and familiar compels us to approach the topic through our own everyday experiences. For that reason, many, though by no means all, of the case studies and examples we draw on are Canadian. Or Canadianish

Finally, to help our readers work through Popular Culture: A User’s Guide, we have incorporated a number of pedagogical features. Important terms and concepts are listed in a glossary at the end of the book and highlighted in bold on their first appearance in the text to allow readers to cross‐reference with ease. Each chapter contains one or more suggested activities and questions that are intended to get readers to think further about particular subjects and to apply them to their own experiences. In course use, these Suggested Activities may form the basis of oral or written assignments. Close‐Ups in each chapter clarify key concepts, theories, or movements, and may also form the basis for further study and investigation. Each chapter ends with a list of suggestions for further reading or viewing. These titles include other introductory texts that may deal with the same material in a different way or with a different emphasis, as well as original works by scholars and theorists referred to in the chapter.

Like the writers of any guidebook, we hope that readers use our maps and recommendations of places to visit and things to think about as a jumping‐off point for the elaboration of their own maps of the landscape of popular culture. The authors would be the first to admit that not only are there plenty of things they have not seen, there are places they do not yet even know exist.

Susie O’Brien
Hamilton, Ontario

Imre Szeman
Waterloo, Ontario
February 2017