Lesson 10 – Social Class and Popular Culture

Lesson – Social Class and
Popular Culture
Robert Wonser
SOC 86 – Fall 2011
Culture Wars
• The allocation of scarce resources is not just
economic but cultural
• Represented by ‘culture wars’
• War is also class conflict: an attack on the
culture vs the uncultured, the educated against
the uneducated, experts against the laity, and
the more affluent against the less affluent
• The need for cultural expression is universal; the
way we do depends on the tools available to us;
e.g. our education, our access to media, etc.
Highbrow and Lowbrow
• “highbrow” and ”lowbrow”
– Phrenological throwback when it was presumed brow
size (height of forehead) was thought to be a marker
of intelligence
• Pejorative label—low culture—activites and
amusements lacking in virtue and associated
with sexuality and the lower half of the body as
opposed to highbrow (being more intellectual of
• Does this distinction still hold today?
Taste and Consumption
• Taste – one’s preference for particular
styles of fashion, music, cinema or other
kinds of culture
• Consumption – the reception,
interpretation and experience of culture
• Does social class play a role in
determining these?
The Invention of class cultures
• 150 years ago Americans enjoyed the same
national popular culture consumed and
experienced collectively by the masses, by
people from all social classes.
– What happened? Industrial Revolution
• Created a new upper-classes American elite of
successful entrepreneurs, bankers and
• The nouveau riche descended from common
backgrounds, not aristocracy like in Europe.
• So initially they drew on trappings of European
nobility (family crests, French cuisine, classical
art and music)
The Invention of Class Cultures
• They sought to create distinctions between
themselves and everyone else
• Conscious efforts at boundary
maintenance and social exclusion.
• Including “serious” culture for upper
classes (classical music, opera etc.)
Class Status and Conspicuous
• Conspicuous consumption
status displays that show off
one’s wealth through the
flagrant consumption of
goods and services,
particularly those considered
wasteful or otherwise lacking
in obvious utility
• Upper classes distinctly avoid
associations with working
class; this reverse is not true.
Examples of Conspicuous
Cultural Capital and Class
• Cultural tastes have value and can be
transferred to others, converted into financial
wealth, and ultimately help to reproduce the
class structure of our society. This is called,
• Cultural capital one’s store of knowledge and
proficiency with artistic and cultural styles that
are valued by society, and confer prestige and
honor upon those associated with them.
Do you
know what
each fork
is used
– Unevenly distributed and usually inherited
• Economic capital can be converted into cultural
capital as an investment.
– For example: ballet and music lessons, foreign travel
and private school
• Since it is inherited and passed down it helps
maintain the class structure
Are these the
droids you’re
looking for?
Cultural Omnivores and Code
• Typically affluent consumers, cultural
omnivores consumer many kinds of
cultural artifacts and have far-ranging
• Code-switching the ability to negotiate
among multiple and varied cultural worlds
• How many of you do this?
High vs Popular Cultures
• High culture’s audience is much smaller and
• Although they pride themselves on individuality
of tastes it is much more homogenous than
popular culture’s.
• Less high culture be definition is produced than
• Innovation is rare in both high and pop culture
although it is celebrated in high and expected in
Tastes and Politics
• Although most taste cultures are not explicitly political, all
cultural content expresses values that can become
political or have political consequences
• Sitcoms reveal much about gender relations in society
• High culture: may include more extremes in political
• Upper-middle culture products are liberal, conservative or
• Remaining taste cultures are mainly centrist or
conservative  in part because of the business ideology
of the mass media owners
• Media conservatism is more cultural than political; most
media self-censorship is directed at sexual or
sacrilegious references
• Whether or not taste cultures are political may be
irrelevant because most are unlikely to notice or care
Social Reproduction and Cultural
• social reproduction is the tendency of social classes to
remain relatively stable as social class status is passed
down from one generation to the next.
• The mechanism through which these class distinctions
• cultural capital are the tastes, habits, expectations,
skills, knowledge, and other cultural dispositions that
help us to gain advantages in society. This cultural
capital either helps or hinders us as we become adults.
• Cultural capital is embedded in our habitus
• As people move up the economic ladder they also tend
to move up the taste hierarchy
Some Ways this plays out
• Tv and most other media, cater to the
largest income generator; the lower-middle
class taste culture.
• Most others are ignored
• High culture garners the bulk of distinction
and praise
• Low culture and quasi-folk culture receive
How these power dimensions work
• These distinctions manifest in all facets of
• We’ve discussed tv and film in this context
but the effects are further reaching than
• We see housing segregation as well
• Where do the well to do live?
• The Lower Classes and Quasi-folk
Cultures? Where do they live?
• Where do we in the middle classes live?
• This no accident
White Flight and Popular Culture
• Disneyland
• LAs freeways
• Dodger Stadium
White Flight and the Suburban
• Pre WWII LA was very white; LA was once known as
“seaport of Iowa”
• Encapsulated the utopian aspirations of the suburban
society; reinforcing the formation of a suburban white
• White flight describes a structural process by which
post war suburbanization helped the racial resegregation
of the U.S., dividing presumably white suburbs from
concentrations of racialized poverty.
– The corollary that is often overlooked is that this allowed for the
creation of a suburban white identity (based in part on privatized
• White flight was fueled by the FHAs anti-urban
bias; anathema to a secure investment were “the
presence of inharmonious racial or nationality
• Policies prevented blacks and other nonwhite
groups from attaining suburban home ownership
• Deed restrictions
• “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is
necessary that properties shall continue to be
occupied by the same social and racial classes.”
changes in this lead to declining property values.
– the FHA’s Underwriting Manual
Favorable Effect on Property
English, Germans, Scots, Irish, Scandinavians
North Italians
Bohemians or Czechoslovakians
Russian Jews of lower class
South Italians
We see the formation of a suburban white identity beginning …
For whites, conforming to “American standards of living” helped remove
themselves from the FHA’s least wanted list
Simultaneously we begin to see the market approach trumping the
public vision; the defeat of public housing in Cold War Los Angeles
illustrates the transition to a new political culture that encouraged the
spatial and racial fragmentation of the postwar urban region
The Birth of a New Political Identity
• Based on suburban home ownership and
segregation in opposition to the noir slums
• An “anxious, tightfisted conservatvism” that
revolved around racialized social issues.
• Racial homogeneity, dependence on Cold War
economy, high rates of home ownership, flurry of
intense real estate development fostered distinct
political culture that foreshadowed national
politics in the 70s and 80s
• Its epicenter? Orange County
• Extols the virtues of consumerism, patriarchy,
patriotism and small-town midwestern whiteness
• Disneyland emphasized cultural motifs of retreat
from the public culture of New Deal liberalism
and instead asserted a privatized suburban
alternative to that culture.
• Explicitly in contrast to Coney Island where
women could escape the supervision of parents
and discover a newfound sexual freedom
sanctioned by the modern city and its
anonymous venues for heterosocial interaction
• Main Street, USA upheld Disney’s faith in
the virtues of small town America and
symbolized a nostalgic retreat from the
decadence of the noir city
Homogeneity and
dissonance that defined
urban culture inspired Walt
to create a counterculture
of order, regimentation
and homogeneity
A “Rage for Order”
• To eliminate distractions from the contrived vistas,
Disney buried all water, power and sewer lines beneath
street level
• Each land is completely self contained and cannot be
seen from other lands
• Forced perspective (trick to make objects appear larger,
larger at the bottom and smaller on top) used in Sleeping
Beauty’s castle and the Matterhorn Bobsleds to
guarantee the perfect view from any angle unlike real
• Employees: “clean and natural without extremes” and
“blond, blue-eyed…outdoorsy [and] vacuously pleasant”
• Animatronics to replicate the perfect show every time
Race at Disneyland
• The Other
• Frontierland (in contrast to the marvels of civilization and
white modern culture of Tomorrowland) clearly upheld
long standing distinctions between white progress and
nonwhite “savagery”
• Aunt Jemima’s pancake house where Aunt Jemima
herself “will serve her famed pancakes and also will sing
to entertain her visitors”
• The Jungle Cruise – “wild animals and native ‘savages’
attack your craft as it cruises through their jungle privacy”
• Americans could use these images to reify their own
sense of whiteness, particular in Main Street USA where
the Others were conspicuously absent, further reifying
Disney’s racialized and deeply nostalgic vision of
American “folks”
Suburbanizing the City Center
• Dodger fans had to dodge streetcars and trolleys on their
way to Ebbets Field in New York
• Urban sprawl in LA scared elites
• Canceled plans for public housing after residents of
Chavez Ravine were removed conveniently left the
space vacant for Dodger Stadium, after all, public
housing = communism, private use of land = laissez faire
• Baseball was a more American alternative to public
• Dodger stadium would serve as a popular counterpart to
the temples of high culture erected upon remnants of
Bunker Hill (revitalizing urban blight)
• By the 1950s “blight" became invoked as a
strategy for privatized, downtown
redevelopment, not as it used to be, for
improving the living conditions of the urban poor
• The city’s deed to the land explicitly stated
that the land was to be used “for public
purposes only”
• “strings had to be pulled” by the City
Housing Authority (CHA, same ones who
evicted the ravine residents) by changing
the wording of the deed to eliminate that
To make way for a
• Disneyland: idealized suburban community and politics
of white home ownership
• Dodger Stadium: facilitated “whitening” of the city center
by fueling a racialized political culture predicated upon a
privatized corporate version of downtown redevelopment
• Built upon a site originally designated for public housing,
Dodger Stadium was both the product of and producer of
a shifting political culture that negated social programs
(like public housing), favored political subsidies for
private development (note the irony…), and heightened
simmering racial tensions.
• Team name made little sense in Southern California’s
freeway metropolis where there are no speeding trolley
cars to “dodge” on the way to play ball…
The Red Cars
• LA had a light rail system.
• Between 1880-1930 most Angelinos
depended on the Red Cars: the interurban
system of streetcars that radiated outward
from downtown Los Angeles, west to
Santa Monica, east to Riverside and south
to Long Beach.
• The automobile, freeway system, GM and
Standard Oil ended this
The PE Cars’ Demise
• Harry Chandler, publisher and owner of the Los Angeles
Times, held major investments in Goodyear Tire,
Western Construction Company, Southern California
rock and Gravel Company, and Consolidated Rock
Products Company and Union Oil.
• “The Pink Sheet” was a newspaper section devoted
exclusively to the automobile
• Editorials against the streetcar were ran
• Denunciations declaring the motorists rights over the
streetcar’s right of way  declining streetcar patronage
 less incentive to maintain the streetcars  they get
• LA’s first freeway, Arroyo Seco Parkway
These Routes became Freeways
And this
is what
of our
Sutured City: Freeway Metropolis
• Unlike the streetcar which promoted
interconnectedness among urban dwellers and
provided a window onto the city’s distinct
neighborhoods, the freeway severed the
commute from his urban context and furthered
the distance, literally and figuratively between
racialized cities and white suburbs.
• Whose neighborhoods were bisected?
• The freeways go to directly to Disneyland and
Dodger Stadium as well as OC and other
housing subdivisions; this was no coincidence
Because no one wants their
commute bummed out by the sight
of poor people…
The Division of the Barrios
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