Politics and popular culture

The relationship between politics and popular culture is often seen to take one of two forms. Either popular culture is seen to disengage or passify citizens; or it is portrayed as a source of political knowledge and expression. Such claims are rarely subjected to detailed scrutiny. From Entertainment to Citizenship is an attempt to make up this deficit by examining carefully how popular culture’s politics is understood and used. Focusing on the lives and experiences of 17-18 year olds in the UK, it explores the extent to which these young people use popular culture to think about and engage with politics. The book compares the political role of different forms of popular culture (video games, music and entertainment television), and it considers different dimensions of the relationship. It looks at the phenomenon of the ‘celebrity politician’, at popular culture as a source of knowledge about the ‘real world’ and at the group identities forged around the pleasures of music, TV and video games. We conclude that popular culture is an important source of knowledge about the world, that it helps forge identities and the interests associated with them, and it gives form to the evaluations of power and its exercise. Rarely, though, does this interplay of politics and popular culture happen in neat or straightforward ways.

This chapter argues that previous empirical work on citizen engagement and popular culture has been dominated by a narrow concept of the political. As a consequence, much of this research focused on factual genres and tended to ignore more subtle expressions of citizen engagement. This chapter makes the case for a wider concept of the political. It suggests that citizen engagement can be understood as an expression of one’s place in the world, which is informed by knowledge of and a relationship with sources of power and social groups, by feelings of affinity and a sense of values.

in From entertainment to citizenship

This chapter explains the methodology for our investigation into the relationship between popular culture and political engagement. In modifying the methodology of David Buckingham we adopt a ‘bottom-up’ approach which attempts to take account of the personal and subjective nature of political engagement and media use. The research involved three specific phases, including; (1) a survey of young people’s use of popular culture (2) an analysis of the political ideas and values contained within texts and (3) focus groups and interviews designed to generate talk about popular culture by young people.

in From entertainment to citizenship
Reading the politics within popular culture

This chapter examines the different ways in which popular culture is understood to engage with politics. We refer to these as ‘points of engagement’. These begin with the idea that films, soaps and the like ‘inform’ us about, or seek to represent, a ‘real’ world. The second point of engagement is that of creating affinities, which refers to how popular culture can create an imagined community. The third point of engagement is that in which popular culture is used to pass judgement on, and express feelings about, a ‘real world’ or the actions of those who inhabit it. These points of engagement are then identified in different cultural forms (ie television, music and video games.

in From entertainment to citizenship
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Young people in our focus groups and interviews regularly commented on media texts and their representations of the world as being either ‘real’ or ‘unreal’. In this chapter we argue that these judgements about reality can often be read politically because they can reveal young people’s understanding of where power lies in society and how they attempt to position themselves in relation to sources of power. Thus, this chapter helps us to begin to consider our broader question of how young people use popular culture politically. We also begin to distinguish between the ways in which different forms of popular culture are used differently by young people to express their relationship to sources of power.

in From entertainment to citizenship

Drawing on the results of our interviews and focus groups, we discuss how young people regard celebrities like Bono and Geldof who engage directly with politics. They tend to be suspicious of such involvement, and argue that the music or whatever is what is important. They prize sincerity and authenticity. At the same time, they display quite traditional views of political leadership, and hence deem figures like Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson as possible contenders as prime minister.

in From entertainment to citizenship
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Creating collective identities

This chapter explores the potential of popular culture to create or represent the social ties that are an important dimension of citizen engagement. It demonstrates that young people use popular culture to explore ideas of national and regional belonging and to articulate the interests of their age group. This chapter shows that identity politics, reflection on collective values and feelings of affinity are central to young people’s citizen engagement.

in From entertainment to citizenship

This chapter reflects on the pleasures young people derive from their engagement with popular culture. It recognises that young people often seek out popular culture for the purpose of play, rather than political engagement. Yet it cautions against the idea that play can never lead to connections with issues of public affairs. This chapter argues that the association of rational and serious debate with citizen engagement marginalises those forms of popular culture and behavioural modes that young people enjoy. It leads to a narrow understanding of the political where there is no place for young people.

in From entertainment to citizenship
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This chapter reflects on the implications of this research for academic debate, education policy and media production. It stresses the importance of taking seriously young people’s cultural tastes for research that wants to understand the nuanced ways in which citizen engagement can happen. It suggests that media and cultural studies are subjects that policy makers and schools should take seriously for their potential to connect young people with issues of public concern. It argues that media producers can help boost this potential of popular culture by showing a world of politics where young people can make a positive difference.

in From entertainment to citizenship
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This chapter sets the scene. We explain why – despite the widespread assumptions about either popular culture’s malign or beneficial role in politics – there is surprisingly little detailed evidence. In this chapter we show why such work is important, and how it is to be conducted. We describe the background to the study and the method adopted in this Economic and Social Research Council funded project. The chapter also outlines the chapters.

in From entertainment to citizenship