Mass Culture

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Editors: Michael L. Coulter , Stephen M. Krason , Richard S. Myers , and Joseph A. Varacalli
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy
Publisher: Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Mass Culture

Mass culture is comprised of everything that large aggregates of people in a society experience through the mass media. The context of mass culture is modern society, which is a product of the industrial urban revolution, and where the social structure tends toward large-scale formally organized institutional groups. These modern arrangements cause a shift in social relations, significant enough to create a focus on “secondary relations,” in which a person is viewed in terms of function (coal miner, physician, etc.), rather than on “primary relationships,” in which the person, as a person, is the key to social interaction. In more traditional social contexts, primary relations play a greater role in the formation of the self, whereas more modern social contexts focus more on secondary relations.

William Kornhauser captures the dynamics and change involved in this societal shift when he examines its effect on the primary relations that make up communities: “Large scale activities favor the emergence of the mass because they tend to develop at the expense of communal relations. The local community comes to provide for Page 676  |  Top of Articlefewer of its members’ needs and therefore cannot maintain their allegiance . . . The individual who migrates to the city does not enter the community as a whole, nor is he likely to enter a sub community of the city. The urban sub community loses its coherence as a result of the increasing scale and specialization of common activities. Instead of affiliation with a community, the urban resident frequently experiences considerable social isolation and personal anonymity.”

The shift in society creates the condition where the mass media becomes more of an influence as a source of entertainment (e.g., through television, movies, and the Internet), thus providing information and meaning that shape values, ideas, and norms—that is, culture. To the extent that the effects of the primary and communal sources of socialization are internalized, the mass media may serve as reinforcement to one’s character and personality. However, there is also the distinct possibility that the influence of mass culture may transform the earlier primary and regional sources of identity formation.

To borrow a phrase from Peter Berger, the question is whether the “plausibility structure” of one’s earlier worldview remains intact and functioning. To the extent that the media negates the influence of the original commitment of the family, church, and school, especially in a pluralistic society, individuals begin to witness and experience a tension and anxiety in a search for new meanings. This is the experience that sociologists call “alienation” and “anomie.” When these conditions of social disorienta-tion and psychological dissociation occur, the mass media gains in significance as a source of escape and meaning. If one’s character and sense of direction are not internalized in our community, then the culture of the mass media takes on the status of a primary influence. The question then becomes what the message of the mass media is.

In today’s world, conflicting worldviews challenge the attempt to create a culture and maintain a functional society of peace and order. George Weigel, in The Cube and the Cathedral, emphasizes the fact that Europe has forgotten God, and the United States is struggling to keep God as the core of its culture. He quotes Christopher Dawson’s thesis that “a society that has no end beyond its own satisfaction is a monstrosity—a cancerous growth which will ultimately destroy itself.” Weigel hopes European man, who has “convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular,” can be reconverted.

Like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI’s mission follows the Second Vatican Council’s framework for preserving Catholicism’s religious, cultural, and familial traditions through the necessary innovations to strengthen the word of the Gospel. These innovations incorporate every form of socialization, including the mass media.—Francis E. Monaghan


Berger, Peter. Invitation to Sociology. New York: Doubleday, 1961; Gould, Julius, and William L. Kolb, eds. A Dictionary of the Social Sciences. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964; Rosenberg, Bernard, and David Manning White, eds. Mass Culture. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1957; Turner, Ralph H., and Lewis M. Killian. Collective Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1957; Weigel, George. The Cube and the Cathedral. New York: Basic Books, 2006; See also COMMUNITY ; MEDIATING STRUCTURES ; PLAUSIBILITY STRUCTURE ; SOCIAL COMMUNICATIONS

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3281000513