Structuralism and culturalism are two distinctive theories within the discourse of popular culture that serve to conceptualize the complexities of its relationship with society. Structuralism, a concept formulated at the Frankfurter Schule, views popular culture as a site where veiled hegemonic ideologies are imposed from above by the multinational corporations bred by capitalism. The theory is best exemplified via a top-down model, as this paradigm illustrates the public as victims held hostage to the commercialization and the manipulative mechanism of mainstream films and television. In short, the view is that the masses have been blindly coerced to embrace the ideals of consumerism constructed by the culture industry. Power lies in the state, and agency is “is overwhelmed by structure” (132, Storey, Consumption in Everyday Life) and thus absent within the framework of the capitalist system.
Culturalism, on the other hand, rejects the consensus that popular culture is imposed from above and views it as an authentic expression of mass society. Social structures, in this view, are shaped by human agency and thus the collective force of ‘bottom-up’ movements mustn’t be underestimated. Culturalism contradicts the structuralist conception that consumption yields one “a hopeless victim of ‘false consciousnesses’” (132, Storey, Consumption and Everyday Life). Rather, culturalism emphasizes how subcultures, underground music scenes, grassroots, and the appropriation of apparel unveil the complexities of consumption and role of human agency.
Although both paradigms broaden the discourse on popular culture, offering very interesting perspectives indeed, the truth lies somewhere in between the two. It is best articulated, in my opinion, by the concept of a ‘compromise equilibrium’, which regards popular culture as, ” an arena of struggle and negotiation between the interest of dominant groups and the interest of subordinate groups”(4, Storey, Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture).