A Critique of Two Essays on Popular Culture

By Tracy Buth   (An essay submitted to Phil 105: Philosophical Thinking)

The two essays “Popular Culture: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Angela Nelson and “Dumbing Down” by Terry Birchmore each have flaws in their arguments.  In the first essay mentioned, Nelson fails to differentiate between popular culture and other forms of culture.  In Birchmore’s essay, post hoc and biased samples are used to prove his point.

            In our world, there are many cultures.  Religious, musical, and traditional are a few examples.  In order to define any of these types of culture, one must first state the difference between it and the other types. This process is called differentiation.  The problem with Angela Nelson’s essay is that she does not differentiate between popular culture and other types of cultures; she merely states types of popular culture.  According to Nelson, “popular culture is media,” which exists at the personal, local, national, and global levels.  These types do not differentiate popular culture because these are true of other forms of culture as well. 

            Nelson also states six principles of popular culture which, if used correctly, should have distinguished between the types of culture.  However, all six of these principles can be applied to all culture.  First, there is “reflection and manipulation.”  This means that popular culture reflects the values and beliefs of the people in it. This of coarse must be true of all culture because people make culture and we, without even having to think about it, instill our values and beliefs into it.  The second principle is that popular culture attracts the part of us that seeks pleasure.  This is true just as much in other kinds of culture because if we didn’t find at least some pleasure in something, it would not continue to prevail in a community. Popular culture’s pervasiveness is the third principle. It is everywhere, but then so are most other forms of culture. The forth says, “through formula and repetition, popular culture evolves into standards that tell people what is approved and accepted among its participants.”  This formula is in fact how all cultures are formed.  By continuously reminding people of their beliefs and values, cultures reinforce that which customary.  The fifth principle states that popular culture tries to find the “ultimate meaning” through its expression of values and beliefs. It helps us find the meaning of life.  For this one, Nelson actually admits taking this idea from Paul Tillich’s thoughts on culture in general.  The idea that popular culture can be good or evil is the final principle.  One can easily find good and evil aspects in all culture because cultures are everywhere, and good and evil are everywhere.

            Although Nelson does not define popular culture very well, she does provide six principles that are true of culture.  Perhaps she would have been better off writing an essay on the more general subject of culture than the specific type, popular culture.

            The second essay I will examine is Terry Birchmore’s argument that mass media causes a “dumbing down” of our culture. While his definition of popular culture, that it is mass media, may be better than Nelson’s, this is not the goal of his essay.  What Birchmore wants to say is that by mindlessly giving ourselves over to the ideas that mass media (i.e. popular culture) is throwing at us, our culture is becoming less at less discriminatory and more and more “dumb.” 

            The two major flaws in Birchmore’s argument are that he uses post hoc reasoning and biased samples.  Post hoc is when one thing happens after another thing, and thus it is concluded that the second thing was caused by the first.  For example, Jill has been during poorly on her math tests all year, but for her final exam, she wears her “lucky” socks and gets a B+.  To say that the “lucky” socks caused Jill’s improvement would be post hoc reasoning.  Birchmore’s post hoc conclusions included saying that because people today are less analytical, and we have become that way since the outburst of mass media, it must have been mass media that caused this.  He also uses the more specific example of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).   Birchmore claims that the BBC has become “increasingly diluted,” citing a decrease in educational programs, theatrical performances, and well-spoken English.  The cause of these things: the BBC’s quest for commercialism.  This is very possibly post hoc reasoning, however, because there could many factors involved in the changes to the BBC in recent years.  For example, perhaps the BBC as it was forty years ago was not as viewer friendly, and now strives to reach a broader audience.

            The other deceptive tactic that Birchmore uses is biased samples.  All of the examples he gives support his argument. He fails to approach those cases that do not “dumb down” our culture.  For example, one of the areas Birchmore says has become increasingly diminished in values is film.  Now, I am not about to argue that all movies have good morals at their heart, but Birchmore makes it seem as if there is not one movie being made today with a decent story line.  Incidentally, he also throws in a post hoc, saying that this lack of plot in modern film is due to an increase in special effects.  There are many films today, which Birchmore fails to mention, that may or may not have very well done special effects, and still have a good story line. 

            Both Angela Nelson and Terry Birchmore have some major flaws in their arguments concerning popular culture.  Nelson does not fulfill her thesis which was to define popular culture, and Birchmore supports his argument for the “dumbing down” of society due to an increase in popular culture with post hoc reasoning and biased samples.  One thing Terry Birchmore does make a good point about is the need for our society to continue to question the media, to be analytical instead of just sponging up everything we hear.  Well, it’s only fair that we do that Birchmore himself and all articles on popular culture.


Birchmore, Terry. “Dumbing Down.” Posted at <http://nomuzak.co.uk/dumbing_down.html>

Nelson, Angela M.S.  “Popular Culture: What Everyone Needs to Know” Posted at <http://www.angelo.edu/events/university_symposium/1998/Nelson.htm>

Copyright © Tracy Buth 2004