Shannon van schoor

To what extent can popular culture shape identity?

Arguably, popular culture is vital in establishing one’s identity, whether that be socially, personally or culturally. When  approaching the noun ‘identity’, it is crucial to note that there is no sole definition, given it’s broad and therefore subjective nature. However, it is supported by a compilation of different factors against which individuals define themselves. Whether that be in terms of their religion, social status, race, sexuality, ethnicity, to name a few, all of the above contribute to a person’s individuality and therefore self identification. I wish to present identity in both a “social” and “personal” sense, which James D. Fearon critiqued in his piece (1999). His argument states that (pg2) “Identity in its present incarnation has a double sense”, and whilst to some degree this is wholly true, I wish to argue a third sense also, whereby identity can be recognised on a cultural level – in some way a fusion of both social and personal senses. Socially, people distinguish themselves in relation to a perceived ‘social category’ and personally, they pride themselves on definitive characteristics. In a cultural sense, individuals (or groups of) affiliate themselves to a particular cultural group which can be delineated by religion, sexuality, ethnicity etc. Identity is therefore highly specific to every individual and contrasts from person to person; it is influenced in a multitude of ways, affirming how popular culture is fundamental in the moulding of one’s identity.


Before examining these influences, it is important to note that popular culture can be defined as “ the set of practices, beliefs, and objects that embody the most broadly shared meanings of a social system” (Kidd 2017). Yet, attention must be drawn to the fact that perceptions of this definition have changed drastically over time, presenting “traditional conceptions of popular culture untenable” – (pg4) Chandra Mukerji, Michael Schudson in 1991, rightly arguing that this notion in itself is particularly subjective. Regardless of this ambiguity, popular culture is more simply “the predominant culture present in a society at a certain point in time” (Delaney 2007). As a result, it is highly intriguing that popular culture and identity are complimentary; one’s identity is majorly affected by the culture present in their society.


In the 21st century, we consume popular culture within, but not limited to, music, sports, leisure and entertainment, with the significant inflation of the internet (including video games, social media, online streaming) as key sources for consumption. Formerly, folk culture was deemed most common, whereby society was made up of individuals who all conformed to traditional standards. As urbanisation occurred, humans became more accepting of popular culture due to the rich diversity that founded it. Within our current civilisation, popular culture leads the way in dictating how a society is formed, as all people are able to access these beliefs, objects and practises. This essay will therefore endeavour to explore, through this view that popular culture is widely available within a society, that it has a strong influence on identity; through conforming to a specific culture, it is a way of defining oneself.


Starting with social identity, this has formidable links to popular culture. It is denoted as the “part of the individuals’ self-concept which derives from their knowledge of their membership of a social group with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership”  (Taifel 1982). Consequently, there are unequivocal parallels between belonging to a social group, and the features of popular culture that makes it what it is.


An international example of social groupings are the racial groups prevalent in South Africa, predominantly during the apartheid era, yet still common today. Given that apartheid was a period of severe discrimination for non-whites within South Africa, it can be established that this ‘non-white’ denomination; a social group, was a product of popular culture. These racial social groups were majorly driven by stereotypes forged by the popular culture at the time. This is what society enforced and therefore it was believed to be true – it was widely available and therefore became accepted. A study carried out by the Media Monitoring Project, October 1999 established many stereotypical views about black people within South Africa. Of the propositions they investigated, there were many with over 50% in support of the racist stereotypes such as: blacks are criminals (75.7%), black lives are unimportant (62.7%) and blacks are incompetent and incapable (51.4%). Therefore, these conceptions had become part of the social identity for the non-white people of South Africa; they communally felt emotionally belittled by their knowledge of being part of this social group. Ultimately, it wasn’t the blacks which founded this sense of social identity; it was indeed popular culture and therefore the ‘beliefs’ that embodied ‘the most broadly shared meanings of a social system’ (Kidd 2017) here, the inequity towards the black minority. Subsequently, we can draw from this that popular culture had a profound impact on social identity as these (today harrowing) statistics regarding prejudice towards black people, became commonplace in the way in which black people socially identified themselves. James D. Fearon stated “an identity is just a social category, a group of people designated by a label (or labels) that is commonly used either by the people designated, others, or both”, and this has compelling connotations. The blacks were characterised by labels commonly used by ‘others’: the white supremacy. Climatically, this resulted in the rebel against apartheid whereby the blacks/non-whites didn’t wish to socially identify in a group defined by society’s prejudices and therefore wanted to establish their own values.


Although this social group revolved predominantly around race, it is palpable that members of the non white minority complied with the values instilled within their social organisation, as resistance to these values would have been discriminated against. It is essentially this compliance that emphasises the influence of popular culture. One identifies as being part of this social group yet it is the beliefs of popular culture that act as the pillars to the preconceived values they uphold. It is of course pertinent to note that this social identity is not fully sculpted by popular culture. Indeed, to some breadth, it has a significant influence, but many other factors contribute to social identity.  “Beliefs, desires, moral commitments, or physical attributes” (Fearon 1999) all make up a social group, therefore it can be demonstrated that moral and religious factors could be more influential than popular culture, as people often revolve their existence and therefore identity around religion, as opposed to ‘labels’ denoted by others. However, it remains unmistakable that popular culture has been pre-eminent in the shaping of social identity, as these ‘labels’ that are a product of popular culture, are the backbone to any societal group.


Personal identity, whilst again an extremely broad term, is widely understood as how a person defines themselves and how they personally distinguish themselves from others. In Charles Taylor’s “Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity”, he refers to “personal identity (as) a personal moral code or compass, a set of moral principles, ends, or goals that a person uses as a normative framework and a guide to action.” This critical interpretation is highly relevant in linking to popular culture, given that a person’s ‘moral code’ or ‘moral principles’ are often determined by the culture within one’s social system. Every person has a respective sense of personal identity which is, to an extent, carved by the popular culture they’re surrounded by. The opulent cultures within Europe are prodigious examples of how popular culture impacts personal identity. Aspects such as food, clothing, religion, sport, values, art, relationships and etiquette, for example, all contribute to the culture of a country and therefore equally to ones personal identity, given that is the popular culture in which they’re immersed.


Taking France and it’s culture for example, Vanessa.R.Schwartz wrote in “Modern France: A Very Short Introduction” (pg5-6) that “French fashion continues to dominate haute couture around the world”, “French engineers continue to steer important innovations such as the Airbus”. Paris “houses the world’s most revered art museum (the Louvre)”, “a French author, Jules Verne, is one of the most translated in the world” and also the “ visitors […] seeking out the specificity of its artisanal cheeses and the renowned wines grown in it’s soil”. These are just some examples of the luscious culture within France that French people personally identify with. The French are morally drawn to these cultural aspects instilled by popular culture which diversifies them from other individuals. Antithetically, it can be asserted that French people feel obligated to personally identify with French culture as Schwartz affirms (pg8) “One was French if born of a French father, no matter where you lived”. Here she neglects the emotions of this “One” assuming one wants to be French if they are of French descent. Consequently this examines how individuals may feel compelled to personally identify in one way based on the popular culture that besieges them. Despite this, one’s personal identity may not be wholly shaped by popular culture as they simply may not want to embrace it. Nevertheless, French people feel a potent sense of pride in identifying as “French”, therefore accentuating the influence of popular culture on identity.


Cultural identity which I alluded to, is in my opinion, an amalgamation of both the former and latter senses of identity: social and personal. Oxford Reference refers to it as “The definition of groups or individuals (by themselves or others) in terms of cultural or sub cultural categories”. Whilst this may seem very similar to the other senses of identities, it is different by classification that cultural identity is specific to a group’s culture. However, social identity relates to the “emotional significance” in belonging to a social group and personal identity relates to the “moral compass” that a person follows. Despite this, both support cultural identity in that: socially it applies to belonging to a group, and personally it applies to the morality a person feels in this belonging. To demonstrate this, we can use Asian culture, given the strict values they follow. Jung In Kang wrote in his piece exploring Westcentrism and Asian Values that (pg124) “ the Asian values discourse refers to the argument that the communitarianism based on Confucian culture is much superior to Western individualism in creating and maintaining orderly and healthy society”. Here, the writer critically argues that the Asian values remain superior to that of the West, supporting how Asians belong to a collective cultural group formed by popular culture. Kang progresses to critique western individualism being (pg124) “selfishness”, “rampant increase of drug use” and “the rapid increase of unwed motherhood and juvenile delinquency” for example. Alternatively, East Asians “asserted the superiority and universality of Asian values”, these consisted of  “familism, filial piety (respect for one’s parents and elders), and loyalty[…] community and social order over individual members, […] harmony over competition and confrontation, thrifty and diligent lifestyle”. As a result, we can therefore gather that the Asian way of life and strict moral values are highly important to their cultural identity, emphasised by their critique of westernised cultures. These values are widely supported by their society highlighting them as products of popular culture. Furthermore, it emphasises how socially Asians are drawn to their culture in their belonging to this ‘superior’ group and personally in that they all follow a collective set of values. Ultimately this therefore emanates as their cultural identity, constructed by their popular culture.


In summary, popular culture is a predominant factor in influencing one’s identity whether that be in a cultural, social or personal sense. Through the unambiguous presence of popular culture within one’s life, it without doubt, has a considerable part to play in one’s identity. Whilst this argument is entirely credible, can we really say what identity is? Of course there exists a multitude of factors that produce one’s identity, but what actually is identity? It is complicated, dynamic and perhaps even an illusion, so much so that only you can shape your identity; all external factors could simply be fictitious.




  • Delaney, Tim (2007) Pop Culture: An Overview. Philosophy Now: Popular Culture and Philosophy


  • Fearon, D. James (1999) What is Identity (As we now use the word)?. California: Stanford University


  • Kang In, Jung (2004) The Cultural Identity of East Asia ill the Age of Globalization: Westcentrism and Asian Values. Korea: Sogang University




  • Mukerji, Chandra. Schudson, Michael (1991) Rethinking Popular Culture. California: University of California Press


  • Schwartz.R, Vanessa (2011) Modern France: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press


  • Taifel, Henri (1982) Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press


  • Taylor, Charles (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press


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