Dr. Paul Mullins
Office: Cavanaugh 413B; phone 317-274-9847
Office Hours: to be announced

Course Outline

The notion of popular culture has been taken to encompass almost everything in public space from everyday Medieval life to Homer Simpson's philosophical reflections.  Some scholars consider popular culture to be focused on the lives of "ordinary people"; others see it as a commercial phenomenon rooted in mass media; and some celebrate it as an expression of mass consumer resistance.  In this course we approach popular culture as a body of widely shared and contested beliefs, practices, and material objects that presents ordinary social life’s extraordinary possibilities: the "popular" accents the potentially remarkable dimensions of "ordinary" practices, such as style, literature, and music. In this sense, popular culture mirrors real life, but it is a distorted and selective reflection that presents familiar realities in their most spectacular forms. Popular culture illuminates how we are all ordinary yet desire to be extraordinary or can at least envision extraordinary possibilities within ourselves.

Until quite recently, anthropologists were somewhat ambivalent about popular culture.  Ethnographers and archaeologists have been among a century of scholars scrutinizing the spread of Western social, cultural, and material practices throughout the world, but many anthropologists were dismayed by the arrival of Western popular practices and commodities that apparently spelled the death rites of traditional cultures.  Anthropologists tended to observe a notion of culture as unified and bounded sets of practices rooted in discrete social collectives and see our subjects as "Others" whose lives and stable sociocultural heritage contrasted with the dynamicism of the Western world.  Increasingly, though, anthropologists have led a broad scholarly charge examining globalization, transnationalism, and the social and material blurring of boundaries between groups that has tempered the facile opposition of Other to the West and the suggestion that anthropologists appropriately should study the "Other."  Contemporary popular culture research is thoroughly interdisciplinary, international, and sophisticated, and anthropology brings to this research an ethnographic commitment to illuminating peoples' experiences, contextualizing them in a breadth of forms, and assessing the complex material dimensions of popular culture.


The Facts of Life

Your final grade will be based on attendance (5%); a class presentation on a course reading (10%); an article review (15%); a band web page analysis (20%); a fan web page analysis (20%); and a term paper (30%). The mid-term will be a take-home essay exam and the final will be an in-class open-notes exam.

Participation in class discussion and attendance at lecture are key to comprehension.  All students who attend class and miss three or fewer class meetings will receive the full five points toward attendance.  If you miss four class meetings one point will be deducted from your attendance score (i.e., you would receive four attendance points); miss five days and two points will be deducted from the final score, and so on.  Attendance will be taken at the beginning of each class meeting on a course roster that circulates through class.  If you come in late, you must ensure that you sign this roster at the end of class; at the end of the semester I will not negotiate over the days you actually attended but forgot to sign the attendance roster. I will not allow students to sign the roster if they arrive halfway through the class meeting; please discuss any delays outside your control with me (e.g., caught in traffic jam, but not an errant alarm clock).  An excused absence is a documented illness (i.e., a physician's note, not simply sniffles in the next class or sounding really crappy on the phone), a religious holiday recognized in the calendars of some reasonably well-documented faith, or an absence for participation in an Athletic Department-excused event.  I will be reasonably forgiving about things over which you have no control, like flat tires and sick children.  I will negotiate these things on a case-by-case basis, but please let me know immediately via email and do not plan to barter over these absences at semester's end. 

In addition to readings from the course's assigned texts, a group of required readings will be on the class' Oncourse page.  We will discuss readings weekly in a classroom discussion led by students.  You are responsible for reading each week's articles prior to their discussion in class; please let me know if you have any problems accessing readings online. 

At some point in the semester, each student will present a selection of the readings assigned in the same night (10% of your final grade).  The readings page will include all readings and indicates the class members who will present those readings You must prepare a Powerpoint on the reading to present in class.  You should expect to direct the class' discussion of the reading:  your review should minimally be about 10-15 minutes.  Anybody who does not complete the Powerpoint presentation will not receive credit for the reading.  You can volunteer to present any reading of your choosing on a first-come, first-serve basis; any students who do not sign up by the second class will be assigned a reading.  Anybody who does not attend on the night of their reading will receive no credit unless they have a substantial excuse.

The term paper will examine a popular cultural subject using the anthropological insights presented during the semester. You will be expected to produce a paper at least 10 double-spaced pages in length that refers to course readings and outside literature (graduate student papers must be 15 pages or you can skip the web page exercises and turn in a 25-page paper).  Paper topics are due by SEPTEMBER 25; any topics that are not approved at this time may be rejected at semester's end. Anybody who does not turn in a paper proposal SEPTEMBER 25 will have a full letter grade deducted from the final grade on their term paper, so I strongly suggest turning in a proposal. The papers must draw on scholarly literature and popular literature (e.g., newspapers, MTV, etc.); regardless of eloquence, no postmodern musings without citations or structure will be acceptable. A detailed guide to preparation and format of the paper will be handed out in the early semester and is on the term paper page. Any papers that are not turned in by the due date will be penalized significantly.

If you cannot complete an assignment on time for any reason, you should contact me as soon as possible. I can always be contacted before or after class, you can schedule an appointment, and I check my email virtually everyday.

Late assignments will be penalized a letter grade each day if you do not negotiate an extension with me beforehand. You may email me late assignments, but please provide other assignments to me in paper form.  You also can leave assignments in my mailbox in the Anthropology office in Cavanaugh Hall; you should ask a member of the office staff to mark the exercise with the date so that you are credited for turning it in on time. Even if you miss a due date, contact me so that you can complete a partial credit makeup: to miss any assignments is, at best, mathematically ill-advised.


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The side show act Blockhead This syllabus includes deadlines for all assignments and test dates: it is your responsibility to know when assignments are due and tests are scheduled. There will not be any extra credit material.  If you do not complete course work by semester's end you will not pass the course unless you have a substantial reason for tardiness.  You can monitor your grades over the semester at Oncourse.  You cannot access your grades unless you have a university password.

All work in the course is conducted in accordance with the University’s academic misconduct policy.  Cheating includes dishonesty of any kind with respect to exams or assignments. Plagiarism is the offering of someone else’s work as your own: this includes taking un-cited material from books, web pages, or other students, turning in the same or substantially similar work as other students, sneaking a peek at the neighbor's exam, or failing to properly cite other research.  If you are suspected of any form of academic misconduct you will be called in for a meeting at which you will be informed of the accusation and given adequate opportunity to respond.  A report will be submitted to the Dean of Students, who will decide on further disciplinary action.  Please consult the University Bulletin’s academic misconduct policy or me if you have any questions.

Be absolutely certain to keep a copy of any emailed assignments you send to me should the email disappear or not arrive at my end, and save every single assignment in two places until grades have been assigned:  Don't just save it on your laptop or one thumb drive, since they can crash, get lost, or be purloined by somebody who undervalues your commitment to education, and do not delete assignments instantly after their due date until their grades have been posted to Oncourse.  Even if you miss a due date, contact me so that you can complete a partial credit makeup.  Even if it is embarrassing to acknowledge that you simply forgot an assignment due date or your boss unexpectedly demanded a long shift when you planned to do the assignment, please come see me and I will do my very best to resolve it in some way that doesn't mean you receive no credit at all.

The Office of Adaptive Educational Services (AES) ensures that students with disabilities receive appropriate accommodations from the University and their professors.  Students must register with the AES office in order to receive such services.


Portable electronic devices, such as cell phones, pagers, two-ways, and PDA’s, should be turned off before entering the classroom.  You can use a laptop in class for note-taking but should silence it; do not surf the web in class or listen to iTunes.  Let me know in advance if you carry around a communication device for familial reasons (e.g., pregnancy monitoring, disabled family, or contact with kids--not to stay in touch with a significant other who just loves your voice, buddies planning a pub crawl, and so on).  Anyone whose electronic device continually disturbs class will be asked to meet with me if they cannot remember to silence themselves.

The classroom is a safe speech situation in which it is your responsibility to treat other classmates fairly and with mutual respect, even if they have the audacity to disagree with you, champion an opinion that is inconsistent with your worldview, or simply bore you.  Anyone who talks when someone else is talking, is hostile, or otherwise violates classroom etiquette (e.g., does other homework, reads the newspaper) will be considered to be in violation of this policy.  Students who fail to adhere to these guidelines will be asked to meet with me.

The course material includes material from a variety of popular discourses that may strike us crass or tasteless.  It is perfectly reasonable to be offended by some popular symbolism or find the latest new band talentless or just vulgar, and I do not think that "shock value" is a very useful teaching tool.  Please always try to think reflectively about why such symbolism is acceptable to at least some marketers, if not our neighbors, even if we may find that symbolism unpleasant.

All work in this course is intended to fulfill the University's Principles of Undergraduate Learning.  The class focuses on critical, self-reflective thinking, integrates knowledge from a variety of disciplinary and sociocultural perspectives, examines social and cultural complexity, and probes the impact of knowledge on our everyday decision-making.  Do let me know if the course does not satisfy any of the missions included in the Principles.

A basic requirement of this course is that you will participate in class and conscientiously complete writing and reading assignments.  If you miss more than half our class meetings within the first four weeks of the semester without contacting me, you will be administratively withdrawn from this section. If you miss more than four classes in the first four weeks, you may be withdrawn. Administrative withdrawal may have academic, financial, and financial aid implications. Administrative withdrawal will take place after the full refund period, and if you are administratively withdrawn from the course you will not be eligible for a tuition refund. If you have questions about the administrative withdrawal policy at any point during the semester, please contact me.


Grade Scale

A- 89-91
B+ 86-88
B 82-85
B- 79-81
C+ 76-78
C 70-75
D 60-69
F 0-60

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The course readings are available online.  Many are available as electronic books that are free to all IUPUI students at ebrary.  Additional required readings are available on Oncourse; full citations and where you can find each week's readings are included in the reading schedule. Readings will be discussed in weekly discussions and included in test material, and they should be cited in your term paper.  We are using several chapters out of Simon Frith's now out-of-print Sound Effects, which is available online for as cheap as you can photocopy a handful of chapters.

Readings for the review essay are on Oncourse. You will be responsible for reading any one of the review essay readings and preparing a written review of the paper. You may choose to use one of these review essay papers for your paper, but you will NOT be responsible for reading the essays that you do not choose for your review essay.


Course Schedule

NO CLASS August 26

September 2

Ways to Think about a Popular Culture as our distorted mirror

September 9

Anthropology and Popular Culture: is there Culture in mass culture?
The monolith of Culture: retooling modernism's Cultural categories
Sentimental education and popular culture
Elvis or Shakespeare?: the complications of academic Elvis-ology

September 16

Subculture and musical politics: the Sex Pistols, Grateful Dead, and subcultural musical movement

Term paper topic proposal due September 23

September 23

Horatio Alger with a drawl: Southern history and Southern Culture
Jim Crow and racial construction: Reconstruction legacies


September 30

"White Trash": Racializing Class in the South
Class, Kitsch, and Materialism in the Jungle Room
"So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly": The South in popular culture

October 7

Synthesis in Popular Culture: Who Made the King?
Evangelicism and the Pentecostal South
I'm a Little Bit Country: Bluegrass, Country, and the Rockabilly Moment


October 14

Race and Popular Culture


October 28

Young and Beautiful: Video, Cinema, and the Aesthetics of Popular Music
Hollywood Hillbilly: Cinematic Elvis
Youth Subculture and Video

November 4

Body as subject: The ambiguities of a heterosexual hepcat
Sexual liminality and taboo in Elvis
Living with Mama and the Memphis Mafia: Manhood and familial devotion in Elvis myth
Elvis and Priscilla's 50 nights: sexual discipline and display

November 11

Dead Elvis: Elvis as Religion
Preserving the Body: media coverage of Elvis' death
Elvis is at the Burger King: tales of the resurrection

November 18

The Cult of Elvis: Civil Religion and Elvis Memories
A piece of the true cross: pilgrimage and the road to Graceland

November 25

Elvis as Simulacra: the impersonators and Life after Death



December 2

More Real than Real: The hermeneutics of Elvis


Review readings

You may choose any one of these readings for your review essay. These readings are on Oncourse or can be directly linked to from this page. You are NOT responsible for reading articles that you do not choose to review.  Visit the review guidelines page for full directions.

Bennett, Andy

1999 Subcultures or Neo-Tribes? Rethinking the Relationship between Youth, Style, and Musical TasteSociology 33(3):599-617.

Clouse, Abby

2008 Narratives of Value and the Antiques Roadshow: "A Game of Recognitions."  The Journal of Popular Culture 41(1):3-20.

Foreman, Murray

1992 Betrayal and Fear: Press Coverage of Canadian Skinheads.  Canadian Journal of Communication 17(2).

Genter, Robert

2007 "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility": Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel ComicsThe Journal of Popular Culture 40(6):953-978.

Halnon, Karen Bettez and Saundra Cohen

2006 Muscles, Motorcycles, and Tattoos: Gentrification in a New FrontierJournal of Consumer Culture 6(1):33-56.

Henry, Matthew

2007 "Don't Ask Me, I'm Just a Girl": Feminism, Female Identity, and The SimpsonsThe Journal of Popular Culture 40(2):272-303.

Kozinets, Robert V.

1997 "I Want to Believe": A Netnography of X-Philes' Subculture of Consumption.  Advances in Consumer Research 24:470-475.

McLeod, Ken

2006 "We are the Champions": Masculinities, Sports and Popular Music Popular Music and Society 29(5):531-547.

Schouten, John W. and James H. McAlexander

1995 Subcultures of Consumption: An Ethnography of the New BikersThe Journal of Consumer Research 22(1):43-61. 

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Last updated March 21, 2014