HIS2362 – The History of Popular Culture and Society in the West, 1880-2000

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Course content

Popular culture – defined here as the accumulated store of leisure activities and media content that a considerable amount of people has a stake in – was an increasingly important feature of 20th century Western societies. Ever more time and a growing share of peoples’ incomes were allotted to the consumption of popular culture. Due to the reach and speed of communication media, popular culture from pop music to movies, television programmes, fashion and advertising was distributed to all corners of the world. Global sporting competitions were held, the results of national sporting leagues were eagerly awaited by fans on the other side of the globe. The culture industry became big business, and working in entertainment a proper job. People were identified and identified themselves in reference to the popular culture they engaged in, and symbolic objects were interpreted as mirrors of the “Zeitgeist”. Popular culture became politicised, as protest was communicated in popular songs, politicians sought affiliation with stars and governments as well as social groups tried to regulate popular culture.

The growing prominence of popular culture was not lost on critics, commentators and – finally – social scientists who interpreted the relevance of pop in peoples’ lives in very different ways. Some have demonised the culture industry as a conspiracy started to delude the masses, others took it as the most authentic expression of peoples’ values, norms and beliefs, and still others have celebrated popular culture as a site where “the people” evaded the control of “the power bloc”. Some scientists have said that modern popular culture from the centres has steamrollered the particularities of local cultures, while others argue that popular culture drives social differentiation. Some have claimed that popular culture has got levelling potential, as it cuts across divisions of status, race and gender; others have highlighted that these social distinctions were reproduced and even confirmed in the realm of popular culture. Other strands of research have focussed on the question of cultural change, still others take the creative industries as an economic sector where we can see the future of labour relations, the organisation of work and the creation of wealth.

The course intents to give both a general overview over major trends in the history of popular culture from the late 19th to the late 20th century and introduce students to key debates in historical and social scientific research on the topic. Looking at evidence from different realms of popular culture such as popular music, cinema, advertising and sport in Britain, the US and Germany, the seminar takes technological and regulatory caesura as an orientation and discusses prominent aspects of the relationship between popular culture and society. Keeping in mind the questions of cultural change and the societal effect of popular culture, the course covers aspects from leisure and social control to the globalisation of popular culture, state interference with culture and pop as a medium of identity. This will be done on the basis of key readings and discussion of sources.

Learning outcome

● a critical awareness of the theories, methods and concepts utilised by historians and sociologists to explain the change of cultural repertoires and to assess the influence of popular culture on peoples’ behaviour

● an understanding of cultural transfers between the US and Western Europe and of the role of popular culture in Western societies in the 20th century

● an understanding of the concepts, methods and analytical potential of comparative history by looking at evidence from Britain, the USA and Germany.

● the skills to critically research, read, discuss and write about a set of historiographical arguments and a variety of historical evidence.


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Recommended previous knowledge

30 study points from either HF- or SV-faculty.

A good ability to read and understand English is required for this course.


The course will be taught in the form of twelve two-hour long seminars (consisting of lectures, discussions and exercises) and three to four two-hour long meetings dedicated to archival/library visits and instructions on how to write the term paper.

It is expected that students attend all seminars and meetings, read the obligatory literature, and participate actively in seminar discussions and other activities.

Qualifying exposé: In order to qualify for the exam, students need to submit an exposé for their proposed semester paper of up to 3 standard pages (plus bibliography), complete with a relevant, motivated research question and a bibliography. Guidance on how to write an exposé will be given during the course. The exposé is due about half way through the course.


Semester paper: To pass the course, students are expected to write a semester paper of 10 standard pages (2300 characters without spacing and notes). The topic, question and approach of the paper is to be developed by the respective student with the help of the lecturer.  The paper is due ca. four weeks after the last lecture. (For the exact date and time see the semester page.)

The semester paper is to be handed in via Canvas. The file must be submitted in .pdf-format and we stress that the student is responsible for making sure that the files are readable. If you need assistance in converting your file into .pdf, we recommend that you follow these instructions. The file must be named with your candidate number (not your name) and the course code (HIS2362).


Use of sources and citation

You should familiarize yourself with the rules that apply to the use of sources and citations. If you violate the rules, you may be suspected of cheating/attempted cheating.

Language of examination

The examination text is given in English, and you submit your response in English.

Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

Resit an examination

Withdrawal from an examination

It is possible to take the exam up to 3 times. If you withdraw from the exam after the deadline or during the exam, this will be counted as an examination attempt.

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.

Facts about this course






This course is offered on an irregular basis.


Teaching language