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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 November 2002

Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge


This review traces historians' use of the concept of popular culture, since its entry into the discipline in the 1970s. ‘Popular culture’ was initially loosely understood as the values, pleasures, and pastimes of the poor, and research in the field was heavily influenced by both Marxism and cultural anthropology. By the 1990s, earlier conceptions of popular culture appeared crudely reductionist, and heterogeneity, diversity, and ‘appropriation’ were firmly established as key terms and concerns for the historian of popular culture. But in the search for social and cultural complexity, the role of politics and the simple force of power and social inequality have been neglected. I argue here that wealth and power have long been key determinants shaping the character of popular cultural practice, and that their operation needs to be incorporated into our analyses. In this way, the study of popular culture offers the promise of research that is both of intrinsic interest and of broader historical significance.

Historiographical reviews
© 2002 Cambridge University Press

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I would like to thank Larry Klein, Gareth Stedman Jones, and Naomi Tadmor, who read earlier drafts of this article and made valuable suggestions for improvement. Cath Frances, Natasha Glaisyer, Matthew Nudds, and Sarah Pearsall all discussed this review on various occasions and offered encouragement and inspiration.