In the 1980s, when I was a graduate student at the Bowling Green State University’s Popular Culture Department (one of the rare places for academic study of popular culture at the time), the department’s famous introductory course, POPC 160, understood popular culture as “the most common part of our cultural heritage and our present living environment.” This environment was seen as consisting of popular beliefs and values, popular images of objects and people (icons, stereotypes, heroes), popular art forms (movies, books, music), popular events and rituals (Halloween, Christmas, family reunions), and all the “normal activities of our daily lives”. It was the “mainstream culture shared by large segments of the society,” that affects “the values we construct for ourselves” and reflects “ the values we have already constructed.” It’s the culture whose products we choose to consume. Popular works are popular because they “embody values, ideals and beliefs already held by the consumers. In short, such works strike an invisible but very important responsive chord in the mass psyche.” (All quotes are from the Popular Culture Reader, Third Edition, Bowling Green University popular Press, 1983.)
Since then, this definition has been broadened and amended to include most of our cultural environment.
The PCA website, for example, suggests that a perusal of the conference subject areas might provide a reader with an idea of the variety of topics that fall under the umbrella of popular culture. There are more than 120 subject areas. The subjects include some areas that formerly would have been excluded (e.g., folklore and education) and they range from very specific (e.g., Jack London Life and Works) to very general (e.g., Music). In this view, the field of popular culture is very rich and diverse: popular phenomena are studied by many disciplines, from many points of view, using a variety of different methodologies.
To those who want to learn more, we recommend the Wikipedia article “Popular Culture Studies” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_culture_studies#Bibliography). In spite of its imperfections, the article provides an informative overview of the history of popular culture studies at Bowling Green State University. It also offers many links to other relevant sites as well as a rather extensive bibliography.