Researching Popular Culture

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Digital technology has absolutely revolutionized the possibilities for research when it comes to popular culture-related writing assignments.  Not only can students find advertisements (print and video), television shows, music, movies, and, of course, scholarly and popular commentary online, but they can also benefit from the way that online sources can keep up with the pace of popular culture far more successfully than can print.  Indeed, thanks to the possibilities of digital research, far more ambitious writing assignments for our students can be designed precisely because it is so much easier for them to get access to the material that they need, especially when it comes to semiotic analysis and interpretation. This is a rather obvious point, and might appear to hardly require an entire blog entry, but I want to discuss here one of the advantages of the Internet that I do not believe our students are sufficiently aware of: that is, the possibilities it offers for unguided exploration and unexpected discoveries. The standard model for student research appears to be something along the following lines:  determine some relevant search terms for your topic, enter them into a search engine, and then pick out a few of the more promising looking links that appear.  Most of the time something from Wikipedia will turn up at or near the top of the page, and in the worst case scenario the research effectively ends right there. But even the more responsible student is likely to remain confined within the terms of the key words used for the search, and this can very much limit one’s research, especially when one of the tasks of the assignment is to construct relevant systems, or contexts, within which a given popular cultural topic can be analyzed semiotically.  Such systems require a very wide-ranging scope of knowledge and information, more wide ranging than a narrow key word search will be able to reveal. Here is where an alternative to the key word search-and-discover research model can be very helpful.  In this alternative, which might be called (after Borges) a “garden of the forking paths” approach, one’s research is approached as a kind of journey without itinerary.  You know that you are going someplace, but you don’t have anywhere specific in mind.  Instead, you let the signposts along the way take you to the next signposts, which take you to further signposts, and to places that you never expected to be going to at all. Let me give an example.  As I have mentioned a number of times in my blogs here, one of the most important questions I ask myself as I analyze contemporary American culture is how we got to where we are now: a country that is radically at odds from the goals that were so widely embraced by American youth in the 1960s.  You can’t simply enter a question like that into a search engine, and reading a book on the subject can lead to a narrowing of one's view on this massively overdetermined question given the needs of books to stick to specific arguments couched within specific disciplines. So I have been on a kind of research walk-about for some time now.  I can’t remember when it began precisely, but I do recall reading Ann Charters’ anthology, The Sixties Reader, about a year ago, and while I found a lot of material there that I already knew about and expected to find, I also found a selection from an oddly titled book called Ringolevio, by an oddly named writer named Emmett Grogan.  Going online to find out who Emmett Grogan was revealed a lot of basic information about him personally, but also tipped me off to a group I knew vaguely about, the Haight Ashbury Diggers.  Searching for information on the Diggers took me to a web site called, where I found not only information but a discussion forum frequented by a large variety of now middle-aged (and older) ex-Diggers, ex-Hippies, and not-so-ex-Hippies and Diggers.  Reading this forum has given me an enormous amount of primary source sociological information that I never expected to find at all. That site has tipped me off to some useful books to read, but it has also led me to further web pages where I have learned ever more about what, precisely, happened to a large number of people from the sixties who once tried to change society.  I have discovered their pride, their disappointment, their continuing passion, and, yes, sometimes their paranoia.  It has been a journey through America without my having to leave my desk. Just today I visited and looked at an update on how these sixty-somethings and seventy-somethings feel that the Occupy Wall Street movement is an extension of their own.  So that got me searching for Occupy Wall Street information, which not only took me specific OWS websites but also, to my surprise, to a website devoted to libertarianism, something that, on the face of it, could not be more opposed to the Diggers’ values or to those of the sixties.   But wait, reading the libertarian page revealed to me that many conservatively identifying young libertarians have a lot in common with the Diggers (who evolved into what they themselves called the Free Families) in their insistence on complete freedom.  This has brought young libertarians into conflict with such high profile conservatives as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, who have been seeking libertarian support.  It’s all very interesting, but my point is that I didn’t expect to be there at all. I’m still on walk-about, still gathering what I need to know to answer my questions.  I’ve learned a heck of a lot along the way that I never expected to learn at all, because I didn’t even know it was there. Of course my project is far larger and more open ended than a student paper assignment.  But I want to make the point that research is a wandering as much as it is a homing in.  If you go at it with only one destination in mind, you’ll miss what you really need to know.  The Internet can make that wandering both easy and quite fun.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.