Ray Browne; pioneered study of pop culture; at 87

By John Seewer
Associated Press / October 27, 2009

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TOLEDO, Ohio - Ray Browne, an Ohio university professor credited with coining the phrase “popular culture’’ and pioneering the study of things such as bumper stickers and cartoons, has died. He was 87.

Mr. Browne died at his home Thursday, according to his family and officials at Bowling Green State University.

He developed the first academic department devoted to studying what he called the “people’s culture’’ at Bowling Green in 1973.

Mr. Browne wrote and edited more than 70 books on popular culture, including “The Guide to United States Popular Culture,’’ published in 2001.

“Culture is everything from the food we’ve always eaten to the clothes we’ve always worn,’’ he said in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press.

While many in the field credit Mr. Browne with coming up with the phrase “popular culture,’’ no one could say for sure whether he originated it. He said he made a mistake in 1967 when he first used the term.

“If I had called it everyday culture or democratic culture, it would not have been so sharply criticized,’’ he said.

Mr. Browne worked for decades to convince academics that much could be learned from studying seemingly insignificant elements of our lives.

“He was really going against the grain,’’ said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “He seemed to be interested in anything. You could drop a gum wrapper in front of him, and he would see a text to be studied.’’

Professors at universities nationwide thought Mr. Browne, an English professor, was trying to demean or trivialize what they were teaching when he founded the popular culture department.

That wasn’t the case, he said. His interest was rooted in finding out how society affects culture and how culture affects society.

Dozens of schools now offer classes rooted in popular culture.

His interests ranged from Western cowboy movies to wallpaper.

“The covering of walls has been one of the most important items in housing since the beginning,’’ he said. “But nobody ever wrote a book on it.’’

Mr. Browne taught at the University of Maryland and Purdue University before moving to Bowling Green with the idea of starting a popular culture department.

He was often quoted in the media and always had a ready thought on virtually any subject. He stopped teaching in 1990 but continued to write, often working on several books at once.