Quality Education in the Benedictine Tradition.


Saint Vincent College Faculty Blog

Popular Culture and Research

Posted by Michael Urick on Wed, Apr 7, 2021 @ 08:04 AM

In my very first blog that I wrote here six years ago, I talked about my views on using popular culture in the classroom. Now, many classes later, things have come full circle and I will launch the “Exploring Effective Leadership Practices Through Popular Culture” book series through Emerald Publishing this month. I am excited to serve as the series editor and also author of the first two books in this series (the first will be about leadership in the “Star Wars” franchise and the second in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories). My approach to using popular culture in writing is much the same as it is in the classroom. It follows this general model:

Introduce theory → Illustrate theory through a popular culture example → Apply theory

I can imagine some critics might scoff at this approach as being silly. With so much going on in the “real world” to write about, why focus on something as seemingly trivial as popular culture? I would argue that we can learn about the “real world” – and, in turn, improve our own leadership approach – through fictional popular culture.

But, before we get to popular culture, we must understand theory. I am a big proponent of learning theories. Leadership theories help us to make sense of phenomena related to how people influence each other. We can see these theories in application within our own workplaces, schools, religious organizations, teams and other groups to which we belong. The idea behind theories is that they are generalizable so that they can relate to multiple circumstances that we might encounter. While some theories are quite complex and others are simpler to apply, it is true that understanding theory can help us recognize how and why individuals lead (or follow) others.

To make theories clearer, examples can be useful. However, there is a caution here. Analyzing a case without linking it to theory is not only unproductive, it is also dangerous to someone interested in learning about leadership because it will provide them with an incomplete impression of what makes a leader effective. Instead, we must first understand the theory to make sense of the leadership that we see around us. By linking an example back to theory, students of leadership can reflect on why an example of leadership was effective (or not) and then consider how that theory could then relate to their own context. I prefer to link examples from popular culture because they are fun and accessible. Let’s face it, even though it is useful to understand, leadership theory can be dry. Linking theory to popular culture makes it more exciting and relatable to more people. Not everyone is interested in working in a particular role or industry (the focus of many traditional case study approaches), but more people may be excited about or familiar with a fictional movie, book, show, video game or comic.

But, making linkages to theory should not stop there. It’s not enough to just provide an example of a theory through popular culture. With a broader theoretical understanding enhanced via a popular culture example, those seeking to learn about leadership should apply their newly found knowledge to their own situation. It is this application of theory that is crucial to all forms of learning – including classroom learning as well as learning from reading research. In this way, it is not a stretch to apply what we glean from fiction to our own lives.

I have been working on research leveraging popular culture in the way described above over the past few years. I’ve written chapters, articles and blog posts linking academically supported theories to “Hunger Games,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Avengers” and “Wonder Woman” for a few examples. Anecdotal feedback that I have received suggests that this approach has helped individuals make sense of leadership theories and then apply them to their own unique contexts. For me, this type of research is fun it allows me to explore theories that I love in the context of pieces of popular culture that I thoroughly enjoy. But, it’s also fulfilling because I believe that this type of research can help others to learn and grow. I hope that readers will find this new book series to be fun, interesting and helpful as they continue to develop into leaders.

What do you think? Do you find this approach useful? What pieces of popular culture have been or might be helpful to you as you refine your leadership approach? Let me know by emailing me at michael.urick@stvincent.edu or connecting with me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Twitter.

Dr. Mike Urick

About the Authors

Michelle Gil-Montero is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Saint Vincent College. She runs the visiting writers series on campus, oversees the student literary magazine, and serves as guru to aspiring poets on campus. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2007, and she has been on the Saint Vincent faculty since that year. She is an active poet and literary translator from Spanish. She is spending part of the 2016-17 school year travelling to Argentina on a Howard Foundation fellowship and Fulbright grant. 

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January 2008. Dr. Smetanka has taught courses in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry and Geology as well as interdisciplinary seminars. He has published scientific research articles in physics and astrophysics journals, numerous conference proceedings and also works in science education reform and the interaction between science, technology and theology.

Jim Kellam is an associate professor of biology at Saint Vincent College and our resident ornithologist. He received his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2003, and is taking this semester as a sabbatical. What does that mean? He'll explain in his blog posts.

Dr. Michael J. Urick is Graduate Director of the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program, and Associate Professor of Management and Operational Excellence at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government. Dr. Urick teaches courses related to organizational behavior, human resources, culture, leadership, diversity, conflict, supply chain, operations and research methods. Professionally, Urick serves on the board of the Institute for Supply Management (Pittsburgh) and belongs to the Society for Human Resource Management and APICS. For fun, Urick enjoys music and, since 1998, has led and performed with Neon Swing X-perience, a jazz band that has released multiple albums and toured portions of the US. He enjoys watching movies, is an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, and also likes to fence.

David Safin, C'00, has been a lecturer in the communication department since the Fall of 2003, and has served in a variety of administrative roles since the summer of 2004. Currently, he teaches multimedia in the communication department as an assistant professor. 

Dr. Michael Krom received his Doctorate in philosophy at Emory University in 2007 and is currently the chair of the philosophy department at Saint Vincent. He has authored a book on religion and politics and continues to publish works in Catholic moral and political thought. Dr. Krom also directs the Faith and Reason summer program every summer. 

Subscribe via E-mail

Schedule a visit today

Request Information

Apply now to become a bearcat

Latest Posts

Join the Community