of studies of the media audience can be seen as a series of oscillations
between perspectives which have stressed the power of the text (or
message) over its audiences and perspectives which have stresses
the barriers "protecting" the audience from the potential effects
of the message. The first position is most obviously represented
by the whole tradition of effects studies, mobilising a "hypodermic"
model of media influence, in which the media are seen to have the
power to "inject" their audiences with particular "messages", which
will cause them to behave in particular ways. This has involved,
from the Right, perspectives which see the media as causing the
breakdown of "traditional values" and, from the Left, perspectives
which see the media causing their audience to remain quiescent in
political terms, inculcating consumerist values, or causing then
to inhabit some form of false consciousness.
One of the most
influential versions of this kind of "hypodermic" theory of media
effects was that advanced by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer,
along with other members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research.
Their "pessimistic mass society thesis" reflected the authors' experience
of the breakdown of modern Germany into fascism during the 1930s,
a breakdown which was attributed, in part, to the loosening of traditional
ties and structures--which were seen as then leaving people more
"atomised" and exposed to external influences, and especially to
the pressure of the mass propaganda of powerful leaders, the most
effective agency of which was the mass media. This "pessimistic
mass society thesis" stressed the conservative and reconciliatory
role of "mass culture" for the audience. Mass culture was seen to
suppress "potentialities", and to deny awareness of contradictions
in a "one-dimensional world"; only art, in fictional and dramatic
form, could preserve the qualities of negation and transcendence.
Implicit here, was a "hypodermic" model of the media which were
seen as having the power to "inject" a repressive ideology directly
into the consciousness of the masses.
this overly pessimistic backdrop, the emigration of the leading
members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer) to
America, during the 1930s, led to the development of specifically
"American" school of research in the forties and fifties. The Frankfurt
School's "pessimistic" thesis, of the link between "mass society"
and fascism, and the role of the media in cementing it, proved unacceptable
to American researchers. The "pessimistic" thesis proposed, they
argued, too direct and unmediated an impact by the media on its
audiences; it took too far the thesis that all intermediary social
structures between leaders/media and the masses had broken down;
it didn't accurately reflect the pluralistic nature of American
society; it was--to put it shortly--sociologically naive. Clearly,
the media had social effects; these must be examined and researched,
but, equally clearly, these effects were neither all-powerful, simple,
nor even necessarily direct. The nature of this complexity and indirectness
also needed to be demonstrated and researched. Thus, in reaction
to the Frankfurt School's predilection for critical social theory
and qualitative and philosophical analysis, American researchers,
such as Herta Herzog, Robert Merton, Paul Lazarsfeld and, later,
Elihu Katz began to develop a quantitative and positivist methodology
for empirical audience research into the "Sociology of Mass Persuasion".
Over the next
twenty years, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the overall effect
of this empirically grounded "Sociology of Mass Persuasion" was
to produce a much more qualified notion of "media power", in which,
media consumers were increasingly recognized to not be completely
passive "victims" of the Culture Industry.
Among the major
landmarks here were Merton's Mass Persuasion and Katz and
Lazarsfeld's Personal Influence, in which they developed
the concept of "two step flow" communication, in which the influence
of the media was seen as crucially mediated by "gatekeepers" and
"opinion leaders", within the audience community.
at these developments, in the early 1970s, Counihan notes the increasing
significance of a new perspeitve on media consumption -- the "uses
and gratifications" approach largely associated in the United States
with the work of Elihu Katz and, in Britain, with the work of Jay
Blumler, James Halloran and the work of the Leicester Centre for
Mass Communications Research, during the 1960s. Within that perspective,
the viewer came to be credited with an active role, so that there
was then a question, as Halloran (1970) put it, of looking at what
people do with the media, rather than what the media do to them.
This argument was obviously of great significance in moving the
debate forward--to begin to look to the active engagement of the
audience with the medium and with the particular television programmes
that they might be watching. One key advance which was developed
by the uses and gratifications perspective, was that of the variability
of response and interpretation. From this perspective, one can no
longer talk about the "effects" of a message on a homogenous mass
audience, who are all expected to be affected in the same way. Clearly,
uses and gratifications did represent a significant advance on effects
theory, in so far as it opens up the question of differential interpretations.
However, critics argue that the limitation is that the perspective
remains individualistic, in so far as differences of response or
interpretation are ultimately attributed solely to individual differences
of personality or psychology. From this point of view the approach
remains severely limited by its insufficiently sociological or cultural
It was against
this background that Stuart Hall's "encoding/decoding" model of
communication was developed at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural
Studies, as an attempt to take forward insights which had emerged
within each of these other perspectives. In subsequent years, this
model has come to be widely influential in audience studies. It
took, from the effects theorists, the notion that mass communication
is a structured activity, in which the institutions which produce
the messages do have the power to set agendas, and to define issues.
This is to move away from the idea of the power of the medium to
make a person behave in a certain way (as a direct effect, which
is caused by a simple stimulus, provided by the medium), but it
is to hold onto a notion of the role of the media in setting agendas
(cf. the work Bachrach and Baratz on the media's agenda-setting
functions) and providing cultural categories and frameworks within
which members of the culture will tend to operate. The model also
attempted to incorporate, from the uses and gratifications perspective,
the idea of the active viewer, making meaning from the signs and
symbols which the media provide. However, it was also designed to
take on board concerns with the ways in which responses and interpretations
are socially structured and culturally patterned at a level beyond
that of individual psychologies. The model was also, critically,
informed by semiological perspectives, focusing on the question
of how communication works drawing on Umberto Eco's early work on
the decoding of TV as a form of "semiological guerrilla warfare".
The key focus was on the realisation that we are, of course, dealing
with signs and symbols, which only have meaning within the terms
of reference supplied by codes (of one sort or another) which the
audience shares, to some greater or lesser extent, with the producers
of messages. In this respect, Hall's model was also influenced by
Roland Barthes' attempts to update Ferdinand de Saussure's ideas
of semiology--as "a science of signs at the heart of social life"
by developing an analysis the role of "mythologies" in contemporary
cultures. The premises of Hall's encoding/decoding model were:
· The same event can be encoded in more than one way.
· The message always contains more than one potential "reading".
Messages propose and "prefer" certain readings over others, but
they can never become wholly closed around one reading: they remain
polysemic (i.e. capable, in principle, of a variety of interpretations).
· Understanding the message is also a problematic practice, however
transparent and "natural" it may seem. Messages encoded one way
can always be decoded in a different way.
message is treated here as a complex sign, in which a "preferred
reading" has been inscribed, but which retains the potential, if
decoded in a manner different from the way in which it has been
encoded, of communicating a different meaning. The message is thus
a structured polysemy. It is central to the argument that all meanings
do not exist "equally" in the message: which is seen to have been
structured in dominance, despite the impossibility of a "total closure"
of meaning. Further, the "preferred reading" is itself part of the
message, and can be identified within its linguistic and communicative
structure. Thus, when analysis shifts to the "moment" of the encoded
message itself, the communicative form and structure can be analysed
in terms of what the mechanisms are which prefer one, dominant reading
over the other readings; what are the means which the encoder uses
to try to "win the assent of the audience" to his preferred reading
of the message.
that there will be no necessary "fit" or transparency between the
encoding and decoding ends of the communication chain. It is precisely
this lack of transparency, and its consequences for communication
which we need to investigate, Hall claims. Having established that
there is always a possibility of disjunction between the codes of
those sending and those receiving through the circuit of mass communications,
the problem of the "effects" of communication could now be reformulated,
as that of the extent to which decodings take place within
the limits of the preferred (or dominant) manner in which the message
has been initially encoded. However, the complementary aspect of
this problem, is that of the extent to which these interpretations,
or decodings, also reflect, and are inflected by, the code and discourses
which different sections of the audience inhabit, and the ways in
which this is determined by the socially governed distribution of
cultural codes between and across different sections of the audience;
that is, the range of different decoding strategies and competencies
in the audience. In this connection, the model draws both on Frank
Parkin's work on "meaning systems" and on Pierre Bourdieu's work
on the social distribution of forms of cultural competence.
with Hall's development of the encoding/decoding model at the course
for Contemporary Cultural Studies, in Birmingham (U.K.), the growing
influence of feminism, during the 1970s led, among other effects,
to a revitalisation of interest in psychoanalytic theory, given
the centrality of the concern with issues of gender, within psychoanalysis.
Within media studies, this interest in psychoanalytic theories of
the construction of gendered identities, within the field of language
and representation, was one of the informing principles behind the
development of the particular approach to the analysis of the media
(predominantly the cinema) and its effects on its spectator, developed
by the journal Screen, which was, for a time in the late
1970s, heavily influential in this field, particularly in Britain,
within film studies, in particular.
was centrally concerned with the analysis the effects of cinema
(and especially, the regressive effects of mainstream, commercial,
Hollywood cinema) in "positioning" the spectator (or subject) of
the film, through the way in which the text (by means of camera
placement, editing and other formal characteristics) "fixed" the
spectator into a particular kind of "subject-position", which it
was argued, "guaranteed" the transmission of a certain kind of "bourgeois
ideology" of naturalism, realism and verisimilitude.
was largely constituted by a mixing of Lacan's rereading of Freud,
stressing the importance of language in the unconscious, and Althusser's
early formulation of the "media" as an "Ideological State Apparatus"
(even if operating in the private sphere) which had the principal
function of securing the reproduction of the conditions of production
by "interpellating" its subjects (spectators, audiences) within
the terms of the "dominant ideology". Part of the appeal of this
approach to media scholars rested in the weight which the theory
gave to the ("relatively autonomous") effectivity of language--and
of "texts" (such as films and media products), as having real effects
in society. To this extent, the approach was argued to represent
a significant advance on previous theories of the media (including
traditional Marxism), which had stressed the determination of all
superstructural phenomena (such as the media) by the "real" economic
"base" of the society--thus allowing no space for the conceptualisation
of the media themselves as having independent (or at least, in Althusser's
terms "relatively autonomous") effects of their own.
Undoubtedly, one of Screen theory's great achievements, drawing
as it did on psychoanalysis, Marxism and the formal semiotics of
Christian Metz, was to restore an emphasis to the analysis of texts
which had been absent in much previous work. In particular, the
insights of psychoanalysis were extremely influential in the development
of later feminist work on the role of the media in the construction
of gendered identities and gendered forms of spectatorship (see,
inter alia, Mulvey, 1981; Brunsdon, 1981; Kuhn, 1982; Modleski,
1984; Mattelart, 1984; Gledhill, 1988; Byars, 1991).
of Screen theory argued that previous approaches had neglected the
analysis of the textual forms and patterns of media products, concentrating
instead on the analysis of patterns of ownership and control--on
the assumption, crudely put, that once the capitalist ownership
of the industry was demonstrated, there was no real need to examine
the texts (programmes or films) themselves in detail, as all they
would display would be minor variations within the narrow limits
dictated by their capitalist owners. Conversely, Screen theory focused
precisely on the text, and emphasised the need for close analysis
of textual/formal patterns--hardly suprisingly, given the background
of its major figures (MacCabe, 1974; Heath, 1977, 1978) in English
studies. However, their arguments, in effect, merely inverted the
terms of the sociological/economic forms of determinist theory which
they critiqued. In Screen theory, it was the text itself which was
the central (if not exclusive) focus of the analysis, on the assumption
that, since the text "positioned" the spectator, all that was necessary
was the close analysis of texts, from which their "effects" on their
spectators could be automatically deduced, as spectators were bound
to take up the "positions" constructed for them by the text (film).
textual determination of Screen theory, with its constant emphasis
on the "suturing" (cf. Heath, op cit.) of the spectator, into the
predetermined subject position constructed for him or her by the
text, thus allocated central place in media analysis to the analysis
of the text. As Moores puts it, "the aim was to uncover the symbolic
mechanisms through which cinematic texts confer subjectivity upon
readers, sewing them into the film narrative, through the production
of subject positions" on the assumption that the spectator (or reading
subject) is left with no other option but, as Heath suggests, to
"make...the meanings the film makes for him/her".
the psychoanalytic model has continued to be influential in Film
studies (and has been usefully developed by Valerie Walkerdine,
in a way that attempts to make it less universalist/determinist),
within communication and media studies, Hall's encoding/decoding
model has continued to set the basic conceptual framework for the
notable boom in studies of media consumption and the media audiences
which occurred during the 1980s. To take only the best known examples,
the body of work produced in that period included, inter alia, Morley's
study of the "Nationwide" audience, Hobson's study of Crossroads
viewers, Modleski's work on women viewers of soap opera, Radway's
study of readers of romance fiction, Ang's study of Dallas viewers,
Fiske's study of Television Culture, Philo's and Lewis' studies
of the audience for television news, Jhally and Lewis' study of
American audiences for The Cosby Show, and the work of Schroder,
and Liebes and Katz on the consumption of American TV fiction in
other cultures. Towards the end of the decade, much of the most
important new material on media consumption was collected together
in the published proceedings of two major conferences on audience
studies--Drummond and Paterson's collection Television and its
Audience, bringing together work on audiences presented at the
International Television Studies Conference in London in 1986, and
Seiter et al.'s collection Remote Control: Television, Audience's
and Cultural Power, based on the influential conference of that
name held in Tubingen, Germany, in 1987.
the late 1980s, a further new strand of work developed in audience
studies, focusing on the domestic context of television's reception
within the household, often using a broadly ethnographic methodology
and characteristically focusing on gender differences within the
household or family in TV viewing habits. The major studies in this
respect are Morley's Family Television, James Lull's Inside
Family Viewing, Ann Gray's Video Playtime, Roger Silverstone's
Television and Everyday Life, and, from a historical perspective
Lynn Spigel's Make Room For TV. Much of this work can be
situated within the broad framework of reception Analysis Research
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