Despite the (implicit) nominal link to the work on what is also called "Reception Theory", within the field of literary studies, carried out by Wolfgang Iser, Hans Jauss and other literary scholars (particular in Germany), the body of recent work on media audiences commonly referred to by this name, has on the whole, a different origin, although there are some theoretical links (cf., the work of Stanley Fish) than the work in literary theory. In practice, the term "reception analysis", has come to be widely used as a way of characterising the wave of audience research which occurred within communications and cultural studies during the 1980s and 1990s. On the whole, this work has adopted a "culturalist" perspective, has tended to use qualitative (and often ethnographic) methods of research and has tended to be concerned, one way or another, with exploring the active choices, uses and interpretations made of media materials, by their consumers.

As indicated in the previous discussion of "The Media Audience", the single most important point of origin for this work, lies with the development of cultural studies in the writings of Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, England, in the early 1970s and, in particular, Hall's widely influential "encoding/decoding" model of communications (see the discussion of "The Media Audience" for an explanation of this model). Hall's model provided the inspiration, and much of the conceptual framework for a number of C.C.C.S' explorations of the process of media consumption, notably David Morley's widely cited study of the cultural patterning of differential interpretations of media messages among The 'Nationwide' Audience and Dorothy Hobson's work on women viewers of the soap opera Crossroads. These works were the forerunners of a blossoming of cultural studies work focusing on the media audience, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including, among the most influential, from a feminist point of view, the work of Tania Modleski and Janice Radway on women consumers of soap opera and romance, and the work of Ien Ang, Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz, Kim Schroder and Jostein Gripsrud on international cross cultural consumption of American drama series, such as Dallas and Dynasty.

Much of this work has been effectively summarised and popularised, especially, in the United States by John Fiske, who has drawn on the theoretical work of Michel de Certeau to develop a particular emphasis on the "active audience", operating within what he terms the "semiotic democracy" of postmodern pluralistic culture. Fiske's work has subsequently been the object of some critique, in which a number of authors, among them Budd, Condit, Evans, Gripsrud, and Seamann have argued that the emphasis on the openness (or "polysemy") of the message and on the activity (and the implied "empowerment") of the audience, within reception analysis, has been taken too far, to the extent that the original issue--of the extent of media power--has been lost sight of, as if the "text" had been theoretically "dissolved" into the audience's (supposedly) multiple "readings" of (and "resistances" to) it.

In the late 1980s, there were a number of calls to scholars to recognise a possible "convergence" of previously disparate approaches under the general banner of "reception analysis" (cf. in particular, Jensen and Rosengren), while Blumler et al. have claimed that the work of a scholar such as Radway is little more than a "re-invention" of the "uses and gratifications" tradition--a claim hotly contested by Schroder. More recently, both Curran and Corner have offered substantial critiques of "reception analysis"--the former accusing many reception analysts of ignorance of the earlier traditions of media audience research, and the latter accusing them of retreating away from important issues of macro-politics and power into inconsequential micro-ethnographies of domestic television consumption. For a reply to these criticisms, see Morley, 1992.

-David Morley


See Audience Research general entry.