Archive for the ‘Active Audience’ Category

Active Audience

     An active audience theory is developed by Stuart Hall, and it is used to examine the relationship between a media text and it’s audiences. In the past time, most theorists about the interpretation of mass media messages simply treat audiences as “passive sponges”, who just absorb the content of television and other media. They believe that the viewers will accept and interpret the messages in exactly the way that the message makers want.

     However, Stuart Hall goes against all of them; he said that the audience itself plays an active role in interpreting the messages by using their own social contexts, and are capable of changing the messages themselves through collective action. As we talked before about the concept of encoding and decoding, Stuart Hall states that texts are polysemous, they may be decoded in different ways depending on one person’s identity, cultural knowledge and opinions. Everyone brings a different outside context and backgrounds to interpret the mass media, so this leads to multiple interpretations of the same content.

    Hall suggested that there are three kinds of hypothetical decoding positions for the reader of a text: dominant, negotiated and oppositional.

  • dominant (or ‘hegemonic’) reading: the reader fully shares the text’s code and accepts and reproduces the preferred reading (a reading which may not have been the result of any conscious intention on the part of the author(s)) – in such a stance the code seems ‘natural’ and ‘transparent’;
  • negotiated reading: the reader partly shares the text’s code and broadly accepts the preferred reading, but sometimes resists and modifies it in a way which reflects their own position, experiences and interests (local and personal conditions may be seen as exceptions to the general rule) – this position involves contradictions;
  • oppositional (‘counter-hegemonic’) reading: the reader, whose social situation places them in a directly oppositional relation to the dominant code, understands the preferred reading but does not share the text’s code and rejects this reading, bringing to bear an alternative frame of reference (radical, feminist etc.) (e.g. when watching a television broadcast produced on behalf of a political party they normally vote against).

      The Hall/Morley model invites analysts to categorize readings as ‘dominant’, ‘negotiated’ or ‘oppositional’. This set of three presupposes that the media text itself is a vehicle of dominant ideology and that it hegemonically strives to get readers to accept the existing social order, with all its inequalities and oppression of underprivileged social groups.


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        In an essay on ‘Encoding/Decoding’ (Hall 1980, originally published as ‘Encoding and Decoding in Television Discourse’ in 1973), the British sociologist Stuart Hall proposed a model of mass communication which highlighted the importance of active interpretation within relevant codes. Justin Wren-Lewis insists that Hall’s model, with its emphasis on coding and decoding as signifying practices, is ‘above all, a semiological conception’ (Wren-Lewis 1983, 179). Hall rejected textual determinism, noting that ‘decodings do not follow inevitably from encodings’ (Hall 1980, 136). In contrast to the earlier models, Hall thus gave a significant role to the ‘decoder’ as well as to the ‘encoder’.

Hall referred to various phases in the Encoding/Decoding model of communication as moments, a term which many other commentators have subsequently employed (frequently without explanation). John Corner offers his own definitions:

  • the moment of encoding: ‘the institutional practices and organizational conditions and practices of production’ (Corner 1983, 266);
  • the moment of the text: ‘the… symbolic construction, arrangement and perhaps performance… The form and content of what is published or broadcast’ (ibid., 267); and
  • the moment of decoding: ‘the moment of reception [or] consumption… by… the reader/hearer/viewer’ which is regarded by most theorists as ‘closer to a form of “construction”‘ than to ‘the passivity… suggested by the term “reception”‘ (ibid.).

             Hall himself referred to several ‘linked but distinctive moments – production, circulation, distribution/consumption, reproduction’ (Hall 1980, 128) as part of the ‘circuit of communication’ (a term which clearly signals the legacy of Saussure). Corner adds that the moment of encoding and that of decoding ‘are socially contingent practices which may be in a greater or lesser degree of alignment in relation to each other but which are certainly not to be thought of… as ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ linked by the conveyance of a ‘message’ which is the exclusive vehicle of meaning’ (Corner 1983, pp. 267-8).

           Mass media codes offer their readers social identities which some may adopt as their own. But readers do not necessarily accept such codes. Where those involved in communicating do not share common codes and social positions, decodings are likely to be different from the encoder’s intended meaning. Umberto Eco uses the term ‘aberrant decoding’ to refer to a text which has been decoded by means of a different code from that used to encode it (Eco 1965). Eco describes as ‘closed’ those texts which show a strong tendency to encourage a particular interpretation – in contrast to more ‘open’ texts (Eco 1981). He argues that mass media texts tend to be ‘closed texts’, and because they are broadcast to heterogeneous audiences diverse decodings of such texts are unavoidable.

                        <Semiotics for Beginners   –Daniel Chandler>

        Due to different backgrounds and experiences, each person has his or her own way for decoding messages, and people could even form different interpretations toward the same message. In order to prevent  ‘aberrant decoding’,a text which has been decoded differently from the encoder’s intended meaning, the media system tend to change mass media text into ‘closed texts’. In a closed text, they can show a strong tendency to encourage a particular interpretation; try to control the audience’s thought and force them only receive the interpretation they want. Although it is an effective way to convey the idea, it could also be dangerous. Ownerships or gatekeepers could  put their bias in the mass media text during the encoding process, plus a strong tendency to encourage a particular interpretation in closed texts; audiences might lose their ability to be an active audience. Even worse, they might receive lots of messages which have bias and stereotypes in it without even notice.

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