The Encoding/Decoding Model of Communication Communication 501: Mid-term Essay

Marsha Ann Tate October 9, 2000 Dr. Davis

Introduction This essay examines the encoding/decoding model of communication first proposed by Stuart Hall in the early 1970's. The essay begins with a brief exploration of the theoretical origins of the model followed by an explanation of the model itself. Origins and Development Although the encoding/decoding model of transmission dates back to the 1970's, its theoretical roots are much older. "Critical theory", one of the main theoretical foundations of the model, initially referred to the post 1933 emigration of scholars from the Marxist School of Applied Social Research in Frankfurt to the United States. The School, originally established to "... examine the apparent failure of revolutionary social change as predicted by Marx" and "... looked to the capacity of the 'superstructure' (especially ideas and ideology represented in the mass media)" to account for the failure of Marxism (McQuail, 2000, p. 95). The "Frankfurt School" promoted of alternate view of dominant commercial mass culture namely the non-acceptance of liberal-capitalist order as well as the " ... rationalcalculative, utilitarian model of social life as at all adequate or desirable" (McQuail, 2000, p. 49) and viewed mass communication "... as manipulative and ultimately oppressive" (McQuail, 2000, p. 49). Post WWII & Cold War Era in US Frankfurt School-based theories generated some support in academia during the years prior to WWII. However, with the advent of the Cold War and the accompanying "Red scare" in the United States, espousal of Marxist-based theories became "out of favor" and therefore received relatively little attention during this period. Instead,

American research largely followed an empirical, socio-behavioral course that examined issues of .... A similar dominant paradigm existed in Europe until 1960s. However, this was paradigm was challenged by a wave of NeoMarxist thought driven by French and later British academics. This "second wave" offered a refinement and reevaluation of earlier ideas proposed by the Frankfurt School and others. The reemerging critical theory regarded mass communication as one component of broader "cultural studies" and attacked "... the commercial roots of cultural 'debasement'" (McQuail, 2000, p. 95). Early advocates directed their attention toward issues of working-class subordination and later encompassed domination of youth, gender, ethnicity, and alternative subcultures. The theory challenged predominant methodologies of empirical social science audience research as well as "... the humanistic studies of content" (McQuail, 2000, p. 56) Proponents argued that both methods failed to factor in the 'power of the audience' in "giving meaning to messages" (McQuail, 2000, p. 56). Instead, critical theories emphasized qualitative research: "This has provided alternative routes to knowledge and forged a link back to the neglected pathways of sociological theory of symbolic interactionism and phenomenology" (McQuail, 2000, p. 50). British cultural studies & The Birmingham School In Britain, "cultural studies" combined "... Marxist theory with ideas and research methods derived from diverse sources including literary criticism, linguistics, anthropology, and history" (Baran & Davis, 321). The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham has been called the "... most influential recent British powerhouse of theorizing about culture" (Hartley, 1999, p. 116). The

School, founded by Richard Hoggart during the 1960s and under the directorship of Stuart Hall beginning in 1970, engaged in a systematic analysis of culture. The analysis, based upon Marxist principles and class, was "... intended not to describe culture but to change it" (Hartley, 1999, p. 116). Consequently, the School's early studies concentrated on class and subcultures (e.g., tracing the historic elite domination over culture and critique of the social consequences of the domination) while it later also examined gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity (Kellner, 1995, p. 52). In addition, it also considered the question of how audiences decode (i.e., make sense of) media output within their various social contexts (Dutton, 1997, p. 116). From this critical perspective, the media's was viewed as helping "... set the agenda to decide which issues will be examined within what is taken to be a framework of consensus, i.e., the national interest" (Dutton, 1997, p. 62). Model of Encoding-Decoding Media Discourse & Audience Reception Theory (Stuart Hall) -- 1980 During the 1970's, Hall and his Birmingham School colleagues explored various British subcultures including "teddy boys", rockers, etc. As an outgrowth of this earlier research, Hall formulated a variation of critical theory that brought together critical and interpretive/qualitative aspects to the study of audiences. According to Hall, the mass media are central to modern capitalist culture since they are the primary resource for the meaningful organisation and "patterning" of people's experience. In this they are intimately related to the technico-economic and social processes of modern capitalism" (Tomlinson, 1991, p. 60). Moreover, he proposed "... that the hegemonic power of the media" could be revealed through the study of social and ideological processes rather than "by individual psychology or personal experience" (Nightingale,

199?, p. 21). The resulting theory, influenced by semiology and discourse analysis, was more closely related to cultural rather than the social scientific realm as some presumptions of semiology and structuralism were accepted while others were challenged. In addition, Hall rejected the transmission model of communication and the idea of "fixed messages", citing its linearity, its concentration on the 'level of message exchange', and on its absence of a 'structured conception of the different moments [of mass communication] as a complex structure of relations' (Hall quoted in Nightingale, 199? p. 27). In Hall's view, media messages are always open and 'polysemic' (i.e., have multiple meanings) and their interpretation or so-called "decoding" is influenced by the "... context and the culture of the receivers" McQuail, 2000, p. 56). Different receivers will not interpret a message "as sent" or "as expressed" and moreover "... meanings and messages are not simply "transmitted", they are always produced: first by the encoder from the 'raw' material of everyday life; second, by the audience in relation to its location in other discourses. Each moment is 'determinative', operating in its own conditions of production" (Storey, 1996, p. 11). Moreover, Hall "... argued that the practice of signification through language establishes maps of cultural meaning which promote the dominance of a ruling-class ideology, especially by establishing a hegemony. This involves containing subordinate classes within superstructures of meaning which frame all competing definitions of reality within the range of a single hegemonic view of things" (McQuail, 2000, p. 307). Hall proposed that media messages pass through multiple stages (i.e., "distinctive moments") of transformation from its origins "... to its reception and interpretation" (McQuail, 2000, p. 56-57). In stage one, the "meaningful discourse" is

encoded or "framed" based upon the "meaning structure of the mass media production organization and its main supports" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57). At the point of "encoding", many ways of looking at the world (i.e., "ideologies") are "in dominance". However, the media institutions' frameworks of meaning are apt to conform to the dominant power structures. In Hall's words "[The moment of media production] is framed throughout by meanings and ideas; knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historically defined technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, definitions and assumptions, assumptions about the audience" (Hall quoted in Storey, 1996, p. 10). Individual messages are often "encoded" in the form of established genres (e.g., soap operas, news) that "... have a face-value meaning and in-built guidelines for interpretation by an audience" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57) and therefore represent the "preferred readings". During the second stage, as the meanings and messages are in the form of meaningful discourse (i.e., Hall refers to a television program or any equivalent media text as "meaningful discourse"), the formal rules of language and discourse are "in dominance". At the concluding stage, the "meaningful discourse" is subsequently decoded "... according to the different meaning structures and frameworks of knowledge of differently situated audiences" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57). Consequently, decoding involves yet another range of ideologies "in dominance". Moments of encoding and decoding may not be perfectly symmetrical (Storey, 1996, p. 11) and more importantly decoding can take a "different turn" than intended by the encoders. In other words, the meaning as decoded by an audience

member doesn't necessarily correspond with the meaning of the message as encoded despite shared language and use of genres. In this scenario, audience members can "read between the lines" and in some instances "... reverse the intended direction of the message" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57). According to Hall the "media text" is located between its producers and the audience who "decodes" the text in a manner that may be related to specific social situations (Dutton, 1997, p. 116) Hall suggests that there are "three hypothetical positions from which decodings of televisual discourse may be constructed" (Hall quoted in Storey, 1996, p. 12) ("Codes are systems of meaning whose rules and conventions are shared by members of a culture or by what has been called an "interpretative community"-- McQuail, 2000, p. 350). In the dominant-hegemonic position the viewer decodes a media message "... in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded" and is therefore "operating inside the dominant code" (Storey, 1996, p. 12). In the negotiated code or position the privileged position is accorded to the dominant definitions of events while reserving the right to make a more negotiated application to 'local conditions', to its own corporate positions. In other words, the code "operates with exceptions to the rule". Finally, the oppositional code represents the viewer who recognizes the "preferred reading" but can "read between the lines" of official versions of events and therefore chooses to "... decode within an alternative frame of reference" (McQuail, 2000, p. 98; Storey, 1996, p. 13). Strengths of the Encoding/Decoding Model The encoding/decoding model offers an alternative version of the 'active audience' ideas based in empirical media-effect research (McQuail, 2000, p. 50). In McQuail's

words "While early effect research recognized the fact of selective perception, this was seen as a limitation on, or a condition of, the transmission model, rather than part of a quite different perspective" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57). In addition, the model "... situated structures of production, text, and audience (reception) within a framework where each could be read, registered and analysed in relation to each other" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 22). Moreover, the model also drew attention to genre-based research (Nightingale 199?, p. 23) and "... generated renewed interest in the relevance for media research of socio-linguistics and social semiotics" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 23). It also combined research methods and genres in new ways (Nightingale, 199?, p. 23) as well softening the boundary previously separating "... text from audience as research objects" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 23). Morley's Application of Hall's Model David Morley, a colleague of Hall's, set out to test the encoding/decoding model by examining the potential for "differential decoding" by groups from differing socio-cultural backgrounds. Morley arranged for 29 different groups of 5-10 individuals each to view one of two episodes of Nationwide, a BBC weekday current affairs news magazine. The groups were selected on the basis that they "... might be expected to differ in their decodings from 'dominant' to 'negotiated' to 'oppositional'. The groups tending towards a dominant reading (i.e., those seen by Morley as closest to Nationwide's own values) included bank managers and apprentices, while those rejecting Nationwide and producing an oppositional reading included black further education students and shop stewards. In between (having a "negotiated" reading) were teacher training and university students and trade union officials" (Dutton, 1997, p. 116-117).

Following the viewing of the Nationwide episodes, each group was interviewed and their "readings" analyzed. Overall, Morley's study seemed to confirm Hall's suppositions (Storey, 1996, p. 15) with one notable exception. The middle-class bank managers and working-class apprentices both produced dominant readings thus bringing into question the correlation between class and reading position. Morley accounted for this unexpected outcome by asserting that decoding is not solely determined by class position but rather "social position plus particular discourse positions" (Storey, 1996, p. 16). Several years after the Nationwide study, Morley conducted an ethnographic study of family viewing. This subsequent study, once again largely premised on Hall's theory "... emphasized the many unwritten rules, understandings and patterns of behaviour that develop in the micro-audience environment of even one family" (McQuail, 2000, p. 399). Morley's More Recent Views About the Theory Cautions against over-emphasis upon the degree of "differential and oppositional reading of media texts" (McQuail, 2000, p. 99)

The overall impact of Morley's work is somewhat in question. However, indirectly, the the theory "... proved very effective in 're-empowering' the audience and returning some optimism to the study of media and culture" (McQuail, 2000, p. 98-99). It also "... led to a wider view of the social and cultural influences which mediate the experience of the media, especially ethnicity, gender and 'everyday life'" (McQuail, 2000, p. 99). Criticisms of the Encoding/Decoding Model The encoding/decoding model has been criticized on a number of points including its ideological grounding, definitional ambiguities and gaps as well as


oversimplifications. Several major criticisms of the encoding/decoding model relate to the model's strong ideological undercurrents. As Nightingale points out, the theory failed to "... explore its own ideological stance or potentially politically exploitative methods" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 22). He further states that "... the expedient use of research methods to suit the genres of cultural production combined in the project overlooked the political assumptions inherent in the practice of research, and the hierarchical structure necessitated by the research method" and therefore compromised its goal to "... produce an audience generated aesthetic" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 23) Other critics also point to the 'overtly political' aspects of decoding positions (Wren-Lewis, 1983, p. 188) and the model's assumption that television only reproduces the ideas of "dominant culture" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 24). A second line of criticism of the encoding/decoding model revolves around the issue of definitional ambiguities and gaps. For example, the "... lack of specificity about the ways in which the term 'code' is used (Nightingale, 199?, p. 34) and the overall undertheorization of "decoding". Oversimplification is also often cited as an inherent problem of the encoding/decoding model (Nightingale, 199?, p. 22). This includes the model's underestimation of "... the contribution of sound, sound effects and music in the construction of televisual discourse, as well as the interaction between visual and aural codes" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 33). It has also been argued that the model may overstate the importance of the media. As Tomlinson offers "For all its evidential problems, audience research does suggest that the media cannot have the undisputed managerial


function that Hall implies, since media messages are themselves mediated by other modes of cultural experience: this is what is implied by the notion of the "active audience" (Tomlinson, 1991, p. 61). Moreover, it is suggested that the encoding/decoding model's "... focus on text/audience, however, leaves out many mediations that should be part of cultural studies, including analyses of how texts are produced within the context of the political economy and system of production of culture ..." (Kellner, 1995, p. 37). Finally, some critics also stress that the model's approach to a television program as 'work' rather than 'text', fails to account for issues of "pleasure" and its possible effects on the process (Nightingale, 199?, p. 34) For his part, Hall has acknowledged that the hypothetical decoding positions required empirical testing and refinement (Storey, 1996, p. 14) among other things in order for practical application. Bridging the Gap Between Social-Behavioral & Critical Cultural Approach to Mass Communication Research Rather than casting off Hall's encoding/decoding model due to its problematic nature, a number of scholars have heeded Hall's advice by working to refine the original theory and use it as a basis for empirical research. In recent years, there has been an evolution wherein some critical researchers now integrate social scientific methods into their research endeavors thus somewhat easing the longstanding chasm between the socio-behavioral and critical cultural approaches to communication research. Some notable research efforts that have at least partially incorporated Hall's notions include John Fiske's examination of the different readings of the products of popular culture, Ien Ang's cross-cultural study of Dallas as well as various studies on soap operas (e.g.,


Brunsdon) and science fiction fandoms. Even given its deficiencies, Hall's theory helps bring to light several important aspects of communication that previous theories gave insufficient or even no notice. These aspects include the multiplicity of meanings of media content, the varied "interpretative communities", and the primacy of the receiver (the "audience") in determining meaning.


Works Cited and/or Consulted

Dutton, B. (1997). The Media (2nd ed). Essex, England: Longman. Hall, S. (1992). Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies. In Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., & Treichler, P. A. (Eds.). New York: Routledge. Title? Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The Cultural studies reader. London: Routledge. Hartley, J. (1999). Uses of television. London: Routledge. Kellner, D. (1995). Media culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London: Routledge. Lembo, R. (1994). Is there culture after cultural studies? In J. Cruz, & Lewis, J. Viewing, reading, listening: Audiences and cultural reception, pp. 33-54. Boulder: Westview Press. Littlejohn, S. W. (1989). Theories of human communication. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Nightingale, V. (199?). Studying audiences. London: Routledge. Sardar, Z., & Van Loon, B. (1997). Introducing cultural studies. New York: Totem Books. Tomlinson, J. (1991). Cultural imperialism: A Critical introduction. London: Pinter Publishers.

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