At the same time that audience -centered theory was attracting the attention of U.S. empirical social researchers, British cultural studies researchers were developing a different but compatible perspective on audience activity.
Birmingham University Centre for Contemporary cultural studies headed by Stuart Hall is most prominent in this regard. Hall argued that the researchers should direct their attention toward:
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Analysis of that social and political context in which content is produced (encoding) The consumption of media content

The essence of the reception approach is to locate the attribution and construction of meaning (derived from media) with the receiver. Media messages are always open and polysemic (having multiple meanings) and are interpreted according the context and culture of receivers. Stuart Hall emphasized the stages of transformation through which any media message passes on the way from its origins to its reception and interpretation. It drew from the basic princ iples of structuralism and semiology which presumed that any meaningful message is constructed from sign which can have denotative and connotative meanings, depending on the choices made by an encoder. He accepted some of the elements of semiology on these two grounds: First, communicators choose to encode messages. For ideological and institutional communicators choose to encode messages for ideological and institutional purposes and manipulate language and media for those ends (media messages are given a preferred reading, or what might now be called spin. Secondly, receivers (decoders) are not obliged to accept messages as sent but can and do resist ideological influence by applying variant or oppositional readings, according to their own experience and outlook In laying out his views about decoding, Hall proposed an approach to audience research that has come to be known as reception studies or reception analysis. A central feature of this approach is its focus on how various types of audience members ma ke sense of the specific forms of content. Hall drew on Semiotic theory to argue that any media content can be regarded as a text that is made up of signs , these signs are structured; that is , they are related to one another in specific ways to make sense of a text- to read a text- you have to be able to interpret the signs and their structure. Example when you read a sentence you must not only decode the individual words but you also need to interpret the over -all structure of the sentence to make sense of the sentence as a whole. Hall argued that most texts can be read in several ways but there is generally a preferred or dominant reading that the producers of a message intend when they create a message, as a critical theorist, Hall assumed that most pop ular media content will have a preferred reading that reinforces the status quo. But in addition to this dominant reading, it is possible for audience members to make alternate interpretations. They might disagree with or misinterpret some aspects of a me ssage and come up with an alternative or negotiated meaning that differs from the preferred reading in important ways, and«

In some cases audiences might develop interpretations that are in direct opposition to a dominant reading. In that case, they are sa id to engage in oppositional decoding. So media reception research emphasized the study of audiences as sets of people with unique, though often shared, experiences as in charge of their own lives. The main features of the culturalist tradition of audienc e research can be summarized as follows:- The media text has to be read through the perceptions of its audience, which constructs meanings and pleasures from the media texts offered. The very process of media use as a set of practices and the way in which it unfolds are the central object of interest. Audiences for particular genres often comprise ³interpretative communities´ which share much the same experience, forms of discourse and frameworks for making sense of media. Audiences are never passive, nor a re their members all equal, since some will be more experienced, or more active fans than others. Methods have to be qualitative and deep, often ethnographic, taking account of content, act of reception and context together. With thanks to

The framework of dominant, negotiated, and oppositional readings is not without problems, however. Because viewers can hold multiple positions towards a film text at once, most every reading becomes negotiated; in fact, the tripartite framework has since b een replaced by a continuum ranging from dominant to oppositional. Furthermore, British cultural studies assume that oppositional readings are automatically progressive, and that dominant readings are regressive. However, if the ideology embedded in the te xt is itself progressive to begin with, then a dominant reading may be the preferred reading. Finally, Staiger offers criticisms of two fundamental assumptions of British cultural studies: first, that all media texts reproduce the dominant ideology, and se cond, that readers fit neatly within socioeconomic categories (1992, pp. 73±74)1. Part of the reluctance on the part of film theorists to turn to reception studies is based in the historical uses of audience analysis. Beginning in the early twentieth century, research on how films were being interpreted by audiences was used to advocate censorship. Reformers worried that spectators, especially children, were negatively influenced by what they saw onscreen, and they fought to ensure that the messages in films would be "appropriate," in their view, for impressionable viewers. Later, the fi lm studios turned to audience research in the form of demographic information to learn how to market their films. But although the use of reception analysis for the purposes of censorship and marketing has contributed to film theorists' distrust of reception theory, reception theory has recently gained acceptance and is now acknowledged to be an important method of analyzing how audiences experience and interpret films.

with thanks to

Staiger, Janet. Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.


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