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Ien Ang (1991) in "Desperately Seeking the Audience "has argued, the practice of making the audience statistically knowable has the consequence of reifying its actual social practices.

We may know that 20 per cent of women health workers watched last night's episode of Thirtysomething, but this actually tells us very little about their viewing context, or indeed the meaning that was constructed from the programme by the women. The form of quantifiable knowledge required by commercial and state institutions is continually disrupted by the everyday practice of the audience.

For Ang, and others, the members of the audience remain slightly anarchistic.

Our health worker settling down to watch thirtysomething might also be zapping over to another channel to watch the new Prince video, or indeed she could be interrupted by a work-related telephone call.

In such a context it would be difficult to decide what actually counts as 'watching'.

It is the so-called ordinary practices and pleasures of viewing, listening and reading that constitute the second paradigm of mass communication research. This strand of audience watching has been developed by interpretative approaches to sociology and media studies.

Against the more instrumental concerns of commercial organisations these studies have sought to address the life-world contexts of media audiences. Here the concerns of audience research are focused on offered interpretations and the social relat ions of reception.

This has led to the rise of focus groups in advertising.

Contemporary interest in the interpretative activity of the audience usually contains a strong critique of the cultural pessimism of certain members of the early Frankfurt school, and an indebtedness to the so-called uses and gratifications approach....

Certain members of the Frankfurt school tended to view popular culture through a specific attachment to high forms of modernist art. This particular cultural disposition meant that they did not problematise the reading activities of a socially situated audience. It is a disposition evident in literary approaches to the media, like that of Raymond Williams, and Fredric Jameson, whose readings of culture are intended to both mirror and replace those of absent social subjects.

Uses and gratifications research, on the other hand, has sought to substitute the idea of what measurable 'effects' the media have on the audience with an analysis of the ways in which people use the media. This research, mostly pioneered by postwar social psychology, brought to the fore the notion that the audience's perceptions of messages could be radically different from the meanings intended by their producer(s).

While there remains some dispute as to the debt current audience research owes to this perspective, it is not our concern here . Instead, a word or two needs to be said, by way of an introduction, on the intellectual roots of the renewed concern with the audience.

The strands of cultural theory I want to address have all grown out of the questioning of the assumption that the meaning of an action can simply be taken for granted. That is, the subjectivity of the audience is constructed through its interaction with certain material conditions of existence and a variety of symbolic forms.

We may as well begin with  a few wise and cautionary words from

Ien Ang:

Reification from the Latin ,res, a thing; making an audience into something fixed,inorganic,lifeless.

So you don't presume overmuch that you know just how the audience(s) for your magazine will make meanings or how they will use the magazine.

This is a good time to use your imagination vividly.

The existence of two ways of conceptualizing audience gives rise to what McQuail calls  its 'duality', where it is formed ('Mass Communication Theory', p. 215) either in response to media' like your magazine NME, or where it 'corresponds to an existing social  group or category'.

i.e. teachers,teens.

In the first case, audience is a sort 'temporary collective', brought into existence by the experience of listening to a concert, viewing a television programmed, reading your magazine, and so on; in other words, audience here is constructed in terms of the event. The physical location of the audience, however, and its behavior during the event, is different.

In the first example, the concert audience is composed of individuals who, for the duration of the performance, occupy one bounded space. They also experience the music in an identical format (live rather than recorded) and encounter the same musical sequence.

The audience for a particular television programmed or magazine cannot easily be located; it is spatially displaced and may also be separated in time, if for example some members of the audience 'consume' the product at a later date, by watching it on video.

Even where the majority of viewers watch the material during its designated period, research has shown that 'watching' or reading includes a variety of other activities.

The difference in consumption, attitude and location has lead some writers to ask if audiences actually exist in the way that media institutions describe them. For example, len Ang  calls the audience 'an imaginary entity, an abstraction constructed from the vantage point of the institution  this is what the publishing companies do, with the help of research.

Where audience is constructed in response to media, it can be split again, as either (in len Ang's words) 'audience-as-market'    ( This is your audience ) or 'audience-as-public'.

She notes that (p. 170) 'audiencehood is becoming an ever more multifaceted, fragmented and diversified repertoire of practices and experiences'.

By this she means that people consume products differently.

Some read from the front to the back , others read the horoscope first... etc..

The notion of audience as a number of practices, as a variety of meaningful social behaviours, avoids trying to arrange particular audiences into an unnatural sociological 'posture'.i.e. they are all working class or New Age types rather than force audiences into a kind of frozen permanence, reflecting one 'moment' of their composition.

Ang's concept of practice ( how they consume ) acknowledges the shifting nature of their arrangement, but still allows them to exist as concrete elements of social reality.

Audiences are what they do with a product.

All this clearly constructs the audience as active rather than passive consumers

All your remarks about your audience should be written in terms of their being active, while stressing too that they are active purchasers of the product. They are loyal too for some reason. your remarks about audience responses should be careful not to be too sure about about effects. You don’t want to sound like your dad or some sad hard line Marxist ideologue.

Frazer (1987, “Teenage Girls Reading”JACKIE”.) suggests another way of understanding how readers relate to popular cultural texts. Even if it were possible to determine the ideological meanings residing in these texts,

Frazer's research questions the extent to which readers are influenced by these meanings, and certainly casts doubt on the more deterministic uses of the concept of ideology. Instead,

Frazer wishes to use the concept of a discourse register in order to make sense of the relationship between readers and texts, or between audiences and popular culture.

A discourse register is an institutionalized, situationally specific, culturally familiar, public, way of talking'.

Frazer continues: my data suggest that the notion of a discourse register is invaluable in analysing talk - the talk of all the girls' groups I worked with is marked by frequent and sometimes quite dramatic shifts in register' (ibid. p. 420).

These registers both allow people to talk in specific situations and also limit what they can say. They have legitimate and illegitimate areas or contexts of use. They are also wide-ranging and diverse, and their use in social science does not aspire to discovering the unitary coherence of ideology.

She writes: it is very clear from the transcripts of the groups' discussions that all the girls have a multiplicity of discourse registers available to use' (Ibid. p.422), ranging from the problem page of teenage magazines, the tabloid press and the small group discussion to feminism.

Discourse registers, unlike ideology, can be researched directly to ascertain the power of concrete conventions and registers of discourse to constrain and determine what is said and how it is said', including the assessment of the influence of popular culture' (ibid. p. 424).

The Royle Family

are an interesting

bunch with regard

to their habits

in front of "the

Box" and next

series,if there ever is one, Father

Royle will have

300 Sky channels! And now we have Gogglebox!

My first real find was when I realized that the most important aspect of women's magazines for readers was not that they are so full of practical information, even if that is a common justification for spending money and time on them, but that they blend in easily with other obligations, other duties and activities.

Women's magazines as a text are not highly significant, but as an everyday medium they are a means of filling a small break and of relaxing that does not interrupt one's schedule, because they are easy to put down.

The use to which they can be put largely converges with the meaning women's magazines have for readers. A second, less manifest aspect of reading them is that women's magazines offer material that may help you imagine a sense of control over your life by feeling prepared for tragedy, or a more perfect version of yourself by supposing that you would be able to answer any question regarding the difficult choices in life someone else might ask.

These fantasy-investments are not of astonishing proportions, but for many readers they are enough to sustain an interest in women's magazines, and a sense, of loyalty and appreciation. As was argued in chapter 2, the practical tips, the recipes and the advice on the one hand and the features about relationships and stories of having a child with cancer and the like on the other may temporarily empower a reader.

Even if you do not do anything at all with the recipes or the practical advice, you can imagine baking a perfect pie, or managing your boss so that she or he will feel you cannot be missed.

The stories that deal with the wide area of human emotion, from a discussion of secret love affairs to a sad tale of accepting the death of a child, can help you feel prepared in case such a thing happened to you, or more knowledgeable about human nature in general, which may give a satisfactory sense of being a wise person or bolster your professional confidence.

The commercial research that categorizes readers works from the assumption that women's magazines provide additional information concomitant with a person's lifestyle.

But Lifestyles are never uncomplicated, one-dimensional or unchanging. Lifestyles change.

Jokes Hermes on the Uses and Gratifications

of Women's Magazines.

Reception studies - women's mags

Joke Hermes: Reading Women's Magazines

Joke Hermes undertakes an ethnographic study directed to uncovering the pleasures which women derive from reading women's magazines (1995).

An important point which she stresses from the beginning is that there has been a steady stream of research about women's magazines, but little of it has ever taken the readers' concerns into account, a criticism which echoes Anderson and Sharrock's attack on media studies as long ago as 1979 (see the section on criticism of the Marxist approach to the media) that researchers failed to pay attention to the various ways in which readers construe media texts. Thus, Hermes argues, we probably know more about the researchers than we do about audiences.

Presenting a view similar to Anderson's and Sharrock's Hermes asserts that far too often criticism of the text has been extended to its readers; it has led to horrifying stereotypical views of women's magazine's heterogeneous audiences and portrayed them en masse as silly housewives.

I hold the view that it simply is not possible to read characteristics of an audience from the surface of a text: there is no single text that has the required monopoly position to exert such influence.

(1995 : 147)


My perspective is that texts acquire meaning only in the interaction between readers and texts and that analysis of the text on its own is never enough to reconstruct these meanings.

(1995 p.10)

The fallacy of meaningfulness

It seems apparent that Hermes, as a result of her lengthy interviews with male and female readers of women's magazines, was surprised that her interviewees had so much less to say than Janice Radway's pulp romance fans in Reading the Romance or Angela McRobbie's teenage readers of Jackie. However, as Hermes observes, those two pioneering studies were of groups of fans, knowledgeable readers:

The certainly unintended consequences of these condensations - isolating specific texts from everyday media use and taking the knowledgeable reader for an average reader - is that popular culture is given the status of high culture. It is made into a discrete text that offers a unique and possibly liberating perspective on the world. ...... general, everyday media use is identified with attentive and meaningful reading of specific texts, and that is precisely what it is not.

(1995 : 14-15)

In Hermes's view, far too much emphasis has been placed, in cultural studies, firstly, on the texts themselves, which are 'lifted from the stream of daily life and media use and given special status' (148) and, secondly, on knowledgeable readers and fans who are falsely presented as average readers.

Thus Hermes stresses what she refers to as the fallacy of meaningfulness, namely the assumption that texts must mean something to their readers.

What became very evident to Hermes (in contrast to her other reception studies of popular genres) was that the magazine readers she interviewed actually had very little to say about the magazines, indeed often had great difficulty recalling what they had read.

One of the salient characteristics of the magazines seemed to be that they were easily put-downable. She reminds us that media use is not always meaningful, referring us to Morley's Family Television, from which it is apparent that television watching serves to underpin patriarchal power, but is not always meaningful as text.

... the fallacy of meaningfulness, by which I mean the unwarranted assumption that all use of popular media is significant. Although readers may recognize the codes of a given text and accord it limited associative meaning, they do not always accord it generalized significance, that is, a distinct and nameable place in their world views and fantasies.

(1995 p.16)

Hermes is here engaged in a process which she refers to as the 'dethroning of the text'.

This dethroning I see, as I have suggested in comments on other studies in the 'New Audience Research' vein, as a welcome corrective to the exclusive focus on textual semiotics which has characterized much cultural studies research. Hermes, however, goes some way beyond such researchers as, say, Fiske and de Certeau who emphasize the 'resistive pleasures' which readers may derive from oppositional readings of texts and the 'semiotic guerrilla warfare' which they wage upon the official culture. I have just mentioned how Morley considers that much of the use of television is to support patriarchy rather than to interpret or use its texts as text.

Whilst Morley's studies may in some sense represent a 'dethroning of the text', Morley does not go so far as to suggest that TV viewing is meaningless - far from it, in fact. Hermes, however, suggests that TV programmes and magazine articles may be less important for their texts than for their use in providing 'something to do'. In a sense, it may even be that Hermes's brand of ethnography hardly qualifies as reception analysis at all, since she is far less concerned with the structures or content of texts than with readers' own reports of their everyday lives. To an extent it could be argued that Hermes' 'fallacy of meaningfulness' is nothing new, since Belson (1961) had discovered long ago that reading the newspaper often seemed to serve no other function than filling time and around the same time Kimball (1959) had pointed out that during a newspaper strike people experienced the lack of a newspaper as a 'time vacuum'.

When I went to the cinema every Saturday morning as a kid, I didn't go to watch a particular film, but to engage in a social activity known as 'going to the pictures'. Nowadays we engage in 'watching television', rather than necessarily any particular programme which is important as text.

From the point of view of a 'critical' (i.e., broadly, a Marxist') perspective on media use, such a position as Hermes espouses must seem even more offensive than that of the more conventional workers in reception analysis.

From that perspective media products are the vehicles of ideology and it is the 'politics of signification' which is central to the struggle for hegemony between competing ideologies. The question of how media artefacts or consumer commodities come to signify and the study of the signifying systems within which they operate are of course central to semiotics.

The allegedly uncritical celebration of 'audience resistance' found in much New Audience Research, a celebration allegedely divorced from consideration of the broader social and economic context within which audiences receive media texts has already provoked a number of broadsides from those working within the 'critical' tradition. Indeed, Morley himself, who is often seen as one of the founders of the 'new' approach comments that

The power of viewers to reinterpret meanings is hardly equivalent to the discursive power of centralized media institutions to construct the texts which the viewer then interprets; to imagine otherwise is simply foolish.

Morley (1992)

Hermes's claim, then, that media texts are, simply, meaningless presents an even more serious challenge to the 'critical' view than the 'Fiskean' celebration of resistance.

Is her position tenable? What do you think? While writing this, I have been listening to a Bix Beiderbecke CD. In fact, though, I haven't been listening to it at all. Did I even notice Bix's fine solo on Royal Garden Blues? Or Adrian Rollini's bass saxophone - bass sax, for God's sake! If I did, I can't remember them. What I have just noticed, though, is that the CD has stopped. So - was the experience of (not) listening 'meaningless'? And could a similar 'meaninglessness' be claimed for experience of television, radio etc? Television, radio and the hi-fi would then be just sound-and-vision-emitting furniture.

Even if the professional semiotician could accept that the experience of (not) listening, (not) watching is meaningless in the sense of (not) having absorbed a message, I doubt that (s)he would be prepared to consider that there is not at least meaning in the choice of the 'furniture'. Bear in mind, though, that (s)he has a vested interest in spotting meanings everywhere.

I must admit that, at first, coming to Hermes's research after years of exposure to theories of media use and influence which assume the importance of such notions as representation and reception, cultural subordination, the politics of signification etc., I thought Hermes's emphasis on the meaninglessness of exposure to the media was just plain daft. On reflection, however, I have come to consider it at least as intriguing.

Once I try to see beyond the habits of a person with a professional interest in analysis of media texts and recognize that even for me much everyday experience of the media is of an undifferentiated 'flow' of vague impressions of sound and vision, then it seems to me that Hermes's thesis is not quite as daft as it first seemed.

Many of my students tell me that they write their homework essays in their bedroom with both the hi-fi and the TV switched on. Some are apparently armed with a remote control for each and turn the volume of each up or down depending on whether the TV's images catch their attention, others have the volume up on each, others have the TV volume permanently down.

This is surely an example of experience of media as 'flow' and certainly an example which lends support to Hermes's view that it is only researchers who lift media texts out of that flow and lend them special significance, whereas in her view we need to examine the mundane practices of everyday life and examine how the media form part of those everyday practices. This view presents a challenge to the self-proclaimed 'critical' theorists, who must, if they do not simply dismiss Hermes, be obliged to consider the position they speak from about the effect of media on ordinary people.

'Everyday life'

Hermes position is not without its problems, though. These arise in part from her use of the concept of 'everyday life' and the 'flow' of media communication. Admittedly she rarely uses the term 'flow' herself, but there is an implication in her references to, for example, 'the stream of daily life and media use' (1995 : 148) that the flow metaphor underlies her thinking. Neither of these terms, though well established in media theory, especially in the 'new audience research', has yet been satisfactorily theorized or defined, though media researchers are certainly making progress. Fairly obviously, I think, 'everyday life' can't be constituted by a bundle of certain kinds of activity - a colleague of mine goes to the gym every day, it must be thirty-five years since I set foot in a gym (and I hope it will be another thirty-five!); some people go to work every day, others have no employment; some people work every day at producing television programmes, others watch them. If we try to define 'everyday life' in terms of the activities undertaken, we are unlikely to make much progress towards a definition.

Hermes goes some way towards a definition by stressing the routinized nature of the affairs and actions which constitute the everyday. Rather than the actions themselves, it seems to be the actors' attitudes towards them, which constitutes their everyday nature, namely that those actions and routines are seen as self-evident.

Everyday life, then, from this perspective, consists of the routines which we perform almost as automata, without thinking about them or reflecting on them.

For further comment on this, see the section on 'everyday life'.


The notion of media 'flow' is derived, as far as I know, from Raymond Williams's Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1990), which he formulated in part as a result of his culture shock arising from viewing American television which was quite different from British television at that time, when programmes were clearly differentiated from one another. Williams describes the pre-television forms of communication systems as systems in which 'the essential items were discrete' (87), a book or pamphlet being read as a specific item, a play being seen in a particular theatre at a particular time. In contrast, where television is concerned,

What is being offered is not, in older terms, a programme of discrete units with particular insertions, but a planned flow, in which the true series is not the published sequence of programme items but this sequence transformed by the inclusion of another kind of sequence, so that these sequences together compose the real flow, the real 'broadcasting'.

(1990 : 90)

Williams considers that this 'flow', which the TV schedules are designed to create, is reflected in our experience of television, which we commonly report as 'watching television' rather than saying that we have 'watched the news', 'watched a play' or whatever, as well as in our experience that television is difficult to switch off, that it is difficult to escape from the 'flow':

We can be 'into' something else before we have summoned the energy to get out of the chair, and many programmes are made with this situation in mind: the grabbing of attention in the early moments; the reiterated promise of exciting thing to come, if we stay.

(1990 : 94)

The metaphor of 'flow' seems often almost to be taken for granted when combined with discussions of the routines of 'everyday life'. Whether it is a particularly fruitful metaphor is a matter for debate.

Where Hermes's research is concerned, although I appreciate the value of her desire to avoid textual semiotics on the one hand and exclusive focus on knowledgeable readers on the other, I tend to agree with Seija Ridell's criticism that, for the sake of respecting her respondents' views, Hermes takes her respondents' descriptions at face value:

Thus it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to study for instance how various 'imagined communities' - like that of 'the nation' - become produced and maintained partly through the very routines of media use.

Ridell (1996)

Using Hermes's approach of 'listening through' her interviewees' reports, rather than actively engaging with them, it is almost impossible to deal with the question of the media's power in people's lives.

Reception studies - Morley

Morley's research is often hailed as something of a breakthrough. In turning his attention resolutely to the audience, it is, though he probably overstates his case in his claim that the effects tradition was dominated by a hypodermic needle model of influence until

the uses and gratifications approach developed.

Curran (1990) has pointed to many instances of early studies which focused on audience reception. The fact remains, though, that, although it may be possible to find many such studies, they were not in the mainstream of the effects tradition.

Morley's detailed observations of audience reception were among the first to attempt to address the over-emphasis on semiotic analysis of media texts, which may be seen as a deficiency in the CCCS approach.

The Nationwide audience

Morley's audience study of the Nationwide audience is a major text in media research (Nationwide was an evening current affairs TV programme). Morley's investigation of two broadcasts focused on the way that meanings are constructed through the interaction of the media text and the social and discourse positions of audience members.

Combining semiological and sociological study

His two main intentions were

semiological study, involving the notion of the preferred readings of media texts, the way that the polysemy of the text has its range of potential meanings narrowed down ('closure')

sociological study of the ways that age, sex, race, class and gender may determine a person's access to possible readings of the texts

Relationship between readings and sociological variables

He demonstrated that different groups generated quite different meanings for the Nationwide broadcasts and showed that the meanings generated were closely related to the subcultural groups within the same social class. (Morley (1980))

Morley found, for example that bank managers rarely commented on the actual content of the programme. It seemed to be that they shared the 'comonsense' framework of assumptions within which Nationwide operated.

For other groups, aspects of the programme's content were much more salient.

A group of management trainees saw the programme's items on trade unions as being biased towards the unions, whereas a group saw the same items as rabidly anti-union.

A group of university arts students were especially conscious of the methods deployed by the programme makers in constructing the discourse of Nationwide.

A group of apprentices tended to show cynicism and alienation, rejecting the whole of the system of party politics, but nevertheless were most in line with the assumptions made by the programme makers.

Dominant, negotiated and oppositional readings

These observations are in line with Stuart Hall's notions of dominant (or preferred), negotiated and oppositional readings of media texts. Morley builds on Parkin's suggestion (1971) that in any society there are three dominant 'meaning systems':

The dominant value system, the social source of which is the major institutional order; this is a moral framework which promotes the endorsement of existing inequality, in deferential terms;

The subordinate value-system, the social source or generating milieu of which is the local working-class community; this framework promotes accommodative responses to the facts of inequality and low status;

The radical value-system, the source of which is the mass political party based on the working class; this framework promotes an oppositional interpretation of class inequalities.

Morley (1992)

Semiotic guerrilla tactics - Michel de Certeau

... once the images distributed by the telly and the time spent in front of the TV have been analysed, we are still left with the question of what the consumer constructs (fabrique) with these images and during these hours.

The 5,000 purchasers of Information-Santé [a French magazine], the supermarket users, .... the consumers of journalistic stories and legends, what do they construct out of what they 'absorb', receive and pay for? What do they do with it? .... The enigma of the consumer-sphinx.

de Certeau (1990) p.52

That passage pretty much sums up the focus of de Certeau's concerns. De Certeau points to the fundamental error of assuming that the public is shaped by the products imposed on it. It would be more appropriate to focus on the uses which people make of the commodities they are offered.

Tactics of resistance

De Certeau sees ordinary people as developing 'tactics' (an 'art of the weak') that he contrasts with the 'strategies' of the dominant élite, tactics for carrying out 'raids' on the dominant culture. 'Strategies' are used by total institutions such as the army, cities, supermarket chains to create and delimit their own place.

Tactics are the response of the powerless. De Certeau sees ordinary people as 'poachers', pinching the meanings they need from the cultural commodities which are offered to them.

Whether it's today's Sun or a major novel, the text only acquires signification in its readers.

Hence the consumer of media texts cannot be identified according to the journalistic or commercial products she assimilates - it all depends on the use made of those products.

This view of the way readers construct their own meanings is reminiscent of Stuart Hall's idea of preferred, negotiated and oppositional readings, often referred to for short as Hall's encoding/decoding model). Nevertheless, there tends, in the 'radical' (or Marxist) approach, to be an emphasis on the analysis of media texts, rather than the analysis of the way readers receive those texts.

As Anderson and Sharrock (1979) put it, there is a tendency in the 'radical' approach to see readers as 'witless and uncritical'. De Certeau, in contrast, emphasises that 'it's always a good thing to remember that one shouldn't think of people as idiots' (de Certeau (1990) p. 255).

Semiotic subversion - John Fiske

In the English-speaking world, perhaps the most enthusiastic proponent of de Certeau's essentially optimistic view of oppositional readings has been John Fiske.

Fiske's assessment of the 'radical' approach

like de Certeau, Fiske recognises that the dominant classes' strategy is to impose their preferred reading. He recognises our debt to the critiques produced by the radical tradition:

On the one hand we need to focus on the deep structure of the [popular] text in the ways that ideological, psychoanalytic analyses and structural or semiotic analyses have proved so effective and incisive in recent scholarship.

These approaches reveal just how insistently and insidiously the ideological forces of domination are at work in all the products of patriarchal consumer capitalism.

When allied with the work of the political economists, and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School they expose, with terrifying clarity, the way in which the economic and ideological requirements of the system determine, and are promoted by, almost every aspect of everyday life.

Fiske (1989) p.105

However, the work of these critical theorists is, ultimately, a dead end:

... to confine ourselves to this focus alone is not only to cut ourselves off from an equally important area of culture in capitalist societies, but also to confine ourselves to a position that is ultimately debilitating in its pessimism. It may justify our righteous distaste for the system, but it offers little hope of progress within it, and only a utopian notion of radical revolution as a means of changing it.

Fiske (1989) p.105

People's generation of their own meanings

Fiske firmly rejects the following assumptions:

that capitalist industries produce a variety of products whose variety is finally illusory because they all promote the same capitalist ideology

that any text conveys the same message to all people

that people are 'cultural dopes', a passive, helpless mass at the mercy of the capitalist 'culture industry'

that the only thing different people and different social groups have in common is baseness, so that art which appeals to a wide audience can only do so by appealing to base instincts.


In Fiske's view, the fact that there is such a wide variety of capitalist voices is in itself evidence of the successful resistance of the subordinate classes against the homogenising force of capitalist ideology.

What has been neglected are precisely those guerrilla raids which the ordinary reading public carry out on the texts produced by the dominant culture:

The complementary focus is upon how people cope with the system, how they read its texts, how they make popular culture out of its resources. It requires us to analyse texts in order to expose their contradictions, their meanings that escape control, their producerly invitations; to ask what it is within them that has attracted popular approval.

Fiske (1989) p.105

A text is the site of struggles for meaning that reproduce the conflicts of interest between the producers and consumers of the cultural commodity.

A program is produced by the industry, a text by its readers.

Fiske (1987) p.14

An example of the wide variety of resistive readings which is often quoted by media commentators is audience reception of Dallas, in part because it had huge ratings in the USA and must have reached a socially diverse audience and because it was widely exported and therefore offered researchers an opportunity to study its reception in widely differing cultures. In support of his approach, Fiske quotes that research:

Ien Ang (1985) for example, found a Dutch Marxist and a feminist who were able to find pleasures in the program by finding in its excess of sexism and capitalism critiques of those systems that it was apparently celebrating.

Similarly, Katz and Liebes (1984 et seq) found that members of a Jewish kibbutz were clear that the money of the Ewings did not bring them happiness, whereas members of a rural North African co-operative were equally clear that their wealth gave them an easy life.

Russian Jews, newly arrived in Israel, read the program as an intentional self-criticism of the American way of life - a sort of capitalist confessional.

Indeed, typically, each of Katz and Liebes' fifty different ethnic viewing groups was able to separate their pleasures in, and meanings of, Dallas from the American capitalist ideology that apparently informs the program so centrally.

Buying the programme does not mean buying into the ideology.


In Fiske's view, some commentators have mistakenly assumed that the top-downness of the financial economy means that the cultural economy has a similarly top-down operation. For such commentators Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital has unfortunately been misleading because it implies that the financial and cultural economies operate in the same way. Fiske is keen to emphasize that the cultural economy and the financial economy do not work in the same way.

Bourdieu's institutionally validated cultural capital of the bourgeoisie is constantly being opposed, interrogated, marginalised and ignored in a way that economic capital never is.

This popular cultural capital can maintain its relative autonomy because the financial economy can exercise control over only a fraction of it. However hard the forces of capital attempt to control cultural production and distribution, there will always be a zero-capital production and circulation system that remains finally and defiantly outside their control, if not beyond their influence: I refer, of course, to that one called 'word of mouth'.


In a culture which is predominantly literate and where vast amounts of communication reach us through the mass media, oral communication is virtually of necessity oppositional, 'one of the prime media through which these subordinated groups have resisted incorporation, have maintained their social difference.' (1987b).

Talk works to adjust the dominant readings incorporated in media texts to suit the needs of the communities in which it is practised.

Certainly, Fiske's view seems to be supported by the results of a range of recent studies. In their study of ethnic Israeli audiences of Dallas Katz and Liebes demonstrated how discussion of the programme served to reinterpret it in terms of the community's needs in their own lives.

Mary Ellen Brown has shown how the conversation networks surrounding TV soaps serve the same function for the women who watch them (see the section on Soap Opera and Women's Talk).

Rosella Tursi's brief study of the reception of Beverley Hills 90210 (available at the excellent Media Tribe website) has demonstrated how various categories of audience members watch the show together, discussing it and generating for it meanings which suit their purposes.

Tursi examines an audience not intended by the producers, namely 'intellectuals' in their early twenties rather than the young teens the show is made for. The results of Tursi's research suggest for example that gay men watch the show for the pleasure they take in what they see as the show's exaggerated gender stereotypes.

Two drag queens interviewed by Tursi actually dress like the characters Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Brenda (Shannon Doherty) in the show, commenting, 'We do really know them! We are them!' (Tursi (1996)).

Drag queens identify with the characters in Beverley Hills 90210, Grease is a lesbian cult movie. Is there any limit to the interpretations media users can make? When I think of a student of mine who, after watching the shower scene from Psycho, commented on Hitchcock's use of colour, I sometimes whether it isn't possible that every one of us can read any media text radically differently from everyone else.

However, most of the work being done in this area is beginning to show patterns of interpretation as different audiences draw on different interpretive repertoires.


The generation of meanings by readers of popular texts in their guerrilla tactics of resistance to the dominant order is essentially progressive, in Fiske's view. Hitherto, there have been, very broadly speaking, two ways of looking at popular culture.

From the point of view of the liberal pluralists the popular is seen as the result of a voluntary consensus; from the point of view of the 'radicals', it is seen as the dominant classes imposing their priorities on the masses.

Either way, popular culture is seen as operating to maintain the status quo. Fiske, on the other hand, sees the generation of oppositional meanings as emancipatory. Perhaps, initially, only at the micropolitical level - for example, he quotes the example of a woman whose reading of romantic novels empowers her to resist the patriarchal demands made upon her by her marriage (in this connexion see the section on Janice Radway:Reading the Romance).

He is prepared to argue, however, that these minor resistances in the minutiae of the everyday may

act as a constant erosive force upon the macro, weakening the system from within, so that it is more amenable to change at the structural level.

One wonders, for instance, how effective the attempts to improve the status of women would have been if it had not been for the constant erosion of millions of women working to improve the micro-political conditions of their everyday lives.

It is arguable that the needs of the people are better met by progressive social change originating in evasive or interior resistance, moving to action at the micropolitical level and from there to more organized assaults on the system itself, than by radical or revolutionary change.

Fiske (1994) p. 12

What is intriguing about Fiske's studies and the many studies which his work has inspired is that the increasing insistence in such studies on the positive force for progressive change found in audience resistance has been paralleled in the 'financial economy' by increasing inegalitarianism, increasingly oppressive labour legislation, increasingly retrogressive social welfare legislation and the triumph of global capitalism.

During precisely the period when one might have expected cultural studies to have been paying increased attention to the financial economy and the way that it structures the cultural economy, defining the agenda within which supposed resistance can take place, it has in fact often focused exclusively on the pleasures of consumption. In some cases, it has almost felt as if some of the studies were intended as the academic left's consolation prize snatched from the ruins of the initially left-inspired project of cultural studies: the punters might have voted for Thatcher, Reagan, Chirac and Kohl, but look, they're all right really - they're resisting.

So, why didn't they resist more effectively by voting someone else into power? Jim McGuigan rightly suggests that it's sometimes hard to differentiate between the position adopted by Fiske and that of the various right-wing economic think-tanks in 'this theoretical convergence of an exclusively consumptionist cultural populism with right-wing political economy'

(McGuigan 1997 : 142)

I would like to begin by saying I am vastly indebted in much of what follows  to Mick Underwood's brilliantly lucid website which has given me a new take on audiences http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/index.html

Paddy's Tuppence worth.

Writing of the poet John Donne T.S.Eliot remarked that " a thought to Donne was an experience it modified his sensibility"

This quotation formed the basis of an essay set by Mr Poyton my Lower Sixth English teacher in 1961.

I was of the opinion then that it was not John Donne alone  whose sensibilities are modified by thoughts. The thought that Santa does not exist or the thought that there is no God not only modify but shock. Othello's jealous thought is unstoppable in its tragic force.

We cannot but "entertain" thought so no one encounters media mentally unscathed so a nil effect is an obvious impossibility.

Berlo's good sense (box opposite) is unassailable because

what he says is evidenced as the general human experience and makes  grand theory and sweeping, un evidenced pronouncements of “false consciousness”  difficult to sustain.

Audience Responses

Candidates will need to consider the ways in which different audiences can

respond to the same text in different ways. This will involve studying:

• the ways in which audiences can be categorised (e.g., gender, age,

ethnicity, social & cultural background, advertisers' classifications)

• how media producers and texts construct audiences and users

• how audiences and users are positioned (including preferred,

negotiated and oppositional responses to that positioning).

Any media can be explored but the media texts used in the examination will

be selected from the following:

• advertisements

• DVD covers

• CD covers

• newspaper front pages

• magazines (including comics)

• radio sequences

• film extracts

• television sequences

• music videos

• websites (if selected for examination, websites will be reproduced in

print-based format)

• computer game extracts.


What follows below is the WJEC specifications as to what they would like us to do in the way of exploring notions of audience. Responses ,in the plural, is probably key to our approach.

Uses and gratifications:

a theory of textual consumption which emphasises audience use of what they see, hear and read.

Media texts are thought to provide:


reinforcement of identity and values,

integration into the social environment,

and entertainment.

You can,of course make this list longer, as many cultural commentators already have

In 1970,James Halloran noted that that we must get away

from the habit of thinking in terms of what the media do to people and substitute for it the idea of what people do with the media

Uses and gratifications theory emphasises the

freedom of choice exercised by viewers, despite some evidence (Goodhart, 1975 and Barwise, 1982) to suggest that a great deal of media consumption is unselective and based on force of habit.

As an idea, uses and gratifications has occasionally been used to oppose those studies which stress the power of the media to shape public perceptions.

Shaun Moore's (interpreting Audiences', 1993) argues that it is rather a psychological conception of human personality which focuses narrowly on the media's functions for the individual'. He also thinks there is a tendency in uses and gratifications research to overplay audience freedom and ignore issues of ideology completely.


we must get away

from the habit of thinking in terms of what the media do to people and substitute for it the idea of what people do with the media

LINK TO U tube

A homogeneous, externally produced culture cannot be sold ready-made to the masses: culture simply does not work like that. Nor do the people behave or live like the masses, an aggregation of alienated, one-dimensional persons whose only consciousness is false, whose only relationship to the system that enslaves them is one of unwitting (if not willing) dupes. Popular culture is made by them not produced by the culture industry. All the culture industries can do is produce a repertoire of texts or cultural resources for the various formations of the people to use or reject in process of producing their popular culture.

Fiske (1989)

The Frankfurt School

In media theory it is important for offering the first Marxist attempt to theorize about the media

However, it provided no real way forward for the study of the mass media (Curran et al.1982: 23). The most notable theorists connected with the Frankfurt School were

Theodor Adorno,

Herbert Marcuse and

Max Horkheimer - all committed Marxists - who were associated with the Institute for Social Research, which was founded in Frankfurt in 1923 but shifted in 1933 to New York.

The Frankfurt School was influenced by predominantly conservative notions of 'mass society', though it gave this perspective a leftist slant (Bennett 1982: 42). The so-called 'father of the New Left', Herbert Marcuse, in One-Dimensional Man (1972), presented the media very pessimistically as an irresistible force:

     The means of... communication..., the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers... to the producers and, through the latter to the whole [social system]. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood... Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behaviour. (Marcuse, cited in Bennett 1982: 43).

For Marcuse, the mass media defined the terms in which we may think about the world (Bennett 1982: 44).

The Frankfurt School in general was profoundly pessimistic about the mass media. As Janet Woollacott puts it, their work 'gives to the mass media and the culture industry a role of ideological dominance which destroys both bourgeois individualism and the revolutionary potential of the working class' (Woollacott 1982: 105).

Are You talking to me?

Meanings are in people

Communication does not consist of the transmission of meanings, but of the transmission of messages

Meanings are not in the message, they are in the message users

Words do not mean at all; only people mean

No two people can have exactly the same meaning for anything

David Berlo (1960)

David Berlo and his model Mmmm...