Tuesday 3 December 2013

Active Audiences and Reception

In Probabilistic Needle Theory and others, I wrote about a top-down perspective of how the media affects society. I discussed how “hypodermic needle” theories are criticized for envisioning audiences as passive receivers of media content. In this post, I’ll write about the role of the audience in the active interpretation of a text. A complete understanding of media’s effects on society must combine a top-down perspective with a complementary perspective of audiences as active interpreters.

In Modes of Reception: A Consolidated Analytical Framework, Carolyn Michelle attempts to salvage the struggling field of audience reception studies. There are a lot of ideas circulating about how people interpret and engage with media content. In support of these ideas, are a lot of studies documenting new divergences among audience receptions of media messages. For example, there are growing bodies of work that highlight the role that socio-economic class, gender, race and ethnicity, age, political interest, and cultural location and identity play in audience reception. But these studies fail to contextualize their findings within a broader theoretical framework. Or when they do, they invent confusing new terminology to refer to old ideas. Michelle’s aim is thus to systematize this knowledge into a consolidated model of audience reception.

In order to come up with a useful shared language that all researchers and theorists can use while talking about audience reception, we need to identify the many commonalities between the existing theories of audience response. Michelle walks us through many proposed schemas. All of them seem to offer 2-4 modes of reception.

Some examples:
  • Worth and Gross conceived of two modes of reception: inferential and attributional. Inferential readings overlook the constructed nature of the text and take it at face value. They ignore the existence of an external creator that strategically designed the text according to his or her specific goals and tastes. Attributional readings instead recognize the constructed nature of the text and are aware of intertextuality, narrative conventions, expectations, and aesthetic characteristics. This schema makes a crucial distinction between readings that are and aren’t aware of textual construction but the schema is too simplistic.
  • Stuart Hall famously distinguished between three kinds of decodings: preferred/dominant, negotiated, and oppositional. Hall’s model emphasizes the role of social positioning and cultural background in audience interpretation. Dominant/preferred readings refer to when the receiver decodes a message in the way it was encoded. Negotiated readings refer to when receivers acknowledge the dominant encoded message but simultaneously resist this message and instead take a different interpretation. Oppositional readings refer to when receivers comprehend the literal meaning, but due to their social position, take an oppositional stance to the dominant code. Michelle accuses this model of conflating form with content.
  • Hoijer charts the influence of cognitive structures on audience reception. Her first category, the universal experience, refers to experiences that are shared by all humans. Her second category, the cultural experience, refers to experiences shared by everyone within a particular culture. Lastly, the private experience refers to the idiosyncratic experiences of individuals.

The similarities of the many schemas make them amenable to consolidation. Michelle unifies them into a single schema with four modes: transparent, referential, mediated, and discursive. She does not think all audience interpretations can be described as transparent, referential, mediated, and discursive. Her purpose is instead to consolidate the many schemas of active audience reception into a single schema “in order to provide the grammar for a common, unifying language within the field as a whole.”

  • According to Michelle, a “transparent mode of reception is one where viewers assess and comment on persons and events depicted in media texts as though encountering them firsthand, rather than through the mediations of narrative construction.” So when people watch a soap opera, they judge the characters’ actions as if they are real people living real lives. If in response to the question, “Why did X shoot Y?” one claims that “X was hurt about Y kidnapping her son” as opposed to something like “the show’s writers needed a villainous this season and X’s storyline had no other place to go,” then we know that person engages with the show on a transparent level.
  • Michelle writes that in the referential mode “viewers perceive the text as standing alongside the real world, and make comparisons and analogies between that depicted reality and their own knowledge and experience of the extratextual world “out there”—experience that may be first hand, or itself mediated through encounters with other cultural texts.“ In this mode, audiences draw on personal experiences and prior knowledge to interpret texts. Maybe they’ll sympathize with a pregnant woman, because they’ve experienced or witnessed hormonal imbalances firsthand.
  • Michelle suggests that, “what distinguishes a mediated mode of reading is its explicit recognition of the constructed nature of the text as a media production—as an elaboration of established media codes and conventions.“ Mediated readings are informed by knowledge of narrative, aesthetic, and genre conventions, as well as technical and general knowledge of the process of artistic creation. People engaging with a story in this way might complain about a character’s two-dimensionality or comment on one character being a foil for another or on the script not giving an actress enough to work with or on certain artistic decisions being determined by budget.
  • While the mediated mode deals with a text’s form, the discursive mode addresses the message’s content i.e. its ideological connotations. Like Hall’s three categories, this mode deals with decoding the particular message that a text is intentionally encoded with. People in this mode of reception watch movies while consciously unpacking the morals they express.
Michelle’s work tidies up the field a lot, but it still doesn’t clarify much for me personally. Yes, the media affects people and yes, those people are active participants and yes, people are affected in multiple different ways by the same content and yes, texts themselves can be interpreted in multiple ways by different people, but none of this tells me how to act. I think the top-down perspective of media consumption is more useful for clarifying how we should act.

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