The triumphant return of… media studies

Okay, here’s an excerpt from a chapter I’m writing on the importance of how one chooses to conceptualize the “player”. I start (more or less) by pointing to the implications of various user/audience views in other fields. Here’s my draft take on the issue in media studies. Comments shall be welcome, here or by email.

Media studies: In search of the audience
“We need to look not at what media do to people, but what people do with media” wrote Blumler and Katz in 1974 [err, they didn’t really, but I’m still searching for the exact quote]. This was a radical suggestion. Large parts of media studies had previously held it to be evident that the media products, or texts, contained the power to persuade the recipient or indeed significantly alter his or her behaviour. Largely this influence was seen as a function of the media content, for instance in terms of a manifest and explicit message (i.e. “Join the US army!”), more indirect manipulation (i.e. “US army life is attractive”), desensitisation or habituation (i.e. screen violence leading to violent behaviour), or subtle and sometimes wilful misrepresentation of the state of the world (i.e. women often portrayed as housewives, society portrayed as plagued by crime). Another, less generally influential, school of thought held media influence to be a question not of content but of far more opaque features of media form and the general media ecology. Proponents of this latter perspective are commonly subsumed under the heading “medium theory”. Vocal spokesman of medium theory, Marshall McLuhan even went as far as to describe media content as “like the juicy bit of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watch dog of the mind” (McLuhan, 1964) famously stressing that “The medium is the message” . The latter should be taken to mean that the medium itself, that is its characteristics and mode of production, is what matters in terms of the medium’s effects on the individual and on society.

But whether content or medium form was taken to be the influencing variable both general views implied that the audience were somehow being influenced by media, that the audience was a passive part of the communication process. Blumler and Katz, as part of what is generally known as the uses-and-gratification paradigm, represent an explicit opposition to the passive audience assumption. Here, media use is seen as purposeful. Individual audience members are seen as making choices about which media (or which genre etc.) best fits their needs and preferences. In this tradition, media users are often queried about the motivations for their media choice, a methodology which follows from the very assumption that media users are highly reflexive, conscious and rational in their media use. Reasonable objections to this research program are legion but here it will suffice to note that its transfer of power from the text to the media user shapes both methodology and the topics of investigation.

Another development further accentuated the importance of how the audience was conceptualized. The early 1980s saw the rise of a number of related approaches such as media ethnography, reception analysis and cultural studies drawing theoretical inspiration from semiotics, reader-response theory, poststructuralism and neo-Marxism. Though major differences exist, these approaches all stressed that the very act of media use was an act of non-trivial interpretive effort and that essentially the meaning-making process occurred at the user’s end of the communicative equation. The power of the text (or its producer) to imprint a certain meaning or behaviour in the user was seen as doubtful or at the very least only one side in the negotiation or struggle over meaning.

Multiple theoretical developments inspired this view, but a seminal formulation was that of sociologist Stuart Hall. In a 1980 essay (based on earlier work) Hall described communication as a process of encoding (the work of the sender) and decoding (the work of the recipient), stressing that a text is a carrier of a message which is conveyed through an arbitrary code . Different theorists saw the power to determine meaning as located in different positions on the spectrum between encoding and decoding. Hall himself merely stressed that encoding does not control decoding in any deterministic sense.

A moderate, and seminal, early empirical example of the approach was sociologist David Morley’s study of how the British current affairs program Nationwide was interpreted by its audience (Morley, 1980). Morley sought to understand “the degree of complementarity between the codes of the programme and the interpretive codes of various sociocultural groups… [and] the extent to which decodings take place within the limits of the preferred (or dominant) manner in which the message has been initially encoded.” (Morley, 1983: 106).
Others have been more inclined to emphasize the strong potential of the viewer to actually interpret media products in highly personal ways only indirectly related to the intentions of the sender.

Summing up on the history of audience research, Morley himself claims that:

The history of studies of the media audience can be seen as a series of oscillations between perspectives which have stressed the power of the text (or message) over its audiences and perspectives which have stresses the barriers “protecting” the audience from the potential effects of the message. (Morley, 1997)

A slightly different formulation of the development comes from Klaus Bruhn Jensen and Klaus Erik Rosengren, who find that audience research may be broadly characterized as either based in the humanities or the social sciences and that certain sub-developments (such as the general notion of the individual) cannot be said to oscillate (Jensen & Rosengren, 1990). They note that “…the notion of the individual presumably affected by the mass media has varied, from that of a passive recipient of powerful messages to that of a much more active and selective user of media content.” (209).

It is certainly true, as Morley claims, that paradigms represent different perspectives on the relative power of text, and recipient (and sender). But one might equally well stress that they differ as to their, explicit or implied, theory of the media user. For instance, to comment on the relationship between text and user interpretation or behaviour without empirically studying the latter is a strong assertion about the nature of the audience: In such a model the media user is a passive, almost mechanistic, entity reacting in an automatic fashion to media stimuli. Arguably, this was the view of early media research, later derogatorily labelled as the “hypodermic needle” or “magic bullet” approach to media effects. In the view of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for instance, the mass media (as part of larger societal developments) worked directly on the consciousness of the audience which would soon come to reflect the mode of address brought about by the structure of the media business (the audience as mere statistics) (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1944/1972). Later work, such as that of Katz and Lazarsfeld (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955) which specifically spoke of “the part played by people”, still had at its core the idea of persuasion through media but differed in its idea of the audience. Here, people were not seen as atomized couch potatoes but rather as members of social networks which ultimately mediated mass media messages. People did not simply change their minds based on media content but relied partly on certain opinion leaders within their community as they formed their own opinions. This implied, of course, that opinion forming could not be studied in a social vacuum and that the natural level of analysis was the individual and its social network (rather than media institutions or the texts themselves). In the uses-and-gratifications paradigm, the user, as mentioned above, was seen as a highly rational individual choosing media and specific programs to suit her personal needs and capable of verbalizing the nature of the relationship between her needs and her media use. And in the various later semiotics-inspired perspectives the user was seen as performing demanding interpretations, often in the face of ambiguous or “poly-semic“ messages and sometimes in the face of threatening or problematic intended readings.

In this way, the differences between these paradigms may be seen as resulting from different conceptualizations of the user. Such a view, of course, implies a certain critique of the perspectives mentioned and their various proponents would perhaps object to this characterization arguing that they do not begin with a certain vision of the user, but rather end up with one based on their studies. Undoubtedly, that is a laudable scientific ideal and one which is not entirely incompatible with the account given above . But for a variety of discussions concerning media audiences it is difficult not to acknowledge that disagreements do not revolve around the quality of evidence or the validity of particular studies as much as they are functions of incompatible assumptions and theoretical perspectives operating at a much more fundamental level. For instance, the argument has been made that the academic debate concerning the relationship between video game violence and player aggression must mainly be understood as a fundamental disagreement about what part of the media-user equation affects the other (Egenfeldt-Nielsen & Smith, 2004). But the disagreement could equally be said to simply concern the user; one side believes that the user is highly and predictably influenced by stimuli (that users are essentially identical) whereas the other side believes that the user is an active part of the communication process with responses heavily influenced by sociocultural background, social networks and other aspects of the environment.
Summing up, the history of audience research within media studies may be thought of as a series of competing perspectives with different theories of the media user. These theories are only partly derived from data and they are partly a consequence of more fundamental world-views which shape research methodology and indeed the research questions themselves. This highlights the crucial importance of one’s “theory of the user” when conducting research into the relationship between a medium or artefact and its users.