Encoding Decoding Theory

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Stuart Halls - Encoding/Decoding theory in relation to Active Audiences.

For over a century, media audiences have been a concern of entrepreneurs and social critics alike and opinions on the role of the audience have varied greatly over the years. Throughout history, most theorists studying audience interpretation simply treated audiences as ‘passive sponges’, absorbing media content and submissively accepting the subliminal messages set out for them by media entities. In the 1980’s, new audience theories saw the onset of ‘active audience’ theories, which came out of the Centre for Contemporary Critical Studies at the University of Birmingham, England. One of the major stimuli for the development of the active audience theory was British sociologist Stuart Hall’s well-known encoding/decoding model, which revolutionised the way in which audiences were regarded. Halls model highlights that although media messages are embedded with a ‘preferred reading’, audience interpretations of these texts is dependent upon the individual’s assumptions and social context. As such, this model prompted shifts towards qualitive studies of audiences thereafter.

Stuart Halls seminal paper: Encoding/Decoding (1980), arose primarily from Halls reservation about the theories of communication underpinning mass communications research. Mass communications research became prevalent after the Second World War and was funded by commercial bodies wanting to know how to influence audiences more effectively through advertising. It worked on the assumption that the ‘media offered an unproblematic, benign reflection of society’. According to the mass communications model, the sender (mass media) generates a message with fixed meaning, which is then communicated directly and transparently to the recipient (audience). Halls paper challenged all three components of the mass communications model arguing that – (i) the message is never transparent to audience (ii) meaning is not simply fixed...
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