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Reception Analysis

In the 1980’s the development of the reception research tradition is greatly influenced by the encoding/decoding model proposed by Stuart Hall (1980) and his associates at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCS) of the University of Birmingham. Hall criticizes the traditional mass communication research, mainly the linearity of its sender/message/receiver model and the concentration on the level of message exchange. Based on Marx, he proposes to address this process in terms of distinctive but linked periods: production, circulation, consumption, and reproduction. Hall also points out that the process of “encoding” messages, developed by TV broadcasters, and the process of their “decoding” by the TV audiences, are relatively autonomous, they are not identical processes, but related. Hall articulates that a message can be encoded with a “preferred meaning” and the audience can decode it with an opposite or different meaning, or with the same meaning. He then identifies three hypothetical positions for a possible decoding of a television message: dominant-hegemonic position, that is when the viewer embraces the meaning of the television program in their straight form; negotiated position, the viewer might agree with some of the hegemonic definitions, having a critical position about some issues; and oppositional position, that is when the viewer decodes the message in a totally contrary way.

In 1980 David Morley published a research applying Hall’s model. In his book The Nationwide Audience he studies variations in audience decoding of a British program called “Nationwide”, according to their socio-economic position. He explaines decoding as a process constructed according to viewers’ discourses, such as knowledge or prejudices. This is considered by some to be one of the most influential approaches in the study of media audiences and is a reference to reception studies that follow. Some critics have pointed out that Morley’s studies minimized variations within the groups studied and try to generalize the responses obtained (Turner, 1990). Hall’s encoding/decoding model is also criticized for assuming that the preferred meaning and preferred reading of a text always expresses the dominant ideology (Pillai, 1992). In a later article, even Hall agrees that it is possible for some TV texts to not work within the dominant meaning, or even against it, therefore, questioning the notion of preferred meaning, and consequently the three response positions: the dominant, the oppositional, and the negotiated (Hall, 1994).

The encoding/decoding model opens the doors to a new ethnographic tradition of research, constructed on the basis that audiences are different, active and selective, but also influenced by socio, cultural and economic factors within their environment. Special emphasis is given here to the studies of how women find pleasure and develop different interpretations while watching soap operas (Hobson, 1982; Ang, 1985) or reading romance novels (Radway, 1991). These studies are important in validating soap operas and their audiences as a legitimate object of study, counteracting prejudices and rejections common in academic and social arenas (Brunsdon, 1997). In Reading the Romance Radway (1991) investigates how female readers relate to romance novels. Through the analysis of responses from discussion groups, interviews, and questionnaires, Radway (1991) points out how the readers express pleasure in reading the romances, which helps them escape from their own day-to-day routine and problems. The readers identified with the romance’s heroine who has little to do with their own lives. Radway called romances “compensatory literature”, one that relieves tension and allows women to fantasize and feel good over an extended period of time, even after the readers return to their obligations. Morley (1995) cites Radway’s study as one of the best examples of media consumption study that took place in the 1980’s.

A major distinction between reception analysis and uses and gratifications studies relies on methodology. While reception studies favor qualitative methods such as ethnographic studies, media effects research prefer a quantitative approach to collect data. The preference for qualitative work usually stresses small and less representative sample sizes; therefore, these studies can rarely be generalized to the population, bringing about one of the criticism of the reception approach (Jensen & Rosengreen, 1999). The samples are not only small, but usually they tend to be formed by fans, which are individuals with strong engagements with the medium analyzed in the study. This practice also adds to the limitations of reception studies, making it easier to confuse more involved individuals with the average (Hermes, 1993). Radway’s (1991) Reading the Romance is criticized for its small sample and lack of representation. The sample for her study consists of avid romance readers who are regulars at a bookstore.




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Acknowledgements / Dedication - Abstract



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