The Encoding/Decoding Model of Communication Communication 501: Mid-term Essay Marsha Ann Tate October 9, 2000 Dr. Davis
2Introduction This essay examines the encoding/decoding model of communication firstproposed by Stuart Hall in the early 1970s. The essay begins with a brief exploration ofthe theoretical origins of the model followed by an explanation of the model itself.Origins and Development Although the encoding/decoding model of transmission dates back to the1970s, its theoretical roots are much older. "Critical theory", one of the main theoreticalfoundations of the model, initially referred to the post 1933 emigration of scholars fromthe Marxist School of Applied Social Research in Frankfurt to the United States. TheSchool, originally established to "... examine the apparent failure of revolutionary socialchange as predicted by Marx" and "... looked to the capacity of the superstructure(especially ideas and ideology represented in the mass media)" to account for the failureof Marxism (McQuail, 2000, p. 95). The "Frankfurt School" promoted of alternate view of dominant commercial massculture namely the non-acceptance of liberal-capitalist order as well as the " ... rational-calculative, utilitarian model of social life as at all adequate or desirable" (McQuail,2000, p. 49) and viewed mass communication "... as manipulative and ultimatelyoppressive" (McQuail, 2000, p. 49).Post WWII & Cold War Era in US Frankfurt School-based theories generated some support in academia during theyears prior to WWII. However, with the advent of the Cold War and the accompanying"Red scare" in the United States, espousal of Marxist-based theories became "out offavor" and therefore received relatively little attention during this period. Instead,
3American research largely followed an empirical, socio-behavioral course that examinedissues of .... A similar dominant paradigm existed in Europe until 1960s. However, this wasparadigm was challenged by a wave of NeoMarxist thought driven by French and laterBritish academics. This "second wave" offered a refinement and reevaluation of earlierideas proposed by the Frankfurt School and others. The reemerging critical theoryregarded mass communication as one component of broader "cultural studies" andattacked "... the commercial roots of cultural debasement" (McQuail, 2000, p. 95). Earlyadvocates directed their attention toward issues of working-class subordination and laterencompassed domination of youth, gender, ethnicity, and alternative subcultures. The theory challenged predominant methodologies of empirical social scienceaudience research as well as "... the humanistic studies of content" (McQuail, 2000, p. 56)Proponents argued that both methods failed to factor in the power of the audience in"giving meaning to messages" (McQuail, 2000, p. 56). Instead, critical theoriesemphasized qualitative research: "This has provided alternative routes to knowledge andforged a link back to the neglected pathways of sociological theory of symbolicinteractionism and phenomenology" (McQuail, 2000, p. 50).British cultural studies & The Birmingham School In Britain, "cultural studies" combined "... Marxist theory with ideas and researchmethods derived from diverse sources including literary criticism, linguistics,anthropology, and history" (Baran & Davis, 321). The Centre for Contemporary CulturalStudies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham has been called the "... most influentialrecent British powerhouse of theorizing about culture" (Hartley, 1999, p. 116). The
4School, founded by Richard Hoggart during the 1960s and under the directorship ofStuart Hall beginning in 1970, engaged in a systematic analysis of culture. The analysis,based upon Marxist principles and class, was "... intended not to describe culturebut to change it" (Hartley, 1999, p. 116). Consequently, the Schools early studiesconcentrated on class and subcultures (e.g., tracing the historic elite domination overculture and critique of the social consequences of the domination) while it later alsoexamined gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity (Kellner, 1995, p. 52). In addition, it alsoconsidered the question of how audiences decode (i.e., make sense of) media outputwithin their various social contexts (Dutton, 1997, p. 116). From this critical perspective,the medias was viewed as helping "... set the agenda to decide which issues will beexamined within what is taken to be a framework of consensus, i.e., the national interest"(Dutton, 1997, p. 62).Model of Encoding-Decoding Media Discourse & Audience Reception Theory (StuartHall) -- 1980 During the 1970s, Hall and his Birmingham School colleagues exploredvarious British subcultures including "teddy boys", rockers, etc. As an outgrowth of thisearlier research, Hall formulated a variation of critical theory that brought togethercritical and interpretive/qualitative aspects to the study of audiences. According to Hall,the mass media are central to modern capitalist culture since they are the primaryresource for the meaningful organisation and "patterning" of peoples experience. In thisthey are intimately related to the technico-economic and social processes of moderncapitalism" (Tomlinson, 1991, p. 60). Moreover, he proposed "... that the hegemonicpower of the media" could be revealed through the study of social and ideologicalprocesses rather than "by individual psychology or personal experience" (Nightingale,
5199?, p. 21). The resulting theory, influenced by semiology and discourse analysis, was moreclosely related to cultural rather than the social scientific realm as some presumptions ofsemiology and structuralism were accepted while others were challenged. In addition,Hall rejected the transmission model of communication and the idea of "fixed messages",citing its linearity, its concentration on the level of message exchange, and on itsabsence of a structured conception of the different moments [of mass communication] asa complex structure of relations (Hall quoted in Nightingale, 199? p. 27). In Halls view,media messages are always open and polysemic (i.e., have multiple meanings) and theirinterpretation or so-called "decoding" is influenced by the "... context and the culture ofthe receivers" McQuail, 2000, p. 56). Different receivers will not interpret a message "assent" or "as expressed" and moreover "... meanings and messages are not simply"transmitted", they are always produced: first by the encoder from the raw material ofeveryday life; second, by the audience in relation to its location in other discourses. Eachmoment is determinative, operating in its own conditions of production" (Storey, 1996,p. 11). Moreover, Hall "... argued that the practice of signification through languageestablishes maps of cultural meaning which promote the dominance of a ruling-classideology, especially by establishing a hegemony. This involves containing subordinateclasses within superstructures of meaning which frame all competing definitions ofreality within the range of a single hegemonic view of things" (McQuail, 2000, p. 307). Hall proposed that media messages pass through multiple stages (i.e.,"distinctive moments") of transformation from its origins "... to its reception andinterpretation" (McQuail, 2000, p. 56-57). In stage one, the "meaningful discourse" is
6encoded or "framed" based upon the "meaning structure of the mass media productionorganization and its main supports" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57). At the point of "encoding",many ways of looking at the world (i.e., "ideologies") are "in dominance". However,the media institutions frameworks of meaning are apt to conform to the dominant powerstructures. In Halls words "[The moment of media production] is framed throughout bymeanings and ideas; knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historicallydefined technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, definitions andassumptions, assumptions about the audience" (Hall quoted in Storey, 1996, p. 10). Individual messages are often "encoded" in the form of established genres (e.g.,soap operas, news) that "... have a face-value meaning and in-built guidelines forinterpretation by an audience" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57) and therefore represent the"preferred readings". During the second stage, as the meanings and messages are in the form ofmeaningful discourse (i.e., Hall refers to a television program or any equivalent mediatext as "meaningful discourse"), the formal rules of language and discourse are "indominance". At the concluding stage, the "meaningful discourse" is subsequently decoded "...according to the different meaning structures and frameworks of knowledge of differentlysituated audiences" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57). Consequently, decoding involves yet anotherrange of ideologies "in dominance". Moments of encoding and decoding may not be perfectly symmetrical (Storey,1996, p. 11) and more importantly decoding can take a "different turn" thanintended by the encoders. In other words, the meaning as decoded by an audience
7member doesnt necessarily correspond with the meaning of the message as encodeddespite shared language and use of genres. In this scenario, audience members can "readbetween the lines" and in some instances "... reverse the intended direction of themessage" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57). According to Hall the "media text" is located between its producers and theaudience who "decodes" the text in a manner that may be related to specific socialsituations (Dutton, 1997, p. 116) Hall suggests that there are "three hypothetical positions from which decodings oftelevisual discourse may be constructed" (Hall quoted in Storey, 1996, p. 12) ("Codes aresystems of meaning whose rules and conventions are shared by members of a culture orby what has been called an "interpretative community"-- McQuail, 2000, p. 350). In thedominant-hegemonic position the viewer decodes a media message "... in terms of thereference code in which it has been encoded" and is therefore "operating inside thedominant code" (Storey, 1996, p. 12). In the negotiated code or position the privilegedposition is accorded to the dominant definitions of events while reserving the right tomake a more negotiated application to local conditions, to its own corporate positions. Inother words, the code "operates with exceptions to the rule". Finally, the oppositionalcode represents the viewer who recognizes the "preferred reading" but can "read betweenthe lines" of official versions of events and therefore chooses to "... decode within analternative frame of reference" (McQuail, 2000, p. 98; Storey, 1996, p. 13).Strengths of the Encoding/Decoding Model The encoding/decoding model offers an alternative version of the active audienceideas based in empirical media-effect research (McQuail, 2000, p. 50). In McQuails
8words "While early effect research recognized the fact of selective perception, this wasseen as a limitation on, or a condition of, the transmission model, rather than part of aquite different perspective" (McQuail, 2000, p. 57). In addition, the model"... situated structures of production, text, and audience (reception) within a frameworkwhere each could be read, registered and analysed in relation to each other" (Nightingale,199?, p. 22). Moreover, the model also drew attention to genre-based research(Nightingale 199?, p. 23) and "... generated renewed interest in the relevance formedia research of socio-linguistics and social semiotics" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 23). Italso combined research methods and genres in new ways (Nightingale, 199?, p. 23) aswell softening the boundary previously separating "... text from audience as researchobjects" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 23).Morleys Application of Halls Model David Morley, a colleague of Halls, set out to test the encoding/decoding modelby examining the potential for "differential decoding" by groups from differingsocio-cultural backgrounds. Morley arranged for 29 different groups of 5-10 individualseach to view one of two episodes of Nationwide, a BBC weekday current affairs newsmagazine. The groups were selected on the basis that they "... might be expected to differin their decodings from dominant to negotiated to oppositional. The groups tendingtowards a dominant reading (i.e., those seen by Morley as closest to Nationwides ownvalues) included bank managers and apprentices, while those rejecting Nationwide andproducing an oppositional reading included black further education students and shopstewards. In between (having a "negotiated" reading) were teacher training anduniversity students and trade union officials" (Dutton, 1997, p. 116-117).
9 Following the viewing of the Nationwide episodes, each group was interviewedand their "readings" analyzed. Overall, Morleys study seemed to confirm Hallssuppositions (Storey, 1996, p. 15) with one notable exception. The middle-class bankmanagers and working-class apprentices both produced dominant readings thus bringinginto question the correlation between class and reading position. Morley accounted forthis unexpected outcome by asserting that decoding is not solely determined by classposition but rather "social position plus particular discourse positions" (Storey, 1996, p.16). Several years after the Nationwide study, Morley conducted an ethnographicstudy of family viewing. This subsequent study, once again largely premised on Hallstheory "... emphasized the many unwritten rules, understandings and patterns ofbehaviour that develop in the micro-audience environment of even one family"(McQuail, 2000, p. 399). Morleys More Recent Views About the TheoryCautions against over-emphasis upon the degree of "differential and oppositional readingof media texts" (McQuail, 2000, p. 99)The overall impact of Morleys work is somewhat in question. However, indirectly, thethe theory "... proved very effective in re-empowering the audience and returning someoptimism to the study of media and culture" (McQuail, 2000, p. 98-99). It also "... led toa wider view of the social and cultural influences which mediate the experience of themedia, especially ethnicity, gender and everyday life" (McQuail, 2000, p. 99).Criticisms of the Encoding/Decoding Model The encoding/decoding model has been criticized on a number of points includingits ideological grounding, definitional ambiguities and gaps as well as
10oversimplifications. Several major criticisms of the encoding/decoding model relate to the modelsstrong ideological undercurrents. As Nightingale points out, the theory failed to "...explore its own ideological stance or potentially politically exploitative methods"(Nightingale, 199?, p. 22). He further states that "... the expedient use of researchmethods to suit the genres of cultural production combined in the project overlooked thepolitical assumptions inherent in the practice of research, and the hierarchical structurenecessitated by the research method" and therefore compromised its goal to "... producean audience generated aesthetic" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 23) Other critics also point to theovertly political aspects of decoding positions (Wren-Lewis, 1983, p. 188) and themodels assumption that television only reproduces the ideas of "dominant culture"(Nightingale, 199?, p. 24). A second line of criticism of the encoding/decoding model revolves around theissue of definitional ambiguities and gaps. For example, the "... lack of specificity aboutthe ways in which the term code is used (Nightingale, 199?, p. 34) and the overallundertheorization of "decoding". Oversimplification is also often cited as an inherent problem of theencoding/decoding model (Nightingale, 199?, p. 22). This includes the modelsunderestimation of "... the contribution of sound, sound effects and music in theconstruction of televisual discourse, as well as the interaction between visual and auralcodes" (Nightingale, 199?, p. 33). It has also been argued that the model may overstatethe importance of the media. As Tomlinson offers "For all its evidential problems,audience research does suggest that the media cannot have the undisputed managerial
11function that Hall implies, since media messages are themselves mediated by othermodes of cultural experience: this is what is implied by the notion of the "activeaudience" (Tomlinson, 1991, p. 61). Moreover, it is suggested that the encoding/decodingmodels "... focus on text/audience, however, leaves out many mediations that should bepart of cultural studies, including analyses of how texts are produced within the contextof the political economy and system of production of culture ..." (Kellner, 1995, p. 37).Finally, some critics also stress that the models approach to a television program aswork rather than text, fails to account for issues of "pleasure" and its possibleeffects on the process (Nightingale, 199?, p. 34) For his part, Hall has acknowledged that the hypothetical decoding positionsrequired empirical testing and refinement (Storey, 1996, p. 14) among other things inorder for practical application.Bridging the Gap Between Social-Behavioral & Critical Cultural Approach to MassCommunication Research Rather than casting off Halls encoding/decoding model due to its problematicnature, a number of scholars have heeded Halls advice by working to refine the originaltheory and use it as a basis for empirical research. In recent years, there has been anevolution wherein some critical researchers now integrate social scientific methods intotheir research endeavors thus somewhat easing the longstanding chasm between thesocio-behavioral and critical cultural approaches to communication research. Somenotable research efforts that have at least partially incorporated Halls notions includeJohn Fiskes examination of the different readings of the products of popular culture,Ien Angs cross-cultural study of Dallas as well as various studies on soap operas (e.g.,
12Brunsdon) and science fiction fandoms. Even given its deficiencies, Halls theory helpsbring to light several important aspects of communication that previous theories gaveinsufficient or even no notice. These aspects include the multiplicity of meanings ofmedia content, the varied "interpretative communities", and the primacy of the receiver(the "audience") in determining meaning.
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