This academic piece discusses theoretical studies of Stuart Hall. It offers a conceptual framework for examining his work, by drawing on tendencies in contemporary discussions of the media landscape.
Important questions remain in today’s society relating to the role of the media: What influence does the media exert? What exactly is meaning? How does the audience interpret received messages from the media? Can technology empower an individual? What does assessing critical speeches aim to achieve? Action, reaction and consequences are leading to a groundbreaking re-assessment of the place and the role of the media.
Using Stuart Hall’s encoding/ decoding theory, the ability of the mainstream media, and those who control it, to report these events in society, is highlighted. In addition, relevant examples from countries around the world and current facts dealing with the public sphere, are discussed. Cross-national content analysis is carried out to determine if the differing socio-political and cultural environments are reflected in each nation’s media producing.
To define the significance of Stuart Hall’s Encoding/ Decoding reception theory, it is necessary to firstly understand the meaning of communication. Communication can be defined as the process of transmitting information and common understanding from one person to another (Keyton, 2011). The word communication stems from the Latin word, communis, which means common. As this definition implies, unless a common understanding results from exchange of information, there is no communication. Figure 1 below reflects this definition and identifies the important elements of the communication process (Cheney, 2011).
Taking account of this information, and expanding this framework about the process of communication, leads to the work of the theorist Stuart Hall and his encoding and decoding theory.
Stuart Hall came from a mixed-race family, which was the result of a colonial history. He was born in 1932 in Kingston, in the British colony of Jamaica. He was the blackest child of a middle-class family who secured for him an education, according to (Roberts A. 2018 http://studymore.org.uk/yhall.htm). Hall identified with the colour of his skin: The blackness was a reminder to him and everyone else that white slave owners had relations with black slaves somewhere in the history of his family. Stuart identified with the slaves, not with the slave owners, (http://studymore.org.uk/yhall.htm). His upbringing allowed him to experience different cultural spaces (Davis, 2004). He later moved to England to study, where he remained to work.
Communication theory and cultural studies are deeply influenced by Stuart Hall. He was political activist, a Marxist sociologist and a cultural theorist. Reception theory refers to how an audience interprets media (Ott & Mack, 2010). One of the most important early models of reception theory is Hall’s encoding/ decoding model. Hall published this model of communications theory based on subjective thoughts and emotions rather than on earlier purely stimulus-response ideas (Shaw, 2017).
Hall’s encoding/ decoding theory is based on a critical assessment of media depiction in society using social theory/ cultural reflexivity (Pels, D.2003). Reflexivity refers to (of a method or theory in the social sciences) taking account of the effect of the personality and culture or presence of the observer on what is being considered, and how that influences the complex interpretation of the reception process. Reception theory states that meanings from contemporary media products can be processed both consciously and subconsciously (Ott and Mack, 2010).
Due to Hall’s multi-racial background and his cultural experiences in Jamaica and in England, as already explained, he was very aware of class and race differences. The Encoding/ Decoding model recognises that media messages can be engineered to portray a particular meaning but also that audiences, depending on their culture, class and background, can interpret these messages in different ways.
As Hall explains in his Encoding/Decoding theory (Hall, 1980/ 1973), the process of communication can be thought of as linked moments: production, circulation, distribution/consumption, reproduction.
Hall, S., ‘Encoding/Decoding’ Ch. 10 in Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis (eds.), Culture, Media, Language (London: Hutchinson, 1980), pp. 128-38; an edited extract from S. Hall, ‘Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse’, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Issue 7 of Media series(University of Birmingham, 1973).
As Ott and Mack explain (Ott and Mack, 2010), Hall’s encoding/decoding model. Stuart Hall expanded his studies forwards in audience consumption. Which means that to consider audiences active and also a group of individuals rather than an undifferentiated ‘mass’.
The encoding/decoding model was developed. Hall based on the view that meaning is the result of a communication process, the stages of which he called ‘moments’. The first is the ‘moment of encoding’, the second the ‘moment of the text’ and the third the ‘moment of decoding’.
• Moment of encoding – the creation of the text, when forms, structures, codes and conventions are used to construct a text with an intended meaning.
• Moment of the text – the symbolic existence of the text as it is published or broadcast – the focus of semiotics.
• Moment of decoding – when an individual with a unique set of values, attitudes and experiences encounters the text. Regarded as more the moment of ‘creation’ than the first stage.
Lucy Scott-Galloway notes that readings of texts are dependent on who the audience is, and what their social position is, because this influences their interpretation of the denotative codes. However, the number of readings isn’t necessarily infinite – Hall suggested there are limits to the readings that can be made.
Production – Circulation – Use (distribution or consumption) – Reproduction
Picture 2. by Brian L. Ott, Robert L. Mack, book called: Critical Media Studies: An Introduction; page 224.
The Work of Representation in Stuart Hall’s theory: Meaning and Language
In order to explore Stuart Hall’s theory in greater detail, it is necessary to explain the terms culture and representation. As defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary, culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”; it is also “the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture). To study culture, a central place needs to be given to representation, which is the production of meaning through language, discourse and image (Hall, 1997). Representation refers to how an object or concept is represented or produced in words or pictures in the mind of the listener. It is how ideas are communicated.
It is important to understand how representation connects meaning and language to culture. As Hall explains (Hall, 1997), there are three different theories about how language is used to describe the world: the reflective, the intentional and the constructionist approaches to representation.
According to the reflective approach, language is like a mirror that reflects the true meaning of an item as it exists in reality in the world. The intentional approach is the opposite, where the speaker fixes meaning onto the world through the use of his or her language. Words mean only what the speaker intends that they should mean. Finally, the constructionist (or constructivist) approach refers to how speakers impart meanings in their language based on their social and cultural systems (Hall, 1997).
In relation to Hall’s theory, language can refer to spoken words, facial expressions, gestures, fashion, even music. In a linguistic sense, the same code (for example the English language) is shared among people of the same culture. As Hall explains, the fact that speakers and listeners are mutally intelligible is due to “a set of social conventions…cultural or linguistic relativism” (Hall, 1997, p. 8).
This is a very important point. There are two forms of the constructionist approach: the semiotic approach, spearheaded by Ferdinand de Saussure, and the discursive approach, influenced by Michel Foucault (Alcosta, 2012). Semiotics is a very significant concept in relation to contemporary media products. As Hall explains, “semiotics is the study of signs in culture, and of culture as a sort of ‘language'” (Hall, 1997, p.20). Examining popular culture in a semiotic manner, activities can be interpreted as signs through which meaning is communicated (Hall, 1997).
This is meaningful in Hall’s Encoding/ Decoding theory, where codes can be used to convey a descriptive level (denotation) and can be later decoded by the audience using conceptual signifiers (connotation) (Barthes, 1972). The media employ these concepts for example in advertisements and publicity campaigns (viral) to make products, actors, political candidates, proposals etc. appear more or less appealing to the public.
Hall states that the film “represents” a reality outside of itself. He says this idea is grounded in the “mimetic theory of representation”: the idea that representations, like film, mime or imitate an exterior reality. But representations, he argues, can also form or shape reality.
“… events, relations, structures do have conditions of existence and real effects, outside the sphere of the discursive; but … it is only within the discursive”… that they have … “meaning. Thus, … how things are represented” … plays … “a constitutive, and not merely a reflexive, after-the-event, role. This gives questions of culture and ideology, and the scenarios of representation – subjectivity, identity, politics – a formative, not merely an expressive, place in the constitution of social and political life.” (Hall 1988).
The “systems of representation” as treatment of how visual images, language and discourse work. Individual chapters justify a variety of approaches to representation. In order to explore this connection, conception from semiotic, discursive, psychoanalytic, anthropological, sociological, feminist, art-historical and Foucauldian models of representation needs to be observed.
The studies explore representation as a signifying practice in a rich diversity of social contexts and institutional sites, such as:
– the use of photography in the construction of national identity and culture;
– the poetics and politics of exhibiting other cultures in ethnographic museums;
– fantasies of “the racialized other” in popular media, film and image;
– the construction of masculine identities in discourses of consumer culture and advertising;
– and the gendering of narratives in television soap operas.
Hall’s theory as a groundbreaking re-assessment of contemporary media products
Brazilian Newspaper – O Estado de Sao Paulo “Estadao”
Date: 07/11/2015; Section: Politics, page 6.
By FERNANDO BRITO · 07/11/2015
Ronaldo Fraga was criticized for using steel wool in the hair of the models (Agência Fotosite)
Examples of Cultural appropriation
“Basically, Cultural Appropriation is a way of describing when a person of a hegemonic culture adopts aspects of a culture that is not his own and uses them without reference or relation to that “borrowed” culture; However, the definition of cultural appropriation goes far beyond simply adopting aspects of another culture. It is characterized when members of a dominant culture incorporate elements of another whose members have suffered systematic oppression of that same dominant group; These elements can be accessories, typical costumes, music, dance, symbols and religious beliefs, language and linguistic expressions, traditional knowledge, art, cooking, etc. which are adopted without permission by a dominant culture that exploited or oppressed the minority group – through colonization, genocide, slavery – or by those who do not understand the cultural meaning of the incorporated element.”
Photo credit: Reproduction/Disney
Companies also incur cultural appropriation. This was the case of Disney, which retired in September 2016 a fantasy of the movie Moana. The piece imitated a character from the film that refers to a deity of the Polynesians, and their use as a joke was considered offensive.
“The team behind ‘Moana’ took great care to respect the cultures of the Pacific Islands that inspired the film, and we are sorry that the Maui costume has offended some. We sincerely apologize and take the fancy out of our website and stores “the company said.
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Business Insider by Daniella Greenbaum, May 8, 2018