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Encoding and Decoding

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Decoding Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model

Stuart Hall is a prominent sociologist and cultural theorist and author of the significantly influential essay Encoding/Decoding; published in 1973 during the time of his position as director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University (Chandler 2001). Encoding/Decoding is a theoretical framework devised to critically examine how society or the hegemonic institutions in society, disseminate messages implanted or ‘encoded’ (Hall 2001, p.167) with meaning ‘through the operation of codes within the syntagmatic chain of a discourse’ (Hall 2001, p.166). Hall’s model examines the processes in which television texts are constructed with dominant codes or ‘preferred readings’ (Hall 2011, p.172), whilst signifying theoretical strategies from which audiences can deconstruct and consume such readings existing within texts in correspondence to cultural and social conditions. Hall’s model laid the foundations for much ethnographic research; it is upon this premise and its comprehensive influence, that in this essay the advantages and limitations of his model will be evaluated with focus on how effectively it functions within the indicated parameters of specific texts and discourses.

Hall’s model which is fundamentally a mode of communication and audience reception theory, stems from early models of which proposed to analyse how audiences interpreted texts through the visual and aural discourse of television. Hall utilised and developed upon preceding and often problematic models such as the Effects and the Uses and Gratification models. Conversely from a structuralist standpoint, ‘it took, from the effect theorists, the notion that mass communication is a structured activity, in which the institutions which produce the messages do have a power to set agendas, and to define issues’ (Morley 1989, p.16). The previous models neglected the significance of social, political and economical codes and statuses, analysing audience reception from a purely behaviouralist perspective. Hall began his theoretical analysis by employing a four- phase semiological system of interpretation from a Marxist culturalist perspective (Chandler, 2001). Hall describes this system as a ‘process in terms of a structure produced and sustained through the articulation of linked but distinctive moments’ (Hall 2011, p.166). It is therefore within these linked moments (production, circulation, distribution/consumption and reproduction), that we can examine the ‘precise textual and institutional mechanisms by which the media function ideologically’ (Ang 1996, p.242). This resulted in a theoretical analysis of how through specific ‘processes of institutionalised cultural production particular meanings are encoded into the structure of texts, “preferred meanings” (Hall and Jefferson 1976) which tend to support existing economical, political and social power relations’ (Ang 1996, p.242). This means the ideologies these hegemonic institutions exercise are therefore embedded as dominant codes during the phase of production which is implemented in order to reinforce dominant ideologies within society, thus causing reproduction of the dominant codes to occur. Hall explains that each stage exists autonomously with messages containing as previously mentioned, a preferred reading, yet this does not imply it will instantaneously and exclusively be interpreted by the audience as a social-demographic. The moment of interpretation would be dependent on the individual’s experiences within individualistic social contexts. Hall further addresses the audience’s ability to deduce messages differently illustrated by means of three hypothetical interpretative strategies, consequently creating a polysemic system of interpretation and meaning (Chandler 2001). The first of these strategies is the dominant code, whereby the reader of the text fully absorbs the intended code and therefore the preferred reading, resulting in the reading appearing natural and furthering reproduction. The second is negotiated, in this instance the reader partially accepts the code yet modifies it accordingly to align with their own social and cultural conditions. Finally, the oppositional reading in which the reader entirely comprehends yet rejects the preferred meaning, taking a directly oppositional stance towards the intended message in relation to their own experiences and knowledge (Chandler 2001).

Hall’s model was constructed from an entirely theoretical bearing with little empirical validity; he did nevertheless refer to advertising as an example to demonstrate the significance of dominant codes which are facilitated and sustained as dominant ideologies within different discourses. Hall comments on how within this particular discourse there is no visual sign or symbol which does not hold with it some ‘implication or implied meaning’ (Hall 2011, p.171). Advertising therefore is amongst the most dominantly coded content appearing on our screens. Robert Goldman once stated that ‘more than any other media form; ads are shaped to accomplish preferred interpretations’ (Goldman 1992, p.80). The preferred meaning embedded within such texts, are of a far narrower capacity with perhaps limited polysemical conclusions. Kathy Myers however argues that ‘there is a danger in the analysis of advertising of assuming that it is in the interest of advertisers to create one preferred reading,’ she then continues to add that ‘the openness of connotative codes may mean that we have to replace the notion of preferred reading with another which admits a range of possible alternatives open to the audience’ (Myers 1983, pp.214-16).
Such a point can be illustrated by examining a fairly contemporary advert for Old Spice body wash (Old Spice 2010). The advert begins with a man of athletic physique addressing the intended audience of the product while directly indicating all of the detonated meanings in which would customarily be encoded within the visuals of the advert itself. It was produced by Wiendon & Kennedy advertising agency (Wiendon+Kennedy 2011) and won the Film Grand Prix award at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes in June of 2010 (Neff 2010). Although visibly intended as a satirical piece of advertisement, it simultaneously denotes the intended codes to the audience while consciously conveying the producer’s intentions in a satirical and humorous manner. This particular example although rare in such a medium where dominantly coded messages are so abundant and centralised, addresses the audience/consumer with a multitude of preferred readings as a result of buying the product. Myer’s overlooks a crucial fact in Hall’s model of preferred readings here, as she seems to imply that Hall suggests and concurs with Barthes’s design that one dominantly preferred reading is the result of a multitude of contributing polysemic visual signs and indicators (Barthes 1977). Alternatively one could also draw from Hall’s essay that he uses Barthes’s example of a jumper representing a warm item of clothing or indeed the indication of being kept warm (Barthes 1967) and notes that this can also act on ‘more connotative levels, to signify the coming of winter or a cold day’ (Hall 2001, p.171). This evidently conveys the polysemical system of signs but also the possibility of more than just one preferred reading within such texts. Halls notes how ‘coded signs intersect with the deep semantic codes of a culture and take on additional more active ideological dimensions’ (Hall 2011, p.171). Advertising is therefore a proficient terrain in which to conduct such textural analysis, as the audience interpretational process and the field of ideology can be examined within a more focalised demographic. To entirely evaluate the effectiveness of Hall’s model, we must now analyse how it functions within the broader contexts of which it was originally intended.

Hall’s model has been vastly prominent within the fields of media and cultural studies and is often adopted by many theorist and academics as a dominant paradigm for communication and audience reception theory. When applied to different media texts however Hall’s conception of preferred readings start to unravel and the strategies he indicates to generate such readings become problematic. The simplifications of Hall’s three theoretical interpretive strategies mean ‘it remains a limited model, in so far as it simply provides for the three logical possibilities of the receiver either sharing, partly sharing, or not sharing the code in which the message is sent’ (Morley 1989, p.18). Morley further comments on the limitations of such preferred readings, as they are unable to translate across other media texts. Such a vital scepticism was indicated by David Morley who from 1975 to 1979 conducted a project based upon the programme Nationwide, in order to examine Hall’s model within the realm of current affairs programming. Morley expresses in his critical postscript of The ‘Nationwide’ Audience, the limitations of Hall’s model when applied to other media texts ‘outside the realm of news/documentary/current affairs’ (Morley 1992, p.122). The difficulties of the textual analysis without factual framing or ‘textual features’ results in the difficulty of locating how the preferred reading ‘of a soap opera’ could or would be ‘generated’ (Morley 1992, p.122). The struggle with locating the preferred reading and indeed the correct method of locating the reading along with the appropriate status, was also a crucial limitation noted by Morley, ‘is it something which can be generated from the text by certain methods of semiological analysis, or is it a statement, or prediction by the analyst, as to how most members of the audience will empirically read a given program or message’ (Morley 1989, p.18). The interpretive process which was now confined beneath the term of ‘decoding’ also produced considerable restrictions with the diverse processes incorporated being considerably simplified under such a constricting title. The role of language was also understated and conceived merely ‘as a conveyor belt for preconstituted meanings or messages’ (Morley 1989, p.18). The importance of visual and aural codes which constituted as the television sign was also an extreme flaw, ‘the interaction between visual and aural codes, resulted in an oversimplified project for the textual analysis required by the encoding/decoding model’ (Nightingale 1996, p.33).
To evaluate such limitations we must examine the contexts of which the model was intended to operate and with whom it had intended to analyse. Hall’s three interpretative codes are designed for the audience to interpret television texts yet this is also proved problematic as John Fiske indicates, the television audience does not exist in conventional parameters. It does not subsist as a single entity, it is not a ‘social category,’ people instead adopt alternative strategies to decode diverse media texts; ‘everyone slips in and out of it in a way that makes nonsense of any categorical boundaries’ (Fiske 1989, p.56). The problem then is the differentials of television texts and its audiences and it is in this ‘variability of interpretation of the television message’, as Umberto Eco once stated as the ‘constant law of mass communication’ (Eco 1986), that Hall’s model fails. Morley further expresses this in his postscript, ‘my concern was with the determinations on meaning produced by the effectivity of the traditional sociological/structural variables- age, sex, race and class- in terms in the way a person’s position in these structures may be seen to determine that person’s access to various discourses in play in the social information’ (Morley 1992, p.119).

To then conclude on such a point, it can be deduced that through the analysis of extensive empirical research, many limitations have been indicated, affirmed and corroborated by those who have engaged in the pursuit of ethnographic data supporting this model. The variables of television texts and its social contexts, conditions and social-demographics, mean critical and textual analysis prove extremely problematic. Such a semiological analysis cannot therefore effectively examine the individual’s interpretive methods in the wide context of all televised mediums. In conclusion the model in Hall’s words ‘suggests an approach; it opens up new questions. It maps the terrain. But it’s a model which has to be worked with and developed and changed’ (Hall 1994, p.255).

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