Module 1 : Unit 6 : The `Ethnographic Turn': The Histories and Politics of the New Audience Research

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Module 1 : Unit 6 : The `Ethnographic Turn': The Histories and Politics of the New Audience Research





Joke Hermes


Department of Media & Communication Attenborough Building University of Leicester University Road Leicester, LE1 7RH




09 Feb 2010


In this unit I will explore one of the younger traditions in mass communication research which is sometimes called the New Audience Research. The defining characteristic of this New Audience Research is that it is ethnographic in orientation. It is difficult to give an exact date at which this new tradition was born but most would agree that the wheels were set in motion by the mid 1980s. Its roots go back much further. The three historical backgrounds of the ethnographic turn explored in this unit, which to some extent have merged in present- day research, go back to the mid 1970s. I present these backgrounds from my own postmodern- feminist perspective (which I will introduce in section 2).
Many of the issues addressed in this unit are also discussed in chapters 5, 15 and 16 of McQuail's Mass Communication Theory (5th edition) (McQuail, 2005) which you may find helpful as relevant background reading. If you are interested in pursuing further some of the issues presented in this unit, you might want to browse in cultural and media studies journals such as Cultural Studies, the European Journal of Cultural Studies, the International Journal of Cultural Studies or the Journal of Communication Inquiry, as well as in the major academic journals in mass communication which from time to time have articles about ethnographic media research (Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Media Culture and Society, the European Journal of Communication, Journal of Communication) or journals that are interdisciplinary but lean more towards a humanities perspective (Screen, Journal of Popular Culture, Discourse).
1. `The New Audience Research' in Media Studies
And then there was `the New Audience Research'... Roughly from the mid 1980s onward there is a more or less sudden increase in qualitative audience studies in mass communication research. This increase is sometimes referred to as the `ethnographic turn' in media research because the key studies involved have all been inspired by a particular tradition of anthropological research called interpretive ethnography. Traditional social anthropology involved a researcher living amidst a `foreign' or `native' community and studying the life of that community as `the other', applying to it a range of `scientifically-validated' methods and concepts to do with language, kinship systems, systems of production and so on. But interpretive ethnography, by contrast, seeks to see the world as it is seen and experienced by the participants themselves, and does not disguise the role of the researcher. This approach, applied to media audiences, has been called `New Audience Research' (see Corner, 1991). The New Audience Research covers a wide range of subjects. It refers amongst other things to studies of romance reading, television viewing, and how we make sense of the news. The definitive characteristic of these studies is that they actively invite those who read romances or watch television to present their own point of view in lengthy, open interviews or in the course of `participant observation' - see p.172 of Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd Edition) (Hartley, J., 2002).
This approach is sometimes associated with political ideals: it is seen as a more open and democratic procedure than to hand questionnaires to viewers and readers which do not allow them to use their own words. Many different research traditions have advocated qualitative research methods such as in depth interviewing or participant observation. Not all of them, however, were motivated by a critical or political agenda, nor did they necessarily lead to reflection on or critique of existing power relations. In the words of a famous anthropologist, interpretive ethnography can provide a means “for different peoples to form complex concrete images of one another; as well as of the relationships of knowledge and power that connect them” (Clifford, 1988:23). Such a form of ethnography ideally allows for dialogue or even polylogue among those coming from different cultures or cultural backgrounds and for a redressing of intercultural power relations (Marcus and Fischer, 1986). However, even in interpretive ethnography the researcher retains considerable power: the power of choice of research topic or focus, power of selection of which parts of which transcriptions or observations should be included in the research write-up or commentary, power of interpretation of their significance and power over the means and style of distribution of the research findings. In this respect interpretive ethnography is similar to other research traditions.
Ien Ang's study of watching Dallas, the American prime time soap opera is a classic example of the New Audience Research (Ang, 1985). Ang invited readers of the Dutch women's magazine Viva to write to her about their Dallas viewing experience. “I like watching the TV serial Dallas but often get odd reactions to it. Would anyone like to write and tell me why you like watching it too, or dislike it? I should like to assimilate these reactions in my university thesis. Please write to ...” (1985, p.10). She received 42 letters, most of them from women. Based on these letters Ang reconstructs what kind of pleasures watching Dallas offers for these Dutch viewers. Her goal was not simply to describe how viewers make sense of and find pleasure in watching Dallas, she also wanted to intervene in the then fierce debate in the Netherlands and in other European countries about the `cultural imperialism' of American television shows as well as take a stand against the often denigrating views of popular culture and its users.
Through qualitative method, inspired by ethnography, Ien Ang was able to access audience pleasures in viewing Dallas (and hating Dallas), and to identify how the dominant ideology of mass culture and its populist counterpart organise social debate and individual evaluation of popular culture (even if they cannot determine audience pleasure in itself). Ang's choice to work with readers' letters also has a second political dimension. She helped to establish a new, more radical forum for feminist interest in popular culture, women's genres and women readers. The feminist work on popular culture at that time consisted primarily of text-based analysis. An often-quoted example is Tania Modleski's collection Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women ([1982] 1984, in which Modleski analyses what makes romances, gothic novels and soap opera so attractive for female audiences.
Modleski combines her decoding of the narrative structure of romances, gothic novels and soap opera with psycho-analytical and clinical psychological views. As a result some critics see her work as ultimately contradicting its own goals. Instead of generating respect for female audiences she stigmatizes them as hysterics (romance readers) or stereotypes them as housewives (soap opera) whose distracted frame of mind, said to be crucial to their efficient functioning, fits appropriately with the structure of day-time television soap operas, a characteristic of which are their multiple and fragmented plotlines. Modleski's text-based analysis was challenged by a group of researchers who, following Ang, chose to work with the accounts of viewers themselves. Ellen Seiter, Hans Borchers, Gabrielle Kreutzner and Eva- Maria Warth (1989), using in-depth interviews, came to very different conclusions regarding the spectator position Modleski used as the basis for her text analysis.
Modleski speaks of the position of the `ideal mother' to explain the high number of close-ups (the mother's privileged contact with the emotions of her family) but also to explain how women watch day-time soap opera. “Like the ideal mother in the home, we are kept interested in a number of events at once and are denied the luxury of a total and prolonged absorption” (1984, p.101). Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner and Warth dismantle this position as very much a middle-class position of which their working-class informants were critical (1989, p241). Likewise their informants did not despise `the villainess' as a negative image of their own ideal selves (Modleski's interpretation), but admired her for her guts. They tended to `hate' what they called `the whiners' or the `wimpy women' (1989, p.238).
Even though it can be seductive to look for similarities between the narrative structure of media texts and everyday life, such a procedure abstracts too much from the complexities of everyday life. To understand how popular genres have meaning for audiences it is crucial to take the social context in which they are used into account. Analysis based only on the text raises difficult questions about the status of the researcher. Is she the enlightened expert? Can she, contrary to the women she describes, withstand the enticements of the text? Modleski's analysis sets her apart from the people she writes about. Compare this to Ang's invitation to Dallas viewers to write her about their experiences: “I like watching ... Dallas, but often get odd reactions to it”. Ang's position is totally different. Her `authority' is of a more `dialogical' nature, in tune with ethnographic work.
The New Audience Research differs from various other traditions that have similar research objects or use similar methods:

  • although the New Audience Research is a type of audience research, its practitioners have a firm preference for qualitative over quantitative method which they believe allows them to do justice to the social contexts in which the media are used;

  • contrary to mainstream mass communication research, the New Audience Research often prioritizes respect for cultures or cultural backgrounds that are marginalised by the dominant culture and by mainstream research traditions;

  • its research object is usually popular culture, which includes both fiction and news genres; the New Audience Research is more political or `critical' than is popular culture research within such traditions as American Studies or English Literature (in as far as they accommodate popular culture at all);

  • interactive research methods (interviews or participant observation) are preferred over text analytical methods;

  • the political agenda of the New Audience Research is often a feminist agenda (although there is no reason why the methods of such research cannot be applied to a much broader agenda).

Activity One (Allow 20 minutes)
Read chapter 68 by Ang in Boyd-Barrett and Newbold, 1995, Approaches to Media. Take brief notes. What do you consider to be the defining features of Ang's approach?
I consider that the important features of Watching Dallas are that it:

  • uses text and definitions of Dallas viewers themselves

  • has critical (or political) goals regarding the (low) status of popular culture, the question of cultural imperialism and feminism

  • and that Ang analyses Dallas as an involved cultural critic and consumer of the programme rather than as an outsider. Traditional ethnography would have discouraged this on the grounds that the researcher might be `biased': in interpretive ethnography a feeling of involvement is seen as facilitating access to the feelings and meanings of others.

2. Histories of the Ethnographic Turn
2.1 Feminism and postmodernism
To fully understand the background of the New Audience Research it is necessary to describe two major intellectual developments that took place in the early and mid 1980s. The first is the academic recognition of feminism and women's studies as integral parts of a critical research practice. The second is the growing popularity of postmodernism. Both developments are intertwined with the histories of particular research traditions. In the case of the New Audience Research these traditions are (1) British or European cultural studies, (2) American cultural studies and (3) the empirical sociological tradition in mass communication research. Ien Ang's Dallas study (Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, (1985)) relates to all these traditions and I will use it as a point of departure for my discussion of feminism and postmodernism.
Ien Ang's Dallas study was a double intervention in debates about culture and cultural value. The implicit claim of her work was that popular genres - and women's genres at that! - were worthy of academic interest. She claimed that popular culture had merits of its own and that Dallas viewers were individuals who had views and ideas that were interesting to find out about. She also intervened in the feminist debate over popular culture to say that so-called traditional representations of femininity were neither as one dimensional as feminist criticism then claimed them to be nor as unfeminist.
Feminism basically claims equal rights and respect for women and for what is deemed feminine. The women's movement struggled for women's right to vote at the beginning of this century and for wider recognition of women's rights and cultural contributions. As a result of this struggle women gained much wider entrance to universities and to academic research. As academics, feminists aimed and aim to demystify the mechanisms that accord evaluative gender stereotypes to human beings as well as to types of work or to such things as popular culture genres. Feminist cultural critics in the 1970s, still a marginal academic group, also wondered why gender stereotypes and stereotypically feminine preferences and genres held such attraction for women. Their explicit interest in women's popular genres marks the beginning of the widespread interest in popular culture in the 1980s.
The first explanations these feminist critics came up with to explain the popularity of texts which, they believed, merely reinforced gender differences and inequalities was the appeal to the `false consciousness' of the viewers. `False consciousness' is a Marxist term that suggests that we are often not aware of what is in our own best (class) interest because we have been indoctrinated by the dominant ideology, one which only serves the interests of the ruling class. It soon became clear, however, that the pleasure which popular culture genres offered could not be explained nor annihilated by `enlightening' their users. Despite our knowledge of what is supposedly good and what is bad for us, we can have fierce and inexplicable attachments to the `wrong' kind of popular text. Cora Kaplan's (1986) essay on The Thorn Birds recounts how ashamed she was as a 14-year old child of progressive parents to be discovered reading (and loving) the highly conservative and racist Gone with the Wind. Kaplan's shame and Ang's disturbance at the reactions she attracted to her fascination for Dallas (“I like watching ... Dallas but often get odd reactions to it”) are only two examples of what made feminists critical of `modernist theory'.
Modernist theory is based on `Enlightenment' values. Such values include a belief in progress, in the rational individual, in High Culture and its ability to make us reflect on social relations, in the possibility of objective knowledge and in the discovery of universal social laws, just like there are natural laws. The work of influential thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan and Foucault has cast doubt on these values. Isn't all creation of knowledge ultimately dependent on the perspective and the cultural background of the thinker? Do not all of us have rational and irrational traits? Does it make sense to try to find universal social laws for situations that come into being under totally different social, historical and cultural circumstances? Is it true that popular culture is only an instrument of domination whereas elitist High Culture is a means of liberation, and if so for whom? Cora Kaplan's memory, for example, of finding pleasure in a text that she knew she should disapprove of, made her turn to Freud's discovery of the unconscious which explained that we are not totally in control of all of our feelings, desires and ambitions. Kaplan and other feminists' self-reflexive autobiographical accounts provided a bridge to the experiences of others and to a re-evaluation of popular culture. Although feminist popular culture criticism had started out from a highly critical position that disparaged the readers of women's magazines and romances (Friedan, 1963), interest in how others expressed their engagement with popular culture now came high on the agenda.
Ang's Dallas study is an example both of changing conceptions of feminist media criticism and also of the revaluation of popular culture, one of the hallmarks of postmodernism in media and cultural studies. Criticism of the universalist values of modernist theory entails strong commitment to understanding popular genres and media use in their social context, taking into account the historical and cultural specificity of such practices. The meanings which popular culture helps to generate for its users and the pleasures it offers came to be seen as locally produced by viewers and readers. The text, held in such high esteem in modernist literary criticism, was dethroned. Meaning, according to the postmodern point of view, was not the property of the text but the result of the interaction between reader and text. Moreover, this was supposed to be the case with all texts, not just with High Cultural ones. All texts were argued to be `polysemic' (Fiske, 1987), all texts contained potentially many meanings and it was up to the researcher to find out how audiences dealt with these possibilities for meaning production. The older point of view that texts were utterly powerful and could induce a false consciousness in their readers or viewers, was left behind.
The postmodern viewpoint in media and cultural studies has far-reaching consequences for research. The everyday use, pleasures and displeasures the media offer and that are made meaningful by audiences in specific contexts come to be important. Because meaning is understood to be locally produced, there is no need to search for universal laws. The distrust of `the common people' that is built into survey research and that necessitated asking a question several times in slightly different ways to make sure that respondents are not lying, is made superfluous. Even if informants lie or present a more favourable view of themselves, the New Audience Research argues, they do so using the vocabularies and the frames of reference that are available to them and which begin to make clear how media texts and genres become meaningful to them. As David Morley put it, discussing his research of television viewing which is primarily based on interviews rather than on participant observation:
“(S)hould you wish to understand what I am doing, it would probably be as well to ask me. I may well, of course, lie to you or otherwise misrepresent my thoughts or feelings, for any number of purposes, but at least, through my verbal responses, you will begin to get some access to the kind of language, the criteria of distinction and the types of categorizations, through which I construct my (conscious) world” (Morley, 1989, p.25).
Broadly speaking, postmodern-feminist popular culture research became an important domain in which there was a keen interest in ethnographic method. Its practitioners originated from humanities and social science but their ethnographic work belonged to the European and American cultural studies traditions or the classical tradition of mass communication research. Their interests in ethnography were complex but also, at least partly, influenced by two major considerations. First, ethnography in one's own society is cheap research and well-suited to the needs of groups that have only just gained positions within the academy, who come low in the hierarchy and who cannot command large research funds. Second, as Kirsten Drotner (1994, p.342) suggests, ethnography was also useful for understanding the new and complex developments instigated by the women's movement and the emergence of the multicultural society. Thus new groups in the academy such as `ethnic studies' and `women's studies' chose to explore (cheap) ethnographic method. This feminist legacy, argued Drotner in an earlier piece, has often been ignored (1993, pp.33-34).
2.2 Three traditions
2.2.1 European cultural studies research
Although cultural studies as an academic, interdisciplinary practice that combines humanities and social research traditions originated at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, England in the 1970s, nowadays properly speaking we should say `European' rather than British cultural studies research to make clear that there is a distinct European tradition that is different from the American cultural studies tradition and that is also different from the Australian and emerging Asian cultural studies traditions.
European cultural studies started within the Faculty of English at the University of Birmingham. Stuart Hall's famous `Encoding/Decoding' paper was a significant early example of the CCCS work (see below) (Hall [1973] 1980). It was some time before the Centre's interest in media and the use of ethnographic method actually came together in David Morley's hallmark Nationwide study in 1980. Shaun Moores points out in his impressive overview Interpreting Audiences: The Ethnography of Media Consumption that Morley's study of the television magazine Nationwide, which was based on a large number of group interviews, was in fact the first empirical ethnographic study that dealt with audiences (1993, p.6). The encoding/decoding model on which Morley based the interpretation of his Nationwide interviews rejected the textual determinism, in which the text was seen as the source of meaning rather than the interaction between texts and audiences, characteristic of the considerable interest in audiences preceding his study.
The Nationwide Audience: Structure and Decoding. David Morley (1980).

  • Tests the encoding/decoding model which posits that viewers take up one of three positions (the dominant position, a negotiated view or an oppositional view), which can be understood as their relative distance from the preferred meaning encoded in the text. Their distance from the preferred meaning is supposed to be determined by their social class position.

  • The study was based on interviews with 29 groups (of 5-10 people) which were comprised of schoolchildren, students (part-time and full-time in further and higher education), full and part-time trade union officials and managers from banking institutions. The groups were shown a Nationwide programme which was discussed (and tape-recorded) for approximately 30 minutes.

The essence of Stuart Hall's encoding/decoding essay is simple. It posits that television comes to have meaning at different moments: both as part of the production (or encoding) and as part of the moment of reception (or decoding). Encoding and decoding are related but never identical. Since both are based in their own particular frameworks of knowledge and are formed by the relations of production and the technical infrastructure, they will necessarily be different and produce a related but different meaningful discourse in either production or viewing contexts. Hall goes on to distinguish three hypothetical viewer positions: (i) a dominant-hegemonic position, where the viewer decodes the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded and thus follows the text's `preferred reading'; (ii) a negotiated position, which contains a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements and in which the viewer does not straightforwardly accept the text's `preferred reading' and (iii) an oppositional position in which the viewer strongly resists or outrightly rejects the `preferred reading' (Hall, 1980, pp.136-8). Morley's Nationwide study made clear that making a television text meaningful is actually more complex than is suggested by the encoding/decoding model and its three viewer positions. For one, Morley found that groups that had the same class position (Hall's relations of production) gave dissimilar interpretations (see Morley 1992, chapter 3 and 4). Nevertheless the encoding/decoding model still provides theoretical ground for the basic premise of `reception analysis' (a term by which media ethnographies are often referred to) which is that viewers are seen as active meaning producers. Their `readings' are the product of their social experiences and class position, and the range of cultural knowledge they have access to. The encoded `preferred meaning' of a text constrains possible readings but never totally controls them.

The `boom' in media ethnography occurred a little later, in the early 80s, at least partly inspired by CCCS work that was not itself focused on the media. All over Europe reception studies were started which, in the dialectical manner of these things, again inspired British researchers who worked or had worked at the Centre to continue and to start new work dealing with media audiences. Ien Ang's Dutch Dallas study (1985), is an example of a CCCS inspired study and one of the key texts of the period. Yet another key text is David Morley's Family Television (1986). An example of other European work on media audiences is Kirsten Drotner's research on Danish youngsters and video (Drotner, 1989). The parameters of qualitative empirical audience study were set in this period:

  • contrary to earlier CCCS research and to critical mass communication research in general, gender came to occupy a place as important if not more important than the place of social class;

  • there was a strong focus on popular culture rather than on, for example, avant-garde film (High Culture), or on working class culture or folklore;

  • the social context of media use was seen as very important; whereas the properties of the media text itself were given less attention than in text-focused forms of analysis.

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