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volume 4
september 2001

The active audience and wrong turns in media studies


  Rescuing media power
by David Miller and Greg Philo
  In the field of media and cultural studies many researchers have stopped looking for media effects. Instead, they have become obsessed by audience interpretations of "texts". On discovering that people have different views about the world, they mistakenly advance the thesis that texts have no fixed meanings and reject concepts such as media power and influence. In this essay, an extract from their recent book Market Killing. What the free market does and what social scientists can do about it (London: Longman, 2001), Greg Philo and David Miller criticise this work on audiences and cultural consumption which they think is poor in methods and conceptualisation.
1 The active audience and the politics of pleasure. The encounter with philosophy and post-modern theory has left much cultural / communications studies and indeed many other areas of social science, struggling with the notion of small groups or individuals "actively" constructing their own interpretations and the meaning of their world. People can apparently live in what amounts to a sealed space of thought and language creating their own versions of what is taken to be real on the basis of pre-existing beliefs, values, codes or competencies — rather as football supporters are alleged to "see" only the fouls committed by the other side.

There are two key theoretical assumptions in this approach which we want to criticise here. First, the assumption that texts can mean whatever audiences interpret them to mean — and that they only have meaning with each new interpretation. Second, the assumption that the producer of a text can describe the world in an indefinite number of ways and that there is no recourse to an agreed reality to evaluate the description. There can be no assessment on grounds of accuracy / truth and there can be no agreed evidence which can be shared or acknowledged between perspectives. Neither is it possible to explain the genesis of the description in real outside interests.

  These assumptions appear in different areas of media and cultural studies including studies on pleasure, identity and in the theory of the active audience. This last theoretical approach illustrates many of the problems in academic work which has lost touch with the real world. For an audience to be "active" could mean simply that people are not cultural dopes who believe everything they are told in the media. We would certainly accept this and our own work suggests clearly that different audiences can understand a media message but can have different responses to it. Some people believe and accept the message, others reject it using knowledge from their own experience or can use processes of logic or other rationales to criticise what is being said.
  But some theorists go beyond this to suggest that audiences create their own meanings from the text — i.e. meaning is in the encounter with the text. The suggestion is that a text will mean completely different things to different audiences. This could perhaps happen if the audience literally doesn't speak the language of the message, or if there are radical cultural differences between those who produce the message and those who receive it; as for example when European colonists in Africa or Asia appropriated artefacts which were of great cultural or religious significance and thought they would make nice wall decorations.
  But our own work on responses to media output suggests that varied audience groups have a very clear understanding of what is the intended message and can reproduce it very accurately. We tested this across a number of different areas of media output and formats — on coverage of Northern Ireland (Miller, 1994); images of mental illness (Philo, 1996); and on the reporting of the 1984/5 miners strike (Philo, 1990).
  We asked audience groups to produce their own news accounts and scripts of films and soap operas from memory. They were given a small number of photographs from the particular story to act as a stimulus. In the study of beliefs about the miners strike we gave small groups of people photographs from news coverage with which they wrote there own "news story" and they were then questioned about what they actually believed. In the event, the different groups were very clear on what the intended message of news reporting was — i.e. that picketing was violent and miners were blamed for the trouble. They did not interpret the intended meaning of the news differently; i.e. it was not the case that conservative groups saw the news as showing miners "fouls" while the miners and their supporters saw the news as showing police "fouls". There were of course differences between the groups — not over the meaning of the message but on whether or not they believed it. Some of these differences were related to pre-existing beliefs, but even here not everyone remained fixed in their views. Some who were sympathetic to the strike were weakened in their support by what they had seen in news reports. There were clear examples of media influence on belief and opinion.
  We also found that some people criticised the truth of media accounts using processes of logic and reasoning. This was not confined to people who supported the strike. For example one very conservative person commented that she "would have shot" the striking miners. Nonetheless she rejected the news message and believed that the strike was mostly peaceful. She argued that this was necessarily so because of the numbers involved, as she out it: "... because of the amount who were actually on strike, if you take that into account, it can't all have been violent." In another group a respondent made a similar point noting that "if they had been really violent the police couldn't have coped, it would have been the army" (Philo, 1990: 40; 108).
  The use of logic and evidence about what really happened concerned other group members. A group of three solicitors who were very conservative in their views debated the real content of the photographs they were using to write a news exercise. They picked up a photograph of pickets which actually showed people standing around peacefully and sitting on the ground. One then suggested as a text to go with it: "They drove through the angry mobs." A second person then commented: "That doesn't look like an angry mob to me." The first replied: "Oh, these ones here don't look too happy." As a result of this exchange the line eventually became: "They drove through the gates" (Philo, 1990: 60-61). The point here is that these participants used a photograph as agreed evidence to give an account which differed from the initial view of "picket violence".
  In other groups some people used different forms of direct experience to criticise the news message on violence. Two people from Bromley in Kent who again were politically conservative, rejected what they had seen in news reports on the grounds that they had met miners and their families while on holiday in the North of England. They had got on very well with them and had refused to believe that they were the sort of people who could be violent (Philo, 1990: 114). Our research did not show people effortlessly constructing the meaning of texts on the basis of pre-existing systems of thought. Some who were sympathetic to the miners were influenced negatively by media coverage, while some others who were politically conservative rejected the news coverage on violence. There was also a large group of people who had a limited knowledge of the strike and did not have any direct experience of the events. These were the people who were most likely to be influenced in their beliefs by news reporting . We also showed that people from different perspectives agreed on the meaning of the message and that the accuracy of the message could be evaluated using agreed evidence.
  Much of this would be anathema to a theory which portrayed audience members as sealed in their own conceptual space, producing their own interpretations of the text. We are not of course the only people to criticise active audience theory. James Curran (1990: 281) has termed it a "new revisionism", as "old pluralist dishes" presented as new cuisine, while John Corner (1991: 151) has described it as "complacent relativism". We will show now how some of the confusions within active audience theory have developed and specifically how they have grown from the use of the "encoding / decoding" model in media studies.
2 From encoding / decoding to television as a toaster. The encoding / decoding model was originally proposed by Stuart Hall. There are several different versions of his paper. In the earliest there is a long section discussing media influence in relation to genre using the specific example of the Western and violence (Hall, 1973a; 1974). Here we find an account that is based on a "semiology which seeks to ground itself in historical realities." It argues that "in part what the production of the Western genre / code achieved was the transformation of a real historical west, selectively, into the symbolic of mythic 'West'" (Hall, 1973a: 6).
  In this passage we find a contrast drawn between reality and a mythical / ideological account with the implication that reality is knowable and that a key impact of Westerns might be to mislead audiences about "historical realities". This section of the paper was included in the version published in 1974 but left out of the later version (Hall, 1980). In fact reality doesn't make much appearance in the 1980 version. Instead we have an account which rather confusedly stresses that audiences have different understandings of texts. They "decode" texts in different ways according to a variety of "decoding positions".
The model suggests — and crucially has been widely taken to suggest — that it is the meanings of texts which are "negotiated" rather than meanings about reality. In practice what is being discussed (in the 1973 version and much less so in the 1980 version), behind all the terminology is that there are conflicting versions of reality which arise from the material fact of conflicting power and interests. [1] Yet the impact of the encoding / decoding model was to shift the attention from contestation over reality and to focus instead simply on the text and its interpretation. [2]
  There was another key factor in the portrayal of the active audience and its free floating powers of "interpretative resistance" to media messages. This was the development of research designs which in practice were unable to investigate or find effects. This was because they tended only to examine the interpretation (or "reading") of texts rather than whether anyone believed them. The move from examining the role of texts in the interpretation of reality to examining the interpretations of texts only thus lost a crucial link with the material world. Research in this tradition was unable to properly conceptualise questions of influence on popular beliefs about the world. Such research did not examine the influence of media on belief or the actual use by audiences of their own real experience in criticising texts — as opposed to their presumed ability to simply make up another meaning.
  The encoding / decoding model was used by Morley (1980) in his well known Nationwide audience study. This ushered in a large body of work premised on active audience theory. Morley later criticised this use of his results, saying that reception studies has been wrongly taken to be "documenting the total absence of media influence, in the 'semiotic democracy' of post-modern pluralism" (Morley, 1997: 125). But one of the reasons why Morley's work could be used in this way followed from the original research design. It is a relatively static model which was intended to show whether sub-groups such as trade unionists could "de-construct" the preferring strategies of the dominant code in media texts — e.g. by "seeing through" loaded questions. Morley found evidence that they could. This was then taken as support for the assumption the sub-groups could be safe in their systems of codes and competencies, reinterpreting the dominant code, making their own meanings and pleasures. What was missing from Morley's research design was the capacity to trace the sources of the belief systems of the groups. The analysis was held very largely at the micro level of the decoding moment (see: Philo, 1990).
  Our own research showed that beliefs can be influenced by new messages from the media and also by the flow of new experience which can itself potentially be used in the rejection or acceptance of new messages. (As can other factors including cultural histories, processes of logic etcetera). In other words the reception model should be dynamic. Media messages change and so does the flow of experience. The two are crucially related. When political ideologies are developed as political practice, they have consequences in public experience. This means that the systems of ideas which legitimise social and political power must be constantly re-worked. The belief that the capitalist economy was best left to free marketeers was challenged after the collapse of share prices on Black Monday in 1987, followed by the collapse of the housing market after 1988. The free market produced radical and very negative changes in many social lives. In the eighteen years after 1979, the poor really did get poorer, there were increases in interpersonal violence, unemployment and insecurity at work. Political propaganda must therefore be re-formulated to explain / apologise or legitimise new relationships and events (Philo, 1995).
  It is exactly because people are not sealed off in conceptual bubbles or positioned indefinitely by static structures of discourse, that there is a need to constantly re-work social ideas in the relation to the defence of interests. If belief systems were not constantly challenged by new experience and its contradictions, there would be no need for political debate. In real societies, there are parties, class fractions and interest groups who contest how the world is to be explained and what is to be understood as necessary, possible and desirable within it. In our work we have analysed the role of the media in such struggles because of its potential power in reflecting and developing key elements of belief. But with a few exceptions, the content of media messages and their impact on audiences has largely disappeared from media and cultural studies.
  The emphasis in recent work has been very much on the use which audiences make of messages. Morley and Lull for example both looked at how television programmes are used by family groups as "common references" to explain things and to illustrate points which people are trying to make (Morley, 1986: 32). As Lull argues:
  "... viewers not only make their own interpretations of shows, they also construct the situations in which viewing takes place and the ways in which acts of viewing, and programme content, are put to use" (Lull, 1988: 17; see also: Lull, 1990).
  We have argued elsewhere that the methodologies used in such studies are limited in that their focus is explicitly on audience members uses of television — and often collect data by asking people how they use television. This is likely to neglect changes in belief which result from watching television about subjects where there is no discussion or interchange of ideas within the family. For example, in one family who we interviewed for a study of beliefs about mental illness, the father and mother had opposite views on the degree to which conditions such as schizophrenia were linked to violence. The father was a policeman, the mother a nurse, and their understanding related to work experience. Their children all linked mental illness to violence and cited TV / horror films as their source of information. The family members were not aware of all these differences in views. It was a "no-no" area — as they said, simply not something they would discuss. Other "taboo" areas for "family discussion" could include politics, sexuality, child abuse etcetera (Philo, 1996).
In the work by Morley and Lull texts were no longer of much interest. Instead viewing processes and negotiation in the household were the central focus. Such an approach could not and did not have any interest in questions of influence. However, such work is still used as evidence that media influences are if anything minimal. Another area of investigation has been the uses — particularly the gendered uses — of technologies, revealing for example who had the power to hold the television channel changer (Morley and Silverstone, 1990; 1991; Silverstone, 1990). While such research can be valuable for other purposes (see particularly Cynthia Cockburn's 1992 analysis of gender and technology) it does not tell us very much about the formation of public belief (see: Silverstone, 1994). What is special about television and radio is that they are message bearing technologies. They raise issues which make them different from other appliances and from who makes the toast or does the ironing. A television is very different from a toaster. [3]
3 Popular culture and power from below. For the exponents of consumer culture and those who celebrate the "popular" there are two key assumptions. First that there are no means of establishing cultural value and second, that popular culture is seen to emerge from below. It is apparently not imposed from above, nor do the cultural industries appear to have much to do with the formation and transformation of beliefs, tastes or values. Here we see a regurgitation of the official myth of the cultural industries that they simply follow public tastes (for a review of such positions see: McGuigan, 1992). Perhaps more importantly there is no analysis in such theories of how the everyday relations of a "modern" society, produce interpersonal competition, new definitions of what it is to be successful and new "badges" which declare that success — which are provided and promoted by the culture industries.
  Fiske is perhaps the best known advocate of popular culture, which, for him, is identified with people's culture. He writes that it "is formed always in reaction to, and never as part of, the forces of domination" (Fiske, 1989a: 43). Similarly, we can find Mike Featherstone (1991: 141) arguing that popular culture is "the culture of the poor" and an "appreciation of the common people". Here, the role of the cultural industries in helping to shape tastes and sell products is at best minimal. The products of advanced capitalism are so efficiently appropriated that no traces of their intended meanings remain. For Fiske popular culture is by definition resistance to domination:
  "Popular pleasures must always be those of the oppressed, they must contain elements of the oppositional, the evasive, the scandalous, the offensive, the vulgar, the resistant. Pleasures offered by ideological conformity are muted and hegemonic; they are not popular pleasures and work in opposition to them" (Fiske, 1989a: 127).
  Featherstone (1991: 140) also apparently endorses the post-modern view of "the multi-faceted nature, and bewildering and non-hierarchical disorder of popular cultures." We can also find one of Fiske's followers, James Lull, arguing that:
  "Popular culture ... is empowering. The mass media contribute to the process by distributing cultural resources to oppressed individuals and subordinate groups which they use to construct their tactics of resistance against hegemonic strategies of containment" (Lull, 1995: 73).
  Lull concludes his book with three "fundamental axioms", one of which is that "social actors interpret and use the symbolic environment in ways which advance their personal, social and cultural interests" (Lull, 1995: 174).
  We can ask for whom popular culture is empowering? If it is everyone, do Fiske and Lull mean to suggest that it is also empowering for adherents of the far-right, for child abusers, for racists or misogynists? If so, does this remain a resistant and oppositional use of dominant culture? As for the suggestion that "popular" culture is non-hierarchical, tell that to the victims of "popular" cultures which celebrate power and violence for men, attractiveness and beauty for women and able-bodiedness for all. We are not suggesting that "popular culture" is not important, nor that it should not be studied. We do think that there is a fateful confusion in the work of the populists, which is that they confuse the culture of the people with the products provided by capitalist corporations. The uncritical celebration of the products of the system is a woefully inadequate way of studying or understanding the forces which shape our world
  For many cultural theorists ordinary people show an impressive ability to "resist" or "subvert" dominant culture. Yet the activities which are said to be resistant are often trivial. As Todd Gitlin has put it:
  "First, there is the search for the radical potential in marginal or 'alternative' ... culture ... One upshot is the prayer, or conviction, that a sufficiently angry youth culture would constitute, by itself, radical politics; keeping alive a flame that the industrial working class had long let flicker out ... Failing to find radical potential in the politics of parties or mass movements, they exalt 'resistance' in subcultures, or, one step on, in popular styles, or even ... in the observation that viewers watch TV with any attitude other than devoted rapture. This is the second version of resistance theory ... the search for signs of political insurgency in mainstream culture ... At times ... the unstated operating assumption is that popular culture is already politics, and, moreover, some sort of insurgency" (Gitlin, 1991: 335-336).
  Gitlin goes on to ask what precisely constitutes "resistance":
  "Resistance, meaning all sorts of grumbling, multiple interpretation, semiological inversion, pleasure, rage, friction, numbness, what have you; 'resistance' is accorded dignity, even glory, by stamping these not-so-great refusals with a vocabulary derived from life-threatening work against fascism. As if the same concept should serve for the Chinese student uprising and cable TV grazing" (Gitlin, 1991: 336).
We would also want to argue that it is possible to see the type of activities described as "resistance" in such work as evidence of the adoption of dominant values. [4] One of Fiske's examples (1989a; see also: 1993) of the resistant tactics of popular culture is the shopping mall. Here, "the young are shopping mall guerrillas par excellence" (Fiske, 1989a: 37). Their arguments with security guards and their shoplifting escapades are celebrated as resistance in action. In the rush to validate "popular" culture, analysts such as Fiske come close to suggesting that the ultimate in cultural liberation would be the ability of each of us to "liberate" the occasional leather jacket. The question they do not ask is, if people feel impelled to steal the symbols of the rich and style-obsessed, is this because they are resisting dominant culture or because they have absorbed its values? Joy riders do not take Morris Travellers, or cars with "baby on board" stickers. They prefer SRi's and hot hatch backs (Home Office, 1997).
There is also an irony here, which is that the "popular" is understood as that which sells a lot or is widely watched. Popular culture is defined in terms of commodities. [5] This type of popular is celebrated. But other types of popular culture are simultaneously treated with derision. We can point here to the real and enduring — though evolving — sense of their own identities which are clearly important in individuals lives and in moving history. Some of these are seen as reactionary and old fashioned and as being the result of essentialist myths of, for example, "the nation" or of "ethnicity". Such "myths" appear to have become more popular in recent years rather then less — with the emergence of new states and tendencies to devolution. Yet, media and cultural studies have not been in the vanguard celebrating popular attachment to such ideologies. On the contrary, many academics in media and cultural studies are more likely to condemn this type of popular culture. It can certainly be argued that some forms of popular nationalism are not at all politically progressive — from the National Front to ethnic cleansing. Yet, no whiff of criticism of the products of the culture industries can be made for fear of being branded elitist. As Terry Eagleton suggests, the "landscapes of popular pleasure" seem:
  "... to boil down for the moment to media, shopping and lifestyle, and ... those who look for forms of individual self-development other than choosing between fancy brand names [are] slurred as both sexist and elitist" (Eagleton, 1996a: 5).
4 Audience and consumption pleasure. Many audience studies have emphasised pleasure. [6] This approach is a major development of work on the active audience and directs attention to the creative ways in which people — very often women — gain pleasure from popular texts. In most of this work audiences are seen as actively constructing meaning so that texts which appear on the face of it to be reactionary or patriarchal, can be subverted. Some of the work also dissolves textual meaning into audience interpretation in similar ways to those discussed above. Much of this represents either a misguided attempt to celebrate the abilities of ordinary people or a search for a replacement for the lost proletariat.
  Whether it is the pleasure which housewives get in breaking up their day by listening to Noel Edmonds on Radio 1 (Hobson, 1980), or of watching JR and Sue Ellen in Dallas (Ang, 1985), pleasure is seen as somehow politically progressive. As Harris remarks:
  "The seeking of semiotic pleasure becomes the central form of resistance, the appropriation of signifiers the substance of politics, linguistic practice the archetype of all subjective and cultural practice ... the linguistic now includes every activity, from shopping to fantasising to playing video games" (Harris, 1992: 166)
  For Ang, the world of fantasy is apparently the "place of excess, where the unimaginable can be imagined" (Ang, 1996: 106). In a review of Janice Radway's (1984) study of readers of romantic fiction, fantasy and fiction are said by Ang to "offer a private and unconstrained space in which the socially impossible or unacceptable subject positions, or those which are in some way too dangerous or risky to be acted out in real life, can be adopted" (Ang, 1996: 94). Real life is dangerous, Ang says, and she adds:
  "In fantasy and fiction however, there is no punishment for whatever identity one takes up, no matter how headstrong or destructive: there will be no retribution, no defeat will ensue. Fantasy and fiction, then are the safe places of excess in the interstices of ordered social life" (Ang, 1996: 95).
  This approach evacuates questions of power and interests from the discussion of fantasy and pleasure. The pleasures gained are seen as fundamentally separate from politics and the real. They are a place of escape. We can note here that in fact, fictional accounts of romance, love and sex regularly do end up with the woman being — often violently — punished (Cameron and Fraser, 1987). Furthermore audience research on representations of sexual violence — in which Ang has not engaged — has found that women viewers tended not to emphasise "pleasure, escape and fantasy" but "relevance and social importance" (Schlesinger et al, 1992: 168).
  The extent to which the space of fantasy is unconstrained is difficult to judge since the fantasies of romance readers to which Ang (1996: 98-108, discussing Radway, 1984) refers, are more or less based on the romantic idyll promoted by romance novels. This is so to such an extent that according to Radway's findings (Radway, 1984), which Ang notes, readers will reject novels which do not conform to the classic romance. The adoption by romance readers of "socially impossible" subject positions is also an interesting concept. Given the actual responses of the readers in Radway's study the socially impossible subject positions which Ang finds so appealing, seem to consist of no more than the desire for Mr Right.
  There is also a residual sense in which pleasure is seen as politically positive. What we might call the will to romance, should, according to Ang (1996: 107), "be taken seriously as a psychical strategy by which women empower themselves in everyday life, leaving apart what its ideological consequences in social reality are." Ang of course has nothing whatever to say about ideological consequences and would prefer that such vulgar questions were bracketed off altogether.
  Fantasy and pleasure are not innocent of traces of power and the will to it. Would any socially unacceptable "subject position" from which pleasure was derived be regarded as innocent ? Curiously, as Harris (1992: 170) notes, "we hear only about the semiotic struggles of the politically correct." We hear very little of the pleasure of fantasies of power and domination. Such pleasure comes from the exercise of — physical, material or symbolic — power over objects or other beings. We have already alluded to some examples of this in the pleasure of consumption or the pleasure of violence. We can also think of examples of pleasure in subordination, where a bad or intolerable situation is made better by grabbing pleasures where one can or even where some pleasure is taken in being the victim of oppression itself. This is known as masochism. Where are the studies which question such "pleasure"?
  As Harris (1992: 170) notes, "there is no analysis of the interplay between nature and culture in popular bloodsports, nothing on the blissful potential re-entry into nature and jouissant loss of self as the pitbulls clash, or the terriers seize the foxcub." We also note that the pleasure of participating in the "turkey shoot" of the gulf war — as an Allied soldier or as a viewer — has not yet been analysed, nor has the pleasure of the popular pastime of racist abuse and violence, or of sexual harassment and rape. Have we really nothing more to say about popular culture than "people like it"? (Williamson, 1986: 19, cited in: McGuigan, 1992: 78).
5 Identity, difference and the other. Recently much research has disappeared into the ever shifting sands of relativism offered by theories on identity, "difference", and "otherness". In many cases these entirely neglect questions of power and interests — as if "others" are universal constructs of all cultures rather than related to ideal and material interests in specific historical circumstances. Work in this area draws on two of the major themes outlined above. First it emphasises the active role of people in the construction of identities — that is identities are not determined by socio-economic forces, but are "creatively" put together. Second there is a strand which stresses the textuality, or linguistic nature, of identity. Identities are seen as an effect of discourse — discourse "speaks" through us. Although these two approaches seem contradictory, they do coexist in a variety of writings on identity. As Eagleton puts it, "at once libertarian and determinist, [postmodernism] dreams of a human subject set free from constraint, gliding deliriously from one position to another, and holds simultaneously that the subject is the mere effect of forces which constitute it through and through" (Eagleton, 1996b: 28-29).
Many theorists want to validate what people do in difficult circumstances, or to find alternative radical movements in feminism, gay rights or, more recently, the environmental movement. But they don't have any empirical account of how people actually construct their sense of self in real social relationships, in the context of competing forces and interests. Instead they see people as inhabiting discourses, or as "hailing" a passing identity. [7] Both versions share a tendency to slip into cultural and epistemological relativism and therefore suffer from an inability to analyse or discuss the material and historical circumstances in which identities are forged. Consequently they do not properly acknowledge the "real present day political and other reasons why essentialist identities continue to be evoked and often deeply felt" (Calhoun, 1994: 14).
  Many contemporary authors (e.g. Hall, 1990; 1992; 1996; Grossberg, 1996; Gilroy, 1997; Rutherford, 1990) have sought to oppose essentialism in conceptions of identity — the assumption that there is some "essence" in history or biology which determines ethnic, gender, national or sexual identity. As an alternative some have adopted as a mirror image, a form of cultural essentialism, which neglects the specific historical circumstances in which differences are named, thought significant and enrolled in the service of, or opposition to, power. The myth of essential national or racial identity is replaced by these theorists with the myth of the necessary "other". Identities are held to be unstable and constantly in formation as opposed to being static and unchanging — as in the allegedly essentialist versions. "The discursive approach sees identification as a construction, a process never completed — always 'in process'" (Hall, 1996: 2). The fluidity of identity is not only grounds for optimism, but an indication (again) of the active way in which identities are constructed and put together — as if they were not durable (if changing / evolving) parts of the cultural landscape. Alternatively, where identities are conceived as the positioning effects of discourse (Hall, 1990), our "activity" is somewhat more constrained. In either version, even where history or reality are specifically noted as important (as in Hall, 1996), it is as if identities could be changed just by thinking about them.
One of the leading theorists in this area is Judith Butler, author of two widely cited books: Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies that Matter (1993). Two aspects of Butler's work stand out: Her insistence that not only gender but sexual difference itself is discursively constructed; [8] and her theory of performativity — that gender identity is an effect of "performative speech acts" (Butler, 1997). As Barbara Epstein writes:
  "[Butler] argues that not only gender but sex itself, that is, sexual difference, should be seen as an effect of power relations and cultural practices, as constructed 'performatively' — that is, by acts whose meaning is determined by their cultural context. Butler argues that the conventional view of sex as consisting of two given, biologically determined categories, male and female, is ideological, and defines radical politics as consisting of parodic performances that might undermine what she calls 'naturalized categories of identity'. Her assertion that sexual difference is socially constructed strains belief. It is true that there are some people whose biological sex is ambiguous, but this is not the case for the vast majority of people. Biological difference has vast implications, social and psychological; the fact that we do not yet fully understand these does not mean that they do not exist. Butler's understanding of radicalism shows how the meaning of the word has changed in the postmodernist arena. It no longer has to do with efforts to achieve a more egalitarian society. It refers to the creation of an arena in which the imagination can run free. It ignores the fact that only a privileged few can play at taking up and putting aside identities" (Epstein, 1997).
  As other feminist critics have argued, Butler's position reduces feminism to a struggle over representation, ignoring the macro — economic, social, political and cultural — structures which contribute to women's secondary status (Fraser, 1981). It also evacuates women from feminist theory since "woman" as a category is held to be an unstable fiction. This is, as Modleski (1991) has put it, Feminism without Women (see the discussion in: Segal, 1997). Butler's radical discursive approach to sex results in all manner of tangled reasoning as she both denies our ability to understand the world except through discourse and at the same time insists that she knows how the world really works:
  "When people ask the question 'Aren't these biological differences?', they're not really asking a question about the materiality of the body. They're actually asking whether or not the social institution of reproduction is the most salient one for thinking about gender. In that sense there is a discursive enforcement of a norm" (Butler, 1997: 236; see also: Butler, 1993: 1-23).
  If meaning is unstable, it is unclear to us how Butler can "know" what people "actually" mean. It might be the case that this is the inference or intention underlying the statement or it might not. Certainly that meaning is not literally encoded in the question. If Butler really does think that there is no difference between making an observation of fact and an avowal of a gender norm, then it is impossible for her to say what is actually the case. Gender "performances" there certainly are, but it is preposterous to reduce gender identity, sexuality and sexual differentiation to the discursive notion of a perpetually deferred performativity.
Furthermore "Performativity" as with other poststructuralist positions on identity lacks any sense of agency. [9] Hall does make a valiant effort in this respect to rethink agency and subjectivity in discussing the "suturing of the psychic and the discursive" (Hall, 1996: 16). But this still neglects the material and ideal interests which construct and are expressed in identities. Furthermore, Hall (1996: 2) says: "I agree with Foucault," that we do not require "a theory of the knowing subject, but rather a theory of discursive practice." For Hall and others in this tradition, discourses speak through people, or at best, we "inhabit" discursive positions: "Identities are ... points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us" (Hall, 1996: 6). As we note above such positions do not allow for the fact that people make judgements on the world based on their own experience and processes of logic and evaluation. There is no theory of how people inhabit discourse or of the processes by which we select between discourses. [10] It is as if we magically find ourselves preferring democracy over fascism.
  Grossberg (1996) similarly attempts to escape the incoherence of identity theory but is held back by not engaging with the material factors which encourage or inhibit the linking of difference to power relations in particular historical periods. For Hall and others in this tradition the question of the formation of identities is posed in such a way as to divert attention from the process by which identities are constructed. According to Hall identities "actually" involve us in:
  "... using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not 'who we are' or 'where we came from', so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves. Identities are therefore constituted within, not outside representation" (Hall, 1996: 4).
  It is not clear to us how Hall can really be sure that this is what identity "actually" involves, since by his own definition we cannot say what has really happened in history or the present or how this might "actually" construct identities. More fundamentally, this position sees identities as the product of uses of history. History is simply a resource of the mythical to be used in the "invention of tradition" and the construction of new identities. On the contrary, history provides the real material circumstances in which identities are produced and project towards the future. As Ahmad argues, it is inadequate to deny with the poststructuralists and writers such as Hall and Butler "the historical reality of the sedimentations which do in fact give particular collectivities of people real civilizational identities" (Ahmad, 1992: 11).
6 On experience, the missing link. As we showed above, the crucial factor missing from an analysis which emphasises that reality (or identity) is constituted in discourse (or representation) is that of experience. Experience doesn't feature here. But in the real world, as E.P. Thompson argued, experience:
  "... walks in without knocking at the door, and announces deaths, crises of subsistence, trench warfare, unemployment, inflation, genocide. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law" (Thompson, 1981: 406).
  By contrast the approaches to identity we have been discussing do not explain the process by which people accept ideas or reject them, they do not explain how ideas change or the way in which changing material circumstances occasion changes in thought. The proponents of discursive theory would object to this division between material circumstances and ideas. One such theorist is Joan Scott (1991) who has explicitly challenged the "evidence of experience". According to her, "we need to attend to the historical processes that, through discourse, position subjects and produce their experiences. It is not individuals who have experience but subjects who are constituted through experience" (Scott, 1991: 779). Later she writes of the need "to refuse a separation between "experience" and language and to insist instead on the productive quality of discourse" (Scott, 1991: 793).
  But language does not create new experiences, and new experience does not only occur if the subject has an appropriate language category with which to name it — this is perhaps why people so frequently say things such as: "I can't make sense of this," "I can't quite express what I mean." Scott attempts to address this point in her discussion of agency. She writes:
  "Subjects are constituted discursively and experience is a linguistic event — it doesn't happen outside established meanings — but neither is it confined to a fixed order of meaning. Since discourse is by definition shared, experience is collective as well as individual. Experience can both confirm what is already known — we see what we have learned to see — and upset what has been taken for granted — when different meanings are in conflict we read just our vision to take account of the conflict or to resolve it; that is what is meant by 'learning from experience' though not everyone learns the same lesson or learns it at the same time or in the same way" (Scott, 1991: 793)
  But this is not what is meant by learning from experience. This is especially the case when the "established meanings" do not match up to our experiences of the material world. It is precisely for this reason that new words are coined and new meanings born. Look again at the passage above — "when different meanings are in conflict we read just our vision." The key problem for this account is that it cannot explain how the meanings we now have came into existence and how meanings might change. In the absence of either the flow of material events or human agency meanings could not be created and nor would they have to change. To follow this theory we would have to accept that the meanings which are found in the work of Joan Scott — and other post-structuralists — emerged fully formed with the evolution of the first human and have circulated without change throughout all of human history. Australopithicus as the first postmodernist.
  Our point is that language is adapted and developed in the ceaseless flow of human activity. These activities create new relationships and possibilities which can be conceptualised and named. New concepts and their description can develop with new relationships. For example, the phrase "living beyond your means" necessarily presupposes a society with the capacity to develop a surplus, a method of trading it and a system of credit. Without these, in a subsistence economy, people would have their means of surviving and would consume them. It would be inconceivable to "live beyond" them. This raises the interesting question of how new words and definitions develop and how they are "worked upon" to be appropriate for specific purposes. This is crucial because our view is that language is purposive and is used by active cognizing subjects. The level of reflection in use and "work" will certainly vary according to circumstance. But we do not accept the radical de-centering of the subject in contemporary post-modern accounts and the view that subjects merely "hail" passing discourses and are "positioned" by them.
  In practice people actively make sense of and give meaning to their world and in doing so they use different resources, such as the media or new information from peer groups. Our colleague Jenny Kitzinger has shown, how women engage in collective sense making on issues such as male violence. She illustrates how a group of women can re-define and name what they already "felt" about past experience — but which had in a sense been inappropriately named and defined. She describes a focus group discussion in which women comment upon a poster which had been produced for a campaign against male violence. The poster included the statement that fifty percent of girls would encounter some form of abuse. At first the women in the group dissented from this but as they discussed the issue they came to the conclusion that they had in fact all experienced some form of sexual contact which was at the very least, "unwanted" if not outrightly abusive. The discussion ended with these comments from three women (Kitzinger, 1999: 16-17):
  • f2: "All these years I just thought: 'Oh that was the night I lost my virginity.' I hadn't actually took the time to think about what actually happened ... He forced me. Now I'm thinking, for fuck's sake, when I lost my virginity I was raped. I remember actually thumping him to get him off me and he wouldn't get off ... I was too young, I didn't want to do it ... I couldn't physically get him off me. I was beating him and I couldn't get him off. It was all over."
  • f1: "... the first time I got drunk, I lost my virginity. I didn't want to do it either. I was pretty young as well."
  • f3: "You see, I'm the exact same ... So that's every single person in this room."
  The women in this group are not simply "hailing" another discourse at random, nor is their sense of what happened determined by a new (feminist) discourse. They work on the possibility of explaining and giving expression to what they have already felt and experienced. The attempt to force someone off is a real and profoundly felt response but what had happened had not been thought through or clearly defined as an assault. As Thompson suggested the effect of grim experience is to create the possibility of meditating on new ways of explaining it. It may first be named in a way which is inappropriate or be met with incomprehension. It is not uncommon for people to "feel" that an existing explanation or definition is not right. They may then have to struggle to adapt words and find new ways of explaining what was only partly identified or understood. This can involve them in making new meanings rather than just being spoken through by the ventriloquism of discourse.
  Our final objections to the discursive approach are then its idealism and its consequent inability to relate to material process. It is just so implausibly neat in its portrayal of the well ordered conceptual structures which allegedly organise what can be seen and known. It is not surprising that its theorists rarely attempt to measure or account for public consciousness through empirical work. Such consciousness in practise is very messy — a mass of sometimes half understood concepts and ideas, bits of information from the media and peer groups, jokes, fears, memories of childhood, school, home and work experiences, judgements about what is true, fair, legitimate, desirable, and what is necessary and what is possible, responses from social and political cultures which often contain quite contradictory beliefs. Within such consciousness it is possible to discern ways of understanding, perspectives and responses which relate to factors such as class, ethnicity or gender and which are formed in relation to social interests. Such ideologies do function to limit what can be understood, but our point is that they are potentially unstable in the flow of material circumstances, they are contradictory and are contested. The manner in which all these different elements of social consciousness develop and change over time can only be established through empirical work. In contrast, the theories of identity — as an effect of discourse — which we have discussed here, are simply speculative and are constructed independently of any account of how people think and act in the world.
1. In another paper dated a month later in 1973, Hall (1973b) does discuss the fact that differential readings, "arise from the fact that events are interpretable in more than one framework or context: different groups or classes of people will bring different explanatory frameworks to bear, depending on their social position, their interests, place in the hierarchy of power and so on" (Hall, 1973b: 14). In this passage it is clearer that Hall is talking of readings of events and not of texts (Hall, 1973b: 13-15). Nevertheless, there is a confusion in his work from this which has been resolved in audience research — and in Hall's subsequent work — in favour of the interpretation of texts. Return to text
2. This was also the direction in which Hall himself moved as can be seen from an interview — about the encoding / decoding model — given by him in 1989 (Hall, 1994). Return to text
3. Morley objects to this description of his work. He writes that we see research on the domestic consumption of television as the "sad and mistaken" result of the "long journey from the — apparently now halcyon — days of the encoding / decoding model" (Morley, 1998: 487). But we do not see the encoding / decoding model in such positive terms. Indeed, as we argue above, we see some of the problems of audience research and its flight from both the real and the text as originating in the model.
  Morley (1998: 487) goes on to argue that, "the whole point of my own research into the domestic context of reception was not to 'abandon' questions of media power, textuality — or indeed ideology — but rather to complement that perspective on the 'vertical' dimension of media power, with a simultaneous address to its 'horizontal' / ritual dimension." It may well be that case that Morley did not intend to abandon questions of media power and ideology , and it may also be the case that we haven't read enough of Morley's work, but we can't find any evidence in any of his audience work from 1986 onwards of an engagement with such questions, except to minimise their importance. Return to text
4. Seaman (1992) makes a similar argument in relation to work on the social uses of television in his critique of the "active audience". Return to text
5. "... a set of generally available artefacts: films, records, clothes, TV programmes, modes of transport, etcetera," as Hebdige (1988) puts it. The popular then, is determined by virtue of market research techniques which the same theorists otherwise deride as being simply discourses (Ang, 1991). This concentration on the products of consumer capitalism as coterminous with popular culture is widespread. It is endorsed by Strinati, 1995 and appears to inform the new Open University course on Culture, Media and Identities. There it is the production of meanings associated with the Sony Walkman which are the focus of cultural analysis (Du Gay et al, 1996). Return to text
6. In some analyses the pleasures of media consumption are assumed to be equally available to all. But there are some more sophisticated versions which discuss choice and pleasure in popular culture in terms of cultural competence, drawing on the work of Bourdieu (1984). Bourdieu's influential work on class hierarchies in cultural tastes focused on the process whereby members of the middle class became "educated" into "appreciating" high culture. Taste in Bourdieu's analysis was a marker for class. Contemporary audience theorists have adapted this work and argued that rather than middle class people having a monopoly on cultural "competence" it was preferable to see people as simply having different competences (e.g. Brunsdon, 1981; Hobson, 1982; see also: Moores, 1997).
  Thus "the competences necessary for reading soap opera are most likely to have been acquired by those persons culturally constructed through discourses of femininity, the competences necessary for reading current affairs television are most likely to have been acquired by those persons culturally constructed through discourses of masculinity" (Morley, 1992: 129). In this type of argument competence is equated with pleasure and choice. People like and choose what they can understand, as if whatever people can understand will immediately be what they like. This seems to exclude the possibility that people make judgements about what they like. Such judgements are likely to betray all sorts of traces of cultural contexts and processes of socialisation, but we cannot explain public tastes and choices by saying that people cannot understand what they don't like and don't like what they cannot understand.
  It is perfectly possible to "understand" the work of artists such as Damien Hirst, for example — or even the work of writers such as Baudrillard or Lyotard — but to judge it pretentious and irrelevant — and in the latter case, also inaccurate and obfuscatory. On the basis of the notion of cultural competence we would have to agree with Conservative spin doctors that the Conservative Party was rejected at the 1997 election because people didn't understand them, rather than because they made judgements on their record and policies. Return to text
7. An example of the problems of working with a contradictory notion like this can be found in the work of Ang. As we have seen above she has argued that audiences actively make meaning and resist the meanings promoted by the media. Yet she also subscribes to a "poststructuralist" theory of subjectivity which she describes as follows:
  "... subjectivity is not the essence or the source from which the individual acts, thinks and feels; on the contrary ... it is through the meaning systems or discourses circulating in society and culture that discourse is constituted and individual identities are formed. Each individual is the site of a multiplicity of subject positions proposed to her by the discourse with which she is confronted; her identity is the precarious and contradictory result of the specific set of subject positions she inhabits at any moment in history" (Ang, 1996: 93).
  Defending herself against the criticism that the notion of the active audience implies at best a weak notion of media power, Ang argues that on the contrary the proliferation of broadcast media channels means that "active choices" are now the key way in which the media exert power over audiences:
  "... the figure of the 'active audience' has nothing to do with 'resistance', but everything to do with incorporation: the imperative of choice interpellates the audience as 'active'!" (Ang, 1996: 12).
  Here Ang attempts to use the discursive notion of the subject to defend the "active audience" There is a sense here in which we don't make choices, but choices make us. If so, then Ang's arguments about resisting media meanings, or the creative seeking of pleasure immediately collapse under the heavy determination of discourse. In the poststructuralist account the concept of agency — if it figures at all — is rendered devoid of any manifestation of human deliberation and decision making. Joan Scott (1991: 793) insists that "subjects do have agency" but their "agency is created through situations and statuses conferred on them ... Subjects are constituted discursively." Human agency in other words is an effect of discourse and the choices we make are entirely confined within the range of meanings "proposed to us" by discourse. This is agency without an agent. Return to text
8. Such approaches can be found fairly widely in cultural studies. See for example Ros Brunt's (1988) argument that sex is "social and culturally constructed." See also Laclau and Mouffe's (1985) account that political and class identities are discursively constructed. As Epstein writes:
  "[Laclau and Mouffe] argue that all political identities or perspectives are constructed, that there is no particular relation between class position, for instance, and political stance. In support of this, they argue that workers are not automatically socialist or even progressive: often they support right-wing politics. Laclau and Mouffe are of course correct that there is no automatic connection between class and politics, or between the working class and socialism, but this does not mean that there is no connection between the two, that all interpretations or constructions of class interest are equally possible and equally valid" (Epstein, 1997). Return to text
9. According to Butler (1997: 235), "it is important to distinguish performance from performativity: the former presumes a subject, but the latter contests the very notion of a subject." Return to text
10. Subjects are seen as effects of discourse. To imagine otherwise is to pose what Spivak (1987) in her "pretensiously opaque" (Eagleton, 1999) style describes as a "metalepsis":
  "that which seems to operate as a subject may be part of an immense discontinuous network ... of strands that may be termed politics, ideology, economics, history, sexuality, language, and so on ... Different knottings and configurations of these strands, determined by heterogeneous determinations which are themselves dependent upon myriad circumstances produce the effect of an operating subject. Yet the continuist and homogenist deliberative consciousness symptomatically requires a continuous and homogeneous cause for this effect and thus posits a sovereign determining subject. This latter is, then, the effect of an effect, and its positing a metalepsis, or the substitution of an effect for a cause."
  If we suspend the critical faculties which come with consciousness and assume for a second that all of this is true, the question remains what happens then? What do people actually do with all the myriad of discourses swirling around in their heads? The problem is that seeing subjects as effects of discourse eradicates decision making and human action from its explanatory framework. This is true even of those approaches (e.g. Hall, 1996, 1997a; Nixon, 1997) which attempt to struggle out of the impasse of the "decentred subject" by pointing to Foucault's later work on "technologies of the self" (Foucault, 1988), which describe the "specific techniques or practices through which subject positions are inhabited" (Nixon, 1997: 322). The problem remains that none of these technologies are thought to involve matters of human evaluation, will or judgement. Return to text
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  This essay is extracted by the authors from their book Market killing. What the free market does and what social scientists can do about it. London: Longman, 2001. At the time of writing David Miller was a member of the Stirling Media Research Institute, University of Stirling; he now is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Geography and Sociology of Strathclyde University; email: davidmiller@strath.ac.uk. Greg Philo is research director of the Glasgow University Media Unit; email: g.philo@socsci.gla.ac.uk.
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