READING GUIDE TO: Hall, S (1980)  'Encoding /Decoding' , in Hall S, Hobson D, Lowe A, and Willis P (eds) Culture Media and Language, London: Hutchinson

Quick Summary

Hall wants to defend his own marxist model of communication ( as usual). Here especially, he wants to consider what a marxist might make of studies of the ‘effects’ of television, and of the early discoveries of the ‘active audience’ (that is, one able to find its own meanings in TV broadcasts). These approaches seem to contradict one central argument in marxist approaches – that the mass media are major agents in perpetuating ‘dominant ideology’. Of course, we must not make this a simple, crude, or ‘vulgar’ marxism that says the ruling groups must always dominate us at all times and everywhere.

Hall argues that ‘effects analysis’ is ‘behaviourist’, and  it assumes some immediate connection between a TV image and subsequent behaviour in a viewer (eg violent act on TV spawns violent act by viewer). This model ignores the active role of language in ‘coding’ messages, depicting them, signifying events for the TV audience. It makes the same mistake as simple models of communication like the ‘sender/message/receiver’ model , where the actual medium ( TV) is irrelevant, neutral, or transparent, with no effects of its own. Similarly, there is a naive ‘window on the world’ view, which says that TV cameras merely innocently record reality. Both of these are flawed, says Hall – TV is an active medium, with its own ‘codes’. These necessarily transform ‘behaviours’ or ‘real events’ into televisual signs – professional TV communicators ‘encode’ them,and the way they do this is closely affected by social, cultural and political values. This is, incidentally, the topic addressed at greater length in Hall 1979 – see that ‘reading guide’ too

Of course, audiences can also become active, this time as ‘decoders’. Once a televisual message is broadcast, producers cannot control how it is decoded. There is no simple correspondence between the image and ‘reality’ (signs are arbitrary is how this is usually put) – but it is not always easy to see that coding has taken place, and there is a widespread agreement about the meaning of signs. This agreement has not arisen by chance, or from some genuine consensus – it is produced by an ideological ‘structure in dominance’. Here, Hall turns against another rival – ‘pluralism’ (which tends to deny that there are any forms of ideological messages in media productions, and stresses freely available multiple meanings instead).

This ideological structure is also discussed in more detail in Hall 1979 (which see). In this article, the argument is that ‘dominant codes’ largely succeed in setting an agenda for understanding – some deviant audience decodings are still possible, but they tend to be rendered as ‘misunderstandings’ rather than as alternatives. There might be some ‘negotiated codes’ nevertheless, where viewers object to the catgeories of dominant codes, but in a limited way ( e.g. by arguing that they personally happen to be different). And there might be some downright oppositional codings, where some people are able to completely re-interpret dominant codes and place them in alternative systems of their own (e.g. maintain a marxist view that translates any reference to ‘the national interest’ as a reference to ‘ ruling class interests’.

So – we should be pleased with our theoretical efforts that do seem able to offer sophisticated analysis, incorporating some fashionable French work on language, and thus promising lots of research to come. Politically, we can be cautiously optimistic – there is a (small) potential for a (rather pleasantly academic) ‘struggle in discourse’..

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