An Encoding-Decoding-Recoding Model of Media Studies

This blog posts continues the dissection of my dissertation that I began by introducing the topic of gendered media engagings earlier this year. This post focuses on a model I used in my dissertation to understand the array of media studies conducted to investigate the ways in which gender is involved in how people engage with media products. As with so many interested in understanding audience reception of the media, I have been highly influenced by the late, great Stuart Hall’s work on what has become known as the “encoding/decoding model” in media studies. Now, I, with much humility, wonder if this classic model could be improved with one more step: recoding.

I have not done much with this model since my dissertation, but I think it could warrant more thorough examination, explication, and empirical application. What I focused on in my dissertation was the way this encoding-decoding-recoding model helps to organize media studies research, which is what is reprinted below. Moreso, I believe this model could help to structure a research project so as to understand the interaction between the person/people and the media product (content and structure). The basic idea of the model is pictured here.

Encoding Decoding Recoding

I hope to consider how this model could be useful for my future research projects, or even to better explain projects that I have done, since this model has been in my mind since 2007. For now, I want to work through the argument for the model, beginning with what was done in 2008 for my dissertation. What follows is that section, although tables of additional studies have been removed for sake of organization in this post.

The Encoding-Decoding-Recoding Model

The vast amount and variety of literature on media studies can be reduced to three main foci researchers take when they approach how to understand the relationships between sociocultural environment, media, and individual. This categorization scheme for media studies is based on what researchers for a particular study hope to understand about these relationships and how meaning circulates through them. Some researchers focus on the producers’ process of creating; some on the consumers’ process of engaging; some on the society with which they are intertwined and the process by which it impacts either; and some on the relationships possible between these three factors. One researcher may conduct a study based on one aspect of this relationship, while another researcher may focus on something different. Rarely will one researcher, in the course of one study, attempt to address all the facets involved in this system.

Across the variety of media studies that have been conducted throughout history and across types of media products, research has focused on the encoding, decoding and recoding of media products. Each foci is discussed below and then it will be explained how the model applies to this study; that is, how the variable and phenomenon of interest, gender, has been studied as part of the encoding, decoding, and/or recoding process.

With this background on the encoding-decoding-recoding model, I must make it clear that this model resulted from my surveying the breadth of media studies from both quantitative and qualitative approaches. This model organizes this wealth of research and discusses the commonalities between different theoretical and methodological approaches. I did not originate the terms and have only appropriated from other scholars (ex. Hall, 1973/1993; Hinds, 1996; Steele & Brown, 1995) to show their relationships with one another. My hope is that this model helps us understand the interconnecting pieces of media industry, sociocultural environment and individual that forms the gendering process.

Encoding

Encoding studies are concerned with the production of a message and how various factors can impact this production. Encoding, whether in face-to-face or mediated communication, is the process by which some text comes to acquire some meaning(s), and, in the cases of mediated communication, how some medium is selected to transmit the text. As the process deals with meaning and the decision of how best to relay that meaning, a number of factors could impact it, from sociocultural to economic.

Encoding research proceeds by analyzing media products and methods of production to locate the media producer’s motivations for encoding; to uncover how these factors influenced decision-making processes, with or without the producer’s awareness of such influence. This encoding process, as it applies to gendered media, is discussed in terms of the assumptions and studies that have sought to deconstruct this meaning-making process. No original encoding research will be included in this study. However, past encoding work will be relied upon for their identification of the structural features in media products that trigger and reify symbolic differences. Additionally, the individuals’ interpretations about media products are measured to compare against stereotypical assumptions about gender.

Those who are concerned with the representation of men and women in the media have come from all three fields. Uniting these three fields is the utilization of some form of text analysis to uncover the features of the text that could inform the potential media user about the norms for being a man versus a woman. All three approaches likewise build off the conception of the relationship between text and reader developed by literature studies and applied to mass media in humanities film studies. Focusing on the features of texts, as their literary counterparts had done, film theorists constructed an implied spectator who must react to the film in the ways dictated by the film’s auteur.

Tied in to this text-centric, or apparatus, theory, spectatorship theories highlighted the works of psychoanalysts who attempted to uncover the latent, universal properties of humans. These theories were imported to film spectatorship to explain how the features of the films could produce the effects they did (Staiger, 1992; Mayne, 1993; Moores, 1994). Christian Metz employed Lacanian concepts of the imaginary and the “mirror” to describe the type of identification a spectator is allowed to engage in, while using Freud’s views on fetishes to explain how the spectator is pleasured by the experience (Metz, 1975/2004; Penney, 2007). Laura Mulvey focused on concepts like voyeurism and fetishism to explain how male movie directors create a “male gaze” in their cinematography to further subjugate women for the pleasure of presumed male spectators (1975/2006).

As with other cultural theories on the monolithic power of the media to influence, spectatorship theories postulated a passive audience reception (Staiger, 2002) that believed all films would affect all viewers in the same psychoanalytical and ideological ways (Hietala, 1990). Louis Althusser’s work on ideology and society’s ability to interpolate subjects was adopted to explain how a film text could “suture” the spectator into a specific viewing position, thereby ensuring certain reactions to the text (Mayne, 1993; Stam, 2000). It was theorized that one could analyze the text’s features and extrapolate who would be the implied and ideal spectator, the one who would truly understand the intentions of the film. With this conception, there was no need to seek out the real spectator, as the spectator existed nowhere but in the moment(s) of his engagement with that particular text, (Moores, 1994; Prince, 1996).

Gender was directly implicated in the discussion by Mulvey, and thus became a common focus for feminist film scholars. According to the spectatorship theories, women were being excluded from movies that structured into the film a masculine identification; in order to partake in the text, the woman would have to either place herself in the position of the woman being gazed at, or she would have to adopt the male spectator’s presumed location and engage in a transgender identification (Mackinnon, 2002). Since the emergence of spectatorship theory, many media texts have been analyzed for how it is constructed for a masculine spectator. Scholars have also differentiated what would be media texts meant for a feminine spectator, as defined by the presence of traditionally feminine features (Kuhn, 2002). Determining for whom a media text is meant by deconstructing the text’s features unveils gender stereotypes, highlighting the belief that media texts will reinforce gender differences by legitimizing the connection between specific feature and specific sex.

For those scholars operating from the critical/cultural reception studies, the purpose of text analysis lies in understanding the meaning that has been encoded into those features discussed by humanities film studies (Hermes, 2003; Andersen, 2003). Typically a study will focus on a select few media products, which are then “read” and critiqued in terms of how they reflect/reinforce the dominant discourse on gender. Arising out of feminist critiques of the media, the representation of women has been most studied to determine how the media perpetuates patriarchal notions of femaleness (Harris, 2004; van Zoonen, 1994), from sexually objectifying the female body (ex. Dietz, 1998) to the creation and maintenance of feminine archetypes, such as the femme fatale, damsel-in-distress, and the self-sacrificing mother (ex. Hyde, 2000).

However, men’s studies have been on the rise over the past decade. While not matching the amount of work done on the representation of women, recognizing that masculinity is as much constructed as femininity has resulted in a focus on masculine representations (Mackinnon, 2002). The portrayal of men and assumptions about masculinity have been the focus of close reading (Harris, 2004), especially concerning body image, sexual prowess, and aggression (ex. Farvid & Braun, 2006; Jhally, 1999).

For quantitative scholars, the analysis consists of tallying certain aspects of the gender representations. These scholars can use the features and meanings discussed by the two previous fields as the basis to determine the frequency of these portrayals in the media. Both men and women are studied, but again the portrayal of women has received the most academic study due to feminist concerns (Craig, 1992). Basic counts focus on the number of women portrayed, given in percentages for how many texts are available and/or compared to how many men are portrayed. Portrayals are also studied for more nuanced information, such as the role the woman has in the text, the things she says or does, her appearance, and other points of portrayal that could be coded for counting.

Such content analyses have occurred across all mass media, with particular emphases in advertisements, television, news, digital games, and music videos. For the majority of studies conducted over the past several decades, women have been presented less frequently, and with more stereotyped nuances, than their male counterparts. In comparison to men, women tend to be portrayed as more family focused, less aggressive, more concerned about appearance, and in smaller overall numbers (ex. Andersen, 2003; Craig, 1992; Jacobson, 2005; Harris, 2004).

Although there is some evidence that in some media, such as television, this portrayal is changing (i.e. Baker & Raney, 2007; Thompson & Zerbinos, 1995), a sampling of studies indicate gender stereotypes still prevail across various types of media. Not only do these studies show gender differences in the portrayal, but also represent the second focus of encoding studies by discussing how the men and women who produce the media products do so differently.

While quantitative media uses and effects research provides the prevalence of portrayals, critical/cultural reception qualitative research provides what may be worrisome about these portrayals. However, both of these field’s approaches build on the assumptions from humanities film studies spectator theory in what may be the possible impact on men and women from engaging with them. Text analysis is thus useful for pointing out the potential range of decodings and recodings, but it is the purpose of empirical decoding and recoding studies to illustrate the reception of these gender portrayals.

Decoding

Decoding studies are concerned with people’s selection and interpretation of media products by individuals, and how a variety of factors can impact these two aspects of engaging with the media. Research on this focus comes from uses-and-effects and reception studies, including Hall’s (1973/1993) assertion that there are three main types of reception to a media text. The individual selects the media product, either willingly or by imposition, and interprets the features of the product to reconstruct the meaning(s) encoded in it. However, this transfer does not mean the encoder and decoder will match perfectly in their meaning-making – for Hall, the reception could range from in agreement, to negotiated, to oppositional (1973/1993). Determining the type of response comes from a number of factors, biological to psychological to sociocultural, that are argued for differences in how the decoder deconstructs the media product’s features to reconstruct some meaning from it. Given the interpretive/performative approach of this study, how a person views him or her self in accordance with what is appropriate gender behavior may impact how a gendered media is selected and interpreted. A man who considers himself very masculine may be less likely to willingly watch a soap opera, and he may be more likely to interpret a romantic hero’s tears as a sign of weakness.

A majority of media decoding studies are done to understand what accounts for the differences in meaning between the encoder and decoder — is it something in the reasons for selection, or the way in which the media is interpreted? Trying to answer these questions makes it imperative for decoding research to focus on understanding the “black box” of the person’s mind from which needs, expectations, and evaluations arise. While a person’s selection of a media product could be tracked by recording what media was used when, where and how much, most of the time the reasons for that selection cannot be inferred from any observable behavior. Oftentimes the mistrust of self-report is given for why interpretings are not studied. In terms of this study, the impetus is to understand these two aspects of gendered media engagings — selectings and interpretings — as they form the hows and whys of media engaging by relying on the recollections of individuals.

Decoding studies are primarily concerned with what leads individuals to decide to engage with the media products they do, and what sense they make out of the media product, or their interpretations of the media’s content. Typical humanities film studies will assume both based on the features of the media product. As discussed above, gender is a concept used to predict what would be the ideal, although only potential, engaging: men engage with masculine features, women with feminine features. Gender as a variable to measure how people select and interpret media products is found in both critical/cultural reception studies and media uses and effects research

Of both aspects of the decoding process, it has been the differences in selecting and what accounts for these differences that have received the most attention. Again, this is understandable given the media industry’s economic imperative. From this research we hear how men tend to be the consumers of sports, horror, action/adventure (especially violent or sexualized), news, digital games and comic books. Women, on the other hand, tend to be the consumers of romances (comedic and dramatic), soap operas, fashion or home economic shows, talk shows, and telephones (i.e. Bhatia & Desmond, 1993; Cherry, 1999; Knobloch, Callison, Chen, Fritzsche & Zillmann, 2005; Kuhn, 2002; Nyberg, 1995). The reasons for these differences have been theorized on a number of levels, from biological to sociocultural. Biological approaches focus on the gender differences, such as those found by Maccoby and Jacklin (1974), from cognitive capacities to aggressive hormones. Sociocultural approaches include the critical/cultural inference of the gendering process, how material conditions impact the person’s interpretation of the messages encoded in the media product (i.e. Morley, 1994).

In terms of interpreting a media product, studies again focus on gender differences, in one of two ways. Some studies will focus on how each gender interprets an entire text, such as an advertisement (i.e. Shields, 1999) or a TV show (i.e. Calvert et al, 2001). Results tend to show that men and women differ in how they interpret specific features of a media technology or text. In terms of these features, men and women have been shown to differ in who they identify with (i.e. Hoffner, 1996), how they describe the same content as either action or violence (i.e. Funk, 2001), and their reaction to the sexualized appearance of women (i.e. LaTour, 1990). More work on interpretings has been done from a qualitative approach, but the focus has been on one gender at a time, usually women, and oftentimes to locate acceptance or resistance (i.e. Austin, 1999; Durham, 1999; Press, 1991; Radway, 1984). As with selectings, reasons for gender differences in interpretings have been attributed to biological or sociocultural factors. As with selectings, more work needs to be done to understand commonalities between the genders, as well as the interpretation of sociocultural norms in how they may account for both commonalities and differences.

Even in looking over the past several years of research, the majority of studies that examine people’s selectings and interpretings of media products do so using gender to separate people and thereby explain when a specific selecting or a specific interpreting will occur. There are examples of decoding studies that discuss some type of difference in how men and women engage with various types of media. While some studies do show gender differences diminishing, especially in relation to the internet (Debrand & Johnson, 2008; Gross, 2004; Li & Yu, 2008; Ono & Zavodny, 2005), many more studies indicate slight to major qualitative divergences that are seen in quantitative statistical differences. While they may not differ on their use of such media technologies, they may differ on their views of the technology and their own ability to engage with it (Bunz, Curry & Voon, 2007; Hargittai & Shafer, 2006). Thus, while gender may not be a differentiating factor in the selection of what media product to engage, it is studied as a possible factor in the interpretation of that engaging.

Recoding

Recoding studies are concerned with the utilization of media products to impact the real world through the lives of media users. This focus is classically divided as occurring through passive media effects or active media uses. Research here seeks to understand the processes of incorporation and application, whereby the meaning in the media product comes to inform and influence the individual, either with or without the individual’s awareness and acceptance. Through the individual’s behavior with others and society in general, if a threshold is reached, this meaning comes to circulate back to and influence the larger society and culture. This circular nature of recoding can be seen in economic terms, in the demand and supply of media product. But it can change sociocultural values, such as homosexuality in Western societies due to the popularity of gay celebrities and characters.

The most common notion of media impacts deals with passive media effects – from the fear of negative effects, such as sex and violence, to the possibility of positive effects, such as anti-smoking. Active media uses are still a media impact, but they occur when the user is actively aware of doing something because of his or her engaging with the media product, such as how the watching an environmental documentary inspires real-life conservation measures. An example comes from Jeanne Steele and Jane Brown’s work on the Media Practice Model (1995), where they demonstrated how teenagers have appropriated specific aspects from their media engagings to construct an identity. While this study focused more on the decoding processes, it also addressed utilizings as part of the individual’s engagings with gendered media.

Sometimes as a companion, sometimes as an implied result, recoding studies are often linked with decoding studies. Most media studies research is interested in how the media will impact the individual, and by extension that individual’s sociocultural environment. This is the foundation for the history of media effects research, both qualitative in critical/cultural reception studies and quantitative in media uses and effects research, as it continues to dominate public thought and academic concern. Encoding studies tend to be the beginning of this process, as they provide information about prevalence and type of media messages that require decoding and recoding analyses. Decoding studies provide information as to what mediates the relationship between exposure to the encoded messages and the resultant impacts on the recoding into everyday life. In terms of exposure to gendered media, the recoding process could range from the more unconscious, passive media effects to the more conscious, active media uses.

When the focus is on media effects, theories on gender differences try to account for why and/or how an aspect of the media product affects one gender but not the other. Men tend to become more physically aggressive after consuming violent media, explained by biological hormones or sociocultural acceptance for such aggressive tendencies (i.e. Bartholow & Anderson, 2002). Women tend to be more scared by, or act as such, while watching horror movies, as explained by sociocultural socialization of appropriate behavior (Bryant & Miron, 2002). Men tend to be more aroused by pornography, explained by biological hormones and women’s disgust of the portrayals of women (i.e. Kipnis, 1992). The findings go on. Locating gender differences in passive media effects becomes a way for various theoretical approaches to perfect their postulates and explain these gender differences in other aspects of everyday life.

Commonalities have been studied. For some studies, the media have been shown to impact both men and women similarly. Both men and women can become desensitized to violence, can come to be cultivated into seeing the world through the “mean world syndrome”, or can come to endorse gender stereotypes for themselves and those of the opposite sex (ex. Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli & Shanahan, 2002; Jacobson, 2005). Because of the concern of passive media effects, it is logical that studies would seek to determine when gender will predict different reactions to the media, but likewise may be interested in when there is no difference between them. In either case, policy-makers, parents, and other concerned citizens want to know what could be done to dispel negative effects and create positive ones.

As with the decoding focus, recoding studies interested in passive media effects from the past several years have continued this focus on gender differences. Unlike the decoding focus, less has been discussed about how men and women are similar in how the media impacts them. There are studies using gender to compare men and women after exposure to some type of media product. Or there are studies that examine only men or only women, with the assumption that there is an underlying difference that requires one or the other to be the sole focus for the understanding of a particular media effect. There are studies that compare men and women within the same study on their exposure to some type of media.

For the second type of recoding, less work has been done from a quantitative approach. Qualitative approaches have been used to understand the nuances of active media and how the individual fits the media product into his or her life. The focus has more frequently described what different people do with the media products, such as Steele and Brown’s (1995) studies of adolescent bedrooms as reflections of their identity development through media use. Studies dealing specifically with gender tend to focus on gender differences in how the media is brought into the everyday practices of individuals (i.e., Götz, Lemish, Aidman & Moon, 2005). Because such studies have been more limited in terms of who is studied and how often such research is conducted, less is known about this process and the extent to which there are gender differences and commonalities.

About CarrieLynn D. Reinhard

I am an explorer of pop culture, technology, mass media, and human nature. I want to make sense of how we all make sense of the mediated worlds that surrounds us.

Posted on July 21, 2014, in Audience/Reception Studies, Critical/Cultural Studies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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