Media Engaging(s): Or, How I Learned To Be Both/And in an Either/Or Discipline

This essay contains an early draft of what I ultimately wrote for the Participations special issue on “media engagement” as a concept in audience studies. This essay contains some good ideas that were no where near ready for publishing. I may also not have the time to come back to them, as I have been doing some academic soul-searching since completing this work. I want to apply fan studies outside of geek cultures, apply more minutia reception studies to study the co-construction of realities, and map people’s engagings with those realities. So I plan to build upon these ideas, but I don’t know exactly when I will publish this more theoretical take.

So, until that time comes, if it does, I’m going to treat it as a work-in-progress and share it here in the hope of receiving feedback that will help me get the ideas on the right track.


This essay presents an argument I have been forming for fifteen years. Only now, after much reflection, do I feel prepared to critique media studies for its fractured state and offer a possible solution to its unnecessarily reductive and questionably useful nature. The argument concerns my dogged insistence to use the term “media engaging(s)” when discussing my audience studies, fan studies, reception studies, media studies, communication studies scholarship – much to the chagrin and befuddlement of editors.

I come at this argument on terminology after dabbling with various disciplines and being excited from what I have learned in these other camps. Media uses and effects studies provides the impetus for discerning and understanding patterns via statistical means. User studies, whether from human-computer interaction (HCI) or library and information studies (LIS), bring the talk-aloud method that provides structures and suggestions for measuring the media engaging process as it happens. Cultural studies in various disciplines provide details on various forms of ethnography, which can provide methods for engaging the contextual and phenomenological lives of individuals. Experiments in communication, psychology, and more provide statistical modeling for controlling variables and providing causal patterns. Because of my dabbling, I do not see one discipline as inherently “better” than another, nor do I wish to exist in one camp and avoid speak to “outsiders.”

Speaking with members of these various camps, and those who similarly travel the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary path, I have come to realize why I am so insistent on “media engaging(s)”: it is not either/or; it is both/and. It is not the message or the medium that matters most. It’s the combined media product (i.e. specific technology and text) that matters. It is not the author or the reader that makes meaning. It is the interaction. The media both affects us and does not. We both choose media and do not. It is not objective reality or subjective reality that’s primacy. It is transjective reality. We should not generalize to the point of missing the complexity of the situation. And, we should not focus on unraveling the complexity only to miss the patterns. It is not a quantitative or qualitative approach to best understand a phenomenon. It is a complex approach that is multi-methodological to account for the weaknesses of one with the strengths of the other.

The terms “media use” and “media effects” exist as common concepts in positivistic media studies, while critical/cultural studies preferred the terms “decoding” and “interpreting.” In this essay, I argue for using the term “media engaging(s)” to conceptualize and measure the processes of using, interpreting, and interacting that flow between a person, a situation, and a mediated text (e.g. a film, a video game, a fictional character, a celebrity, a novel, etc). This essay argues for the use of “media engaging” in place of these and other terms used to describe any encounter with a media technology and text, hereby called a media product. To make this argument, I first discuss the problems existing in these terms and then provide my philosophical construction for using “media engaging(s)” as founded in various theoretical perspectives.

Some Either/Or Problems

The first thing I must do is clarify that in terms of the communication and media studies field, I see two disciplines with different epistemological, ontological, axiological, and methodological approaches. This observation, of course, is nothing new, and one I did not originate.[1] Additionally, the fractures within this overarching discipline are likely more numerous than this binary. However, due to the constraints of this essay, I focus my argument in this essay on separating the communication and media studies field in twain: quantitative media uses and effects studies (MUES) and qualitative critical/cultural media studies (CCMS). The former is more concerned with matters of pragmatic application of media uses and effects studies to better society through public policy or education. The latter is more concerned with the role of the media in legitimizing power structures and the extent to which people either resist this legitimization process or reinscribe it through their everyday actions. The results of this bifurcation manifest largely in “camps” that do not engage with one another’s scholarship given the rather polarized perspectives with which they approach the field and its phenomenon.

Active or Passive? In the quantitative approach to media studies, “use” has been applied both as a measurement of exposure and a description of the reason for the encounter. As a measurement, use is a quantitative variable, implying an interest in how frequently and what type of media encounter a person has. As a description, use is a qualitative variable, applied to understand what purpose the person has for the encounter. Naturally, these two conceptualizations overlap, with the reasons a person has for the encounter related to the frequency of exposure to that media product. “Effects,” however, assumes a more passive media use, whereby encounter with the media impacts the individual and/or collective. Even after the “active audience” turn, the incorporation of more moderating and mediating variables in the relationship between encounter and effect still assumes a “black box” that is the human whose behavior can never be fully understood.

In fact, some critics of uses-and-gratifications belie its tendency towards functionalist concerns of the role of the media in everyday life. Uses-and-gratifications propositions the active audience member as using a particular media item in order to satiate some perceived need or desire; in this sense, the function of the media for that individual is to gratify the individual. Since McQuail and colleagues (1972) formalized the first typology of needs that were gratified, there has been many attempts to isolate these needs and gratifications and to understand how seeking and obtaining them impacts not only the use of the media but the potential for that media to influence the user. In other words, led primarily by quantitative researchers, the focus has been on identifying the functions the media has for the audience to explain why the audience uses that media and how the media could influence that audience.

The MUES conceptualization builds out of the classic idea of the mass audience – as that pre-existing characteristic the American populace has to become a potential audience at any time. What is left then to determine are the conditions under which the audience will congeal and form an audience for a specific media text; in other words, what is it that drives large numbers of people to use this or that media? Attempts to answer this question have largely focused on demographic variables – men like this while women like that – or psychological constructs – extroverts like this while introverts like that. While they acknowledge that the people can actively decide which media item they would like to use, uses and effects researchers want to know what determines this decision making process so that they could then predict who out of the unknown mass could become the known media audience, either for the purpose of protecting them against negative effects or persuading them toward positive effects.

This focus on the functions of the media has had a tremendous impact on reconceptualizing the relationship between audience and media. Very rarely will a modern communication study report on direct media effects, with the assumption of the passive audience. Instead, some aspect of that audience is allowed to be active, whether in the selection, interpretation or application of the media. This focus on the “functions” has to a degree left out the focus on the “phenomenal world.” Media effects researchers will now routinely consider psychological or demographic variables to provide information as to how the audience “makes sense” of the media. Here the conceit is that because someone is high in the need for cognition, then they are more likely to interpret this message in this way. However, there is rarely any accounting for that actual interpretation of the person, of trying to understand the “phenomenal world.” Instead, inferences are based on demographic or psychological variables, or, to an extent, even from sociological and cultural variables, as is more common among critical and cultural scholars.

Exposure to the media product is not sufficient to generate an impact, but it is necessary. The reason for selecting a media product is not sufficient to generate an impact, but it is necessary. The interpretation of the media product is not sufficient to generate an impact, but it is necessary. Umberto Eco agreed in the importance of the reader, but argued against the completely open, highly polysemus text: “You cannot use the text as you want, but only as the text wants you to use it” (1979, p. 9). The situational context surrounding the interaction is not sufficient to generate an impact, but it is necessary. Both the objective reality of the media product and the situation should be studied to understand the interaction. Both the subjective reality of the media product and the situation should be studied to understand the interaction.

Structure or agency? Meanwhile, the CCMS conceptualization was never as seemingly concerned about the mass, focusing less on mainstream and more on the subcultures existing in relation to it. Indeed, their approach sees audiences as emerging and converging around a media text not because it simply exists but because something in it has captured the attention of their interests. Their conceptualization has tended to be more active without this reliance on the mass audience and takes a more empowering step when the researchers focus on particular subcultures they claim are actively and openly resisting the offered media. The cultural studies approach mentioned here refers to the work done based on the encoding/decoding model of Stuart Hall (1973/93). The studies include Morley’s Nationwide television projects (as reported in Morley & Brunsden, 1999), Ang’s look at pleasure and Dallas (1985), and Liebes and Katz’s cross-cultural audience receptions of Dallas (1990). These cultural reception studies tend to focus on how the audience’s derived meanings of the text match/conflict/oppose the intended meanings of the text. This approach differs from the other cultural studies approach that focuses on using ethnographic techniques to understand the role of the media in the lives of the audiences (Scrøder, Drotner, Kline & Murray, 2003).

In this cultural tradition, “decoding” underlines the importance of considering power, on the part of both the media industry and the individual and/or collective, but focuses analysis on “interpreting.” While assuming the active interpretive use of the medium and its content, this approach is less concerned with the impact of that media use, even if that impact is due to the individual and/or collective agent performing some action. Fan studies, as a subset of critical/cultural studies, provides approaches to fill this gap, but the discipline focuses less on the encounter with a media product and more with the actions of the fan and fan community because of their encounter(s).

Sometimes married with this cultural approach, the critical subset has focused more attention on the power structures involved in the creation and maintenance of these cultures. For example, political economic approaches seek to understand the external industrial and regulatory structures that impact how people communicate, whether on an interpersonal, mass, or social level. Joined with cultural studies, such as from the Birmingham School, an intention was to challenge the elitism of high culture that propagated imperialist and colonialist ideologies while subjugating through delegitimization any opposing subcultures or “low cultures.” Similarly, from the Bowling Green School, popular culture studies highlights what may have been deemed as “low cultures” to understand their political and economic empowerment (a focus also considered in fan studies).

However, studies from these approaches tend to focus more on text analysis, drawing on the methods and theories of rhetorical, discourse, and semiotic analysis. Industry and government analysis concerns itself more with the larger structures traditionally outside the control of subcultures. Ethnographic studies tend to seek an understanding of the complex contextual factors involved in the relationship between individual and their everyday life, at the expense of seeking patterns.

Objective or subjective? Additionally, there is again the tendency to categorize audiences by some factor, such as sociocultural demographics. As with uses and effects researchers, the focus is on the people to the extent that they are representations of some sociocultural variable applied to them. With uses and effects researchers, these variables are applied on a more individual level, whereas receptions studies has typically found variables as applied on broader level of the audience as defined by the sociocultural category. While it may be possible to characterize the larger potential audience as has been done by both MUES and CCMS, understanding the actual moment of being an audience to that media, of understanding the experience of that user’s “phenomenal world,” is harder to infer from broader sociodemographic or psychological variables without also measuring the experiences of the user as s/he sees them.

Understanding the intersect involves understanding a potentially more individualized reception as there may be factors occurring that cannot be sufficiently accounted for by the broader constructs. The questions are how does the media cue and/or constrain the interpretation, and what about the person influences how structural features are responded to. While it may be possible to at some point understand the influence of the broader variables, it is most likely the case that finding such patterns would be best accomplished by understanding the transactive nature of this intersection through a more dialogic, interpretive and detailed delving into the media user’s “phenomenal world.”

The flaws of one approach, then, are similar to the flaws of another – just, perhaps, from the opposing perspective of their position. Each approaches’ lacking can be found in how they conceptualize the audience as a subject of study. While both approaches commonly now see the members of the audience as active (to some extent), they also tend to see the audience and/or audience member through a reductionist lens. In both approaches, categorization occurs based on demographics, psychographic states and traits, sociocultural characteristics, political and economic power, and more. Such categorization is done to simplify the comparison of individuals, communities, and subcultures, but this comparison also results in an either/or approach to understanding the complex network in which agents and structures co-exist and co-influence each other. In MUES research, reducing this complex network to specific variables allows for statistical modeling, but those models tend to include weak predictions at best. In CCMS studies, the reductions lead to explanations of the complex model lacking generalizability when the focus is restricted to specific subcultures or actor networks.

Part of the issue here is the focus on material objects, entities, and nouns. In MUES, effects research focuses on the media product and the individual: through content analysis, it is assumed to have specific features that influence an individual, which a uses and effects study can understand by measuring various sociodemographic and psychological behaviors, states, and traits. Rarely are the material conditions of a person’s everyday life measured except for how they manifest as sociodemographics. Meanwhile, CCMS studies consider the material conditions, often as an embodiment of the power dynamics at work within a person’s or subculture’s existence. Similar to MUES, the media product is centralized as containing messages that individuals receive, interpret, and use as a part of their everyday life and as another manifestation of these power dynamics. For example, in fan studies, more research considers how people act in relation to a media product, with those actions considered as external behaviors that can be observed and interpreted as representing the fans’ meaning-making regarding the media product. Thus, in MUES and CCMS, the person’s relationship with the media product exists within the boundaries of specific media products and material conditions of people’s lives, and they are often studied as such without realizing an artificial situation or an existing situation is being measured.

While material objects can be read as actors in this complex network, they have no agency; instead, they embody social constructs, and by focusing on material objects, we obscure the human agents in the network. Humans construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the material objects of media products and everyday lives. Technology has no power as “magical objects,” only people do, and we need to remember that. Agents act through technologies, technologies do not act through people. Any impact due to media, per any uses and effects or other paradigms, is actually due to how the technology is designed as part of an overall system of human actions, both material and symbolic. Violent media content does not cause violence; it is part of a larger system of human material and symbolic actions that perpetuates violence as an acceptable reaction to suffering. Humans make other humans violent, and then blame the media rather than change themselves. People with power blame the media for the problems they themselves create and maintain through their actions — perpetuating problems that maintain a status quo of themselves in power.

Yet it is not just ideologically encoded content that reflects and perpetuates this system. Technologies are designed with ideologically informed affordances and constraints that serve this same perpetuation purpose, reifying certain power dynamics and relationships over others. Interfaces normalize similarly to content who is considered “good” or “bad” in society. Content and interfaces are designed to privilege some over others, and to have an impact through who uses them, when, where, how, and for what reason. Simultaneously, it is not simply the fault or praise of content and interface designers for the media’s impact: the consumer/fan/user/audience/mass public also has power in this network of actors and agents. Their decoding and recoding actions matter in any system’s propagation. Likewise, their decoding and recoding exist in systems over which they have more or less agency, from physiological to sociocultural. Everything is connected, and everything is contextual. It is not simply the material objects existing in objective reality that determine the world around us; it is also subjective actions of the agents in this network, reacting to objective reality, that perpetuate the meaning and thus power of those material objects.

Obscuring the agents to understand the actors means we never fully appreciate the power dynamics that create and perpetuate the network, or then the peoples who profit from that network. While CCMS do consider such power dynamics more, it is done at the expense of understanding the relationship between these power dynamics and the individuals who co-construct them. Per Martin Barker (2006), “The key reason that still too often our reasons for researching audiences are limited to two: either we want to rescue an audience – or its chosen media – from obscurity or misunderstanding, or an issue about audiences has become a ‘problem’ with some other part of our belief systems” (p. 126). People do not engage with media products in a contextless void, and the impact of the media product does not stop once the interaction does. People do not engage media products just as a routine activity in their everyday lives or as a unique instance, with no intertwinement between these activities. Media uses, effects, decodings, reception are not merely the result of a material object, entity, noun that we scholars can place in a bounded box, put up on display, and say “see, this is that!” They do not simply have a before and after. At what point in time has it truly begun, and at what point is it done? A brief or long time with a media product could have an effect because of something long ago in a person’s life and could have an effect long after the interaction is done. Quantitative approaches to map these networks fail if they do not properly account for all the nodes of agency. Qualitative approaches to nuance these contexts and dynamics fail if they do not account for relations within larger networks and systems. Furthermore, both approaches fail if they do not consider the phenomenological perspective of the human agent on their position and activity within this network.

MUES need to push against the powers that co-opt research by focusing more on a complex analysis of systems a la CCMS, while CCMS needs to learn how to expand the sampling of research and develop more public scholarship approaches to research communication a la MUES. I argue this with love for both approaches, but what we need are more transdisciplinary approaches that study the complexities of these systems, uncover the power flows inherent to them, and do so in ways that demonstrate patterns to improve media literacy. Such an approach needs to forego the unnecessary subjective/objective binary that prevents true transdisciplinary scholarship. A more both/and, “transjective” philosophy could provide a better epistemological footing for such a venture to study not the “media” but the systems and networks of agents, relationships, power dynamics that constitute, and are constituted by, the media and how people interact with media industries, media regulations, media technologies, mediated content, and thus mediated forms of communication.

Media studies is transjective when it understands reality as neither subjective experiences nor material objects exclusively but studies both aspects as well as how they relate to each other. Transjective means transcending the either/or binary. Such a transjective philosophy would focus on the network entities (agents and actors) its processes. To break our assumptions that layer reductive simplification to media studies, audience studies, reception studies, fan studies, we need new terminology that does not contain the detonative and connotative definitions embodying these either/or assumptions.

A Both/And Philosophy

In 1964, Raymond Bauer called for a transactional model of communication as “the most plausible description of the process of communication as we know it” (P. #). The transactional model, in brief, would understand the end result of the communication (i.e., decoding, recoding, reception, effect) not as being simply determined by the characteristics of the media or the audience. Instead, the model would find that any end result would manifest through the ways in which these components interact to produce something unique from the interaction. Hence any meaning that could be found between the communicating of the sender and receiver cannot be seen simply in the sender’s intentions, the message’s structures, the receiver’s interpretation, or the determinants of any of these parts, whether sociocultural, psychological, or political economic. Instead, the meaning can be found in that process of intersection, where all components come together.

Thus, the essay argues that the term allows for more broadly conceptualizing and operationalizing the processes of reading, writing, playing, listening, watching, clicking, and so forth as a complicated network of interpretive and physical activities. By “media engaging,” I mean it is both a “thing” that happens per an objective observer and a “process” experienced by the subjective user. It is a transjective reality, consisting of moment-by-moment “steps” experienced sequentially and simultaneously that can be observed and evaluated as a “whole.” By “media engagings,” I recognize the multiplicity of such transjective realities involving media products to argue for the need to complicate our study of any interaction with a media product for the depth of detail and the breadth of comparison.

Active and passive. Instead of seeing media uses/decodings/effects as a particular slice of time-space, media engaging(s) reframes both quantitative and qualitative assumptions to focus on the multifactorial process of engaging with the media product that may happen repeatedly or only once. This terminology requires an attendance to the during as much as the before or after, and to understand the circular, layered, and transactional relationships between various “befores” and “afters.” The term recognizes that any media engaging occurs in relationship to every other media engaging, with the user a sense-making agent driving, being driven by, and being driven toward their interactions with media products.

I study media engaging(s) to understand what happens in this transactional communication, where people are both constructed by and co-constructors of their transjective reality. I have to measure the residual traces of the process. I measure beliefs, feelings, behaviors, thoughts, etc to understand how a person decodes, recodes media interfaces and content. I cannot directly measure the interaction of the person with the media product. It’s the black box issue of social sciences. I can always get closer with better self-report measures combined with physiological measures, but can I ever completely understand that interaction? Can we ever truly measure objective nature when we can only ever experience it with the limitations of our subjectivity? Of course, the answer to that dilemma is often surround the phenomenon with many people to verify findings through repeated investigations.

I prefer media engaging rather than reception because it reflects a process over time, not a state. Additionally, presenting this concept of media encounters as a verb (per Brenda Dervin) better encapsulates the processes the individual and/or collective experiences before, during, and after they encounter the media product. See similarity with “audiencing” via Martin Barker (2006) to discuss the plurality of audiences in audience studies: use to indicate a performance of identity in relation to media text and other audience members and discourse communities. Verbing the term shows the flux inherent in it and embraces both decoding and recoding activities based on the objective text being engaged with. The term emphasizes how any encounter with a media product is a series of actions that include internal and external behaviors (including thinking, feeling, and acting) and occur within certain time- and space-based situations that provide context to the encounter. The verbing of this concept can then also be pluralized, “engagings,” to allow for the understanding that an engaging occurs in specific situations and can occur in different and/or similar ways across time and space, which can be useful for fan studies, user studies, audience studies, and so forth.

Objective and subjective. In a sense, this approach to fix the objectivity issue is a transjective approach, because it relies on the relationships between discrete entities and subjective experiences, while perhaps not overtly acknowledging how those discrete entities and experiences are embedded in a material and symbolic system (i.e. scientific paradigms) that will shape and inform the subjective experiences. Thus, this approach to objectivity may be no better at understanding objective nature than any measurement designed by humans, used by humans, and understood through human intellectual capabilities. Our understand of objective nature will always be incomplete because of our singular/shared subjective experiences. We study end results because we cannot study the cause-and-effect processes (plural and intertwined) as it happens (unlike natural sciences, we do not have the tools for such measurements). I seek to study repeated situations from the agent’s perspective of themselves and the contextual structures to understand patterns in internal and external behaviors within the affordances and constraints of those contexts as agents both co-constructing their subjective realities and as subjects being co-constructed by objective physicalities that can be embodiments of convergent or divergent subject realities (e.g. sociocultural, political-economic structures).

Researching a media engaging requires understanding different factors that are holistically tallied to determine the nature of the media engaging. These factors include the features of the media product, the individual’s personal preferences and interpretive stances, the sociocultural environment, and the situation of the encounter. Any of these factors may cue or constrain the engaging with the media product. A media product may trigger an engaging, or may result from the individual’s, collective’s, or situation’s needs. Regardless of how the process starts, it exists at the intersection of these various factors. Thus, transjective media studies must study both the nouns and the verbs involved in these networks as they exist within and across situations.

In Reinhard and Dervin (2013), we presented our perspective of the media reception situation. Focusing on the situational nature of media engaging can improve our understanding of the complicated network of factors that constitute that engaging (e.g., historical, material, social, cultural, environmental, psychological, etc.), thereby furthering understanding about the complex nature of how people use and are affected by media products. A broader conceptualization like “engaging” allows for mapping out situations of engagings to understand the multiple ways in which engaging with different media product may converge and diverse. This comparison would promote a consideration of internal and external structures, without reducing to a technological or sociocultural determinist perspective, from the individual’s and/or collective’s perspective, centering research on the processes of interacting with all these structures within specific contexts.

Media products exist in objective nature, just as much as humans do. There is something there with which to engage. Any media product is a combination of some technologies (e.g. interface, container, platform, etc) and contents (e.g. modalities, messages, signs, etc). Media products thus contain objective features that will impact how people engage with them (ex. watching a movie in a theater versus smartphone), and those features impact how we experience the media product – though those features are not the only or even most important factor influencing the experience of engaging with the media product.

Structure and agency. Because the objective nature of any media product extends beyond the entity with which we physically and interpretively interact to include the power dynamics, symbolic encodings, and other relationships in which the media product is embedded and which utilize the media product to propagate, challenge, critique, construct, etc., the system. That system, as a social construct, exists as both objective and subjective. Thus, by extension, because of the media product’s relationship to the system, it is simultaneously an objective and subjective entity as well as a process that operates to maintain, examine, critique, etc., that system.

In any media engaging, we perceive both the media product’s objective, material form (perhaps very consciously) and it’s subjective, symbolic nature (perhaps unconsciously if it aligns with our own subjective experiences). We may find the material form challenging (ex. learning curve for playing a new game) while having no issues with the symbolic content (ex. accepting level of violence in said game). Agency as both active and passive. I use media engaging(s) to reflect both the quantitative quest for causal linearity through objective patterns and qualitative goal to empower individuals and their subjective realities. I seek to understand patterns, but from the sense-making agent’s perspective of their sociocultural, historical material, political economic position and how any specific media product relates to this position.

Trying to freeze the person into objective observations or subjective recollections presents a limited view on a person’s interaction with a media product. We can continue to construct a variety of limited views, but we then must do more to engage this variety to build a mosaic and a potentially more illuminating understanding of media uses/decodings/effects. Or we could conduct more complicated research that investigates a variety of limited views concurrently. Rather than bring research into dialogue ex post facto, we can do it in situ, designing research from the beginning to have such dialogue between method/ologies. I use “media engaging(s)” to try to do just that: because it is never just a one-way power relationship, it always happens in situated contexts, and it is always a process and not an entity. Thus, if we can better teach people about the transjective nature of our mediated and nonmediated relationships, then they can hold power accountable.

Foundations and Groundings

Sixty years ago, Bauer’s writing on the “obstinate audience” was for academics to no longer focus all power on media producers but to also realize the extent to which the receiver, the audience (as a collective) or media user (as an individual), had in determining what influence the media could or would have. Bauer appeared to call for the media studies researcher to understand the effects of media exposure from the perspective of the person who is being affected. The call is to enter the “phenomenal world of the audience,” thereby to understand how the audience views the media, either as an inside member of that audience, or hermeneutically-minded to clarify the various spheres of interpretation occurring in the relationship between person, media and life. Research that has attempted to do so from different theoretical and methodological perspectives. Indeed, more and more media scholars seek a convergence of qualitative and quantitative traditions, such as Jensen (1986, 1987), Jensen & Rosengren (1990), Schrøder (1999, 2001), and Schrøder et al (2003). Livingstone’s (1990) work on soap opera reception provides an example of the application of both semiotics and statistics.

Some audience reception scholars have implicitly called for a study of this transactional model when they call for conceptualizing the audience as something other than a pre-existing state of people, be it the mass or a particular sociodemographic category. Scholars have called for a concept of the audience as more fluid, plural, fractured and overlapping than has been previously conceived. Part of this drive is due to the rise of the interactive media, such as the internet and digital games, that require a level of engagement not made explicit before – although all media require a similar kind of engagement, in that the reader always interacts with the text to generate meaning (Barker, 2006; Reinhard, 2011). These scholars have attempted to understand the ways in which the media (be it a technology or a text) are a part of the lifeworlds of the audience for that media. Or they have focused on the relationship between audiences and power. Or they have called for a more minutia reception approach to understand the processes of interaction between individual and media product. Rarely, however, have they called to combine situated moment-by-moment reception analysis within a network of contextualized power dynamics.

Moment-by-moment reception. The text/audience nexus approach to audience reception studies focuses on those studies that have been greatly influenced by Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model (1973/93). The model aligns with semiotic and literary theory at the time arguing that an audience could take multiple meanings out of a text, hence making that text polysemic (Alasuutari, 1999; Morley, 1992). The reference to Sonia Livingstone relates to her essays for over a decade on how the changing nature of the media audience requires more focus on the media user, especially on how moments of meaning-making occur at the intersection of the user and the text (1990; 1994, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004), a concern echoed by Birgitta Höijer (1992) and David Morley (2006). Rob Cover discusses how the rise of interactive media calls for researchers and theorists to understand the desire for such dialogue with any type of text, interactive or traditional (2004, 2006).

Similar arguments stem from German literary scholars in the 1960s and 1970s as to the role of the reader – a movement seen as the foundation for reception studies in the humanities (Allen, 1992; Holub, 1984). With his background in phenomenology, Roman Ingarden developed the idea that texts contain points of indeterminacy, or gaps, where the reader must supply her own information to “see” what the text is “saying” in her head. These gaps could also be filled in an infinite number of ways because they are reliant on what the reader brings to the text, such that the same reader may engage with the same text differently if the first time he was happy and the second time he was sad (Holub, 1984). Wolfgang Iser adopted Ingarden’s gaps to explain how the reader moves through a text; a reader has a “wandering viewpoint” and use what the text has provided to construct expectations for what will come, thereby creating a true “page turner” (1978). Iser argued that the placement of the gaps was strategic, to thereby manipulate how a reader needed to fill them to move on. While these theories were developed specifically for literary texts, film studies and reception studies, scholars have adopted the idea of “gap-filling” to explain the role of the spectator in constructing the film’s meaning (Allen, 1992).

Stiuationality. As Ingarden and Iser said, the text may generate questions to keep us interested and moving through the text, but that doesn’t mean we won’t generate questions the author never intended us to generate. All engagings are both triggered by the text, but are also going to be co-determined by individual and situational factors.Hasebrink (2004) on communication modes as user-defined situations in which media engagings occur. Draws more on functionality of user-and-gratifications, but in being focused on situation does provide agency to person and understand structures that may constrain or promote media engaging in the situation. In the 1980s, Mark Levy and Sven Windahl developed a typology with both a temporal dimension and an orientation dimension to discuss audience activities. The orientation dimension included the individual’s selection, involvement, and utilization of a media product. This range allows for the understanding of what happens before, during, and after the encounter but also positions them as discrete actions rather than interconnected aspects of a situation. Barker (2006) reiterates this need to understand the complexity of “active” and “passive” through investigating the procedures of audiencing as “viewing strategies” to include what happens before engaging with the media. To integrate all aspects of an encounter, I use the term “media engaging” to discuss the processes that constitute any situation involving a media product.

Power dynamics. Transcending subjective/objective helps for interdisciplinary and methodological issues, but understanding the agents/actors in a system constituting/involving media is more than just transcending a binary. It attempts to better understand power dynamics. Who’s hailing whom? The industry hailing the audience or vice versa? The individual hailing the text or vice versa? The society using the text to hail the public or the public using the text to hail the society? Who is engaging whom? It is both/and/always/all. Gerber’s discussion for how to do cultivation analysis, of looking at “institutional process analysis,” “message system analysis,” and “cultivation analysis.” Giddens presented an argument for the relationship between structure and agency with structuration theory. Hall’s encoding and decoding suggests how individuals can react to structured messages, while Jenkins and textual poaching demonstrates how recoding can become the ultimate way to push back against powerful structures.

Phenomenological. How can we do all in one study and center the agent’s sense-making? Carolyn Michelle and modes of reception (2007) as understanding how user perceives structural influences. Brenda Dervin’s work on the Sense-Making Methodology mandates a focus on the phenomenological experiences of the media audiences/users (Dervin & Foreman, 2003). Per Dervin, when we encounter difference or gap, when our habits and habits are interrupted, somehow we are disentangled from the system. In those moments we have the chance to innovate. When we are entangled in the system, we experience flow, and we may learn, but the process is more akin to unconscious cultivation. Thus, methodologically speaking, Sense-Making mandates that the study of a human being’s engagings with a phenomenon be considered from the perspective of a situation. By looking at a particular time-space intersect, the human being can discuss the processes or hows of sense-making that s/he was engaging in for the purposes of determining how to act/react/counteract in that situation.

I ground my research approach on SMM to understand moment-by-moment reception within a specific situation and from the phenomenological and objective analyses of contextualized power dynamics. For example, post-doctoral research and resulting studies attempting to synthesize these factors (Reinhard, 2011, 2012, 2016; Reinhard & Dervin, 2012, 2013a, 2013b). Admittedly, I have not published a singular piece combining all these factors in the analysis, but I plan to do so with my next big project. The limitation is less theoretical or methodological as it is the industry of academic publishing.


We engage the media, and the media engages us. Our media engagings occur within specific time-space bounded situations and also transcend those objective boundaries due to our subjective experiences.

By media engaging I focus on the phenomenon of a person’s engagement with some media technology or text, be it a one-time encounter or an ongoing, repeating arrangement. There is both a spatial aspect to media engaging, as any interaction with a technology or text does not occur in a contextual vacuum, and there is a temporal aspect, as the instance of engagement can be singular or plural. When the media engaging is a repeated returning to the same technology or text, then logically each media engaging would be situationally different from the others as time has changed and most likely aspects of the space, and how this situation is perceived by the individual, in which the media engaging occurs has changed as well.

A media engaging involves some media item, with its own set of constraining characteristics, and an individual, who brings into the engaging interpretive baggage constructed from a variety of factors, and this entire media engaging occurs in some contextual environment that can influence the engaging further with situational, social and cultural factors. While the relationship between these three components (media, user, context) may change over time, it is the processes that underlie the relationships that most interest me; hence the reason the term is “media engagings” and not “media engagements”.

I use media engaging(s) to break the unnecessary and reductionist quan/qual dichotomy and to reflect my interest in the contextualized, situated nature of the entire process of whereby an agent encounters a media product (i.e. text plus technology). I see affordances and constraints for quantitative and qualitative approaches to media studies, cultural studies, audience/fan/reception studies. However, my ontological perspective is neither one nor the other, subjective or objective, interpretive or positivistic. My ontological perspective recognizes the sense-making agent coping with the constraints of the objective physical reality coupled with the constraints due to socioculturally co-constructed structures. Epistemologically, then, I believe I require both quantitative and qualitative approaches to ever hope to understand even slightly my phenomena. Thus, my methodology requires me to understand the agent in situ, both for how they make sense of the structures present (physically and interpretively) within the situation as well as the objective presence of such structures as observable.

I use “media engaging(s)” as an axiological device: to ensure that I am faithful to my ontological, epistemological, and methodological beliefs. If I am not fully quantitative or qualitative, but exist at the intertwinement of the two; if I am not fully subjective or objective, but exist in a transjective space; if I understand reality as a constant mixing of physical and interpretive, then I need the means by which to express this identity. I see the benefit in this term as helping us understand how people learn to engage with new technologies, how they learn to accommodate new ideas into existing schema, and how they learn how to behave in any situation.

Theories and neologisms are an academic’s stock and trade, allowing for one person’s work to become memorialized and influential throughout time and space. And, perhaps part of me seeks such recognition and life-after-death. But the more pressing concern driving me to stubbornly persist with my terminology is due to the strength of my convictions. Whether others adopt my terminology is secondary than the need to remain faithful to myself and to what I believe best suits improving our knowledge regarding what happens before, during, and after an individual encounters a media product.


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Reinhard, C. D. & Dervin, B. (2013b). Comparing novice users’ sense-making processes in virtual worlds: An application of Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology. In Louise Phillips and Ursula Plesner (Eds.), Researching Virtual Worlds: Methodologies for Studying Emergent Practices (pp. 121-144). London: Routledge.

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Schrøder, K. C. (2001). Beyond the pioneer days! — Where is reception research going? Nordicom Review, 1, retrieved on 7/05/07 from 16_003_016.pdf

Schrøder, K., Drotner, K., Kline, S. & Murray, C. (2003). Researching Audiences. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] There has been a lot of discussion on how these two camps differ from each other. For selections that focus on reception and use studies, please see: Jensen (1987); Jensen (2002); Jensen & Rosengren (1990); Lindlof (1991); Lindlof & Taylor (2002); Schrøder et al (2003).

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