Media theory and criticism analyze how—and if—the media affect our culture. This is primarily determined through audience research. That is, studies that are conducted to determine how media consumers respond (or not) to media messages. Are the media monolithic hegemonic forces? Do the media producers and disseminators create and determine the meanings, symbols and identities that structure society? Or do media consumers use, interpret, and resist the intended messages and meanings of the media at their discretion? And to what avail? As communication’s scholar Justin Lewis poses the question, “who has the power to create and solidify meanings? … Do we create our own meanings, or are they passed on to us, prewrapped in an attractive, well-designed package?” (Lewis p6). Audience research has developed around these questions.
Lewis thoughtfully detailed the development of media theory in his 1991 book, The Ideological Octopus. He suggests—contrary to popular opinion—that media research is generally characterized by a tendency to underestimate the influence of media effects. Communication theorist Conrad Lodziak proposes, for example, “that television’s main effect is not on our consciousness at all, but on its tendency to monopolize our leisure time” (Lewis p5).
However, communication and cultural studies scholar Chris Barker, in his 1999 book Television, Globalization, and Cultural Identities, asserts that the media, especially television, are explicitly instrumental in the formation of identity. Our identities, explains Barker, are formed through a discourse with others. We structure ourselves in relation to our understanding of other people and how we perceive others to view us. These “discursive constructions” are formulated through the cultural tools of language, symbols and representations. And “television,” writes Barker, “is the major communicative device for disseminating those representations” (Barker p31). However, even as television circulates these “dominant representational aspect of modern culture,” Barker does not dismiss the power of the audience. He points to the fact that it is the audience who ultimately makes sense of television’s disseminated meanings through the experiences of their daily lives. In other words, audiences appropriate and use the material that television provides in order to help them understand their position in the world. (Barker p7).
Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn explain in their 2003 Audience Studies Reader, that it was the use of ‘propaganda’ during World War I that sparked an interest in audience studies. It was widely believed at the time that propaganda played an important part in the defeat of the Germans. The term ‘propaganda’ implies that the minds of the masses are “vulnerable and persuadable” to manipulation by skilled, elite authority figures. As Brooker and Jermyn note, “The rise of European dictatorships in this period … suggested that certain charismatic personalities, making full use of the growing modern media, were able to bend the masses to their will” (Brooker p5).
Thus, it was during the interwar period that a group of German intellectuals led my Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, known as the ‘Frankfurt School’, adopted the view of mass-society or mass-culture. With this thesis in mind they developed the theory of audience studies that came to be known as the ‘hypodermic needle’ or ‘effects’ model. This model, according to Brooker and Jermyn, assumes that media texts are “imposed from ‘above’ onto a passive and malleable audience…in this context early audience research sought to discern the ‘effects’ that the media had on its audiences, based on an assumption that a quantifiable audience response would be identifiable and predictable give a certain media stimulus.” This media theory constructed audiences as powerless victims (Brooker p6).
However, mathematician and sociologist Paul Felix Lazarsfeld