Active Audiences

Studies on active audiences began during the post-structuralism of the 1980s as ethnographic fieldwork examined people’s ability to negotiate scripted discourses of texts. This work challenged the cultural industry model, instead researching the polysemous nature of texts- texts as complex battlefields for meaning versus the onus of meaning itself.  The analytical work of cultural industry theorist, Levi-Strauss, defined texts as structured, containing codes, directing a deferential, symbolic meaning and argued that (perhaps like WWII propaganda), texts were used against passive masses in order to perpetuate a distorted world view that maintained structural inequalities.  Strauss discusses structuralism as pertinent to : deep structure (complexities of surface structures can be simplified into deep structures – borrowing from linguistics in modalities such as morphemes); the primacy of the unconscious; an etic or analytical view; synchrony (emphasis on the here and now); transformational analysis (or how deep structures transform into surface structures; linguistic analogy (based on language function theories); mentalist ideals (cognitive maps, binary contrasts, belief systems); and neurological reductionism (comparable to hard wired brain theories).  Because of this mode of discussing texts, all forms of media were opened up for study and thus was born the emic view of active audiences, building onto and challenging simultaneously, notions of numbed, ignorant masses, incapable of negotiating meanings of texts.  Vladimir Propp furthered these theories with his analysis of the structure of fairy tale narratives.  He concluded that all folk tales carry with them six states: preparation, complication, transference, struggle, return and finally recognition.  Also structurally coherent in all narratives, he claims, is a paradigm of seven ‘actants’: the villain, the donor, the hero, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher and the false hero.  Other theorists such as Gramsci furthered that such texts served to provide the masses with a cultural hegemony, a ‘false consciousness’ that serves to promote capitalistic states, masking stratification with hero-redemption notions and evolutionary meritocracies.  Because of the emphasis on reflexivity in ethnographic work combining with media studies, theorists began to look at the way audiences negotiated texts presented to them in not only local vernaculars, but at how national and global views coincide with and shape individual real and imagined identities.

Studies on mass media in America by Gerbner gave rise to the theories of cultivation effect-the theory that the more time people spend watching television, the more they are likely to perceive the real world as like that depicted on television.  Because of his attention to the complex and multifaceted way in which cultivation effect takes place, yet emphasizing the text as dominant, reader as passive, other later theorists went on to challenge the seemingly ethnocentric view about ‘others’. Such post-modernist theorists as Stuart Hall attempt to include such variables that Gerbner had left behind such as social class and gender.  He describes meaning making beyond levels of viewing to include the differences in the ways that audiences respond to the dominant or preferred textual meaning. Hall assigned three modes of reading a text.  The first way that an audience can read a text is in the dominant or preferred meaning of the text. At the next level of the taxonomy of active audiences is the negotiated reading of the text. Here readers question the text and create new meanings relevant to their own lives. The final mode Hall discusses is in resisted readings, where an audience actively resists the dominant or preferred reading of the text.

In further studies by Kottak, Pace, et al, small rural towns previously studies from an anthropological standpoint were included that introduced many more variables such as age, skin color, education, income, religiosity, length of home television exposure and current viewing level (Kottak, 138) as well as include four modes of reading texts: heed, miss, ignore or resist.  The category of ‘miss’ includes those lower income mostly rural audiences for whom advertisements or product placements, for example, do not have any cultural relevance, therefore miss. Another example found in Kulick and Willson’s Rambo’s Wife Saves the Day involves an African viewing of a film about malaria prevention. They had missed the intended message by those showing the film, instead noticing what was culturally relevant to their lives, the chicken that ran across the screen momentarily (274). The journal goes on to describe the audience as ignoring and changing the very way in which the narrative itself is interpreted.  Papua New Guineans do not perceive narratives as closed systems of discourse.  In their cultural telling of storis, narratives inhabit a space and time of its own, shaped by the retelling of those narratives and changing based on their own beliefs about people or intentions, experience and gossip.  Gapuners view cinematic technology as an eye that can be directed and penetrate space, death and time.  They believe that the afterworld is full of white people and that they themselves will be ‘reborn’ as mastas. Here there are not only differences in the way that Rambo is read as a text, but also differences in the very manner in which the medium is systematically read.

Such studies as Ang’s Watching Dallas which looked at the way very different cultures such as Isreali, Arabic, and Russian communities interpreted the imperialist United State’s prime time television began active audience fieldwork and are further explored in the text by Askew and Wilk.  Wilk’s work, “It’s Destroying a Whole Generation”: Television and Moral Discourse in Belize examines not the medium as the message, but the impact the medium has on social and political discourse at the locus of resistance. Wilks discusses how the global imperialist hegemony’s impact on a society is best understood not so much as a cause and effect, but rather interdependent upon each other and capable of solidifying local cultural rather than disseminating indigenous identities.  When discussing the impact of television on the society, Belizeans become more aware of the ‘local and the global’ (Wilk, 295). With the transmission of pirated satellite television in 1981, the Minister of Education declared television “more dangerous than an invading army of 10,000 soldiers” (Wilk, 287). By the time Wilk returned to Belize in 1989, the discourse regarding television shifted to the social and political consequences over the ‘television debate’ itself. What was found was that the discourse over the moralistic view on television had given Belize more of a pan-national identity as they objectified ‘the other’. Simply by exposure to what they were not, they were better able to gain a reassurance in what particularly made up a Belizean culture.

Jo Tacchi explores the ways in which audiences create identities through radio texture. He not only discuses the radio as background text throughout the daily lives of individuals, but he discuses how some people, like the divorcee uses radio text to shape identities through relationships with other people, in her case, boyfriends’ musical tastes. Radio is also used to create an imagined identity or imagined past as when a young person listens to classic rock, ‘remembering the good times’. Sometimes, too, music can serve as inter-textual motifs throughout emotional states of life’s rites of passages such as in Yoruba, where the muni bird’s song carries with it folklore about the bird and is conjured up in such rites throughout one’s life.

Also, in celebration of the individual is cinema, with an intended audience of one.  In Tongan tradition, Polynesian culture plays upon the heightened sense of narrative confinement by having a master of ceremonies who uses the film as a backdrop for an audience active in ‘retelling ‘the film at hand. Whereas western standards dictate complete silence at our movies, Tongans would find it boring to sit through a movie without banter and active participation.  Cultures participate in cinema and television in different ways, but also people within cultures participate in different ways, not only socially, but also within the same households.  While attention has been paid to television as gendered (soap operas are feminine; news, masculine), Mankekar looks at how television is read in India, a nation that actively uses television to promote pan-national ideals.  Indian media almost always portrays women as in one of two roles, either posed against the man’s devotion to his country, a threat or a complement to his heroism, like an accessory.  The target audience for television is the whole family.  It is important to note that the patriarchal system that predominates leaves little room for women to watch television and gives a new way of understanding ‘watching’. While most women ‘watch’ from the other room, they are very keen on what message is being delivered in their favorite shows. Television programs usually depict women in matriarchal even godlike roles such as Sita, embodying devotion and patience, especially toward her husband and Draupadi, goddess of intelligence and fiery strength.  The dominant matriarchal message of the nationalistic Indian television message was noted in one young girl’s opinion of a Draupadiesque character noting that her independent nature was ‘less Indian’. Other women negotiated the television texts such as Uma who viewed one program as unrealistic because it showed a woman in an unhappy arranged marriage getting a divorce, which was ‘unrealistic’ (Mankekar, 310). One couple, Selepan and Padmini had differences in opinions about the programs. Selepan favored the dominant reading that the woman should push the man to war for the sake of the nation, while Padmini provided mutually inexclusive readings of sympathy for the female character, finding such identities as unjust and rejecting them at the same time as ignoring the preferred meaning of patriotic duty and self-sacrifice.  Another informant describes reading a text as an extrapolation of emotive states. She states that texts are modes to learning about life because of the ‘bhaav’ discourses that are aroused within us when watching.  This gives a new meaning to being an active audience, emphasizing the reader’s ability to not only discern the intended meaning, but to be able to apply that and use it for personal enlightenment about one’s place in the world or state of being beyond that ascribed within that text. A further example of awareness of social class and interaction with media comes from Upper Egypt villages.  While they tune into the politically fueled Hilmiyya Nights (a prime-time soap opera depicting the usual urbanites) and similar imports like the United State’s The Bold and the Beautiful, both depicting consumerism of westernized goods, they are aware of not only the way they are viewed by the west that culminates in major impacts on their every day lives, but also of the ability to view the west as an ‘other’, watching others’ problems that cold never be their own.  This serves not only as an important way of negotiating meaning, but also questions power roles in mediating messages as the audience uses these texts as commodities, claiming the actors even as belonging to ‘the people’.

As previously noted, modern ethnographic studies of media look not only at the argument against pure cultivation theories toward active audiences, but looks at ways in which those audiences negotiate texts. Not only are differences noted in ways in which texts are negotiated and throughout differing positions within social constructs, but also within different stages of development.  Previous ethnographic work on media only was only examined in developed countries that had long interwoven histories with television as cultural element. In Kottak (et al) studies on rural villages of Brazil, work was done with population of peoples that were experiencing television for the first time. Stage One is best mirrored in Gurupa where television viewing exists as novelty, spectacle and mesmerizing. Owning a television serves as a status symbol and the television is viewed as a way to know about the world.  Audiences such as those in Gurupa view television as a way to forging new identities as Brazilian, participants in a national identity and use television specifically as a way to socialize.  Higher negative attitudes toward television seem to increase as the length of exposure and stage of viewing increases (Kottak, 140). As people enter Stage Two, they began to show signs of negotiated readings of texts and become complacent to the effects of television. Stages Three and Four deal with the time that television’s novelty begins to wan. It is during Stage Four that media becomes a proliferator of social change and mass enculturation (think Reagan years). The final stages of exposure are the most active with audiences controlling the massages they want to receive.  VCRs, DVDs, Tivo, and the internet are all modes of televiewing that continually change the role of audience and the power of the text. Most important to televiewing in Brazil is the telenovela, its only real competition, soccer or Carnival. The telenovela is so popular in Brazil that one finale was reported to have kept an important diplomat from the United States waiting at the airport because of his waiting party’s inability to tear themselves away from the television. Ratings on nightly telenovelas outdo any network in America, even beating out the Super Bowl. Differences between studied Brazilian towns show that although a social event in general, television viewing became a more individual event in towns with longer exposure and higher socioeconomic classes. Regardless of these findings, the results cannot indicate anything more than a chicken/egg conundrum as to preferences among differing cultural variables. Whether viewed as a positive or negative factor on sociability, it is obvious that television drives people toward sociability with the outside world and ‘the other’. One negative finding is that of a lack of trust in poorer Brazilians, particularly of the government.  While this finding is significant, it is hardly surprising given the distance of discourses presented in the characters and settings of telenovelas and that of their everyday lives. A certain awareness of ‘being dupped’ coupled with a sense of alienation from urban cities more involved with nationalism and decision-making seem to suggest that lower classes are distrustful after prolonged televiewing.

One final impact of televiewing in Brazil in correlation to negative social effects was the consumerism toward women.  Brazilians are taken in with idealized beauty and it is expected that women will keep up with the fashions and accept sexual objectification. So much so is this apparent that women are discouraged from breastfeeding. In Cunha, the light viewer tended to nurse for eighteen months, the medium viewer for thirteen and the heavy viewer only eight (Kottak, 163).

Studies with new groups of televiewers in contrast to studies on the effects of media in nations that have been fully immersed into television culture allows some questions to be reexamined that were merely assumed before. One example is the effects of television on reading. Whereas before it was asserted that televiewing decreased instances of reading, when studied in the Brazilian culture with a rich history of print, it can now be said that televiewing can actually stimulate desire of print (especially if it includes a referential to a popular telenovela actor or acress).

Studies on active audiences are fairly new to the field of anthropology. The marriage of studies on media in culture arose as anthropologists moved away from the beginnings of the field in the times of coding racial hierarchies through evolutionary scientific claims. With modern day cultural anthropology scholars like Kottak and Pace who continue to study the effects of television on rural villages in Brazil, we continue to learn about the battle of the invisible army of soldiers known as ‘television’.


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