Encoding/Decoding

The power to control the processes through which meaning is made, circulated, and made sense of matters.

Controlling representation matters because it shapes how people understand the world, which affects how they act in the world.

Here, Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model is particularly important.  The Encoding/Decoding model was particularly important as part of a turn toward ‘active audiences’ or ‘reception theory’ in the 1970s. This turn paid attention to who audiences were ‘active participants’ in making sense of and incorporating media representations into their everyday practices and identities.

The claim was that media had to be understood as a social process, and that meant that the meanings of media representations could not be understood by simply ‘analysing’ the text (what was on the screen or in the image), but had to be understood by going and observing how audiences, or receivers, of representations made sense of them. Critically important, was the claim that there was no ‘single’ meaning in a text, but that the same text could have different meanings to different audience members because they used their differing positions in the social and cultural world to make sense of media.

Hall’s encoding/decoding model was first published in the early 1970s. His claim was that while some people have more power to control the resources used to create meanings, and the structures and spaces where meanings circulate; no one has complete control over how meanings are encoded and decoded.

Powerful groups have the capacity to control media institutions and technologies, and the resources to employ and direct professional communicators.

That level of control only gets them so far, because representations work discursively. Once produced, messages have to be circulated. They become meaningful when incorporated into social practices and institutions. Institutions can’t entirely control those social practices.

In the recording we examine some of the key claims in Hall's encoding/decoding essay.