A key scholar who has shaped our understanding of the processes of meaning making and representation is cultural theorist Stuart Hall.
Hall was born and raised in Jamaica and moved to the UK in the 1950s, producing a number of influential works on media and representation during the civil rights movement up until his death in 2014.
He was the Director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies – which was highly influential in shaping a generation of ‘British Cultural Studies’ that paid attention to how representation shaped power relationships, and particularly, how media was used as part of the everyday life of ordinary people.
Hall’s earlier work often focused on television, where traditional media models around meaning making were simple at best. The majority of models were concerned with transmission of messages: A sender codes a message a certain way, then transmits the message through a medium: writing, radio, television, film where it is then received and understood by a receiver, an audience.
Ultimately the weakness of these early models was that they assumed messages were simply received or not received, either understood or not understood by an audience with a relatively similar cultural map. There was also an underlying assumption that a shared language suggested a shared cultural context.
But Hall understood that meaning making and representation was far more complicated.
As critical cultural scholar Graeme Turner puts it
Hall makes a conclusive break with the hitherto dominant American communication models, with aesthetics and with the notion of the audience as passive consumers of mass culture.
Hall argues that… just because a message has been sent, this is no guarantee that it will arrive; ever moment in the process of communication, from the original composition of the message (encoding) to the point at which it is read and understood (decoding), has its own determinants and conditions of existence.
Hall’s work was often pre-occupied with outlining a cultural dimension to media theory, as a cultural outsider working and living in the UK. His work theorised that media representation was not limited to linguistics, or a sender receiver analysis, but influenced by an individual’s personal experiences and relationship to the society in which they lived. Who we are, how we identify, the cultural map we are prepared with, all are factors that deeply influence how we will understand a message.
Hall argued that just as the process of making media is dynamic, so is the process for understanding a media message.
In the recording we consider how representations are reflective, intentional and constructed.
Notes | Quotes about Hall are from Turner, G. (2003). British Cultural Studies: an introduction. Routledge: New York. | Final quote in recording from Stuart Hall is from Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Sage: London.