Encoding/decoding model of communication
The Encoding/decoding model of communication was first developed by cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall in 1973. Titled 'Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse,' Hall's essay offers a theoretical approach of how media messages are produced, disseminated, and interpreted. As a founder of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, Hall has had a major influence on media studies. His model claims that TV and other media audiences are presented with messages that are decoded, or interpreted in different ways depending on an individual's cultural background, economic standing, and personal experiences. In contrast to other media theories that disempower audiences, Hall advanced the idea that audience members can play an active role in decoding messages as they rely on their own social contexts, and might be capable of changing messages themselves through collective action.
For example, since advertisements can have multiple layers of meaning, they can be decoded in various ways and can mean something different to different people. Hall claims that the decoding subject can assume three different positions: Dominant/hegemonic position, negotiated position, and oppositional position.
"The level of connotation of the visual sign, of its contextual reference and positioning in different discursive fields of meaning and association, is the point where already coded signs intersect with the deep semantic codes of a culture and take on additional more active ideological dimensions."—Stuart Hall, 1980, “Encoding/decoding.”
In his essay, Hall advances a four-stage model of communication that takes into account the production, circulation, use and reproduction of media messages. In contrast to the traditional linear approach of the sender and receiver, he perceives each of these steps as both autonomous and interdependent. "Each stage will affect the message (or ”product”) being conveyed as a result of its ’discursive form’ (e.g. practices, instruments, relations). This implies that, for example, the sender of information can never be sure that it will be perceived by the target audience in the way that was intended, because of this chain of discourse."  Each of these steps helps defines the one that follows, while remaining clearly distinct. These four stages are:
- Production – This is where the encoding of a message takes place. By drawing upon society's dominant ideologies, the creator of the message is feeding off of society's beliefs, and values.
- Circulation – How individuals perceive things: visual vs. written. How things are circulated influences how audience members will receive the message and put it use.
- Use (distribution or consumption) – This is the decoding/interpreting of a message which requires active recipients. This is a complex process of understanding for the audience.
- Reproduction – This is the stage after audience members have interpreted the message in their own way based on their experiences and beliefs. What is done with the message after it has been interpreted is where this stage comes in. At this point, you will see whether individuals take action after they have been exposed to a specific message.
The encoding of a message is the production of the message. It is a system of coded meanings, and in order to create that, the sender needs to understand how the world is comprehensible to the members of the audience. The decoding of a message is how an audience member is able to understand, and interpret the message.
Application of model
This model has been adopted and applied by many media theorists since Hall developed it. Hall's work has been central to the development of cultural studies, and continues today because of the importance of decoding. Cultural Studies started challenging the mainstream media effects models in 1960. The main focus was how audience members make meanings and understand reality through their use of cultural symbols in both print and visual media. It is important to look at cultural research because its focus on daily experiences, looking at race, gender, class and sexuality all help bring meaning to the world we live in today. Theorists such as Dick Hebdige, David Morley, and Janice Radway have been heavily influenced by Hall, and applied his theory to help develop their own:
Hebdige was a British cultural and critic scholar that studied under Hall at the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. His model builds from Hall's idea of Subculture. He is most known for his influential book Subculture: The Meaning of Style where he argues that younger generations are challenging dominant ideologies by developing distinct styles and practices that manifest their separate identity, and subversions. His exploration of the punk subculture outlines the potential causes and influences of the punk movement, especially for the youth. His extensive study on subcultures and its resistance against mainstream society showed that the punk subculture used commodification to differentiate themselves from, or become accepted by, the mainstream. Hebdige believed that punk was incorporated into the media in an attempt to categorize it within society, and he critically examines this issue by applying Hall's theory of encoding and decoding.
David Morley is a sociologist who studies the sociology of the television audience. Known for being a key researcher in conducting The Nationwide Project in the late 1970s, Morley took this popular news program that aired daily on BBC. It reported on national news from London and the major events of the day, and was broadcast throughout the UK. He applied Hall's reception theory to study the encoding/decoding model of this news program. This study focused on the ways this program addressed the audience member and the ideological themes it presented. Morley then took it a step further and conducted a qualitative research that included individuals with varying social backgrounds. This was where Hall's research came into play. He wanted to see how they would react to certain clips of the program based on Hall's three decoding methods: dominant/hegemonic, negotiated, or oppositional.
Janice Radway an American literacy and cultural studies scholar, conducted a study on women in terms of romance reading. In her book Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature Radway studied a group of midwestern women that were fans of romance novels. She argued that this cultural activity functioned as personal time for women that didn't typically have any personal time to themselves. Although her work was not seen as scientific, and her study only applied to a small group of women, she was interested in interpreting how women could relate their everyday life to a fiction book. As a result, her study demonstrated that these studies define culture in very broad terms, because in the end culture is made up of the symbols of expression that society uses to make sense of their everyday life. Radway's audience research worked off of Hall's theory of encoding/decoding. Studying how specific individuals receive and interpret messages based on their backgrounds was something that played a huge role in Radway's study on women. Some women related to the book and some escaped reality as if they were the characters in the book; but this all depended on their backgrounds, identities and beliefs, which circulates within society and is reinforced by Hall's theory of encoding/decoding.
This position is one where the consumer takes the actual meaning directly, and decodes it exactly the way it was encoded. The consumer is located within the dominant point of view, and is fully sharing the texts codes and accepts and reproduces the intended meaning. Here, there is barely any misunderstanding because both the sender and receiver have the same cultural biases.
"The domains of 'preferred meanings' have the whole social order embedded in them as a set of meanings, practices and beliefs: the everyday knowledge of social structures, of 'how things work for all practical purposes in this culture', the rank order of power and interest and the structure of legitimations, limits and sanctions."
This position is a mixture of accepting and rejecting elements. Readers are acknowledging the dominant message, but are not willing to completely accept it the way the encoder has intended. The reader to a certain extent shares the texts code and generally accepts the preferred meaning, but is simultaneously resisting and modifying it in a way which reflects their own experiences and interests.
As Hall states, "decoding within the negotiated version contains a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements: it acknowledges the legitimacy of the hegemonic definitions to make the grand significations (abstract), while, at a more restricted, situational (situated) level, it makes its own ground rules- it operates with exceptions to the rule".
In this position a consumer understands the literal meaning, but due to different backgrounds each individual has their own way of decoding messages, while forming their own interpretations. The readers' social situation has placed them in a directly oppositional relation to the dominant code, and although they understand the intended meaning they do not share the text's code and end up rejecting it.
- Hall, Stuart. Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Birmingham, England: Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1973. 507–17.
- "Active Audience." Stereotypes in the Media. March 25, 2010.
- Kelly, Aidan, Katrina Lawlor, and Stephanie O'Donohoe. "Chapter 8- Encoding Advertisements: The Creative Perspective." The Advertising and Consumer Culture Reader. By Joseph Turow and Matthew P. McAllister. New York: Routledge, 2009. 133–49.
- In Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Love, and Paul Willis (eds.), Culture, Media, Language, pp. 128–38. London: Hutchinson, 1980. In Stuart Hall, Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds. (2001). "Encoding/Decoding". Media And Cultural Studies: Keyworks: 171.
- "Stuart Hall's Essay on Encoding/Decoding." Floating Data. April 20, 2011.
- Campbell, Richard. Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.
- "Dick Hebdige: Subculture: The Meaning of Style – book summary ." The Cultural Studies Reader. December 10, 2010.
- "Punks: An Origin Story." Solely By Virtue. November 14, 2012.
- Professor David Morley is a sociologist who specializes in the sociology of the television audience.
- "Audiences and Reception Theory." Julie Martin: Community Manager / Animatrice De Communaute. 2007.