Stuart Hall, when creating his model for communication, was less interested in the technical aspects of communication than Shannon and Weaver, whose communication theory has been mentioned on my blog previously (click here). Hall focused on the socio-cultural aspects.
Producing and being part of an audience for media texts are not ‘neutral’ acts. Both producers and audiences have ideas, opinions, values, backgrounds and experiences that impact production and consumption. Models such as Shannon and Weaver’s do not account for this.
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 dis-empower 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. In simpler terms, Encoding/decoding is the translation of a message that is easily understood. When you decode a message, you are extracting the meaning of that message into terms that you are able to easily understand.
For Hall, media texts have a dominant, or preferred, meaning. The process of encoding is about ensuring this dominant meaning is contained within the media text during the production process. However, audiences may not always receive or adopt the intended message. This is a process of decoding: audiences understanding what they are seeing, hearing and reading. Ideally, they will take a dominant reading of the text – they will understand and act on, or agree with, the intended message.
Audiences may also make a negotiated reading. This is where audiences accept part of the message but not all of it. Hall discusses how we regularly engage in negotiation in society. Both dominant and negotiated responses can contribute to the process of hegemony – this means the way we consent to the dominant ideology because it is presented to us as ‘common sense’ or ‘normal’.
Halls final type of decoding is an oppositional reading. This is when the audience might understand the message, but refuse to comply with it e.g. watching a party political broadcast and then voting for a different party.
The model can be seen in the image below: