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1. `The New Audience Research' in Media Studies

And then there was `the New Audience Research'... Roughly from the mid 1980s onward there is a more or less sudden increase in qualitative audience studies in mass communication research. This increase is sometimes referred to as the `ethnographic turn' in media research because the key studies involved have all been inspired by a particular tradition of anthropological research called interpretive ethnography. Traditional social anthropology involved a researcher living amidst a `foreign' or `native' community and studying the life of that community as `the other', applying to it a range of `scientifically-validated' methods and concepts to do with language, kinship systems, systems of production and so on. But interpretive ethnography, by contrast, seeks to see the world as it is seen and experienced by the participants themselves, and does not disguise the role of the researcher. This approach, applied to media audiences, has been called `New Audience Research' (see Corner, 1991). The New Audience Research covers a wide range of subjects. It refers amongst other things to studies of romance reading, television viewing, and how we make sense of the news. The definitive characteristic of these studies is that they actively invite those who read romances or watch television to present their own point of view in lengthy, open interviews or in the course of `participant observation' - see p.172 of Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd Edition) (Hartley, J., 2002).

This approach is sometimes associated with political ideals: it is seen as a more open and democratic procedure than to hand questionnaires to viewers and readers which do not allow them to use their own words. Many different research traditions have advocated qualitative research methods such as in depth interviewing or participant observation. Not all of them, however, were motivated by a critical or political agenda, nor did they necessarily lead to reflection on or critique of existing power relations. In the words of a famous anthropologist, interpretive ethnography can provide a means "for different peoples to form complex concrete images of one another; as well as of the relationships of knowledge and power that connect them" (Clifford, 1988:23). Such a form of ethnography ideally allows for dialogue or even polylogue among those coming from different cultures or cultural backgrounds and for a redressing of intercultural power relations (Marcus and Fischer, 1986). However, even in interpretive ethnography the researcher retains considerable power: the power of choice of research topic or focus, power of selection of which parts of which transcriptions or observations should be included in the research write-up or commentary, power of interpretation of their significance and power over the means and style of distribution of the research findings. In this respect interpretive ethnography is similar to other research traditions.

Ien Ang's study of watching Dallas, the American prime time soap opera is a classic example of the New Audience Research (Ang, 1985). Ang invited readers of the Dutch women's magazine Viva to write to her about their Dallas viewing experience. "I like watching the TV serial Dallas but often get odd reactions to it. Would anyone like to write and tell me why you like watching it too, or dislike it? I should like to assimilate these reactions in my university thesis. Please write to ..." (1985, p.10). She received 42 letters, most of them from women. Based on these letters Ang reconstructs what kind of pleasures watching Dallas offers for these Dutch viewers. Her goal was not simply to describe how viewers make sense of and find pleasure in watching Dallas, she also wanted to intervene in the then fierce debate in the Netherlands and in other European countries about the `cultural imperialism' of American television shows as well as take a stand against the often denigrating views of popular culture and its users.

Through qualitative method, inspired by ethnography, Ien Ang was able to access audience pleasures in viewing Dallas (and hating Dallas), and to identify how the dominant ideology of mass culture and its populist counterpart organise social debate and individual evaluation of popular culture (even if they cannot determine audience pleasure in itself). Ang's choice to work with readers' letters also has a second political dimension. She helped to establish a new, more radical forum for feminist interest in popular culture, women's genres and women readers. The feminist work on popular culture at that time consisted primarily of text-based analysis. An often-quoted example is Tania Modleski's collection Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women ([1982] 1984, in which Modleski analyses what makes romances, gothic novels and soap opera so attractive for female audiences.

Modleski combines her decoding of the narrative structure of romances, gothic novels and soap opera with psycho-analytical and clinical psychological views. As a result some critics see her work as ultimately contradicting its own goals. Instead of generating respect for female audiences she stigmatizes them as hysterics (romance readers) or stereotypes them as housewives (soap opera) whose distracted frame of mind, said to be crucial to their efficient functioning, fits appropriately with the structure of day-time television soap operas, a characteristic of which are their multiple and fragmented plotlines. Modleski's text-based analysis was challenged by a group of researchers who, following Ang, chose to work with the accounts of viewers themselves. Ellen Seiter, Hans Borchers, Gabrielle Kreutzner and Eva- Maria Warth (1989), using in-depth interviews, came to very different conclusions regarding the spectator position Modleski used as the basis for her text analysis.

Modleski speaks of the position of the `ideal mother' to explain the high number of close-ups (the mother's privileged contact with the emotions of her family) but also to explain how women watch day-time soap opera. "Like the ideal mother in the home, we are kept interested in a number of events at once and are denied the luxury of a total and prolonged absorption" (1984, p.101). Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner and Warth dismantle this position as very much a middle-class position of which their working-class informants were critical (1989, p241). Likewise their informants did not despise `the villainess' as a negative image of their own ideal selves (Modleski's interpretation), but admired her for her guts. They tended to `hate' what they called `the whiners' or the `wimpy women' (1989, p.238).

Even though it can be seductive to look for similarities between the narrative structure of media texts and everyday life, such a procedure abstracts too much from the complexities of everyday life. To understand how popular genres have meaning for audiences it is crucial to take the social context in which they are used into account. Analysis based only on the text raises difficult questions about the status of the researcher. Is she the enlightened expert? Can she, contrary to the women she describes, withstand the enticements of the text? Modleski's analysis sets her apart from the people she writes about. Compare this to Ang's invitation to Dallas viewers to write her about their experiences: "I like watching ... Dallas, but often get odd reactions to it". Ang's position is totally different. Her `authority' is of a more `dialogical' nature, in tune with ethnographic work.

The New Audience Research differs from various other traditions that have similar research objects or use similar methods:

  • although the New Audience Research is a type of audience research, its practitioners have a firm preference for qualitative over quantitative method which they believe allows them to do justice to the social contexts in which the media are used;
  • contrary to mainstream mass communication research, the New Audience Research often prioritizes respect for cultures or cultural backgrounds that are marginalised by the dominant culture and by mainstream research traditions;
  • its research object is usually popular culture, which includes both fiction and news genres; the New Audience Research is more political or `critical' than is popular culture research within such traditions as American Studies or English Literature (in as far as they accommodate popular culture at all);
  • interactive research methods (interviews or participant observation) are preferred over text analytical methods;
  • the political agenda of the New Audience Research is often a feminist agenda (although there is no reason why the methods of such research cannot be applied to a much broader agenda).