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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 9 Numbers 2, 3, 4 1999

Advertising to the Gendered Audience


Vickie Rutledge Shields
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio USA

Abstract.  This essay examines the contribution of Sense-Making, both as a methodology and as a meta-theoretical framework, to a line of empirical audience research focused on the decoding of "the idealized female body" in advertising by women and men. By doing so, the essay claims that audience reception theory in both cultural studies and feminist media studies can be advanced through empirical investigation of audience decoding that employs Sense-Making. The essay presents a case study focusing on the research design and major findings from demonstration studies. The author argues that although audience reception work has been successful in finding patterns in audience responses, a stockpiling of findings has emerged, rather than the emergence of an integrated picture of "reception." In order for this kind of theorizing to happen, cultural studies audience research must rethink its methodologies and address its own meta-theoretical contests.

In this exemplar I will discuss the contribution of Sense-Making 1, both as a methodology and as a sensitizing meta-theoretical framework, to a line of empirical audience research focused on the decoding by women and men of "the idealized female body" in advertising. Of primary concern in this research was the problem of where the "meaning" of ads resides -- in the text, in the audience, or in a complex web of signification that links the two. Intervening in both cultural studies' and feminist media studies' debates surrounding gendered decoding strategies, the analyses sought to examine the relationship between structural constraints imposed by the dominant messages about gender in advertising, how those messages articulate with messages about gender in society at large, and when and how individuals have the interpretive freedom to negotiate with the dominant messages in advertising and in society at large. The guiding theoretical research questions were: Where are the particular sites of struggle for control over the meanings of gender by men and women in relation to dominant messages in advertising? Where are the sites of compliance by men and women with the dominant messages about gender as prescribed through advertising?

The purpose of this line of research, therefore, was to shed light on the discursive bridges individuals built between the macro structures of power and control of a mass mediated cultural form such as advertising and the micro-politics of everyday living as gendered subjects of these macro-structures. However, the overall purpose of this essay is to explore how Sense-Making as a methodology made such an illumination possible. A further purpose of this essay is to illustrate how, through empirical investigation of audience decoding that employs Sense-Making as a methodology, audience reception theory in both cultural studies and feminist media studies can be advanced.

Perspectives from Feminist Media Studies

The most sustained and enlightening critique of the relation between the encoded ideal female body in media and its potential effects on cultural ways of seeing emerged in the 1970s and early 1980s in feminist film theory and in later feminist television criticism (see Stacey, 1989; van Zoonen, 1994). Central to this body of theory is Laura Mulvey's (1975) concept of the "male gaze" and its subsequent critique by those proposing a distinct "female gaze" and "female spectator" (e.g., Betterton, 1985; Doane, 1982; Macdonald, 1995; Pribram, 1988; Stacey, 1994; van Zoonen, 1994; Waldman, 1989). For Mulvey, in Hollywood cinema, the dominant gaze is always male; the idealized female body is always positioned for his viewing pleasure. Mulvey contends that cinema, like other cultural forms, is produced in the deeply rooted structures of the patriarchal unconscious. Mulvey argues that "the patriarchal definition of looking as male `activity' and being looked at as female `passivity' allows for a reconciliation of the two contradictory, but constitutive pleasures of narrative cinema" (van Zoonen, 1994, p. 89). In Mulvey's original framework, women could only enjoy cinema by assuming the male gaze. This involved identifying with the female subject encoded in the text, thus making oneself into the object of the gaze and/or seeing the female character as a male would, an object of possession.

The central thesis of John Berger's (1972), Ways of Seeing, although published prior to Mulvey's (1975) famous Screen article and focusing on a different medium, is often cited as the complementary theory to Mulvey's male gaze, especially for examining still images. Berger presents the concept of the "self-surveyed female" as pivotal to how we in the Western world learn to look at femaleness. For Berger, the rise to prominence of the female nude in European oil painting depicts a turning point where women's bodies became the object of "the gaze." The popularity of the nude was conceived and enjoyed within a particular material context. According to Berger (1972), "in the art-form of the European nude, the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women" (p. 63). As a cultural form, then, the nude is an abstraction from the materiality of particular women's bodies, their "nakedness." Instead "the nude" is objectified, a spectacle in its own right (Shields, 1990). According to Berger, the aesthetic "value" invested in the tradition of the nude in European oil painting has been instrumental in molding the acceptable way of viewing women today.

Early critiques of the "male gaze" and the "self-surveyed female," however, asserted that female spectators are not merely passive "bearers" of textual codes but are, in fact, capable of reading "against the grain" of even the most patriarchal texts. Many of these scholars contend that although the conventions of the male gaze in visual images are dominant conventions in our society, it is wrong to theorize that female spectatorship can only be seen as an activity that is dictated by the male gaze. Women have developed their own ways of looking that should not be defined through the masculine lens.

Most theorizing about the nature of female ways of looking has taken a particular path, focusing on female "pleasures" in viewing/reading (Gamman & Marshment, 1989; Macdonald, 1995; Pribram, 1988; Radway, 1984; Stacey, 1989, 1994). However, feminist scholars like Belinda Budge (1989) argue that what is needed is a new vocabulary that can better describe pleasurable and resistant associations women make when looking at images of other women. A limited number of feminist audience studies provide the beginnings for such a move (Ang, 1985, 1989; Bobo, 1988; Hobson, 1982; Press, 1992; Radway, 1984; Stacey, 1994). While they may not offer completely new vocabularies, findings from these studies offer new ways of understanding female resistance to images, in the form of pleasures, produced in and through white patriarchal power structures.

At issue here is the influence of dominant images of idealized female bodies on audiences. Mulvey's critics are correct to gesture toward the existence of a more "active" audience, but this body of theory generally stops short of engaging with real audience members. Mary Ann Doane (1982), for example, describes without apology the female spectator as "a concept, not a person" (p. 142). By reading theories of the female gaze and the female spectator through the lens of cultural studies, it can be argued that feminist film theorists have argued convincingly for the potential power of the encoded text, but have failed to explore the processes of textual decoding.

This body of theory does suggest that very sophisticated audience activity occurs. For example, Christine Gledhill (1988) argues that our ability to understand female spectatorship hinges on understanding female "negotiations" with highly gender-coded images, and our ability to understand processes of "mediation." However, with the exception of Jackie Stacey' s (1994) reception analysis of female audiences of classic Hollywood cinema, little empirical work has been undertaken to inform and/or move beyond the concept of the "male gaze" (and/or "self-surveyed female") to position "female spectatorship" in/through/against it. Only through critical audience research can we begin to understand how and under what conditions female spectators accept, negotiate with, or even reject these dominant images of idealized female bodies. Further, only through empirical research can we begin to explore whether negotiation and resistance to patriarchal images of idealized female bodies necessarily results in female "pleasure." Any analysis of the effects of mass media images on female spectatorship must take into account the cumulative nature of these dominant images of gender in this society and, therefore, the taken-for granted nature of viewing them.

Feminist scholars of female spectatorship argue that what is needed are analyses of female pleasures in looking that are ideologically grounded. Like critical audience theorists, feminist scholars of female spectatorship want to forge a bridge between the macro structures of power and control of the mass media (specifically structures of gender as defined through patriarchy) and the micro-politics of everyday living (in, with and against patriarchy) (Waldman, 1989). Gamman and Marshment (1989) state that "[w]hat we need is an analysis which can begin to explain in more specific ways the relationship between our [female] pleasures and their ideological grounding, and how we might go about changing these relationships" (p. 6). Further, Christine Gledhill (1988) argues:

[the study of ] female spectatorship elides conceptually distinct notions: the `feminine' spectator constructed by the text, and the female audience, constructed by the socio-historical categories of gender, class, race, and so on. The question now confronting feminist theory is how to conceive their relationship. (p. 67)
For Gledhill, theorizing the concept of "negotiation," specifically, provides a positive first step to rethinking the relations among media products, ideologies, and audiences and attempting to bridge the gap between textual subject and social subject.

Cultural Studies Reception Analysis

Most cultural studies reception analyses have focused on the articulations between the moments of the encoded text and the moment of reception, or "viewing," which is intimately related to the "lived culture" or experiential knowledge and situational influences of the subjects in the context of the viewing. Cultural studies in the past has approached the reader/text relationship, or the articulations between readers and texts, as a series of subject positions. Readers may be seen as taking up either oppositional, negotiated, or preferred (dominant) subject positions in regard to the text (Hall, 1980; Morley, 1980). Then again, other cultural studies approaches have shown that the audience may use the cultural form in ways never anticipated or preferred by the text, such as for coping with the larger demands of gender relations in a patriarchal society (Radway, 1984).

The discourses and meanings of lived culture continually provide the "raw material" for cultural production (Johnson, 1986). For example, feminist scholars such as Coward (1985) discuss how the insecurities created in women by advertisers who relentlessly present an idealized and unattainable ideal female body to women, creates a demand that is continually reproduced by the women themselves. This demand is reproduced not simply because the women buy the products, but because they are culturally educated in what to demand in order to achieve the ideal.

Dave Morley's (1980, 1986, 1989) empirical work and subsequent self-reflexive critiques on the evolution of his own work and the state of the field in critical audience studies have made him a leading figure in audience reception. Morley was one of the first to test empirically Hall's model of encoding/decoding in his study of "The Nationwide Audience." Since that time, Morley has advanced his conceptualizations of the circuit model and encoding/decoding in empirical research. In a state-of-the-art review of changing paradigms in audience studies, Morley (1989) offers two points of critique he considered particularly instructive for future reception research.

First, Morley suggests that the encoding/decoding conceptualization overemphasizes class and race, de-emphasizing gender and age as major determinants of decodings. He argues that his study and Hall's model, while paying lip-service to the four categories, in practice only focused on class and race. For Morley (1989), the dimension of sex/gender is particularly important in relation to mass cultural texts and, for example, "its construction of the domestic sphere in relation to women's position in the family" (p. 8).

Feminist perspectives on reception support Morley's first critique. Feminist scholars argue that gender, understood typically in traditional audience research as one demographic factor among many, is in fact much more than a demographic factor. Gender is a central social organizer, possibly more so than class, race, education, or social status. Gender inequalities and differentiations are constituted throughout the dominant institutions and discourses in society, with the mass media being one of the most influential institutions for reflecting and reproducing gender relations (Modleski, 1986; Rakow, 1986; Schwichtenberg, 1989; van Zoonen, 1994).

Second, Morley's insights into the central organizing position of gender highlight his advances in conceptualizing the nature of social structures in the process of decoding. Morley's conception opens up possibilities for examining a multiplicity of competing structures at work at any given moment of articulation with a text. In this schema, the structure of the text itself is not necessarily the most dominant structure in that moment of articulation. For example, the structures that prove themselves most dominant in that moment could be the educational structure, the family structure, structures of gender relations or any combinations of these or others. This conceptualization allows for a notion of an active audience member who operates within and through competing social structures.

For Morley a second flaw in his operation of the encoding/decoding model, he reports, lies with the notion that the concept of decoding may in fact be blurring together many different processes that should be treated separately, such as attentiveness, relevance, comprehension, and interpretation and response. There is a "necessity to recognize, in the first instance, the question of the viewer's positive or negative response to the text as a particular cultural form - do they enjoy it, feel bored by it, recognize it as at all relevant to their concerns?" (Morley, 1981, p. 10). Morley suggests that these concerns should precede concerns with the audience's ideological accommodation or opposition to the text, mainly because they may be the more appropriate starting points from which to study the decodings of audiences.

These critiques set up a particular meta-theoretical contest: Can empirical audience research build in this kind of complexity without losing sight of the central concepts presented in the encoding/decoding model? A central concept being that the structural constraints and interpretive freedom are not necessarily two equally weighted sides of one process. For Morley, the methodological challenge rests in conceiving of research that can account for a multiplicity of structural constraints in any one moment of articulation with mass media texts. In understanding the particular conditions under which certain structures, both inside and outside of the text itself, are more dominant than others, we can begin to understand the relationship between structural dominance and interpretive freedom.

However, how can one operationalize research that captures a portrait of when and how viewers decode through "structures of dominance" and when and how viewers resist and negotiate with those structures of dominance? Further, when and how do social structures constrain, restrict, enable, or liberate agency? Finally, when and how do individual situational and trans-situational (e.g., demographic) uniqueness sometimes play as big a part in decoding strategies as structural dominance?

Conceiving of research methods that begin to address these questions suggest ways of tracking certain kinds of movement and process. Further, asking questions that assume a dialectical relationship between structures competing for dominance at any given moment of articulation, and the interpretive freedom of audiences assumes certain characteristics about the nature of human beings and, more specifically, about the nature of human communicating.

Dervin's (1993a, 1993b) concept of "verbing" communication lends clarity to the ideas presented by Morley, while at the same time extending the possibilities of the processes of decoding. Dervin's conceptualization of the communicating subject refocuses the notion of a subject who is "positioned" by a multiplicity of competing structures (states), to a subject who moves (e.g., cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, etc.) through, with, and even against, social structures. Sometimes the subject moves through and with social structures with flexibility and at other times with great rigidity. Shifting emphasis from the human as defined by differing states of subjectivity, to a human who is seen as ever-moving from one state to another, allows one to see "difference" in a new light. When focused on the subject who is moving from one state to another, difference can be conceptualized as "both across time (e.g., one entity at two times) as well as across space (two entities being different at the same time)" (1993b, p. 51). In this schema, difference need no longer be seen as residing solely in moments of individual interpretive freedom, but differences are found in communicating. Further:

differences come into existence in communication; differences rigidify in communication; differences are bridged in communication; and differences are destroyed in communication. Likewise structures that attempt to homogenize difference as well as those that attempt to display it come into existence in communication; maintain, rigidify, and disappear in communication. (1993b, p. 51)
In this communication-centered view of human subjectivity, a major assumption is that human beings have the ability to be changeable and uniquely interpretive in their responses from moment to moment and/or highly rigid and predictable in their responses from moment to moment, depending on numerous factors, including what structures prove most dominant at that moment. Others of these factors include the life experiences that individuals bring to the viewing, competing or confirming discourses that influence their responses, and the structuring of mass mediated message systems as particularly closed and repetitive (such as in beer commercials) or comparatively open (such as in high art photography cologne ads). Sense-Making treats different kinds of ideas and thoughts -- such as ideas and thoughts about physical reality, ideas about internal reality (cognitive, emotional, physical, spiritual) -- as equal and gives them equality in the methodology. When used to study mass media audiences, Sense-Making focuses on the steps of communicating connections subjects make between their perceptions of media forms and their own experiences, external or internal.

The entire Sense-Making enterprise is built on the implementation of the gap idea, which is axiomatic. No assumption is made that humans act linearly or cyclically or episodically. Nor is any assumption made that humans are purposive. Rather, it is assumed that humans bridge gaps cognitively, emotionally, and physically because reality and life are gap-filled. Accepting the idea of a fundamental gap condition has far-reaching implications. It mandates theoretic and methodological attention to difference as primary focus even when difference is not expected.

Further, Sense-Making assumes that communicating behaviors, both internal and external, are the behaviors by which humans bridge ever-present gaps. Thus, Sense-Making offers the gap idea as essential to the study of communication phenomena. Sense-Making focuses on how people define situations (which Sense-Making calls situation-defining strategies); how they conceptualize the cognitive, as well as emotional, physical, and spiritual gaps they face; and how they make ideas that allow them to bridge these gaps.

Sense-Making Methodology

Sense-Making assumptions have been used to generate a series of interviewing approaches useful in a wide variety of research settings, for in-depth as well as brief contacts, in formal research as well as informal episodes where one person wants to understand another, in two-person as well as group settings. Fundamental to all Sense-Making data collection approaches is the assumption that no matter how much like another human being one person may be, there is always difference present and there is always potential for these differences to change over time. This is the implementation of the basic discontinuity assumption -- that there are gaps between times, spaces, and people.

What Sense-Making has attempted to do, therefore, is develop a generalizable interviewing approach that, as much as possible, gets the interviewer out of the interview while at the same time utilizes a qualitatively powerful and qualitatively sensitive, systematic, and comparable set of queries to the respondent. The reason for getting the interviewer "out" (as much as is ever possible) of the interview is to provide the interviewee with the freedom and the power of self-description and explanation. In essence, Sense-Making believes that guiding the respondent through an open-ended, yet highly structured interview protocol, developed by use of the discontinuity assumption, and getting the interviewer's own input out of the interview, allows the respondent to be her/his own social theorist.

Sense-Making interviewing techniques were particularly well-suited for this line of research for the following reasons:

1. Sense-Making is an actor-centered methodology that assumes that the experienced reality of the subject studied is valid and valuable. In this regard Sense-Making can be considered congruent with the aims of ethnographic scholarship, placing at the center of the analysis the informants' own experiences of situations in which they find themselves. Sense-Making does not impose reality on its respondents, male or female. Instead, it provides a systematic way for subjects to re-construct their own reality of situations they have faced and gaps they have bridged (or avoided, or decided not to bridge, etc.) for the researcher.

The interviewer is mandated by the approach of asking the respondent not only what he/she experienced but how he/she came to experience it in a given way and how he/she made sense of the gaps he/she saw in that experience. It is the systematic attention to gap-defining and gap-bridging which Sense-Making assumes gives the respondent the opportunity to connect his/her public expressions during the interview to the private sphere of his/her life. One result of this is that respondents are systematically asked to make the kind of connectings that usually are left to the final research stage when the researcher attempts to find patterns in data. With Sense-Making the respondent is systematically asked to describe the patterns he/she has constructed in his/her living.

2. As a set of interviewing methods, Sense-Making yields procedures that can be utilized in any context where one wants another to talk about their experiences, in whatever way they find useful and meaningful to that context. One powerful context for talk is anonymity when exploring intimate subjects and contexts. Since it is never possible to conduct a given interview from all contexts, Sense-Making assumes that a self-reflexive assessment of contexts and impacts of contexts is an inherent necessity. This includes an assessment of power relations between interviewer and interviewee as well.

3. Sense-Making accepts the axiom that gender is a social and cultural construction. For Sense-Making, all meaning-making is constrained not only by the limitations of past and present time-space but by the social and cultural arrangements in which we live. Sense-Making assumes fundamentally that researchers must focus on the gap as an important entry point for understanding how micro-level phenomena (e.g., individual behavior) links with macro-level phenomena (e.g., structural constraints) and vice versa. Sense-Making assumes that structures are built, maintained, changed, and destroyed by behaviors. Thus, the Sense-Making approach is defined as offering a methodology by which one can systematically bring to bear multiple perspectives on a phenomenon (e.g., how individuals define their freedom within situations and how they define structural constraints and hegemonic processes).

4. Sense-Making is concerned with coherence and understanding between two individuals. The interviewer's role in this dialogue is to provide the respondent a structure of process-oriented questions accompanied by deep and disciplined listening. An important aspect of the procedures is that interviewers read back their understandings of what respondents have said giving respondents the opportunity to confirm, change, or add to what was written. Because the Sense-Making interview has a deliberate structure, it is possible for many interviewers to work on a project at once. Unlike naturalistic research where the researcher is the sole "human instrument," in Sense-Making all the interviews do not have to be conducted by the primary researcher, yet the metaphor that guides the interview structure offers comparability across interviewers and respondents which in turn becomes a powerful part of the interpretation phase.

Research Design

This research exemplar is particularly unique in precisely the area where so much audience reception research falls short, in the theoretically informed design of the interview protocol or guide. Much lip-service is paid to the emancipatory nature of open-ended queries and too little attention is generally paid to research designs that reflect the sophistication of the theories being employed.


The interviewing protocol for this research was carefully designed to try and capture a portrait of interrelated theoretical relationships and to provide a methodological alternative to the traditional unstructured, open-ended interview techniques. The Sense-Making interviewing technique used at this stage was a highly abbreviated version of the Sense-Making Micro-Moment Time-Line interview 2. This was a particularly appropriate choice for this research because it allowed each respondent to anchor his/her responses to advertising in real time-space first, and then allowed the respondent (not the interviewer) to indicate how he/she constructed the connections between the media content being viewed and his/her own life experiences. Thus, this interviewing method allowed respondents to talk about the relationships they saw among messages, social structures, and their own lives and experiences.

This interviewing protocol presented the viewing of ads to respondents in three different ways. First, respondents were allowed to discuss ads they chose for themselves, simulating a natural viewing situation. Respondents were allowed to browse through their choice of the 5 magazines provided and choose 3 ads with females in them that affected them in some way (i.e., because the ad is: attractive, eye-catching, pleasing, disgusting, intriguing, repulsive, persuasive, etc.). The second and third portions of the interview protocol were designed to tap into the relationship between how respondents see society's view of the ideal female body in advertising and how they personally see, or experience, the ideal female body in advertising. By rank ordering their impressions of a pre-selection of 8 ads, respondents were encouraged to begin making fine distinctions for themselves about what constituted comparisons between how they saw society's ideals of femininity and their personal constructions of femininity. Respondents were asked to relate their assessments of the ads to their own life situations, past and present, and how they see the ads as impacting upon their lives, thoughts and emotions.

The goal of this particular construction of the protocol was to tap into those moments where respondents saw constructions of gender as rigid and unyielding and also those moments of interpretive freedom in response to those rigid constructions.

The final series of Sense-Making questions in both Parts I and II asked, "when you look at the female(s) in this ad (these ads), what characteristics would she/they have to have to make them unattractive by society's standards?" This question and the Sense-Making triangulations that follow were designed to encourage respondents to take a critical stance toward the ideal body image that answering questions about what is "appealing" might not evoke. For most respondents, framing responses to what society finds ideal and what they personally find appealing was somewhat intuitive and common-sensical, while being asked to express what specifically is "unattractive," ran counter-intuitive for them, demanding higher reasoning and more abstract responses. Further, by encouraging respondents to make these abstractions, generally resulting in lists of characteristics, the goal of this question was to tap into those points of greatest agreement about the rigidity of gender definitions of ideal femininity in this society.

The final portion of the interview protocol asked respondents to describe their life histories and, in addition, to trace back to life situations in the past where they saw advertising as impacting upon their definitions of gender, both socially and personally. The goal of this section was to further encourage respondents to theorize if, how, and in what ways advertising played a part in their social and personal development as gendered subjects.


Between 1991-1994 I interviewed 73 women and men from the mid-western U.S. using Sense-Making interviewing strategies. The respondents who lend their insights and voices to this line of qualitative audience reception research do not come from one discrete sample, however. The core sample is a group of 15 women and 15 men who were interviewed during a three-month period in the late fall and early spring of 1992. The remaining 43 respondents are from two other studies. The first was conducted as part of a gender and communication class at a major mid-western research university. The third pool of respondents was interviewed as part of an independent study I conducted in the fall of 1995 at my current university. The 73 respondents represent a fairly culturally diverse group, although not representative of the larger population. Their ages ranged from 18-45. The sample included 6 African American women and 2 Hispanic women. The sample also included 3 gay male respondents and 5 lesbian respondents. Obviously the second sample for the gender and communication class was university students. However, the core sample and the independent study sample were drawn from the "university area," not from university students, exclusively. There are respondents in the sample who were not students at the time of the interviews working in such self-reported positions as "receptionist," "psychologist," "house painter," "artist," and "between gigs."

Selection of Ads

The ads selected for Parts II and III of the interviewing procedure were chosen from past or present issues of the same 5 magazines used in Part I, for the sake of consistency. Seven of the 8 advertisements used were chosen as representative of sex-role stereotypes and gender ritualizations widely identified by scholars of gender and advertising and widely recognized as repetitive themes in representation of the female body in mainstream print media. The eighth was representative of an alternative aesthetic. The 8 ads were selected to represent the following themes:

1. Sex-object/passive. Budweiser beer. This ad was representative of a highly sexual stereotyped ad. The women in the photograph are ornamental, the female body is objectified, positioned clearly for visual gratification of a male gaze, and the pose is one of complete passivity, both because the women are laying down and because their swim suits are a part of the beach towel, suggesting restricted movement.

2. Sex-object/active. Johnny Walker. This ad offered a slight contrast to the Budweiser beer ad. Female bodies are again the objects of the voyeuristic male gaze, however the women in this ad are engaged in a moment of activity. They are unrestricted in movement.

3. Pleasure/danger. Jordache. This ad was representative of the male gaze incorporated in the photograph as well as suggested from the positioning of the female body in the photograph. The voyeur of this scene is offered an ambiguous scenario: the woman featured is either in a moment of pleasure (enjoying the attention of three males) or danger (attempting to flee the attention of three males).

4. Body cropped. Montana fashions. This ad was representative of the convention of photographic cropping of the female body in ads. Headless and footless, the whole woman is represented by the torso and one arm.

5. Mother role. Pier One Imports. This ad was representative of ads that present motherhood as a woman's primary role. This image, however, is updated for the 1990s and places the young mother in an ambiguous setting of nature as opposed to the more traditional setting of the home.

6. Business woman role. Virginia Slims. This ad was representative of the genre of "new woman" ads. The businesswoman is supposedly a symbol of progress and sexual equality. Like many ads in this genre, the Virginia Slims ad here incorporates "progressive" signs (man's suit, briefcase) within very conventional codes of ideal femininity (make-up, slimness, long hair, pink coat).

7. Face shot. Isabella Rossellini for Lancome cosmetics. This ad was representative of ads that focus on the face in lieu of objectifying the body. This particular ad was chosen for the recognizability of the model, lending to the significance of the ad the possibility of inter-textual references.

8. New aesthetic. Nike shoes. This ad pictures a female runner. The ad was chosen for its alternative aesthetic value in comparison to the other 7 ads for several reasons: a) the model is pictured in a moment of self-absorbed activity in a traditional masculine domain, sport. b) She is not addressing the camera directly, lending a sense that this is a candid photograph. c) She is not made-up and her hair is not coifed. She, in fact, appears to be perspiring. d) The body is not cropped; she is "embodied." e) The photograph is shot with a soft-focus lens.

Data Analysis

As one can imagine the data were rich and the responses were highly nuanced. The coding of the transcripts followed the rules of good qualitative coding (Miles & Huberman, 1984). First, the researcher/analyst made inductive passes through the data to let it speak on its own terms, to discover what patterns emerge. However, where a cultural studies approach differed from traditional Grounded Theory was within the coding process. After the researcher/analyst was satisfied that the inductive passes had yielded redundancy, then she made theoretical, or deductive, passes through the data asking: What patterns emerge that support the theoretical and/or textual findings of the cultural form under study? What findings challenge those assumptions or findings? What emerged from the data that extends our theories in new, and maybe totally unexpected, directions?

This research shared a basic assumption with scholars such as Turner & Brunder (1986) and Dervin (1993a, 1993b) that expression should never be seen as an isolated and static text; that it always involves procedural activity -- a type of verbing rooted in social situation, culture, and historical era; and that this temporal dimension becomes self-referential in the telling of experiences. Therefore, in coding the data many categories were conceived in such a way as to attempt to capture this temporal dimension. In order not to lose a sense of process in individual responses during coding, the codes were arrived at not only by taking into account the patterns and themes of pure content in the interview transcriptions, but also by interpreting the explicit temporal dimensions of responses for individual respondents. For example, some passages indicated that they should be coded "female negotiations." However, passages coded "female negotiations" had two different dimensions, "female negotiations-in real time" and "female negotiations-historical."

Major Findings

The findings from this line of research have been presented in different research forums in different ways (see Shields 1996, 1997; Shields & Mayhew, 1999). For purposes of this exemplar, I am focusing on one dimension of audience decoding that was illustrated with the use of Sense-Making interviewing, the dimension of gender differences. Further, for purposes here I am presenting the major findings in synopsis form. Important thrusts of the findings will be illustrated with quotes from respondents.

Male Decodings of Gender Advertisements:

A definitive concept in male comfort levels with dominant images of gender was "distance." Males in this society possess a certain psychological distance from these dominant images. For the women in this study, the need to negotiate with or accommodate an image was generally indicative of a close psychological connection to it. Males in this study rarely felt this kind of connection. Male respondents often described advertising as a nuisance, but rather innocuous and benign. Although both men and women described strategies for resisting advertising, only the males saw resistance as easily achievable. When male respondents stated that advertisements are not powerful, or have no effect upon them personally, almost all references were made in the context of the one-to-one correspondence between seeing an ad and buying a product or buying into an idea.

A basic assumption here is that media effects occur at the conscious, rational level and that the viewer (consumer) must employ rational decision-making capabilities in order to thwart potential influences. Feeling confident that they possessed such skills, many of the males in this study felt they also possessed the ability to easily distance themselves from the messages and images in ads. A word used repeatedly to describe this ability to distance oneself from the influence of advertising was "immune." Males in this study possessed a sense that the over-exposure to all these images had inoculated them against the ads' effects:

I've been impressed by advertising but I don't think it's ever changed my life or made me go out and say, 'I just got to have that to be fulfilled,' in a gender sense. I don't think it's ever really been part of my past experience. I look at a lot of ads and I think sometimes, wouldn't that be nice to have, but I don't see an ad or buying a product as something that's going to change me . . . I'm just not really affected by ads, to tell you the truth -- Kevin, aged 33.

. . I think I'm pretty much immune to this kind of advertising by now. I'm not overly disturbed or shocked or impeded -- Bill, aged 26.

I don't think I'll be suckered into anything that I don't need or want. So, for me, I see it as a positive. Advertising for me is a kind of nuisance -- Greg, aged 19.

. . .The commercials, there's nothing really wrong with them, I just don't believe that if I splash on some Old Spice that all of the sudden a great-looking woman is going to walk up to me ask me what I'm doing tonight . . . -- Craig, aged 26.

As stated above, males in this study were adamant that the content of an ad had very little to do with what they purchase. Some male respondents made some minor concessions to the fact that advertising may help them choose between name brands, but beyond that, advertising had little influence on purchasing decisions:
The only thing that an advertisement does to me is that it shows me it is a name brand. . .When I go to the store I look at two things, can I afford it? And, do I want it? If I want and can afford it, I'll buy it. Not because Jane Blow is in the ad -- Shawn, aged 20.
This perceived distance from the seductiveness of the content of ads plays a very important part in defining a male "way of looking." Male distancing suggests a certain comfort in looking at ads, and the females portrayed in ads, without the anxiety of being seduced by the image. Male respondents stated that it is possible to enjoy ads, especially of attractive women, with the enjoyment having little or no effect upon whether or not they buy that particular product. In this schema, therefore, the male, not the image, is always in control of the seduction:
I look at ads and think whether they have sexual content or not. Usually that's about it -- more of a curiosity thing. If they do [have sexual content], it pleases me in that regard but for the product itself, if I use it, I use it; if I don't, I don't, and the ad doesn't really do a lot to change it. -- -- Art, aged 30.

Advertisements don't make me run out and buy something, no matter what's in the ad. If they put a sexy woman, half-naked in an ad for a six-pack, I don't run out and buy it. . . No matter what they put in the ad, I'm not going to go out and buy the stuff. When I shop for something I'm very careful. . . Putting a half-naked woman in a car is not going to make me go out and buy a Toyota over a Honda -- Jim, aged 37.

Male responses to gender advertising in these studies were generally framed in terms of compliance to dominant prescriptions of gender in advertising content, the male gaze, and male looking in advertising, personally, and in society. Male respondents felt little need to "negotiate" with dominant images of gender or ways of seeing. They either complied with dominant messages or opposed them; they rarely felt compelled to "accommodate" them. Therefore, male responses lacked a sense of "struggle." Gendered advertising presented male respondents with very few emotional or psychological "gaps" between their familiarity and comfort with images of gender in this society and their own personal experience of gender relations. Two examples of male compliance with the dominant images in this study were especially illustrative.

When male respondents gave dominant readings of the image of the new working woman in the Virginia Slims ad, they were demonstrating that their comfort level and familiarity of ideal femininity was not confined only to traditional representations, but was elastic enough to accommodate the incorporation of new, "progressive images." Male respondents suggested that this is an image of the "complete woman." For male respondents it was the combination of a "progressive image" with conventional codes of femininity, such as youth, thinness, and flawlessness that defined this "complete woman." Male respondents saw the Virginia Slims woman as someone to be envied in the 1990s. Not only is she successful at work, but also she is intelligent, independent, happy and, perhaps most importantly, has managed to remain feminine and attractive:

I think motivation comes under society's ideal due to the women's liberation movement. I think society has relinquished some of its hold of women in the past. I feel society is more accepting of women pursuing office-type careers, management careers, professional careers . . . It pleases me to think that society has changed enough to be more open about the roles of women and allowing them to pursue what they think they might want to do, but in the past were shunned from. . . It's motivational the image of the briefcase; I feel that society might associate that with success, the office-type image, the manager image. . . It pleases me to see that [women] have the chance to be office-oriented if they want to-- Richard, aged 32.

She seems to have it all. Work, family, this, that, and the other. . . [It's] what I think nowadays, is what is perceived to be 'the complete woman.' You know, she obviously looks like she's got a job. . . Successful with that, and she's attractive, and you know, happy. . . content with what is happening with her life up to this point. . . She's got, I guess, the best of all worlds, in this picture. . . Who wouldn't want to be in that situation? . . . I don't know too many people who wouldn't want to have a successful job- - Greg, aged 19.

She looks very intelligent. She looks like a woman of the '90s. She can do as well as me financially. Plus she is very pretty 'to-boot '-- Shawn, aged 20.

This comfort level with progressive images of female in ads reached its limits with the new aesthetic of the female runner in the ad for Nike. Male respondents insisted on "reading" this image through the dominant conventions so easily applied to the image of the new working woman, conventions with which they were most familiar. Therefore, this alternative image was deemed "unattractive." Only male respondents cast judgments about the individual attractiveness of the woman in the Nike ad based solely on appearance. For these male respondents she was an "incomplete" woman:
She's drab, ugly, nasty, and does not look like she is having a good time . . . I am not very attracted to her. She is running. I really don't want to be with her -- Shawn, aged 20.

Compared to how I categorized the other pictures, these just weren't as appealing to me. The black and white of [Nike] caught my eye, but just the fact of what the picture is just didn't appeal to me that much. I thought of it as a woman out running. Women are out jogging past our house all the time. I just don't give it a second thought. -- Art, aged 30.

I guess my theme here so far is that one thing society wants is for women to be attractive. I didn't think this one was particularly attractive. I think society does not yet accept athletic women and this woman looks very, very athletic. She looks a little muscular and I don't think society is ready to accept that -- Bill, aged 26.

Where males' responses offered oppositional readings (or departures), they were rarely offered up in the midst of personal struggle, but more from pre-formed opinions about those points of departure. For example, responses from the gay male perspective offered and interesting mix of opposition and compliance. Although extremely oppositional in his responses to dominant gender messages in advertising and larger society about heterosexual lifestyles, his description of looking at potential romantic interests gave all indications of compliance with seeing through the male gaze.
Growing up my mother and sister would diet and they would exercise. They would always weigh themselves on the bathroom scale, always because they perceived their body image as they were too fat. They weren't necessarily doing it because it was a healthy thing for them. Rather, they wanted to come as close as they could to that perfect image. To suffer needlessly and endlessly to achieve something you will never obtain, really bugs me. . . Politically and socially I know that looks shouldn't matter, but the gay male subculture, that's the way it works. It [advertising] pleases me because I like seeing macho men in the advertisements. To be honest, I enjoy objectifying men who are attractive even though I know I shouldn't -- Camron, aged 22.
Males, of course, are not monolithic in their responses, nor do they always decode images of females through the dominant male gaze. Some male respondents possessed a heightened sense of feminist consciousness and thereby showed genuine empathy for female experiences with dominant images. A feminist consciousness by males in this study was rarely achieved through formal education channels, but instead through popular discourses and informal education from female family members, girlfriends and wives. Male respondents whose family provided competing messages to the dominant view of women in this culture often confided that their families not only instilled in them competing values from those of advertising, but that the gender relations they witnessed in their families, in their homes, also contradicted the dominating, active-male/submissive, passive/female dichotomy.
The fact that I have values. It helps me decide what I like. The values that I grew up with and that I got from my family help me make judgments in life and I appreciate that. . . Our family, I thought, worked pretty well together as a unit. While we could all come together and make decisions, we also all had the freedom to go our individual ways and everything. There was no strong, dominating type force. Heck! If Dad would have come home and said to Mom, `get me this, or get me that,' Mom would have shown Dad the door (laughs) -- Mario, aged 28.

I think there's is a big contradiction between what advertisers are telling me and what my parents -- especially my father -- is telling me about [things]. Advertising in a lot of ways is presenting these sexual image things along the line that males must be, must have this macho, there's this macho mystique about it. . . Then, there's my parents, who are telling me to be very respectful of women, very respectful to elders, thoughtful, hard working, this and that. At least in my life there's a large gap between what I'm being told [in ads] -- Greg, aged 19.

Female Decodings of Gender Advertisements

This research found that patterns in female responses to gender advertising were sometimes in compliance with dominant prescriptions of gender in advertising content, and sometimes offered stark departures (oppositions) to these dominant messages. However, the distinguishing feature of female responses to gender advertising was women's on-going "negotiations" with, and accommodations of, dominant images of ideal femininity. The women were involved in on-going struggles to find or achieve psychological distance from these images and the dominant messages about gender that these images help to promote throughout society.

These women were extremely aware that the address of dominant images of gender were male-defined and, therefore, implied in female spectatorship was always a comparison between the image and themselves. Women were far less likely than men in this study to describe the power of advertising in terms of one-to-one causal relationships between viewing a particular image and buying a product or adopting a particular behavior. Instead, women in this research described the influence of advertising in terms of pervasive images and repetitive messages that reverberate throughout culture, not just in certain media, such as advertising. Further, women described their experiences with advertising in terms of conscious as well as subconscious viewing, suggesting the possibility that resisting the messages of advertising on a conscious, rational level may not be enough to protect themselves from the influence of advertising messages:

. . . There are so many things. They expect people to make this connection and then there's no reason to make the connection . . . All you have to do is think something through, you know, two steps and you realize that the claims are totally bogus. 'Can't you come up with anything better?' [Advertisers] have been deceptive or whatever . . . I hope [advertising] doesn't get any cleverer. It's already too powerful. It has too much control over people's opinions and values. I hope it doesn't get any more powerful -- Laura, aged 33.
Indeed, the inner conflicts women often described when viewing advertising images, especially of other women, were generally couched in terms of a conflict between: a) what their "logical mind" was telling them they should ignore and b) what "another part" of them could not ignore. For these reasons, among others, none of the women I spoke with stated that advertising was not powerful. In one form or another they all suggested that advertising images of women have influenced their lives either now or in the past:
I feel basically advertising has tried to shape my way of thinking. And has made me, I think everyone, view life from the advertisers' eyes or stereotypes -- Jamie, aged 22.

Usually when I see commercials like that [for Nike], I want to go out and do some aerobics or something or buy some shoes. Either way I think they're getting their point across. It's good to once and a while see these and go do something. Half the time that's why I go out and do something, it's because I saw it on TV or in a magazine and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, I bought these shoes for that reason.'
-- Collette, aged 21.

I think it [advertising] helps to contribute to people . . . and how they think about women. I think it is harmful, what we are seeing is the one dimensional things and we are not -- men are not trained to deal with us like regular human beings. Not a lot of them . . . Everybody including women and including myself who thinks, I'm sort of aware of this, still is influenced by what you see in advertisements, so we are all going to be influenced to see women as one- dimensional things -- Laura, aged 33.

The particular moments of compliance with dominant images of femininity in female responses were very specific. For example, most of these women have internalized a hatred of fat. Whether the reference to fat applies to themselves or to others, fat was seen as something to loathe and to fear.
It is important now as I'm getting older that I start watching things like my weight. Because if I don't then I will start to look like people who are not wanted by society. . . -- Nicole, aged 19.
In stark contrast to the male dominant readings of the Virginia Slims ad, however, female respondents in this study rarely identified this image as a positive one. Like the males, those women who did find the image positive deemed the ad an image of female achievement and advancement. The majority of women in this study decoded this image in highly negotiated or even oppositional ways. Many were able to read against the grain of the text by using the lens of their own gendered experience with the dynamics of the work force. Female negotiations with this image were defined by the incongruities they saw between the image of the young businesswoman in the ad and the "reality" of work life, as they perceived it. More than one female respondent in this study re-wrote the famous Virginia Slims jingle to read: "You have not come a long way, baby."
The connotation here is that this is a female executive running off to a business meeting and women are not really accepted in executive-type positions. I think that is true emotionally and also statistically. What are they calling it now? The glass-ceiling? It is the same stuff over and over and over again. Although there are slightly more women in the U.S. than men, society is still run by males. And they more than dictate what ideals are seen, and this is not an ideal -- Christi, aged 35.

We are supposed to look at her and say, 'look what progress we have made.' Definitely progress has been made, but there is still -- she's got to have all the pink, and she's got to be beautiful. Putting her in a man's suit. You know I don't think too many women would be able to go to a Wall Street office would be allowed to dress in a man-type suit like this. Women are still expected to be in skirts and jackets or dresses. So there is a teasing thing going on here. To me there hasn't been that much progress made. The woman has to act like a man in order to get power in society. In order to make it on Wall Street. So this to me is still a negative image -- Ginger, aged 28.

Another stark gender contrast occurred in female responses to the runner in the Nike ad. Most female respondents in this study embraced the alternative aesthetic of the female runner as a positive "break" in dominant representation. The act of enjoying the ad itself was not oppositional; after all, Nike was trying to "break" with convention. However, the reasons these women gave for embracing this image were moments of opposition to stereotypical advertising images more generally. Females in this study found the image of the female runner to be a positive alternative aesthetic because it defies dominant, male-defined conventions of femininity in advertising. Further, female respondents defined this image as alternative because it pictures a woman in the process of achieving health and fitness, not as the posed product, or commodity, of fitness.
She is very active. I like the imaging that Nike does, 'just do it.' I like that phrase. 'Just' implies, don't worry about, you know, 'Oh God, am I going to be good enough at this', or 'Am I going to look good while I'm doing it? What are my friends going to say?' and, 'I'm not very good at this sport, I shouldn't try it.' They are saying just go out and do it. 'Do,' an active verb -- do it. Do whatever you want. Just be active. Do something -- Ginger, aged 28.

They're pretty real. They don't have girls dolled up because girls don't always have make-up. Likewise, when they have guys, it's just pure and raw. It's real.. 'Just do it.' That's what she is doing. She's not waiting for anyone else. . . and that is just a nice little motto for anybody. And you can relate that over to yourself, that doesn't have to stay on the page -- Collette, aged 21.

She is jogging in one picture. She doesn't care how she looks. Her hair is all pulled back. She is not in this ad to be attractive. . . I think I'm somewhat of a tomboy. I don't like to wear tons of make-up or fix my hair. Sometimes that can hurt. If you are around women who look more feminine than you are, they are not going to look at you as well as other people -- Claire, aged 22.

Gaining psychological distance from idealized female images in ads is, for most women, an historical journey. A repeating pattern in female responses involves the retelling of a journey from adolescent years to the present. These women reported that as adolescents they fully and uncritically participated in perpetuating the dominant conventions of the male gaze. However, the repeated attempts to live up to these standards continuously resulted in differing types of personal pain. Through the pain, and often other competing structures also, such as feminist thought, an awareness grew in them and active negotiations with images began:
Well, I try to become pretty myself, I mean, I don't try too hard or anything. I just want to look decent. Yet, there was a time in my life that where I couldn't leave the house without looking into the mirror several times, and not leaving until I had the perfect look. I was conscious about everything, shoes and hair. Vanity, I guess one would call it. Yet, now I don't have much time to put much into looking good. I've got school and other things to tend to. I don't have time to worry about my looks as much. -- Jamie, aged 22.

In junior high and high school we were supposed to wear so much make-up and get up at six o'clock to make ourselves pretty. Now I think I'm at the point where I don't bother with it as much. . . I think it's helped me to be more real with people and who I am, whereas in the past I was so busy being who they wanted me to be that it made me very unhappy at times -- Rachel, aged 20.

I think, especially being a teenager, this is what everyone was doing. A product would come out, that's what everyone wanted. But, as I started to get older, it's easier to see that not everyone fits into the mold of how advertisers place women in photographs or commercials -- Megan, aged 25.

An advanced stage of negotiation is resistance. Much like Hall's concept of oppositional decoding, resistance to dominant images constructed through the male gaze implies a rejection of the preferred meanings encoded in the text of the image. Female respondents reported that as they advanced on their journeys, negotiating with images, many reached a point where negotiations are fewer and far less difficult and personal. This stage of resistance was reached when a woman finally felt embodied and no longer looked to societal definitions of beauty and attractiveness to define herself. At that point she defined her gender identity by her own criteria and not as the self-surveyed female:
I'm not saying I've known this all along, but at some point you realize how fake these things were and to not let it personally bother you. I suppose it could if you let it. So at some point I reached a stage that stuff was meaningless. It doesn't make me feel bad. It doesn't hurt me anymore. If I wanted to talk about larger things, about how it reflects a woman's position in society, that's a whole other question -- Heather, aged 29.

I've almost gotten to the place where I don't try the images on anymore. I just sort of settle into whatever I am or whoever I am. . . I went through a very awkward, gawky duckling stage as a teenager. It took me a number of years to recognize that I had a) grown out of it, and b) wasn't really [an ugly duckling]. But, there is always part of me that remembers that it is a surface characteristic, it's what everybody sees although it may not be important. . .I think there was a time when I was willing to do anything to be part of that acceptable role including making myself unseen like this woman without the head [Montana ad]. Keeping my thoughts to myself, forgetting that I had a voice -- Patricia, aged 35.

A small group of female respondents in this research did not have to endure this painful historical journey, however. Some reported that they, like the male respondents, were spared much of the journey of negotiation that the majority of the women in this study have traveled in relation to these images. The explanation that they offer is that their families provided a competing structure for them by encouraging them from early childhood to be happy with their inner abilities and to be comfortable with their bodies:
I'm not sure that I ever found [advertisements] that much of an influence on my own life because I was taught that everything I saw was fake. Those women on there didn't look like my mother or anyone I knew. We always, we had our mother saying to us,'a lot of that is garbage.' Personally, I can't ever think of myself seeing a woman on TV and saying, 'that's what I want to be like or not like.' I didn't look at TV that way. . . Well, that was a good thing. It has saved me a lot of heartache in that sense. I don't let those beer ads bother me; I suppose they could. I know that they bother some people -- Heather, aged 29.

My Mom and Dad always made me feel valued for what I was as a person, not what I looked like. Although they made me feel good about my body, good self concept about my body. I knew I was valued for the kind of person I was. I was kind. I was sensitive. I was a good listener. I was intelligent. But even if I weren't intelligent, my parents always valued me. So I grew up with a good self-concept. So when I saw pictures like this, even at a young age, I didn't see this as pictures of myself. I grew up with support that allows me to question critically things -- Ginger, aged 28.

Much more than males, as young girls, the women in this study needed constant reinforcement that they were valuable as multi-dimensional beings. Central to a competing family message on femininity is its ability to clearly and consistently define "appearance" as only one attribute amongst many that makes a person who she is. Parents cited in the examples above were careful to ensure a balance between emphasis on abilities/attributes and on appearances, whenever supporting or praising their children. For these women, their girlhood self-esteem was not built on the fragile veil of outer beauty, but on a strong foundation of inner worth and ability. Unfortunately, in most families, female appearance is placed at a premium above all other attributes, if not consciously, then subconsciously through casual remarks and criticisms. These conscious and unconscious family messages, therefore, serve to reinforce, rather than counter, larger societal messages about female worth based on appearance.

What Sense-Making Can Offer Cultural Studies

Cultural studies audience research seems to be united on the value of "ethnography" as the best way to address this major meta-theoretical issue in its empirical work. Ethnography is held up as a method best suited for studying the complexities of the "elusive audience" (see Ang, 1989, 1990; Ang & Hermes, 1991; Bird, 1992; Erni, 1989; Fiske, 1988). "Ethnography is a matter of the epistemic posture of the researcher, the manner of engagement with the social scene, and the kind of research story that is told. . . Thus, ethnography usually involves a holistic description of cultural membership" (Lindlof, 1995, p. 20). It is a method more concerned with learning from people than with studying them.

American cultural studies scholars, in particular, have theorized and problematized ethnography's place in cultural studies at length (Allor, 1988; Erni, 1989; Fiske, 1988). However, as Bird (1992) so aptly points out, a favorite American cultural studies project is dissolving ethnography into its theorizing, while rarely ever applying ethnographic methods to study real audiences. The exceptions, those who do empirical audience studies employing ethnographic techniques (but rarely full-blown ethnographic/participant observation studies), are cited repeatedly as exemplars (Ang, 1985; Bobo, 1988; Morley, 1980, 1986; Radway, 1984). A considerable body of strong ethnographic audience reception work has accumulated (e.g., Bobo, 1988; Hobson, 1982; Morley, 1980; Radway, 1984; Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner & Warth, 1989; Spitzack, 1988, 1990). Yet, the results have not illuminated the interpretive freedom/structural constraint question. In fact, current reviews of the state of critical audience research have concluded that the concepts of "structures" or "dominant readings" are all but disappearing from the central focus of this research (see Evans, 1990; Morley, 1993). This opus of research, according to Evans (1990), can be characterized by two prominent assumptions: a) audiences are always "active," being free to make any meaning they wish of media texts within particular contexts, and b) media content are always polysemic, or open to interpretation.

Although audience reception work has been successful in finding patterns in audience responses, a stockpiling of findings has emerged, rather than the emergence of an integrated picture of "reception,"especially reception of mass media whose audiences are dispersed throughout the society. In this sense, it seems cultural studies audience reception has thus far stopped short of building theories of reception that elaborate the propositions set out in encoding/decoding model.

How can one operationalize research that captures a portrait of when and how viewers decode through structures of dominance and when and how viewers resist and negotiate with those structures of dominance? Further, when and how do social structures constrain, restrict, enable, or liberate agency and when and how do individual situational and trans-situational (e.g., demographic) uniqueness sometimes play as big a part as structural dominance in decoding strategies?

Conceiving of research methods that begin to address these questions suggests ways of tracking certain kinds of movement and process. Further, asking questions that assume a dialectical relationship between structures competing for dominance at any given moment of articulation, and the interpretive freedom of audiences assumes certain characteristics about the nature of human beings and, more specifically, about the nature of human communicating. Reception studies' allegiance to a particular abbreviated version of ethnography may have blinded it to an array of qualitative methods that might offer a much more rich and productive view of processes of decoding. Cultural studies audience reception research must be wary of discounting or ignoring methods that purport to be interpretive but not necessarily critical. Examples include a fresh look at ethnography, grounded theory methods, phenomenological analysis, case study, and historical analysis. Feminist scholarship is an example of a critical enterprise that is beginning to reach out to a variety of qualitative methods while retaining its critical politics. That is, feminist scholarship is beginning to draw from the best of established methods to pursue the object of study instead of being restricted solely to methods that have emerged from within feminist scholarship (see Shields & Dervin, 1993).

What cultural studies has done extremely well is to theorize audience activity, the polysemic nature of the text, and audience reading positions in relation to textual ideologies. The problem here is not with the foundational theorizing of audience reception, but that the accumulation of empirical audience reception studies has failed to advance more integrated theorizing about audience reception. In order for this kind of theorizing to happen, cultural studies audience research must take a very serious detour through rethinking its methodologies.

Cultural studies audience research has hit more of a glass ceiling than a wall. Breaking through will involve a serious return to foundational concepts such as encoding/decoding and the circuit model because at the heart of these theories is something that other social science approaches to audiences do not have: an eye on the holistic nature of the communication process. By not posing reception analyses in opposition to textual analyses, for example, but instead approaching the two in complementary relationship, cultural studies reception analysis taps into the processes of interpellation, articulation and structure/agency. I believe that with re-attention to methodology and from there advancing theories of reception out of our empirical work, cultural studies audience research, more than any other approach in mass communication, can lead the field in explicating the "effects" of mass media and popular culture.


1.  Sense-Making is a coherent set of theoretic premises, concepts, and methods developed to study how human agents use observations to construct pictures of reality which in turn serve to guide behavior. Sense-Making treats different kinds of ideas and thoughts -- such as ideas and thoughts about physical reality, ideas about internal reality (cognitive, emotional, physical, spiritual), as equal, in the sense of giving them equality in the methodology. When used to study mass media audiences, Sense-Making focuses on the steps of communicating connections subjects make between their perceptions of media forms and their own experiences, external or internal. Sense-Making as an academic enterprise has been under continual development since 1972. The description presented here rests on the following corpus of work: For a conceptualization of communication as "verbing," see Dervin (1992, 1993a, 1993b). For general and complete introductions to Sense-Making as a methodology see Dervin (1983, 1991). For a demonstration of the theoretical power of Sense-Making see Dervin (1991, 1992). For a general introduction to the Sense-Making metaphor see Dervin & Clark (1987). For an application in feminist scholarship see Shields & Dervin (1993). For a discussion of the role individual freedoms in relation to structural constraints see Dervin & Clark (1993).

2.  The Micro-Moment Time-Line interview is the most elaborate of the Sense-Making interviewing techniques and the one termed as being closest to Sense-Making's theoretic roots. The informant is asked to "time-line" his/her experience -- essentially to answer interviewer queries in detailed steps, reconstructing how he/she saw self as moving in whatever time order they see appropriate through a focal situation.


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