Stuart Hall Encoding And Decoding Essay About Myself
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 an important member of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, Hall had a major influence on media studies. His model claims that television 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 proposed 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 extract the meaning of that message in ways that make sense to you. Decoding has both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication: Decoding behavior without using words means observing body language and its associated emotions. For example, some body language signs for when someone is upset, angry, or stressed would be a use of excessive hand/arm movements, red in the face, crying, and even sometimes silence. Sometimes when someone is trying to get a message across to someone, the message can be interpreted differently from person to person. Decoding is all about the understanding of what someone already knows, based on the information given throughout the message being received. Whether there is a large audience or exchanging a message to one person, decoding is the process of obtaining, absorbing, understanding, and sometimes using the information that was given throughout a verbal or non-verbal message.
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."
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.
In the process of encoding, the sender (i.e. encoder) uses verbal (e.g. words, signs, images, video) and non-verbal (e.g. body language, hand gestures, face expressions) symbols for which he or she believes the receiver (that is, the decoder) will understand. The symbols can be words and numbers, images, face expressions, signals and/or actions. It is very important how a message will be encoded; it partially depends on the purpose of the message.
The decoding of a message is how an audience member is able to understand, and interpret the message. It is a process of interpretation and translation of coded information into a comprehensible form. The audience is trying to reconstruct the idea by giving meanings to symbols and by interpreting the message as a whole. Effective communication is accomplished only when the message is received and understood in the intended way. However, it is still possible for the message recipient to understand a message in a completely different way from what was the encoder was trying to convey. This is when "distortions" or "misunderstanding" arise from "lack of equivalence" between the two sides in communicative exchange.
In his essay, Hall compares two models of communication. The first, the traditional model is criticized for its linearity – sender/message/receiver – and for its lack of structured conception of various moments as a complex structure of relations. The author proposes the idea that there is more to the process of communication and, thus, 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. Hall further explains that the meanings and messages in the discursive "production" are organized through the operation of codes within the rules of "language." "Each stage will affect the message (or "product") being conveyed as a result of its 'discursive form' (e.g. practices, instruments, relations)." Therefore, once the discourse is accomplished, it must be translated into social practices in order to be completed and effective – "If no 'meaning' is taken, there can be no 'consumption'." Each of these steps helps defines the one that follows, while remaining clearly distinct. Thus, even though each of these moments (stages) are equally important to the process as a whole, they do not completely ensure that the following moment will necessary happen. "Each can constitute its own break or interruption of the 'passage of forms' on whose continuity the flow of effective production (i.e. reproduction) depends."
These four stages are:
- Production – This is where the encoding, the construction of a message begins. Production process has its own "discursive" aspect, as it is also framed by meanings and ideas; by drawing upon society's dominant ideologies, the creator of the message is feeding off of society's beliefs, and values. Numerous factors are involved in the production process. On one hand "knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, definitions and assumptions, assumptions about the audience" form the "production structures of the television." On the other hand, "topics, treatments, agendas, events, personnel, images of the audience, ‘definitions of the situation' from other sources and other discursive formations" form the other part of wider socio-cultural and political structure.
- Circulation – How individuals perceive things: visual vs. written. How things are circulated influences how audience members will receive the message and put it to use. According to Philip Elliott the audience is both the "source" and the "receiver" of the television message. For example, circulation and reception of a media message are incorporated in the production process through numerous "feedbacks." So circulation and perception, although not identical, are certainly related to and involved into the production process.
- Use (distribution or consumption) – For a message to be successfully "realized", "the broadcasting structures must yield encoded messages in the form of a meaningful discourse." This means that the message has to be adopted as a meaningful discourse and it has to be meaningfully decoded. However, the decoding/interpreting of a message requires active recipients.
- Reproduction – This stage is directly after audience members have interpreted a message in their own way based on their experiences and beliefs. The decoded meanings are the ones with "an effect" (e.g. influence, instruct, entertain) with "very complex perceptual, cognitive, emotional, ideological or behavioral consequences." 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.
Since discursive form plays such an important role in a communicative process, Hall suggests that "encoding" and "decoding" are "determinate moments." What he means by that is that an event, for example, cannot be transmitted in its "raw format." A person would have to be physically at the place of the event to see it in such format. Rather, he states that events can only be transported to the audience in the audio-visual forms of televisual discourse (that is, the message goes to processes of production and distribution). This is when the other determinant moment begins – decoding, or interpretation of the images and messages through a wider social, cultural, and political cognitive spectrum (that is, the processes of consumption and reproduction).
"The event must become a 'story' before it can become a communicative event."
- Stuart Hall, 1980, "Encoding/decoding"
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 who 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 applied only 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 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 identified as though they were characters in the book; but the meaning, dependent upon their backgrounds, identities and beliefs, circulates within society and is reinforced by Hall's theory of encoding/decoding.
Communication theorist Stuart Hall argues that there are three positions that people may take upon decoding a television message. He argues three different positions because "decodings do not follow inevitably from encodings." Thus, just because a message is encoded on television in a particular way, it does not mean it will be decoded in its intended format. This lays the foundation for Hall's hypothetical positions—he needs multiple positions because there are multiple interpretations that could occur. These positions are known as the dominant-hegemonic position, the negotiated position, and the oppositional position.
The first position that he discusses is the dominant-hegemonic code. This code or position is one where the consumer takes the actual meaning directly, and decodes it exactly the way it was encoded. For instance, political and military elites primarily generated the politics of Northern Ireland and the Chilean Coup. These elites created the "hegemonic interpretations" Because these ideas were hegemonic interpretations, they became dominant. Hall demonstrates that if a viewer of a newscast on such topics decoded the message "in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded" that the viewer would be "operating inside the dominant code" Thus, the dominant code involves taking the connotative meaning of a message in the exact way a sender intended a message to be interpreted (decoded). Under this framework, 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. This means that the intended message was created by the dominant class and that the recipient was also a part of the dominant point of view.
A modern-day example of the dominant-hegemonic code is described by communication scholar Garrett Castleberry in his upcoming article "Understanding Stuart Hall's 'Encoding/Decoding' Through AMC's Breaking Bad". Castleberry argues that there is a dominant-hegemonic "position held by the entertainment industry that illegal drug side-effects cause less damage than perceived". If this is the dominant code and television shows like Breaking Bad support such perceptions, then they are operating within the dominant code Likewise, a viewer believing such perceptions will also be operating within the dominant-hegemonic code since they are encoding the message in the way it is intended.
Another hypothetical position is the negotiated position. This position is a mixture of accepting and rejecting elements. Readers are acknowledging the dominant message, but are not willing to completely accept the message the way the encoder 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.
Hall explains this when he 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". Basically, this means that people understand the dominant position, they generally believe the position, but they are in a situation where they must make up their own separate rules to coexist with the dominant position. Hall provides an example involving an Industrial Relations Bill. In his example, he shows how a factory worker may recognize and agree with the dominant position that a wage freeze is beneficial. However, while the worker may recognize that the wage freeze is needed, they may not be willing to partake in a wage freeze since it will directly affect them rather than others  His example demonstrates that people may negotiate a code to work around their own beliefs and self-interests. This code is very much based on context.
Once more, Castleberry demonstrates the negotiated code at play in a modern-day television show. In "Breaking Bad," Walter, the main character had a divorce, and many viewers had negotiated "an acceptance of Walter's sins, while communicating negative discourse concerning Skylar [his wife]". This negative discourse, according to the actor who played Walter's wife was because her character, Skylar did not fit what was expected of a wife. This expectation could be seen as a dominant code. In addition, Walter's actions were against the dominant code. Because of these conflicting dominant codes, Castleberry implies that many viewers negotiated their own code where Walter's actions were accepted due to Skylar's role as an untraditional wife.
Lastly, there is the oppositional position or code. Hall summarizes that a viewer can understand the literal (denotative) and connotative meanings of a message while decoding a message in a globally contrary way. This means that a person recognizes that their meaning is not the dominant meaning, or what was intended, but alters the message in their mind to fit an "alternative framework of reference" Thus, readers' or viewers social situation has placed them in a directly oppositional relationship to the dominant code, and although they understand the intended meaning they do not share the text's code and end up rejecting it. Again, this code is based very much on experiences. One's personal experiences will likely influence them to take on the oppositional position when they encode hegemonic positions. Highly political discourse emerges from these oppositional codes as "events which are normally signified and decoded in a negotiated way begin to be given an oppositional reading."
The encoding/decoding model critique
Ross suggests two ways to modify Hall's typology of the Encoding/Decoding Model by expanding the original version. While presenting the modified typology, Ross stresses that his suggested version doesn't imply to replace the original model but rather to expand it and to let the model work in a new way. Further is the explanation of one of the alternative models suggested by Ross, which is a more complex typology consisting of nine combinations of encoding and decoding positions (Figure 1 and Figure 2). The reasons why the original model needs to be revisited and the alternative model description to follow.
In line with previous scholarship criticizing Hall's model, Ross and Morley argue that the model has some unsolved problems. First, Morley mentions that in the decoding stage there is a need to distinguish comprehension of the text and its evaluation. Comprehension here refers to the reader's understanding of the text in the basic sense and the sender's intention, and to possible readers interpretations of the text (borrowed from Schroder). Evaluation is how readers relate the text to the ideological position (also borrowed from Schroder).
Second, Morley discusses the problem of understanding the concept of ‘oppositional reading'. There might be confusion between referring ‘oppositional reading' to rejecting the preferred meaning (dominant ideology) and to disagreement with the text. For example, imagine that an oppositional TV channel produced a news story about some flaws in the ObamaCare. According to the original model, a reader can fully share the text's code and accept its meaning, or reject it and bring an alternative frame of it. In the first case nevertheless a reader fully agrees with the text, s/he would be in opposition to the dominant ideology (we understand dominant ideology here as promoting government initiatives), while in the second case by disagreeing with the news story a reader would actually favor dominant ideology. That leads to the final problem of the original model -- assuming that all the media encode texts within the dominant ideology and thus suggesting that media is homogeneous in nature.
In order to address these problems, Ross suggests two steps in modifying the original model. The first step is to distinguish between the graphical model and the typology, which is different decoding positions (dominant-hegemonic, negotiated, and oppositional). The second step is to divide the model into two versions, an ideology version (Figure 1) and a text-related version (Figure 2).
Figure 1. The modified encoding/decoding typology (ideology version)
(Hall's assumed mode)
(partly critical text)
(a radical text)
|Dominant-hegemonic reading |
of dominant-hegemonic text
|Dominant-hegemonic reading |
of negotiated text
|Dominant-hegemonic reading |
of oppositional text
|Negotiated position||Negotiated reading |
of dominant-hegemonic text
|Negotiated reading |
of negotiated text
|Negotiated reading |
of oppositional text
|Oppositional position||Oppositional reading |
of dominant-hegemonic text
|Oppositional reading |
of negotiated text
= Amplification of critique
|Oppositional reading |
of oppositional text
= Agreement with oppositional text
The main addition to both new typologies of Hall's model is adding two types of encoding meanings, which are a Negotiated position and an Oppositional position. As the original model makes all media institutions encode messages in the dominant-hegemonic manner, Ross takes a step further and ‘allow' media institutions to encode texts according to the oppositional or negotiated framework. Thus, media texts in both Hall's versions can be dominant-hegemonic (Hall's assumed mode), partly critical or radical.
Another addition to the original model is the appearance of a Neutralization category meaning that media texts encoded within an oppositional or negotiated framework are decoded according to the dominant ideology. Let's look at the upper right corner of the Ross ideology version (Figure 1) at the cell when a radical text intersects with a dominant-hegemonic decoding position. For example, neutralization will happen if a TV news report conveying a message about an oppositional political party in Russia may be interpreted by a conservative viewer as an evidence of the US sponsorship of anti-government organizations underlying Russian independency. Let's now look at the lower right corner of the same version at the cell when a radical text is decoded by viewers within an oppositional position. In this case ‘oppositional reading of oppositional text' needs explanation that it equals to the "agreement with oppositional text" as readers text evaluation might cause misunderstanding.
Figure 2. The modified encoding/decoding typology (text-relative version)
(Hall's assumed mode)
(partly critical text)
(a radical text)
of dominant-hegemonic text
of negotiated text
of oppositional text
|Negotiation of |
|Negotiation of |
|Negotiation of |
reading of dominant-hegemonic
reading of negotiated
reading of oppositional text
In order to avoid misinterpretations and to make an alternative typology more reader-friendly, Ross suggests a text-relative version that stresses not the ideological tendency of the text, but rather if receivers are in agreement or opposition with any kind of text. In this version Ross changed the term 'dominant-hegemonic' to ‘text-acceptance'; and the term 'oppositional' to ‘text-oppositional' in order to remind readers the difference between opposition to the dominant ideology and opposition to the text.
In the text-relative version a Neutralization category moved to the lower right cell while saving its meaning. Neutralization means applying dominant ideology to the radical text or rejecting oppositional texts.
To conclude, while Hall's Encoding/Decoding model of communication is highly evaluated and widely used in research, it has been criticised as it contains some unsolved problems. This section discussed some flaws in the original model summarized by Ross and introduced one of the alternative ways to modify Hall's typology.
- ^ abcdefghijklmnopHall, S. (1980). Encoding/decoding. Culture, media, language, 128-138. Retrieved from: http://www.hu.mtu.edu/~jdslack/readings/CSReadings/Hall_Encoding-n-Decoding.pdf
- ^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; Douglas M. Kellner, eds. (2001). "Encoding/Decoding". Media And Cultural Studies: Keyworks: 171.
- ^ abBankovic, M. (2013). Business communication: script. Retrieved from: http://www.vts.edu.rs/images/nastava/PoslovneKomunikacije/POSLOVNE_KOMUNIKACIJE-skripta.pdf
- ^ abcdCampbell, Richard. Media & Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.
- ^Media and Cultural Studies (KeyWorks in Cultural Studies) Edited by Durham and Keller. Written by Stuart Hall. p. 171
- ^Media and Cultural Studies (KeyWorks in Cultural Studies. Edited by Durham and Keller. Written by Stuart Hall. p.171.
- ^.Media and Cultural Studies (KeyWorks in Cultural Studies. Edited by Durham and Keller. Written by Stuart Hall.
- ^"Audiences and Reception Theory." Julie Martin: Community Manager / Animatrice De Communaute. 2007.
- ^ ab.Understanding Stuart Hall's 'Encoding/Decoding' Through AMC's Breaking Bad Forthcoming Communication Basics for Millennials: Essays on Communication Theory and Culture. Roberts, K, & Hickly, J. (Eds.). New York: Peter Lang. p. 90. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/16236006/_Understanding_Stuart_Halls_Encoding_Decoding_Model_through_TVs_Breaking_Bad_In_Communication_Theory_and_Millennial_Popular_Culture_Essays_and_Applications._Roberts_K._and_Kickly_J._Eds._._New_York_Peter_Lang
- ^.Media and Cultural Studies (KeyWorks in Cultural Studies. Edited by Durham and Keller. Written by Stuart Hall. p. 172
- ^.Media and Cultural Studies (KeyWorks in Cultural Studies. Edited by Durham and Keller. Written by Stuart Hall p. 173
- ^Media and Cultural Studies (KeyWorks in Cultural Studies. Edited by Durham and Keller. Written by Stuart Hall p. 173
- ^ abcdefghijRoss, S. (2011, May 25th). The encoding/decoding model revisited: Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association. Boston, MA.
- ^ abMorley, D. (2006). Unanswered questions in audience research. Communication Review 9(2), 101-121.
- ^ abSchrøder, K. (2000). Making sense of audience discourses: Towards a multidimensional model of mass media reception. European Journal of Cultural Studies 3(2), 233-258.
Teaching Cultural Studies; Teaching Stuart Hall
UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY
Cultural Studies Review
volume 22 number 1 March 2016
© Catherine Driscoll 2016
Cultural Studies Review 2016. © 2016 Catherine Driscoll. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.
Citation: Cultural Studies Review (CSR) 2016, 22, 4915, http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/csr.v22i1.4915
I belong to a generation of cultural studies researchers for whom Stuart Hall was not the primary voice defining the field as I first encountered it. He was not even among the first wave of writers that I read or heard discussed as doing ‘cultural studies’. Instead, I came to Hall’s work from a distance defined by the history of cultural studies as a discipline; first by the diffusion of some of its most important interventions through other fields, so that it was not only people who said they were doing cultural studies who were taken up as key to the field, and second by the institutionalisation of a cultural studies canon in which Hall became only one voice, however influential. Nevertheless, by the time Hall died I had come not only to an enthusiastic appreciation of his work but to strongly feel my own indebtedness to it. I want to reflect here on how teaching cultural studies brought me to a close engagement with Hall’s work, and how teaching keeps Hall’s work and ideas alive when the exigencies of academic publishing might relegate him to citational history.
I discovered cultural studies quite by accident at the beginning of my doctoral research. My undergraduate education had touched on both ‘culture’ and ‘theory’, but in much more traditional sociological and literary terms. If I ever heard Hall’s name it was only in passing and had no traction. When I entered a ‘Department of English with Cultural Studies’ in 1992, initially planning a literary thesis, Hall was only one among many new names and voices I encountered as constituting this field. The long list of contributors on the front cover of Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Patricia Triechler’s Cultural Studies, published that year, is one representation of this multitude, complete with its promotional imperative: ‘If you plan to continue living in America, read this book.’ Although I wasn’t in America the imperative felt real for a student already feeling at sea—with equal degrees of pleasure and anxiety—in a new intellectual world. Grossberg’s collection circulated widely among students and relevant faculty, but it was not alone. Just as important in this time and place was Simon During’s 1993 Cultural Studies Reader. That book doesn’t list contemporary writers on the cover but is instead an anthology of theoretical pieces published over almost fifty years. Hall is here as well—indeed he’s the only writer included twice—but I didn’t much notice this given that Hall was not one of the writers being hotly debated around me. I also belong to that generation of cultural studies researchers for whom orientation in the field meant a theoretical orientation. We extensively debated many present and past theoretical and philosophical claims and interventions—back to Hegel and up-to-date. And while Hall was occasionally mentioned, his specific work had little traction in these discussions.
It would thus be easy enough to say that my early interest in cultural studies is exactly the kind of thing Hall regretted as the fate of cultural studies in the academy. Yet I certainly didn’t understand myself as writing without a politics. For example, in taking ideas from the work of Gilles Deleuze (among others, but he was my favourite back then) to understand girls’ magazines, ‘Alice’ stories or bridal culture, I felt I was insisting on an extension of both the content and the constituency that should interest feminist cultural analysis. Nevertheless, although more people cited Adorno than Hall when questioning my work then, by the time I came to read Hall’s essays I was not only familiar with his figurehead role in cultural studies as a discipline but also of his subsequent critique of an overly theoretical version of the field. As a cultural studies convert of the early 1990s with a passion for post-structuralist theory, when I first picked up one of Hall’s work with real intent to read it I expected to find him not on my side.
My image of Hall as a founding but now disaffected father figure was both incomplete and simplistic. It became possible because I had never done undergraduate cultural studies and had thus never been required to read him although I was now surrounded by people who found him too familiar to heatedly debate. Thus I didn’t always recognise the extent of Hall’s influence on, or the importance of Hall’s interpretations of, the things I was reading. Then in 1995 I was asked to tutor an undergraduate course on popular culture that included a plethora of references to Hall: to his early account of ‘Encoding and Decoding’ in popular media, to his contributions to ‘Birmingham School’ projects, including the justly famous collections Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain and Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, and to his theoretical accounts of popular culture, representation and identity.1 It was finally teaching that required I focus on what Hall had written rather than what he had institutionally achieved or his place in debates about what cultural studies had become.
The following quotation from ‘Notes on Deconstructing the Popular’ is representative of what I discovered at this time in Hall the theorist:
First, I want to say something about periodizations in the study of popular culture. Difficult problems are posed here by periodization—I don’t offer it to you simply as a sort of gesture to the historians. Are the major breaks largely descriptive? Do they arise largely from within popular culture itself, or from factors which are outside of it but impinge on it? With what other movements and periodizations is ‘popular culture’ most revealingly linked? Then I want to tell you some of the difficulties I have with the term ‘popular’. I have almost as many problems with ‘popular’ as I have with ‘culture’. When you put the two terms together the difficulties can be pretty horrendous.2
Although first published in 1981 this passage still offers insightful questions for undergraduate students being asked to problematise commonsense understandings of popular culture as a reflection of unspecialised average taste. It also offers provocative questions for researchers grappling with how to discuss the articulation between popular forms and social change. Hall’s capacity to package complex debate in an accessible format, evident in this passage, isn’t equally at the forefront in all his texts. But I think Hall’s essays particularly merit the pedagogical contextualisation and explication they sometimes require because of his emphasis on historical change.
I’ve now taught many versions of an introduction to cultural studies, to youth studies or to critical cultural theory, in which Hall offers valuable entry points and works as the kind of productive interlocutor to whom students can be brought back across the course to trace their own developing understanding. Even when his work is transparently outdated, say by changes in media production or changed relations between models for successful adolescence and commercial youth culture, it can help students see relations between the work cultural studies might do (even sometimes feels compelled to do) and the world from which it emerges. Hall also often offers a history of ideas tailored to developing both critical skills and reflexive research practice. His essay ‘The Work of Representation’ is exemplary, guiding students through the fog of intellectual fashion to see the connections and differences between how representation might be understood utilising the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (with Marx, Gramsci and Althusser standing in the background but close enough to be seen by more adventurous students).3 This essay alone is a service to teaching cultural studies few have equalled. It even comes with a set of associated (now online) videos featuring Hall’s explanations, tailor-made for classroom use because Hall was obviously thinking as a teacher when he developed that material, as so few leading thinkers do.4
One of the interesting challenges of teaching Hall today is that he can be utilised by cultural studies at its most disingenuously populist—‘Hey, kids, lets expose the workings of power in everyday life!’—but also to elaborate its most continually urgent critical foundations. Hall is always engaged with the categories through which as subjects of the modern world we strive—and are required to strive—to know and represent ourselves, even as ‘Cultural Studies’ became one the categories through which such representation can proceed.
It seems appropriate to end with one of Hall’s comments on the failings—or, better, problem—of cultural studies as he saw it in later years. In 2012, in response to Sut Jhally’s question, ‘What happened to the political and economic dimensions of the formative period of cultural studies?’ (a question which begs for a story about decline) Hall first dismisses a phase of cultural studies that he believes ‘tried to forget that it had a political edge, or political dimension’ in a ‘splurge of high theory’, then acknowledges that he is not ‘against theory … I don’t believe that we can live without, understand things without, theoretical concepts’. He both doubts that cultural studies is ‘in a good place’ to understand the economic dimensions necessary for ‘conjunctural analysis of the present’, then acknowledges that in fact it is cultural studies scholars who ‘do understand that the cultural is constitutive of political crisis’, positioning them to make a ‘deeper analysis’ than those from more ‘traditional’ disciplines, on the condition that they do not neglect economic and political questions. This ambivalence is useful, resonating with doubts every researcher should feel and unable to be reduced to anything other than a question about how cultural studies might proceed that is answerable only with specific reference to the context of their research. Finally, Hall reminds himself of the practical diversity of cultural studies, and that stories about the field having ‘lost its way’ are itself reductive, and he laughs at his own headmasterly tone before declaring that he never wanted to set himself up as adjudicating the correct form of cultural studies.5 Hall’s frequent discussion of the state of the field aligns him with many other senior cultural studies scholars, usually but not always men, who have written about the decline of the field since a heyday that was theirs. But even in this mode Hall remains attuned to the importance of seeing cultural studies as a history of ideas which remains unfinished, and thus remains useful for any classroom in which those present are looking for the significance of the work they do rather than taking it for granted.
It’s understandable that Hall in this retrospective reflective mode came to dominate how he was positioned in the field. Clearly it was a subject on which he was often invited to speak, and one for which he had a unique authority. But this is also unfortunate because it somewhat obscures his contributions to cultural studies as an intellectual and a teacher. Chief among these for me is Hall’s insistence on the historically specific conjuncture that produces, and thus necessarily changes, all of our most important ideas, including ‘the popular’, ‘culture’, ‘representation’, ‘politics’, ‘identity’ and even ‘theory’. In this Hall is indebted not only to Gramsci, as he suggests in that interview with Jhally, but also to Raymond Williams, whose work I came to appreciate far more quickly than Hall’s.6 But it is Hall’s teacherly attention to critical tools that demand we pause and ask how we understand our world that gives him a longer and more flexible life for cultural studies curricula around the world. Today, of course, Hall’s insistence on the importance of historicising such tools can also be usefully turned to contextualising his own work. I have found that setting multiple pieces of Hall’s, written at points when he had different interests and approaches, is particularly helpful to clarifying the importance of an historical perspective on the ideas we choose.
In the heady rush of finding and enjoying new things to say about new things it is easy to forget that survey-style teaching and research—rather than canonisation itself, although the two are inextricably linked—is an important service to a field. At its best, the kind of field/introduction/survey course on which Hall is required reading is not only a reflexive form of training in the field that helps students understand and contextualise what else they are reading. It is also a type of memory work—reminding us how debates and ideas that still shape us emerged and have changed, requiring us to reflect on their contextual specificity and the context in which we use them now, or choose not to. A field without such a good memory easily gets stuck in celebrating novelty; fashionable terms and names always fighting off a kind of planned redundancy. This is especially true for a field like cultural studies with its orientation towards ‘the present conjuncture’, as Hall would put it. Reading Hall in order to teach him, and teaching Hall today, is a process of rediscovering what has not changed in the face of so much change. Whether our own focus, for teaching or research, is on media, on popular culture more generally, on the relation between academic and activist work, on race, on identity, or even on youth and gender (on both of which he had less directly to say), paying attention to what Hall does and doesn’t discuss, with what conceptual tools, and under what circumstances these are challenged and change, thrusts us out of self-involved cycles of intellectual fashion and back to a ground which is not only about the politics of everyday life but also about the politics of an intellectual life that needs to be just as historically aware.
Catherine Driscoll is Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.
1 Stuart Hall, ‘Encoding/decoding’, in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (ed.), Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972–79, Hutchinson, London, 1980, pp. 128–38; John Clarke, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts, Resistance Through Rituals, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham, 1975; Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Macmillan, London, 1970.
2 Stuart Hall, ‘Notes on Deconstructing the Popular’, in Raphael Samuel (ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981, p. 227.
3 Stuart Hall, ‘The Work of Representation’ in Stuart Hall (ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Sage, London, 1997, pp. 13–74.
4 Stuart Hall and Sut Jhally, ‘Representation and the Media: Featuring Stuart Hall’, The Media Education Foundation, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTzMsPqssOY>.
5 Stuart Hall, ‘Stuart Hall: Politics’ Place in Cultural Studies’, Sut Jhally (ed.) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyuKRwd5Lqg>.
6 See Hall’s discussion of Williams in Stuart Hall, ‘Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies’, in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler (eds), Cultural Studies, Routledge, New York, 1992, pp. 277–86.
Clarke, J., S. Hall, T. Jefferson and B. Roberts, Resistance Through Rituals, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Birmingham, 1975.
Hall, S., ‘The Work of Representation’ in Stuart Hall (ed.), Representation. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Sage, London, 1997.
Hall, S., ‘Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies’, in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P. Treichler (eds), Cultural Studies, Routledge, New York, 1992.
Hall, S., ‘Notes on Deconstructing the Popular’, in R. Samuel (ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981.
Hall, S., ‘Encoding/decoding’, in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (ed.), Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972–79, Hutchinson, London, 1980.
Hall, S. and S. Jhally, ‘Representation & the Media: Featuring Stuart Hall’, The Media Education Foundation, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTzMsPqssOY>.
Hall, S., C. Critcher, T. Jefferson, J. Clarke and B. Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Macmillan, London, 1970.