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Communication: “Encoding/Decoding” by Stuart Hall Essay

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2021

The article by Stuart Hall explains a new theory of mass communication through the concepts of encoding and decoding. The author argues that the traditional linear approach to communication does not apply in modern times because mass communication has become more complex. The ideas discussed in the text facilitate meaningful analysis of communication.

The first important argument in the article is that the traditional model of mass communication does not reflect the complexity of the processes involved. The author introduces a more complex model using four steps: production, circulation, use, and reproduction. According to Hall, this model allows understanding how the meaning of one message can be transformed through communication. While levels are connected, they also have a degree of independence, and a message can change on each level. For example, after a news article is produced, the message coded in it can be distorted during circulation if the article is published in an unreliable source famous for fake news. The model offered by Hall is important because it helps to prevent and address such changes to messages and improve the transparency of communication.

Another significant point raised in the article is the nature of messages in film and television. Even though the processes in visual and linguistic communication are the same, the signs contained in them are interpreted differently. The author argues that this is because of the differences in the nature of signs. Linguistic signs are widely perceived to be more arbitrary than visual ones because they have a defined meaning and are used in specific settings of communication. Visual signs, on the other hand, share the characteristics of the concepts they portray. For instance, an image of a cat or a dog share the visual aspects of the animal, whereas the words “cat” and “dog” do not. As a result, visual signs often become subject to naturalization, a process when a code is taken to be the same as the concept it represents. If we apply it to the example above, a visual representation of a cat in the photo or video materials is seen as a real one and not merely as an image of it.

When applied to visual messages and communication, the process of naturalization is critical because it influences the outcome. In particular, this process influences the audience’s emotional reactions to video or photo materials as well as their perceived level of reliability. An event reported in a news story can thus be made more believable if pictures or videos were added. Therefore, this argument is also important for contemporary mass communication and can be used to influence the audience.

The article also explains the process of meaning production by the audience. In the author’s theory, this process depends on two concepts, connotation, and denotation. Denotation relates to the literal meaning of words, phrases, and other codes. It is less flexible than connotation, which signifies associations that arise with different signs. Connotations are varied and inconsistent across the audience since they depend on both cultural and individual features. For example, the word “heat” will produce different connotations in audiences living in southern and northern countries due to variations in climate. Individual differences in associations can also influence the meaning of a certain message. For instance, cat lovers might associate an image of a kitten with comfort and love, whereas those with opposite attitudes will produce a different connotation. These variations influence the change from the intended meaning of a message to its interpreted, or decoded meaning. These ideas are critical to mass communication that serves a particular purpose, such as the advertisement since they can help to produce effective communication strategies for various audiences.

Lastly, based on the previous idea, the author introduces the concept of the dominant cultural order. This term defines the most popular connotations in specific populations, thus explaining what associations would most people have with a certain visual or linguistic sign. An example of this can be seen in advertising. Although there are people who associate dogs with danger, they regularly appear in ads because the majority of people associate them with home, family, and friendship. The presence of a dominant cultural order is critical as it allows producers of messages, such as TV writers or advertisers, to anticipate the audience’s reaction.

For theorists, this concept is also important as it helps to classify positions that could be taken by different people in response to a message. Hall discusses three types of positions: dominant-hegemonic, negotiated, and oppositional. In the first case, the interpretation agrees with the intended message because it fits into the dominant cultural order, whereas a negotiated position means that some individual or cultural connotations distort the intended meaning of some part of the message. The oppositional position means that a person has understood the meaning of the message in a contrary way. The latter case is particularly relevant to controversial issues and their portrayal in mass media. For example, the majority of white and black people would have opposing positions on an article on police brutality towards people of color. Depending on the intended meaning, one of these groups would be in the dominant-hegemonic position, and the other one would be oppositional.

Overall, the article by Hall is important to the understanding of mass communication in today’s world. The author presents a new model of communication that highlights changes to meaning that occur throughout different processes. Hall also explains these changes, showing why two people might interpret the same message differently. The text can thus support people working in mass communication by enabling them to anticipate and address the interpreted meanings of messages.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Communication: "Encoding/Decoding" by Stuart Hall'. 7 July.

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