Audience—Citizens: The Media, Public Knowledge and Interpretive Practice


Ramaswami Harindranath

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    A few of the chapters in this book are revised versions of essays published elsewhere. A different version of Chapter 1 was published in the journal Particip@tions, vol. 3, issue 2, 2006. A summary of the conceptual framework developed in Chapters 2, 3 and 4 was published in Dickinson, R., R. Harindranath, and O. Linne (eds) (1998) Approaches to Audiences, London: Arnold. And finally, the argument developed in Chapter 8 is an extended version of the essays in Cottle, S. (2000) Ethnic Minorities and the Media: Changing Cultural Boundaries, Buckingham: The Open University Press, and in Particip@tions, vol. 3, issue 1, 2005.

  • Concluding Comments

    This project originated as a desire to rectify two aspects of media research: first, what I considered a theoretical inadequacy in most audience researches which have investigated the connection between sociological categories and audience interpretations of various kinds of televisual texts. While concurring with their basic assumption that the socio-cultural contexts of the audience members were in some way linked to interpretive practices, I detected a lack of theoretical sophistication in these studies which rendered them unable to explain exactly how contexts affected decodings. The first part of this book is the result of my attempts at answering this problem. The empirical part of my research, designed to compare differences in interpretation by audiences in India and Britain, was originally intended to illustrate and support my conceptual interventions; while the case study does, I believe, lend its support, it does so in a way that had not been anticipated at the point when the project was initially conceived.

    The second issue is related to conceptualizations of the role of the media in democracy which, as I argued in Chapter 1, has tended to ignore the audience. Public knowledge and its contribution to democratic functioning have mostly been seen in policy or textual terms, and this book has sought to rectify that lacuna by examining the significant role of education, particularly higher education, in the interpretive practices of audiences. The documentary genre, along with other non-fictional television programmes, with its claims to truth, is recognized as one of the main contributors to the production of public knowledge—the raison d'etre of factual television. The findings in this study reveal the profound differences in interpretation of documentaries as riding on the acceptance or rejection of the genre's veridicality. Alejandro's (1993) reconceptualization of citizenship, using Gadamerian hermeneutics, is significant in this regard: ‘Citizenship, on this view, would appear as a fusion [of horizons] between past and present; as a web of different vocabularies; and as an interpretive practice against the backdrop of different and conflicting traditions’ (Alejandro 1993: 36). Citizenship, in the hermeneutic vocabulary, then becomes ‘a space where citizens can decode languages and practices’ (Alejandro 1993) including national symbols, myths and traditions.

    In order to explore the assumptions underlying research in audience decoding practices, I have identified three distinct but interlinked areas for a more comprehensive theoretical enquiry: ‘understanding’, ‘social context’ and ‘genre’. A caveat is required at the outset: while I maintain that my attempts have succeeded in drawing attention to and elucidating these terms to a certain degree, I believe that they would benefit from a closer examination. In a sense, each of the chapters in this book that deal with each of these areas has the potential of becoming a book in its own right. I shall briefly rehearse some of the arguments while indicating areas of possible future research.

    With reference to ‘understanding’, I have, using Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutics, tried to argue that the inevitable historicity (and by extension, the social embeddedness) of the individual necessarily prescribes his/her interpretive activity. While prima facie this assertion achieves nothing more than confirming what was already assumed in audience research, the presence of two related sub-arguments help clarify these assumptions. First, the Heideggerian notion which Gadamer built on—that the understanding and interpretation of texts is linked to understanding in general which is an essential feature of human existence—refers us directly to the social distribution of knowledge and its connection with the acts of understanding within particular spheres of human experience. The notion of understanding, therefore, has to be looked at with reference to the ‘prejudices’ which an individual brings to that particular sphere. Second, the concept of the ‘horizon of expectations’ formed in part by the individual's historicity, and the idea that a text is understood in the process of an ever changing part–whole dialectic, in which expectations are constantly ‘thrown forward’, anticipating the meaning of the whole, point us to the importance of the familiarity with and expectations from particular televisual genres. These aspects of familiarity and expectation are the elements which drive the interpretation of individual texts, while simultaneously these particular interpretations also have the potential to modify generic expectations. These ideas have been explored at length in relation to the interpretation of television in works such as Wilson (1993). However, they could benefit from more empirical work which could investigate in greater detail their links with specific interpretive practices.

    The first of these notions brought out by the employment of Gadamer's hermeneutics, that understanding is ineluctably circumscribed by the ‘prejudices’ which form the individual's ‘horizon’, is potentially deterministic. In an effort to counter that, while at the same time exploring the social groundedness, the ‘context’ of human experience and behaviour, I have employed Schutzian phenomenological sociology, which, through the concept of ‘multiple realities’, situates the person not in the rigid compartments of positivistic sociology, but in the intersecting spaces of various existential as well as experiential circles which make up his/her life-world. It is worth noting here that one possible way of moving between Gadamer's idea of ‘prejudice’ and Schutz's phenomenological sociology is through Habermas's conception of life-world as ‘a culturally transmitted and linguistically organized stock of interpretive patterns’, which ‘circumscribes action in the manner of a preunderstood context that, however, is not addressed’ (1987: 124, 132). Positioning the individual thus, and accepting the notion of the ‘intersubjective’ nature of these circles of relevance, make it possible for the investigator to accept individual behaviour as shaped by the social context while avoiding deterministic notions. This, and the formulation of culture, or any form of collectivity as a meaningful, intersubjective world which accords the individual the ‘pre-given’ aspect of his/her life-world, throws up a number of methodological questions with potential for further research. In the particular context of this study, for instance, the notion of intersubjectivity as created and sustained by a web of meaning suggests a conceptual framework with which to explore the notion of national identity and democratic politics, and the role of the media in maintaining and contributing to it.

    The importance of ‘genre’ in Gadamerian hermeneutics has been already discussed, but specifically pertinent to this study are the generic features of the documentary. In Chapter 5 of this book, I have explored the claims of the documentary, first, in relation to fictional films in terms of textual characteristics, and second, with regard to its claims of authentically portraying ‘reality’. After arguing that there is very little to distinguish the documentary from fiction textually—that, in other words, the documentary contains many fictive elements—I concluded that, what separates it from fiction is the ‘horizon of expectations’ which viewers bring to the text, which is determined by whether they accept or reject the genre's claims to depict historical reality the ‘way it is’. The authority of the documentary voice depends on this.

    While my case study, based on original research on the comparison of the interpretation of documentaries by audiences in India and Britain, supports my theoretical efforts, it does so in a manner I did not expect. Briefly, my finding is that while most respondents across both the cultures interpreted the films in similar ways, with a varied employment of ‘transparent’ and ‘mediated’ frames which generated readings which were at times critical of the films' arguments and representation, the one group which emerged as markedly different was that of the Indian non-graduates. The similarities between the interpretations of the Indian audiences with higher education and those of the British audiences, and equally the differences between the interpretations of these Indians and those of their compatriots without higher education are suggestive. The importance of higher education as a ‘sphere’ in a person's life-world, with the potential of creating an intersubjective world of its own, suggests the presence of a hybrid culture which bridges the gap between indigenous Indian and Western cultures. At the same time, the results of the study also underline the inadequacy of linking culture solely with geographical and political spaces. Such a conception fell into the trap of distinguishing collectivities along conventional lines, failing to acknowledge the ‘multiple realities’ that constitute a life-world. Politically as well as intellectually this was not a productive position. The outcome, however, does indicate avenues for further research into the different interpretive practices within India.

    Primarily, it calls for a more systematic analysis of the de-codings of audiences from various sections of the population. Given the sheer diversity of the Indian nation-state along the religious, cultural, linguistic, as well as social and economic lines, these categories must be taken into account and theorized upon. In that context, the possibility of a range of intersecting circles of relevance constituting a life-world is heightened, and therefore, a theory of collective and individual identity similar to the one presented here would be pertinent.

    Intrinsic to this, as suggested in Chapter 8, are debates concerning the global and the local. In the current climate of economic change, where the balance attempted in India's experiments with ‘mixed economy’ has been rapidly transformed into a market-oriented economy, issues of globalization ought to take centre stage. One of the dichotomies which immediately suggest itself is the notion of the Westernized Indian and the non-Westernized Indian. As indicated in this study, higher education appears to play an important role in establishing and maintaining this division. Allied to this is the issue of consumerism which seems to have burgeoned in proportion to the recent economic ‘reforms’ which have dovetailed the introduction of and dramatic increase in foreign cable and satellite channels.

    What do these developments mean to the cultural identity of India? What is the nature of the relationship between these economic changes and media ‘liberalization’, and between consumerism and ‘Westernization’? With the burgeoning of cable and satellite television channels and the co-presence of a multitude of news and current affairs channels and programmes interpellating audience groups in diverse ways, the time is ripe for the study of the Indian audience's interpretations of such popular non-fiction and fiction, along the lines suggested by Liebes and Katz (1990), but with a sufficiently sophisticated theory as the one indicated in this book, which would examine audience interpretations in the context of the developments sketched above. Given the current cultural-economic developments in India and the diverse ways in which citizenship is enacted in different social and geographic locations, such a task is both academically promising as well as politically overdue.


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    About the Author

    Ramaswami Harindranath is Associate Professor in the Media and Communications Program at the School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne, Australia. His previous publications include Transnational Lives and the Media, Perspectives on Global Cultures, The ‘Crash’ Controversy and Approaches to Audiences. He won a Commonwealth Universities Scholarship to do his PhD at the University of Leicester (1996), and has taught in several universities in India, the UK and Malaysia. He is on the editorial committees of the academic journals Participations and the Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

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