In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Interpretation/Reception

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts
  • Theoretical Approaches to Interpretation
  • Classic Studies of Audience Reception
  • Journals
  • Questions of Method

Communication Interpretation/Reception
Sonia Livingstone, Ranjana Das
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0134


Interpretation refers to the way in which people make sense of their lives and the events, actors, processes, and texts that they encounter. This sense making is contextually resourced and often context dependent. Interpretation is taken to encompass any or all of understanding, comprehension, perception or simply grasping in order to make sense of something. In what follows, the interconnected concepts of interpretation and reception are examined through the lens of “reception studies” in communication and cultural studies, which contextualize the active role of readers and viewers within the wider circuit of culture This approach conceives of the production and reproduction of meaning at the levels of the macro (political economic), meso (groups, communities), and micro (everyday lifeworld) as part of a dynamic and mutually reinforcing cycle, in contrast with the linearity of the sender-message-receiver model more commonly adopted in audience research. The concept of interpretation lies at the heart of a range of different disciplines. It draws particularly on philosophy and later the literary humanities, in which scholars have theorized the nature and role of people’s understandings in everyday life, as well as the interpretation of literary texts. Interpretation has found a place in history, theology, anthropology, sociology, art, and linguistics, among other fields. It has even occupied the interests of cognitive researchers, who have often been criticized for reducing the question of interpretation to purely individual differences. The pursuit of interpretation as an empirical project within media and communication studies began in the face of the problematic aspects of interpretation being ignored in the heyday of propositions about either powerful texts or powerful media effects. While uses and gratifications research was initially seen as a counter to effects research, this counter in turn was criticized for a host of reasons, not least among which was its individualistic approach to audience motivation and the neglect of audiences’ interpretative task of engaging with texts (rather than, more simply, responding to stimuli). An impetus came from cultural studies, especially from feminist traditions and ethnographic methods through the 1980s and 1990s, in which interpretative work was contextualized within relations of structure and power. But the empirical effort was strongly sociological and socio-psychological (initially—later it was also influenced by anthropological approaches) and required the development of new methods of investigation within the private lifeworld of the audience.

Core Texts

Reception studies share with other hermeneutic approaches to research the fundamental assumption that the meaning of a message—including all forms of media message—is not fixed or pre-given but must be interpreted by its recipient. Fiske 1987 is an important reference point for reception studies, for it outlines one of the field’s central arguments, that meaning, crucially, is considered to emerge from the context-dependent interaction between a polysemic text and an interpretative reader (Fiske 1987), something the author extends later in his use of the term “audiencing” (Fiske 1992). Eco 1979 is a theoretical account of reception rooted in semiotic theory, in which Eco theorizes interpretation and reception as processes of meaning construction centered on the interaction between texts. Texts are understood to encode a particular “ideal” or “implied” reader, and empirical readers are understood to decode texts in accordance with particular knowledge and interests as shaped by the social context (Eco 1979). Notably, for reception studies this approach represents more than a theoretical assumption, for the ways in which meanings emerge from the text-reader interaction also raises empirical questions for research (unlike, for instance, in the tradition of literary aesthetics), as advanced, for instance, in Livingstone 1998, a book on the reception of television soap opera. Also, by contrast with linear approaches, reception studies eschew a cognitive focus on what individuals understand of or recall from a message. Instead, it emphasizes that interpretation should be understood as a collective process, situated in an interpretative community or communities, and divergent among audiences from different communities. In his account of the circuit of culture, Johnson 1986 made a key statement for British cultural studies regarding the dynamic interrelations between production and consumption in the production and reproduction of meanings. Situating reception within broader sociocultural contexts thus allows audience researchers to embrace broader questions of identity, participation, politics, and power through the exploration of how people make sense of media texts in their daily lives. Much of this work was influenced by a feminist rethinking of the implicit “feminization” of early conceptions of the audience (Modleski 1982). Silverstone 1994 represents some of these core arguments, focusing on the role of television and its reception in everyday life, and Ginsburg, et al. 2002, a collection of ethnographic studies from around the world, is an excellent empirical inroad into reception studies in recent times. Note that efforts to contextualize the process of reception has permitted audience researchers to recognize how people engage with media as goods or objects as well as engaging with media as texts or genres; consequently, in recent years the traditions of audience reception and media ethnography have become closely entwined.

  • Eco, U. 1979. The role of the reader: Explorations in the semiotics of texts. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    The classic semiotic account of how texts embed the knowledge and interpretative processes of the reader within their very structure. Rejecting the notion of the intentional producer, Umberto Eco examines how different textual genres, whether “open” or “closed,” anticipate the knowledge of “model” readers, opening the way for an empirical examination of actual readers.

  • Fiske, J. 1987. Television culture. London: Methuen.

    John Fiske highlights the concept of textual polysemy and contributes to the use of the plural form of “audiences” to mark the shift from treating audiences as a homogenous mass to recognizing their heterogeneity. He shows how theories of reception, genre, openness, and connotation/denotation can reveal the interpretative processes of media audiences as they watch television.

  • Fiske, J. 1992. Audiencing: A cultural studies approach to watching television. Poetics 21:345–359.

    DOI: 10.1016/0304-422X(92)90013-S

    This essay builds a bridge between social scientific, and cultural studies approaches to audience research, while fully aware of their differences. Using the public controversy over the sitcom Married . . . with children as his case study, Fiske suggests that audiencing (the interpretative work of viewing or discussing television) is an integral part of culture, necessary to the circulation of cultural forms and meanings. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ginsburg, F. D., L. Abu-Lughod, and B. Larkin, eds. 2002. Media worlds: Anthropology on new terrain. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    An excellent collection of essays in which media anthropologists position audience reception within the contexts of everyday life in cultures in contexts as diverse as Tibet, India, Egypt, Zambia, Thailand, Bali, China, and Belize. These essays encompass transnational media flows, political economies, and sites of production and technology and their uses, challenging the dominance of largely Western accounts of media use and reception with ethnographic accounts from around the world.

  • Johnson, R. 1986. What is cultural studies anyway? Social Text 16:38–80.

    DOI: 10.2307/466285

    A classic statement for British cultural studies of the dynamic circuit of culture that connects the production and reproduction of meanings. Working within a Frankfurt-school-inspired framework, Richard Johnson critically examines the ways in which culture escapes political-economic determination, opening the way for an analysis of ordinary consumption (including audience reception of media texts) as part of the everyday operation of power and resistance. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Livingstone, S. 1998. Making sense of television: The psychology of audience interpretation. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    Sonia Livingstone contrasts interpretation and reception studies to the dominant tradition of audience research and its behavioral focus on the linear sender-message-receiver (or, producer-message-audience)—in which media texts are regarded as stimuli to which media audiences merely respond. Using the soap opera as a case study, she shows how empirical audiences interpret television and so contribute to the circuit of culture in everyday life.

  • Modleski, T. 1982. Loving with a vengeance: Mass-produced fantasies for women. New York: Methuen.

    Although a purely textual analysis, this feminist classic argues for a patriarchal role for female readers of popular romance novels in direct counter to the ethnography of Radway 1984 (cited under Classic Studies of Audience Reception), resulting in a prominent debate over the gender politics of “reading the romance.” By paying critical attention to “mass produced fantasies for women,” Modleski rejects the elitism within much feminist criticism at the time. Thus she refuses to ignore or condemn women’s popular fiction, instead recognizing its importance within popular culture, and arguing that the narrative pleasure found by women reading these genres deserves academic attention.

  • Silverstone, R. 1994. Television and everyday life. London: Routledge.

    A thoughtful synthesis of emerging ideas in audience research in the heyday of research on the mass audience for television. Roger Silverstone centers on audience reception and audience ethnography as partial solutions to some key theoretical problems—with identifying the meaning of a text, with the concept of ideology, and with the difficulty of theorizing the ordinary experience of engaging with media.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.