In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Audience Studies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Foundational Studies
  • Historical Perspectives
  • Audience as Citizen versus Consumer
  • Minority and Underserved Audiences
  • Audience Flows
  • Audience Fragmentation
  • Continued Relevance of the Audience Concept

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Communication Audience Studies
Philip Napoli, Steve Voorhees
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0135


Audience studies is a broad and multifaceted area of communication research. It encompasses a wide range of theoretical perspectives, as well as a diversity of methodological approaches, that all share a concern with understanding how and why audiences engage with media, and the broader political, cultural, and economic implications of the media––audience relationship. These areas of focus distinguish audience studies from the related area of media effects, which is more explicitly focused on the impact that media content has on audiences. The theoretical and methodological diversity of audience studies has been a source of contention within the field, as debates have persisted over the extent of audiences’ abilities to engage in alternative or oppositional interpretations of media texts; as well as over the relative merits of qualitative versus quantitative approaches to audience research.

One could argue that the origins of audience studies extend back to the rhetoricians of ancient Greece, who incorporated an understanding of the audience into their tools for effective discourse. However, audience studies really only fully emerged as a field of research much more recently, alongside the development of commercial mass media in the early 20th century, as nascent media industries such as the newspaper industry, motion picture industry, and (later) broadcast industry sought to understand who was consuming their products, why they were doing so, and (in some cases), how they were reacting to it. Academic researchers across communication, film/television studies, and cultural studies also quickly engaged with these questions, both independently and in partnership with media organizations.

At its core, audience studies research is focused on providing insights into the nature of the relationship between media audiences and the media content, organizations, and technologies with which they engage. In some cases, research in this vein is conducted in an effort to answer questions that are central to the functioning of media industries (e.g., how to better predict audiences’ content preferences). In other cases, audience studies research has a more critical orientation (e.g., identifying the ways in which audience “labor” is being exploited by commercial media systems). As the media system has evolved, newer technologies such as the Internet and mobile devices have given rise to new patterns of audience behavior, raised new questions about the relationship between audiences and media; and provided new opportunities and challenges for gathering data for studying audiences. These changes have been so pronounced, and have altered the ways in which audiences engage with media so profoundly, that some scholars have begun to question the continued utility of the term “audience.”

General Overviews

The sources below represent useful points of entry into the field of audience studies. These sources typically provide an introductory approach to the field and provide a broad survey of the range of theoretical and methodological approaches to understanding audiences. McQuail 1997 provides perhaps the most comprehensive overview of the field, from one of Europe’s most prominent communications scholars. Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998 also provides a review of the literature in the field, with an emphasis on introducing readers to the critical audience studies tradition. Webster and Phalen 1997 is a detailed overview of the more quantitative, ratings-based theories of audience behavior; and was written during a time when such approaches to audience behavior (sometimes derided as “administrative”) were subject to criticism from researchers advocating more qualitative and critical approaches to audience studies. A more contemporary overview of the field, that accounts for the dramatic technological and behavioral changes over the past two decades, can be found in Sullivan 2013.

  • Abercrombie, Nick, and Brian Longhurst. 1998. Audiences: A sociological theory of performance and imagination. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A useful introductory text for students looking to learn the critical history and paradigms of audience studies research. The authors argue that technological changes require a rethinking of the way we define audiences and approach them for study.

  • McQuail, Denis. 1997. Audience analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    A leading scholar in media research, Denis McQuail provides an exhaustive overview of the past, present, and future of audience studies in the late 20th century. Different models and approaches to studying audiences are presented and evaluated.

  • Sullivan, John L. 2013. Media audiences: Effects, users, institutions, power. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This overview of the study of media audiences is divided into four sections: (1) Audiences as Objects; (2) Audiences as Institutional Constructions; (3) Audiences as Active Users of Media; and (4) Audiences as Producers and Subcultures. A useful contemporary overview of the field.

  • Webster, James G., and Patricia F. Phalen. 1997. The mass audience: Rediscovering the dominant model. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Webster and Phalen revisit the notion of mass audience behavior, exploring different methodologies and approaches as well as situating the mass audience within the contemporary theoretical landscape. This book provides a useful overview of the more social scientific-focused theoretical perspectives on audience behavior, along with original empirical research.

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.