Communication Interpretive Communities
by
Dan Berkowitz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0279

Introduction

The term “interpretive community” refers to a social group’s meaning-making from media texts (such as books, newspapers, broadcasts, online sources). These meanings are shaped from peoples’ social experiences and their social identities. This is a constructivist position, suggesting that people with similar experiences and identities will draw similar meanings from media texts. Further, the experiences and identities of other groups will produce different interpretations from the same texts. These social groups do not have to be formally constituted, and group members do not even need to be aware of their interpretive group. Much of the literature about interpretive communities is grounded on reading of fiction, often applied to studies of women and girls, but also to literary criticism and the professorate that takes on that criticism. In another vein, the concept has found its way into the study of news, news audiences, news sources, and the journalists who create news. Some studies have also considered how interpretive community can be useful for understanding groups of specialty journalists, covering topics such as sports, politics, or ethnicity.

Foundational Works

The concept of interpretive community was introduced by four key authors. Fish 1980 is concerned with interpretation and criticism of literature. A more accessible version can be found in Fish 2004. There, Fish posed two questions about reading, asking (1) How the same reader will perform differently when reading two different texts? and (2) How different readers will perform similarly when reading the same text? Part of his answer centered on interpretive strategies rather than on texts. Lindlof 1988 connects interpretive communities with mediated communication, focusing on the various layers of meanings that audiences bring to and come away with from their encounters with media content. Radway 1984a offers a conceptual explication of the foundations of the work. Radway 1984b then applies the concept to women’s reading of romance novels, arguing that interpretation and meaning depend on the reader and the reader’s cultural context. Zelizer 1993 applies the concept to journalism and the work of journalists. Key to this work is the assertion that rather than belonging to a profession, journalists are members of an interpretive community united by shared interpretations of public events. Different from interpretive communities of readers, one of the functions of interpretive communities of journalists is also to maintain authority/credibility.

  • Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is there a text in this class?: The authority of interpretive communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    The core text that raises the concept of interpretive communities.

  • Fish, Stanley. 2004. Interpretive communities. In Literary theory: An anthology. 2d ed. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 217–221. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This piece is more succinct than Fish 1980.

  • Lindlof, Thomas. 1988. Media audiences as interpretive communities. Annals of the International Communication Association 11.1: 81–107.

    DOI: 10.1080/23808985.1988.11678680

    Goes back to linkages of interpretive community with semiotics, constructed meaning, and genre.

  • Radway, Janice. 1984a. Interpretive communities and variable literacies. Daedalus 113.3: 49–73.

    Argues for the active reader who constructs meanings based on previously learned procedures and cultural codes. As with Fish 2004, this article gets to core ideas in succinct form.

  • Radway, Janice. 1984b. Reading the romance : Women, patriarchy, and popular literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

    A core book for exploring the concept of interpretive communities and its methodologies.

  • Zelizer, Barbie. 1993. Journalists as interpretive communities. Critical Studies in Media Communication 10.3: 219–237.

    DOI: 10.1080/15295039309366865

    Reframes the work of journalists from a profession to members of an interpretive community, drawing on case examples about McCarthyism and Watergate.

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