Who would have guessed that Audience Studies would be the controversial week? With the debate on this blog heating up, I wonder if we’re not seeing the written enaction of our experiment during TV & Publics: Some stand on the Left Wall with Gitlin, wondering how audience studies could be relevant in the face of hegemonic public opinion, while everyone else stands on the Right Wall with Newcomb & Hirsch, throwing stones at the concept of a unified dominant discourse. Truth be told, I’d prefer to sit in the middle of the room (where the actual chairs are), but as sides are being drawn and the readings this week have proven extremely effective, I’m going to reverse my previous position and stand with the Fan Studies side. Down with the Hegemony! Here’s why.
While most have been discussing Jenkins and Andrejevic, I’d like to focus on Ellen Seiter’s chapter “Qualitative Audience Research.” I do so for two reasons: First, Dr. Seiter provides an analytical ancestry for audience studies that I think proves useful. Second, there seems to be some confusion as to what her intention was in writing the chapter. While Christian calls Dr. Seiter’s chapter an “admission of the flaws of a field with a severe inferiority complex desperate to be taken seriously,” I see Dr. Seiter’s argument as nothing so violent in tone or subject matter. Rather, by pointing out its context and methodologies, Dr. Seiter defines audience studies and shows what the field can do.
The more critical section of Dr. Seiter’s argument delineates audience studies through defining it by what it is not. It is not ethnography (461) or effects studies (462) or cultural studies (463) or feminist studies (468), though it draws methodologies from each. Because audience studies is an amalgam of several different schools of thought, it has contradictions and flaws. The examples that Dr. Seiter uses - such as the carryover of Morley’s simplistic encoding-decoding model in analyzing The Cosby Show (465-467) - illustrate her wider point: audience studies, born of many varied methodologies, needs to incorporate many varied viewpoints as well. Seiter calls out the implicit ideologies which caused white, middle class audiences to be the most-researched group when they are only a fraction of the viewing public (477). This is not an argument designed to “take shots” at audience studies, but rather to push it forward.
By acknowledging as-yet unexamined audiences and calling for self-reflection of bias in order to research these varied audiences, Dr. Seiter’s analysis stands firmly against Gitlin’s hegemony. Seiter provides us with a contextual framework to understand how certain flaws developed in audience studies' methodology. By first defining audience studies against its antecedent modes of study, and then showing what flaws and assumptions it carried over from its progenitors, Ellen Seiter argues not for the dissolution of a lesser methodology, but rather for audience studies to embrace self-reflexivity and awareness needed to truly examine the full range of media audiences.