Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Reception theory

core definition

Reception theory of the media contends that mass media messages do not make sense independently of an interpreting reader.

explanatory context


Reception theory of the mass media attempts to show how people actively make sense of popular culture. Media messages are constructed in a particular way to have a specific meaning, However, reception theorists argue that media messages do not make sense independently of an interpreting reader. The interpreting reader may not get the same meaning from a message as was intended. The reception analyst thus has to do three things.


First, to make clear what the expected receiver of the message (or 'model reader' of the 'text') is presumed to be.


Second, to determine at what points and in what ways the model reader is required to contribute so that the text makes sense (in the way it was intended).


Third, to discover how the people who receive the message actually do make sense of it. Not all reception theorists do the last stage. Ang (1985), Morley (1980) and Hobson (1982) all attempted the final stage.


Other reception theorists such as Eco (1979), Jauss (1982) and Iser (1980) have been more concerned with the first two stages, in particular with developing the idea of the model reader.

analytical review

Film Reference (2018) states:

Reception theory provides a means of understanding media texts by understanding how these texts are read by audiences. Theorists who analyze media through reception studies are concerned with the experience of cinema and television viewing for spectators, and how meaning is created through that experience. An important concept of reception theory is that the media text—the individual movie or television program—has no inherent meaning in and of itself. Instead, meaning is created in the interaction between spectator and text; in other words, meaning is created as the viewer 'watches' and processes the film. Reception theory argues that contextual factors, more than textual ones, influence the way the spectator views the film or television program. Contextual factors include elements of the viewer's identity as well as circumstances of exhibition, the spectator's preconceived notions concerning the film or television program's genre and production, and even broad social, historical, and political issues. In short, reception theory places the viewer in context, taking into account all of the various factors that might influence how she or he will read and create meaning from the text....The goal of reception theory is to identify a range of possible reactions and interpretations at a particular historical moment. In order to do so, the reception theorist must acknowledge the wide variety of social identities and subject positions that each spectator brings to the cinema...If a film has a strong feminist message, for example, it will likely be viewed differently by a person who considers herself a feminist than by a person who does not....

Thus a spectator will watch films from several subject positions at the same time, and in each cinema experience different positions will be appealed to at different times. Another factor in how a film is received by an audience member is that person's preconceived notions about the film. A viewer's expectations for a film, and the experience of the film, can be affected by what is known about the film's genre; its actors, writers, director, or other production personnel; the circumstances of its production (for example, if there were reports of problems on the set); and its marketing or merchandising. The conditions of a film's exhibition also factor in to its eventual reception. A film shown in an IMAX theater with state-of-the-art sound will be received very differently from a film viewed in a drive-in theater or on a DVD at home. Furthermore, the circumstances in which a person views a film (with a group of friends, on a blind date, alone) can affect how she or he experiences the film. Social and historical factors must also be considered in reception studies. Finally, audiences watching M*A*S*H (1972) at the height of the Vietnam War, or those viewing Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) during the buildup to that year's US presidential election, would understand these films based on the current social and political climates; audiences who watch these films at other historical moments would most likely have different reactions to them. Reception theory attempts to account for all of these factors in determining how audiences experience motion pictures.

The most important, and at the same time most difficult, task in reception studies is gathering the information necessary to analyze how audiences experience films. Ideally, the researcher interviews audience members to find out their reactions, but even this method is flawed, as individuals may not be aware of their various subject positions or may be unable to fully articulate how or why they interpret a film in a particular way. Despite these problems, this type of ethnographic research is the best way of determining a film's reception. However, when researching older films it is often impossible to interview individuals who saw them during their initial release. Therefore, researchers must frequently turn to other sources to help fill in the blanks....

Reviews give an idea of how contemporaneous audiences might have interpreted a film, although it is important to remember that the opinions of a professional film critic may not be representative of a large portion of the audience. Other sources of media accounts, such as letters to the editor, gossip columns, and newspaper and magazine articles can similarly help researchers understand a film's reception. Also important are sources from the film industry, including advertising, press releases, and other forms of publicity; these materials can bring to light some of the preconceived notions about the film that viewers brought with them into the theaters. Finally, fan discourse forms a crucial element when attempting to reconstruct how historical audiences experienced films. Materials such as fan letters, Web sites and Internet message boards, fan fiction, and fan clubs are examples of direct interaction between spectators and films, providing researchers with concrete examples of how some fans interpreted a film's meanings. Fan materials also are evidence of the fact that reception does not end when the film does, and the creation of meaning continues after the viewer has left the theater. The use of materials from the press, the film industry, and fan culture as a means of analyzing a film's reception is not ideal, and does not give a complete picture of how audiences interacted with a particular text; however, these sources do provide an impression of how a film was received, and can therefore be valuable tools in reception studies....


associated issues

Examples of reception theory

Reception theory focuses on what the audience makes of the programmes it watches. This is different from the content analysis approach, which tends to ignore the idea that media content can be received in various alternative ways by audience members. For example, Ien Ang (1985) undertook a study of audience reception of Dallas. She argued that the popularity of the series is associated with the pleasure viewers got from watching Dallas. Therefore, it was important to find out from viewers what happens in the process of watching. Her empirical data came from 42 letters she received in reply to an advertisement in a Dutch magazine. She showed that fans do not see the plot of Dallas as being realistic but do find the programme emotionally realistic. She concluded that the pleasure of Dallas consists in the recognition of ideas that fit in with the viewers' imaginative world. The short-lived happiness and constant recurrence of crisis in Dallas reflect, in melodramatic ways, the lives of viewers. 'They can "lose" themselves in Dallas because the programme symbolizes a structure of feeling which connects up with one of the ways in which they encounter life' (Ang, 1985, pp. 82–3).

Another analysis of how viewers interpret programmes was undertaken by David Morley (1980) who showed an edition of Nationwide (at the time the BBC's long running, early evening, national and local news magazine) to different groups. The research, which used group discussions, indicated how different people 'read' the same programme in different ways.

In her study of the soap opera Crossroads (which ran on ITV from 1964 until the early 1980s) Dorothy Hobson (1982) attempted to link the production process of specific episodes with audience reception and understanding. She observed what went on in the ATV studios where the programme was made and had lengthy conversations with the producer, director and some of the actors. While this gave her some insight into the production process, she needed to undertake separate research on how the audience received the programme.

This is illustrated as follows:

I watched the programme sitting in Diane's kitchen/dining area in her modern house. I should point out that although I was sitting, Diane, with whom I had gone to watch the programme, was serving the evening meal, feeding her five- and three-year-old daughters and attempting to watch the programme on the black and white television situated on top of the freezer opposite to the kitchen table. Although I was sitting watching the programme, young children have no respect for the sanctity of media researchers and their need to be undisturbed in the research situation! To them I was as much a target for their attentions as was their mother. I became a part of the shared experience of viewing in that situation and struggled to concentrate against the same odds as their mother. The three-year-old invited me to help her eat her tea, the five-year-old to look at drawings from play school and talk about new shoes in the same manner they talked to their mother. Mercifully, the tape-recorder remains undistracted by everyday life and in the transcription of the interviews afterwards the whole situation was recaptured for me. Reliving the experience was not purely nostalgic, for it revealed that points of the story which had been missed by Diane coincided with points on the tape when the children had been at their most demanding, and showed that repetition is necessary in programmes to allow for any points missed by the viewers. However, women with young children do have ways of coping with them and half-watching/half-listening to television programmes at the same time. Listening is the operative word. In this sense the story line has to be carried by the verbal level and cannot always rely on the visuals augmenting the story. Diane explained her way of watching Crosssroads.

D I don't sit and watch it. I'm usually pithering about, but I listen to it. I know what's going on. I think I prefer to listen rather than watch.

DH So you rarely actually go in the front room and watch it on the colour television?

D No. I never watch it in there. Just an odd time if somebody looks as if they've got something interesting on, I go to see what colour it is. Or if there was something like a wedding I suppose, a sort of occasion, when it would be a bit out of the ordinary, then I'd probably go and see what they were all wearing and ... but normally I just pither about in here.

DH So, I assume as you watch it then you quite like it, or is it that that's what you have on?

D Yes I do really, because Monday and Friday I have Nationwide on, but the rest of the time I put that on, and I quite often turn over afterwards.

Adapted from Hobson (1982, pp. 112–13).

related areas

See also

Mass media


Ang, I., 1985, Watching Dallas: Soap opera and the melodramatic imagination (Trans. Della Couling). London, Methuen.
Eco, U., [1979] 1981, The Role of the Reader: Explanations in the semiotics of texts. London, Hutchinson.
Film Reference, 2018, 'Reception theory', available at, accessed 5 March 2018, still available 13 June 2019.
Hobson, D., 1982, Crossroads: The drama of a soap opera. London, Methuen.
Iser, W., 1980, 'The reading process: a phenomenological approach', in Tompkins, J. P. (ed.), Reader-Response Criticism: From formalism to post-structuralism, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jauss, H. R., 1982, Towards an Aesthetic Reception. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Morley, D., 1980, The 'Nationwide' Audience: Structure and decoding. London, British Film Institute.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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