Active Audience – Huimin Jin

Review: Active Audience: A New materialistic interpretation of a key concept in cultural studies, Huimin Jin. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag 2012. 179pp.

Why are Chinese scholars interested in active audience theories that hark back to the 1980s and 1990s? In an exchange in Active Audience, David Morley comments to author Huimin Jin, Prime Professor at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing:

“As I understand your argument, you are suggesting that we face a move from a ‘producer society’ to a ‘consumer society’, that the concept of the masses’ (as mobilized in the Frankfurt School’s work) is a characteristic of what you call a producer society and that popular culture is then, conversely, associated with the consumer society. From that premise, if I understand you rightly, you see ‘active audience theory’ as being to do with the extent to which, in this thing called the ‘consumer society’, people have more choices… I think that’s a problematic form of historical periodization and one which is characteristic of a certain type of sociological approach”

Imported in the wake of the reception of British Marxist Cultural Studies of the Birmingham School the core notion of the active audience emphasizes the independence of meaning from any authors intention as texts, images and film are received and reinterpreted in different contexts. Stuart Hall was a key figure in developing an “encoding/decoding model”. The idea comes out of the 1960s social psychology of Raymond Bauer who pitted the “obstinate audience” against simplistic sender-receiver models. On one hand, the active audience is an independent collective which does not respond in a mechanical manner to the explicit messages of mass media but always reflects, comments on and attempts to interpret messages. They “actively” decode messages and meanings. On the other hand, the resistance offered by the active audience has proved a poor buttress against imperial and commercial ambitions.

Jin follows David Morley’s model as a critique of the assumptions of the determinism of technologies and media and the passive, duped audiences often presented by Frankfurt School writers in their critiques of Nazi propaganda.  What is most fascinating about the book is its shift away from communication theory to consider the everyday context which shapes the reception of information.  In doing so, while carefully following Morley’s lead, the book is genuinely new in its use of Husserl’s phenomenology of the “lifeword” and a Heideggerian approach to being-in-the-world which emphasizes the ways people reflect on their world and make it meaningful for themselves.  Jin draws on his broad experience in German intellectual history to move from the discursive, which is generally involves abstract representations, to root the discussion in the real.  For me, this everyday reality, spans both the actual here-and-now “concrete” fabric of life and also its “virtual”, intangible elements such as trust, community and society that frame our understanding of communication.  This turn to everyday world and away from the pure context of texts or, for example, a television broadcast, reflects Prof. Jin’s status as the preeminent interpreter of Confucius in China today.


The key operation and the answer to my opening question is that audience studies echos the Confucian (孔子) dictum that the know a person, see who they keep company with, what things motivate them and what they enjoy.  This echoes a theme in contemporary Chinese scholarship which is to rediscover historical Chinese thought in the form of Western scholarship: echos of Confucius in Cultural Studies.  Jin avoids the trap of the intellectually useless nationalistic struggle by some Chinese academics for claiming ownership of ideas which are seen as transhistorically Chinese.  Instead he contributes to refreshing and reviving these ideas by reconnecting them with their multiple roots and branches in different places and times, which is a welcome contribution.

By contrast, where discussion of the active audience remains current in English is in areas such as advertising, which has sought to create active experiences for advertising audiences. Viewers and audiences work for the networks and producers by producing identities related to media event, shows and personalities and by creating “Buzz” that valorizes the media products and enhances the profile and profits of media industries. Göran Bolin has noted that this interpretive creation of identities and the labour of valorization has become more prominent with the advent of web 2.0 monitored interactivity.

However at other times, the active audience continues to mark the moments when messaging fails, such as when TransCanada Pipelines tweeted out

“We help protect the environment by burying pipelines below riverbeds, brooks and streams.”

After an infamous leak of an Enbridge pipeline into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, this was seized upon by environmental opponents of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline as a faux pas. Rather than accepting the direct message that the environment is protected by burying, responses included:

“Yeah that’s a great place for them. What could possibly go wrong with oil pipelines running under rivers?”

“And burying your heads in the sand too, apparently.”

“Just like BP protects the Gulf of Mexico by drilling beneath it?”

Under what conditions can messages be critiqued by audiences? Logical inconsistencies and ambiguities, previous events as in the TransCanada case above, and new information are examples provided by Greg Philo and by David Gauntlett. Aeron Davis’ study of supposedly critical, elite investor audiences susceptibility to panic leading to regular stock market crashes makes sobering reading as it suggests strong media effects.

Bioca breaks the active audience theory into selectiveness in attention, utility or rational choice, previous schemas such as culture and patterns of consumption, engagement or interest in the presentation and scepticism and bias against the message or messenger. He is critical of the stong form with its nineteenth century image of a rationalistic, self-willed individual impervious to media appeals. Studies find preconscious processes that influence or prime interpretation, leading to Bioca’s recommendation to de-centre the individual as focus:

  • Abandon the metaconstruct of the “active audience”
  • Better theorize how and when communicator’s objectives and meanings match with audiences’ readings.
  • Understand the nature of texts and their richness
  • Include the power of the medium and its formal structures
  • Define media socialization and routines

“We can see that the concept of active audience defined as cognitive independence, personal freedom, and imperviousness to influence appears strangely to be both bloated and seemingly anemic and thin. By attempting to cover everything the audience member does, it ends up specifying little and excluding nothing. Every twitch, every thought, every choice-both mindful and mindless-is recorded as evidence of activity. (Bioca p.75)

In short, critical thinking, experience and broad sources are key. Morley emphasizes the historical and geographical specificity of cultural studies and talks of the transmission of ideas.  This book provides an excellent example of the active reception of ideas found in one context and examined in another.  But the translation is across both space, from the Morley’s UK to Jin’s China, and time, from Confucius 5th century BCE.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)