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  Within media studies the encode/decode couplet is used in two related but separable ways. First, it refers to the twin processes by which producers of media texts can use a communicative code to embody, or encode, a text with specific meanings, and by which audiences interpret or decode that text. But second it refers to a particular approach within media studies to the difficult question of the relationship between text and audience.

Implicit within certain media perspectives—for instance much ‘effects’ theory and some crude Marxism—is the idea that media messages can be precise and ‘anchored’, and that furthermore audiences will understand the message in accordance with the encoder\'s specific aims. For such Marxists this process is a central aspect of the generation of a dominant ideology. The neglect, though, of the audience\'s role has prompted a renewed interest in how people relate to, act upon and thus decode texts.

At the core of this critque is the idea that media text and its constituent parts is polysemic. That is, while meaning is in some senses constrained—television news is not presented in cartoon form, for example—it still can be understood in multiple ways. David Morley has observed how decoding will depend at least in part on socioeconomic identity of the decoders; gender, class and race have attracted particular interest in this context.

Stuart Hall\'s revised Gramscian Marxism, rejecting the assertion that the mass media simply encode a dominant ideology, explores the complexity of both encoding and decoding. In his analysis, encodings and decodings can be in line with dominant ideology but they can also negotiate or oppose that ideology. NC

Further reading S. Hall et al (eds.), Culture, Media and Language, Stuart Hall\'s chapter on ‘Encoding/Decoding’.



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