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Centre for Media Studies, School of Arts

Rethinking Audiences

Course Code:
Course Not Running 2015/2016
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Term 2

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

  • To provide an overview of the existing materials on the study of audiences, conceived broadly as including not just television, but also film and radio audiences;
  • To contextualize recent approaches to the study of audiences against the historical and cross-cultural background of theatre, spectacle and spectatorship;
  • To outline to students in detail the range of theories of media reception and audiences, their presuppositions and implications;
  • To teach students how to frame, question and interrogate theories in media studies;
  • Encourage students critically to question Eurocentric assumptions in audience studies, including issues of agency, human nature and the object and purpose of the study of audiences;
  • To provide students with the chance to explore the experiences of being a viewer, of viewing media materials from another society and being the subject of study by audience researchers;
  • To encourage students critically to rethink the adequacy of existing theories of audiences and reception, and the relationship between these theories and their lived experience as viewers.
  • Students will obtain an understanding of the general importance of the study of audiences to media and film studies, and will be able to contextualize this historically and cross-culturally;
  • Students will gain a clear appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of the main theories of audiences and media reception;
  • Students will learn how to examine the presuppositions of different theoretical approaches and become familiar with handling mutually contradictory arguments;
  • Students will have had the opportunity to analyze the relationship between academic writing on audiences and the experience of being a member of an audience;
  • Students will have learned to evaluate a range of different kinds of source material and link this to a critical analysis.


2 Hours per week: Lectures - 1 hour Seminars/tutorials - 1 hour

Scope and syllabus

Audiences are the raison d’être of the mass media industries, which have developed elaborate methods of assessing. Yet they have proven a singularly recalcitrant and contentious topic for communication and media studies. The course therefore considers what is at issue, the main approaches and their presuppositions. The course also explores why the study of audiences and media reception should prove so problematic by examining different ways in which the audience have been imagined as an object of study and the difficulties of assessing what it is that people think or feel – consciously or unconsciously – about what they read, listen to and see.

The course will involve a critical analysis of the different approaches to the study of audiences as variously understood from political economy, mass communications, sociology, social psychology, cultural studies, critical media studies, literary theory, history and anthropology. The course will frame the main debates over the last half century by examining the history of spectacle and audiences, as well as non-Western understandings of what is involved in viewing, witnessing and participating in public events. The aim is to make students familiar with the literature and arguments in media studies, as well as outline their relationship to relevant approaches in film and literary studies. Because audiences are implicated in some way in almost all media theory, this course is of broader relevance to media studies because it raises questions over how adequate the usual stop-gap assumptions about audiences are in media studies.

The course complements existing courses on the three MA degrees in Media and Film within the Centre and also the core course of the MA in Anthropology of Media. It is designed as a stand-alone course of relevance to any degree in which issues of reception of media and film are important.

The structure of the course by weeks:

  1. Introduction – outlining the scope and aims of the course
  2. History and background – framing contemporary audience studies by examining prior and other understandings of the nature of theatre, spectacle and the role of audiences
  3. Ways of imagining audiences – overview of the main approaches and their presuppositions
  4. Imagining the audience as the object of scientific study – effects theory, uses & gratification, cultivation theory
  5. Inside the Black Box: imagining what the audience are thinking - Psychoanalysis, cognitivism, issues of identification, engagement and interpellation
  6. Reading week – work on students’ media diaries
  7. The ‘New Audience Research’ – a retrospective reassessment of the impact of cultural studies on the understanding of audiences
  8. Recognition of the social context of viewing – family viewing, cultural diversity in viewing and the appeal to ‘ethnography’ as the panacea
  9. The anthropological turn – what happened when anthropologists finally turned their attention to audiences and media practices
  10. Intractable problems – why audiences have proven at once so easy and so recalcitrant to study, a review of recent critical challenges
  11. Review of the term

Method of assessment

100% Coursework. One 5,000 word assignment worth 100% of final mark

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