The encoding/decoding model of communication is a system that describes how media messages are produced, circulated, and consumed by people in society. The model was developed by Stuart Hall, a cultural studies scholar and theorist, in 1973. Hall was an influential member of the Birmingham School and his creation of encoding and decoding has made a major impact on media studies. The main idea of encoding and decoding is that there is a break between the production of a message (encoding) and its reception by a person or a group (decoding). The model is represented by a circuit in which the producer or encoder frames (encodes) the meaning of the message in a certain way. Then, the readers or decoders, receive this message and understand (decode) it according to their culture, positionality (the specific conditions that help create and mold an individual’s position on any matter of topic, whether social, political, cultural, economic, etc.), and/or frame of perception.
The circuit begins with the construction of a message and a program is produced by “The institutional structures of broadcasting, with their practices and networks of production, their organized relations and technical infrastructures” (Hall, 1977/1980). The technical infrastructure, the relations of production, and the frameworks of knowledge taken to develop a “meaning structures 1,” is where the message is encoded into meaningful discourse. But, for the message to “have an ‘effect’(however defined), satisfy a ‘need’ or be put to a ‘use,’ it must first be appropriated as a meaningful discourse and be meaningfully decoded” (Hall, 1977/1980). The decoded meanings have an “effect,” bringing the circuit to meaning structures 2 (which is allowed to be different from meaning structures 1). A message is developed and, because of its decoding, become redefined in technical infrastructure, relations of production, and frameworks of knowledge. Then, the whole cycle begins again.
Hall’s concepts of encoding and decoding argue that a message’s meaning cannot be fixed by the sender. Essentially, the interpretation of an encoder’s message is ever-changing depending on the demographics of the decoder. Hall’s argument takes into account different people’s responses to situations and how these differences can affect the interpretation of a message. Hall established three positions when decoding a text— dominant, negotiated, and oppositional— that can be observed in the film Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986). Before one can analyze the scene, one should familiarize themselves with the definition of Hall’s three positions: A reader takes a dominant position when they fully share the text’s code and accept and reproduce the preferred reading or original intention of the message. A negotiated position is one where the reader partly shares the text’s code and broadly accepts the preferred reading. During this negotiation of meaning, readers also sometimes resist and change a message’s original intent in a way that reflects and is most suited to their positionality. An oppositional position is one where the reader’s positionality puts them in direct opposition to the dominant code. Although these readers are still able to understand the preferred reading, they reject it.
These positions can be applied to the volleyball scene in the film Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986). A dominant interpretation would be if the reader understood the scene to be a competitive game of volleyball between Maverick and Iceman. A negotiated interpretation would be if the reader understood the scene to be a competitive volleyball game but did not understand how it fit into the movie’s frame. Finally, an oppositional interpretation involves viewing the scene as homoerotic, a perception that is popular among members of the gay community. For example, men flexing their oiled bodies and making noises, while Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys” (1986) plays in the background– suggests a sexualization of male bodies to the gay community based on their positionality as homosexual men.
First year Chinese college students are taught the English language by listening to American music. However, Christian Z. Goering and Huang Wei, the authors of the article “Playback and Feedback: Revelations of an ‘Encoding, Decoding’ Analysis of Popular Songs Used to Teach English in China, found that they did not know the songs that were listed in the curriculum. Their article examines the difference between American Pop and the American music from the curriculum and come to the conclusion that if more emblematic songs were used, the students would have a more beneficial experience in learning the English language: “the exposure to different types of songs (encoding), may create a different outcome (decoding) for language learners” (Goering & Wei, 2014). Their study concluded that “Of these randomly selected songs, none are seemingly a natural fit for language instruction in China, each a compromise of positive and not-so-positive attributes” (Goering & Wei, 2014), meaning that the songs mainly classified into a negotiated position based on Hall’s model.
Goering, C.Z., & Wei, H. (2014). Playback and Feedback: Revelations of an “Encoding, Decoding” Analysis of Popular Songs Used to Teach English in China. The Clearing House, 87, 270-277.
Hall, S. (2007). Encoding, decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader (pp. 90- 103). London and New York: Routledge.
Kozma, A. (2018). Cultural Studies / The Birmingham School [PowerPoint slides].
Image Attribution: Image 1 Free Art License 1.3 and Image 2 CC0 Creative Commons.
Written by Hannah Sauer, 2018.