This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Annette Hill, a professor of Media and Communication Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Here, Hill will pertain the discussion of audience research, including her recent study on audience reception of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing. Read the first part of the interview here.
You've been studying about audience studies for such a long time. How do you see the change and development in concept, understanding, the topic of research, and methodology?
Well, there's been several paradigms for researching audiences. We've gone from the effect-based paradigm to the incorporation-resistance paradigm set up by Stuart Hall on the the encoding-decoding model. It's a very important paradigm that challenges the effect paradigm tradition, starting to say that it's not easy to find a cause or link between media content and its effect on audiences. So the incorporation-resistance paradigm throughout the 70s and 80s was a really important paradigm in the audience studies for telling us that things are more complicated around audience research and we want to understand, not just the ideological meaning around the media system but also the different way of different groups, from higher income or lower income groups, or different ethnicities, react to these messages.
Then we moved into this third paradigm which the author Abercrombie and Longhurst in their book from 1998 called the spectacle-performance paradigm. They argue that the third paradigm is the paradigm that audience studies is dealing with right now. I'm not sure that it's true. But, I do think there is something very important in that paradigm that audience studies today is dealing with. If there is still something very important in that paradigm [is] about how identity is in crisis.
So, then, studying audiences from a notion of identity as subjectivity is a notion of crisis, is kind of one major thing that audience research does now. They discuss the importance of the performance of self in the everyday life. They brought up Erving Goffman’s landmark study, and taught about how crucial that is to study audiences today. They talked about how you put the notion of identity and notion of performance of self within this border of social obsession with media spectacle, witnessing war or witnessing political catastrophe, witnessing environmental destruction, being interested in a kind of high pro entertainment and reality television, for example. They described that as a spectacle. That is the spectacle of politics, or the spectacle of entertainment.
I think, that was a very forward thinking discussion they had in the 90s, because we do see identities in crisis today, none of us haven’t had a sense of existential crisis: who are we in modern society, what kind of person we want to be, but also who are we online or offline, who are we at home or at work? We see a kind of a split of identity. I think that's a big feature of lot part of the world, whether they might call it modern society is late, modern society is postponed, whatever we want to call it. I think that splitting of identity isn't that hustle around different identities that you feel; it’s something we as audience research is struggling with today. And then, they also spotted the trend in the sort of spectacle performance.
They spotted that because we see that it hits really hard now with the discussion around Trump and populism politics as spectacle and performance of politics, where emotion, soundbite, a real kind of extremism in getting messages across is very much a feature of that kind of politics. Then you see a backlash coming out in certain cases like the British election about that spectacle performance of politics by a very different type of politicians. Jeremy Corbyn, very quiet, non-spectacle oriented politician that many young people voted for, precisely, because he didn't seem part of that spectacle of performance of politics. He seems like an ordinary guy, you know, just want to do the best he can, and speaking in a very ordinary way. So you see a backlash against it too.
So this spectacle performance paradigm from the 1990s does capture a lot of trends still going on twenty years from today. But the new trend is coming out for audience research. The potential paradigm of the future that we're dealing with in audience studies linked to transnational audiences. So how do we deal with the way in which we consume and engage with media in different places and spaces? So transnationalism is dealing with us as local audiences, as trans-regional audiences in Nordic countries, for example, and as global audiences, and having those different ways of engaging with content is becoming increasingly important part of how we look at audience research. That's a very complicated type of audience research. You need different languages, you need different resources. But I think it's increasingly becoming more important.
Another trend is multimethod research, having a sense of quantitative and qualitative research coming together, that's been building up for the last twenty years, and I think becoming increasingly more important. We use multiple methods to study something.
The third trend is trying to get more at the notion of subjectivity, more at the notion of affect and emotion, more understanding imagination, although it's a very difficult area of audience research, which is a really slippery tricky thing to study. I think it becomes more and more important and we have to find tools for doing that. So again, going beyond using big data, beyond using statistics, beyond using surveys, to really find a new way of understanding the subjective element of audience research. That's a big challenge.
Do you think the meaning or the concept of audience has changed because of all of this?
I think the notion of diffusion diffuses audiences is very much a feature of audience studies now. So we are not dealing just with “there are audiences”, there are sometimes audiences as public, sometimes public as individual people, sometimes they are collective group, sometimes they're regional groups, sometimes they’re consumers, sometimes they’re fans, sometimes they’re users, sometimes those users are producers, sometimes those producers are audiences. So, this sense of multiplicity is shifting your role as what so-called audience, as what so-called public, as what so-called consumer. I think that's just a feature of audience research now.
So with this notion of diffused audience, it is hard to capture one kind of audience in needing to get that multiplicity of the role that we perform as audiences. To me, the term is still simply conjured up for the kind of work we're interested in, which is [explaining] how people engage with, how people experience media and culture. So to me, the term still works.
I know what scholars say that they study “users” now. They're looking particularly at the digital environment. But to me, I still feel the term "audiences" simply sums up what I wanna study and sometimes there are audiences of radio series or film or TV shows, and sometimes there are users of social media, sometimes they are participants in TV shows. So I'm happy to carry on, calling myself an audience researcher, even though I study a lot of people doing a lot of different things with media.
The notion of the active audience seems widely acceptable so far. Does it mean that older theories that holds the notion of passive audience have become irrelevant?
I'm certainly a type of the spectacle performance paradigm of audience research which rejects the notion of passivity, and the notion of effect model. I certainly reject that. Sometimes we relax and want to experience some kind of media and culture in a very sit back passive way but that doesn't mean we are passive all the time. It's a choice to relax and be entertained by somebody. I haven't switched off my brain or switched off my body; I’ve just decided to enjoy, take pleasure from that experience. So it's not that I don't think that sometimes we can't be more relax in the way that we experience media content. We are not always active as in aggressive, super attentive, or highly participatory. It's not always like that. Sometimes, we like to just be entertained by someone else.
You studied about the audience reception of Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Would you tell more about what you did in the study?
We worked with Oppenheimer and his producers in interviewing them and we had some access to some of the NGO groups in Indonesia, and we saw some of the impact studies within Indonesia for the two documentaries. And then I decided as a western audience researcher, my best contribution is to look at the reception context outside Indonesia. So we developed a project where we look at what we call “provocative engagement” with these two documentaries in a quite different reception context with transnational audiences in Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, and Colombia.
We came up with some really interesting findings about how the different reception context in various parts around the world made a massive difference to the people’s engagement with the documentaries. So people brought their own reception context, their own sense of war, trauma, memories of violence, from their countries into the way they engage with the films. We found that sort of really vital contribution to the way we might understand the impact of those films.
The impact of those films in Indonesia is one thing, but the impact of those films in somewhere like Japan, where the audiences are very conflicted about films, was different. They were very positive about some of the things that the films did, in terms of the style and the shocking side, but they are very critical of the active remembering in the films. Because they felt in Japan that the act of forgetting was something they were dealing with without understanding. So the context of the reception made the engagement very different, and that was a key finding for us.