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research-article2014

EJC0010.1177/0267323114555823European Journal of CommunicationBourdon

Article

Detextualizing: How to
write a history of audiences

European Journal of Communication


2015, Vol. 30(1) 721
The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/0267323114555823
ejc.sagepub.com

Jrme Bourdon
Tel Aviv University, Israel

Abstract
This article discusses the specific epistemological and methodological difficulties which historians
of audience face while taking stock of recent developments in the field. It starts with a definition
of the audience as an entity with both objective and subjective dimensions. It refutes the textualist
claim according to which audiences are pure discursive entities. Put into historical perspective,
textualism appears as less postmodern than romantic. This article then warns historians against
another form of less conscious, rampant textualism: being influenced by grand narratives
based on axiologies of hopes and fears triggered by the media. They may provide interesting
ideal-types but should not be considered as directly relevant to history. The main part of this
article is devoted to a typology of sources, following four categories: from above (coming from
media, political, administrative elites), from the side (references to audiences in other media,
including art and literature), from below (written and more recently oral expressions of audience
members) and from the media themselves (both physical artefacts and media messages). It shows
the advantages and drawbacks of each and explains the danger of pitching one against the other
(e.g. good ethnography, against bad statistics).

Keywords
Audience research, communication historiography, epistemology, methodology, public sphere

Let us start with the classic tripartite division of communication studies into three fields:
production, texts (or messages) and audiences. As Michael Schudson (1991) noted
25years ago, the history of reception is by far the most elusive of the three (p. 176).
This, he added, was a reason why the history of reception had remained relatively underdeveloped. Since then, much work has been done. The early 2000s can be seen as a turning point, with the publication of Butschs (2000) seminal book on American audiences,
Corresponding author:
Jrme Bourdon, Department of Communications, Tel Aviv University, 69978 Tel Aviv, Israel.
Email: jerombourdon@gmail.com

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Douglas (2004) innovative work on radio audiences, Kuhns (2002) major piece on
cinema memories and the themed collection of articles published in the newly launched
French media history journal, Le Temps des Mdias (2004), tellingly titled Public, cher
inconnu (Audience, dear stranger!). This article charts this new landscape of audience
history, identifies the epistemological and methodological difficulties audience historians face and proposes a general framework for future work in the field. This new framework, I claim, can be of interest well beyond media history. The historical imagination
can help audience researchers more generally, not only historians, to investigate and
conceptualize audiences in a novel way.
Before discussing existing audience history research, however, a theoretical problem
will have to be cleared up. Any definition of audiences, I claim, should include objective
and subjective social dimensions. The form taken by these subjective dimensions contributes to illuminating the new ways of assembling the social (Latour, 2005) and to the
formation of new collectivities brought about by the media. This is why I have chosen to
write about a history of audiences, not of reception: to mark an ambition. After coming
back to the problem of definition, I move to a refutation of the thesis known as textualism, according to which audiences exist only at the level of representations and have no
reality beyond texts. For such imaginary social beings, there would be no history as such,
only a history of discourses. I will inscribe textualism into history: it is much less postmodern than it claims to be, and should be considered as a recent chapter in a political
fight for the right to speak in the name of audiences. But another form of textualism
threatens the historians of audiences (and the audience researcher more generally).
Representations of audiences have often been underpinned by simplistic dichotomies
for example, public versus private, active versus passive which are tied to axiologies
of hope and fear (Altick, 1998: 370371, about the book as a new medium). These
dichotomies have also been organized, ex post, into grand narratives (to borrow a
phrase from Dayan, 1992), within which the past and the present are either demonized or
idealized. Such dichotomies, narrativized or not, are interesting representations of audiences, but they tell us little about the experience of actual audiences. Certain grand narratives are so powerful that historians can reproduce them instead of confronting the
more variegated and opaque reality of past audiences.
Due to the presence of these value-laden dichotomies and narratives, audiences are a
rather peculiar historical object. In addition, they are an object that is difficult to locate,
as they constitute a diffuse, fragmentary reality (Ang, 1991: 164) hidden in the often
invisible history of everyday life (Spigel, 1992: 2). But these methodological difficulties
are ultimately tied to questions of conceptualization: any discussion of sources implies
an epistemological perspective on the relations between audiences and the texts in which
they are quoted, apprehended, counted or otherwise represented, including texts produced by audience members themselves. Sources, then, must be identified, criticized and
organized in a specific way. This could be called, following Bloch (2004/1954), the
specific craft of the audience historian. Media production and messages can be more easily related to specific sources, series of archives tied to institutions, groups of organized
individuals, if not to specific buildings. By contrast, media audiences are scattered,
gather only occasionally, on a small scale, in the living room or the fan-club; they can be
any size, from small groups of fans to quasi-global audiences for media events. Reception

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is a socially diverse phenomenon, and this characteristic has become increasingly relevant as audiences have grown into national (if not, in the late 20th century, transnational)
masses. Audiences are everywhere and nowhere and, so it seems, are the sources which
can be used to research and tell their history. In response to this challenge, I will propose
a typology of sources, focusing on their status as sources rather than only as representations and on the different ways they give access to actual audiences.

What is an audience: From Malesherbes to CNN


Constituting texts about audiences as sources also means constituting media audiences as
a specific historical object, a new collective, together yet dispersed: this sense that the
media contributed to a new form of togetherness has been expressed early and famously
by Malesherbes in 1771:
In an enlightened century, in a century where each citizen can talk to the entire nation through
the way of print, those who have the talent to instruct them and the gift to move them, are,
among the dispersed public, what were the orators of Rome and Athena, in the midst of the
gathered public. (In Ozouf, 1989: 23)

Malesherbes statement condenses a whole string of debates on the literature and theatre which started in the 17th century. He is also a forerunner of Tardes (1901) analysis
of publics as dispersed crowds where the influence on minds on each others have
become an action at a distance, at an increasing distance (p. 7, my translation). Since
then, numerous authors have debated the nature of social collectives formed by, or
around, the media, what holds them together, for how long, according to what cycles and
so on. But this characteristic remains: audiences are constituted by the consumption of a
common message at a distance.
For the historian, this means that a typology of the different collectives that can constitute an audience is needed. Such collectivities were constituted across history, with a
gradual rise in size from the elite readers of the enlightenment to the (possibly) global
viewership of CNN through the national masses of the first mass press. According to the
level and the intensivity of the actual, physical gathering, we can organize them on a
spectrum: at one end, the most physical, organized communities such as fans, who can
be researched through archives, physical places, actual conversations; at the other, large
fuzzy collective reaching the size of whole nations (and for some events, or some channels, more than that). It is tempting to reduce them to abstractions, especially through
statistics. However, no audience is a total abstraction.
First, almost all audiences studied share some sociological characteristics: it is hard to
find a socially totally undifferentiated audience. A given media, text, genre or show, is
preferred according to age, education, gender and, most banally but long neglected
(Billig, 1995), nation: audiences were born as (parts of) a given nation in a given language, unified by print capitalism (Anderson, 1991/1983: 35).
Second, and critically, audiences have a sense of commonality, of watching/reading/
listening together. Dayan (2005) felicitously called this shared attention (p. 44). This
shared attention is conditioned by geographical, social and media contexts, especially

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by the way a media content is considered by audiences but also around audiences. They
have a sense of watching (consuming) but may also have a sense of being watched.
Audiences are prepared to be considered, and judged, in certain ways. This refers to the
place of a particular content or media content in cultural hierarchy, which may generate
various feelings, from guilt to pride, from satisfied conformity to a sense of distinction.
Those feelings also have a history to be researched and told.

Textualism in history: The right to speak in the name of


the audience
In order to put (post)modern textualism in perspective, I will start with the history of an
old rhetorical move in the history of media audiences: putting some representations
(more real) above others (false) and, ultimately, claim, directly or indirectly, to speak
in the name of the audience. This happened as soon as the public1 (the dispersed audience) of the first media, print, was defined in the classical age (Merlin, 1994). Thus,
Molire (1650) justified publication by enrolling his audience in the first edition of one
of his plays:
As the public is the absolute judge of this kind of work, it would be quite presumptuous to claim
it to be wrong; and, even I had the worst opinion of my play before it was shown, I have to think
it is worth something now, since so many people together praised it. (Emphasis added)

Talking in the name of the public/audience became a strategy, which moved from the
literary sphere to the judiciary (Maza, 1987) and of course to the political.
Thus, the public was born and immediately appropriated by would-be spokespersons.
This also quickly led to refutations of the existence of the public, for example, in a
famous 1797 aphorism by Schlegel: Many people write of the public as if it were someone whom they had just met for lunch. But who is that public? It is not a thing but a
thought, a postulate (quoted in Merlin, 1994: 1). As our postmodern textualists, Schlegel
refutes the notion of a public (and the context of the quote makes clear that he thinks of
the public constituted by the reception of common texts). The romantic movement to
which he belonged will much refer to the public as a multifaceted, unsizable, living
entity that cold science cannot account for. In the romantic age, this living entity
would be, especially, the national folk with their authentic popular culture. In general,
the study of folklore and popular culture has long been affected by a romanticist mood
(Abrahams, 1993). For contemporary media studies, it is not difficult to draw a bridge
from this mood to more recent left cultural romanticism that sees all forms of grassroots
cultural expression as resistance (Downey and Fenton, 2003: 193).
However, more radically, the claim that audiences do not exist made a comeback in
the 1980s on the background of the success of postmodern epistemologies. Hartley
(1987) was its most famous exponent. As he claimed, we may watch a programme, read
a newspaper, but this moment in our lives does not constitute us as member of an audience. The most radical phrasing was Allors (1988): The audience exists nowhere; it
inhabits no real space, only positions within discourses (p. 228). The insistence of the
lack of corporality of the audience leads to a paradox, frequent in research on audiences.

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The same authors who claim that the audience does not exist will often, a few lines of
paragraph later, write about the audience doing things, revolting, resisting its own
textualization for example, the attempt to discipline it through the technology of the
peoplemeter in Ang (1991: 14), this with a tinge of the populist romanticism identified
above. As often happens to those who claim there is no public, or no audience, Ang finds
herself speaking in the name of the entity whose existence is denied (see also Hannay,
2011, reviewing Coleman and Ross, 2010). What such authors do is analyse some representations of the audience. They do not have to claim, as a required postmodern wink,
that there are no audiences (or publics) outside the representations they write about.
Therefore, textualism must be refuted, but taken into account. Historians, like other audience researchers, have to strike an
uneasy balance between the fictional dimension of publics and their sociological dimension.
Publics are both intellectual constructions and social realities. The extent to which they are one
or the other depends largely on how they are observed [] It is therefore essential to closely
watch those who watch publics. (Dayan, 2005: 44)

Once we establish in what sense we can talk about audiences as historical objects, and
not only as abstraction, we can discuss how to reach for historical audiences through an
adequate critique and articulation of abundant and conflicting representations. In particular, historians will have to ask themselves the question of the relationship of a given
discourse to actual audiences. When are discourses purely polemical, utopian, without
relationship to audiences out there? When do they have some grasp on the lived experience of audiences? The work of audience historians must incorporate a critical history of
texts on audiences and of their actual relationship to historical processes.

From dichotomies to grand narratives : The danger of


rampant textualism?
Among all the texts on past audiences, what about the dichotomies which have accompanied media history, especially at the moment where new media were born, new collectives came into being? Organized around fears of alienation (decadence, violence) and
hopes (of education, emancipation), they tell us about the times when the old was new
and allow fascinating comparisons on beliefs about media across times. If they formed a
dominant common sense, they may have an impact on the way audiences saw themselves
(much like some sources from above, see below). However, the historian will carefully
distinguish between two tasks: analysing the discursive landscape of dichotomies used
about a certain media and trying to understand whether they contributed to forming the
relation of audiences to a given media: did they share the sense of hope and fear around,
say, the new possibility of reading, or were those only the feeling of the elites?
As opposed to simple dichotomies, grand narratives have been formulated ex post,
especially at the different times that theorists took an interest in communication. They
provide broad axiological answers to political questions (and anxieties) at the time of
writing, little for historians for example, Postmans (1985) grand pamphlet about television is only marginally a historical work on actual audiences (despite its claim to the

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contrary). It idealizes past audiences and demonizes contemporary ones. In that sense, it
can become a primary source about the perception of television among Academic elites
in the late 20th century.
The grand narrative which has had most influence on media studies is that of the
public sphere, imagined by Jurgen Habermas on the basis of 18th-century salons and
cafs. From the start, historians have entertained an uneasy, distant relation with the
public sphere (e.g. Ozouf, 1989; for an overview Fraser, 1990). To the question, Was
there ever a public sphere? they usually answer, well, not really (e.g. for the United
States, Schudson, 1995), or a little bit of it at almost all moments of history which basically means the concept is more useful as an ideal-type detached from any particular
historical time than as an analytical tool for historians. In short, historians must confront
textualism head on, and always remain alert to the danger of rampant textualism, of
major, overarching representations creeping back into their work.

Discussing sources: A typology


We need, then, a discussion of the various representations at our disposal of their constitution as historical sources. We will start with sources from above (texts emanating from
the professional actors who produced media messages or the political actors who supervise them), move to sources from the side (texts provided not by the elites from above,
but various witnesses of the audience of their time, journalists, writers, etc.) and continue
with sources from below (through self-reports of audiences, testimonies at the time,
including in diaries or for future historians comments on a programme on Facebook).
Then, we will discuss the use of the media themselves, as sources from which to infer
something about the audience: the often neglected physical artefacts through which people access meaning, but mainly the media messages. This last category raises the famous
question, in media and literary studies, of the lector in fabula, the reader in the text.

Sources: From above


The first category of texts about audiences we will discuss is sources from above. The
spatial metaphor refers to the power of the actors involved, media professionals or political actors who supervised and regulated media. In order to refer to these actors from
above, I will use the phrase media elites, including here not only the publisher of
books or the manager of television but also the minister of communications.
This reflection of media elites on audiences was always present, but it has grown
considerably with the media themselves. From the 20th century, it also had many relations with social sciences and nascent communication research. Finally, especially after
the Second World War, it has increasingly resorted to quantification, especially opinion
polls (Igo, 2007) and audiences figures (Balnaves etal., 2011). I will discuss mostly
those figures, but one should remember that there are many other kinds of statistics about
the diffusion of various objects in the public. For example, Isabelle Gaillard (2012) has
carefully used industry and public statistics to retrace the diffusion of television in
France, revealing the ways different classes were differently attracted by, and willing to
pay for, television sets.

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Contemporary industry sources about audiences have been much researched, especially by critical media researchers who do not consider them as sources for knowing
audiences but as a tool of control and manipulation. In Dallas Smythes famous words,
the commodity audience is constructed by media so that it can be sold to advertisers
through advertising agencies. In the same vein are Bourdieus (1979) analysis of opinion
polls, tellingly titled Public opinion doesnt exist (meaning: public opinion as reflected
by most opinion polls), and his famous attack on television, especially on ratings as a
hidden god which determines programming (Bourdieu, 1998: 4043).
Why assume that media elites data on audiences are necessarily false or biased in a
fatal way? In particular, why reject figures while social sciences (including critical social
sciences) make much use of them? After all, from the start, media producers and policy
makers were guided by a thirst for knowledge about their audiences, and this knowledge
was crucial to the relevance of their decisions. It is strange to treat these kinds of data as
purely textual and contingent or as pure manipulation and imposition on audiences.
Of course, there might have been, historically, some political regimes where the
media were totally imposed on hapless audiences, where elite texts teach us less on audiences than on their masters. Most media researchers work on what can be considered
as democratic regimes, in various versions,2 but where power has almost always gone
both ways, at least to a certain extent. This means that the media elites work and efforts
to know their audiences always have a measure of relevance to the real world of audiences the question is to understand what measure.
Historians can put this kind of sources from above to good use, provided they follow
their own, traditional critical rules: wonder about the prevalent pre-conceptions of the
public at the time, check statistical and technological validity, try to get hold of series
based on similar methodology (since any change in methodology brings changes in
results) and take into account other discourses and the intricate relations between different sources (e.g. audience research and politicalprofessional norms, see Mihelj, this
issue). Instead of dismissing ratings, historians will first read critical history of these
kinds of sources which (but this is true of any source) prioritize certain audiences, certain
ways of consuming media, thus telling us something about how societies viewed their
audience (Bourdon and Madel, 2014, for examples in Brazil and India). Poels (2013)
has written a history of television audiences in France which makes a cautious use of
quantitative indicators to gauge the relative popularity of certain programmes, but also
corroborates them with many other sources, including letters and summaries of letters by
broadcasting institutions (more on that source later).
Unlike the contemporary critical researcher, such historians cannot afford to dismiss or
disparage past figures as contingent and reflecting only the categories of elites. Past figures may tell us, for example, about the reach and growth of different media and about the
decline of cinema versus the growth of television (see also Bjorkin, this issue). Historians
will also observe that (hyper) critical approaches of statistics may lead to conclusions
which are all too predictable and seem to ignore the historical specificity of a given situation, such as Statistics become figures as they are reworked into an imaginative grid
within which buyers are captured by media for advertisers (Tebbut, 2006: 860).
Texts from above may bring information about audiences. But, in certain configurations, they may be constituted as sources in a different way. This relates to the sense of

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audiences being watched, discussed above. When elite texts were widely publicized as
providing the correct, authoritative representations of audiences, this affected how audiences view themselves (Butsch, 2000: 2). A central example is provided by the growth
of opinion polls, but the study of audience figures in such a perspective remains to be
done. Americans who have been reading polls (and have been polled) for a long time
have been given a mirror to consider the American collective, have become, nolens
volens, statistical citizens who, through surveys, thought they could know what their
metaphorical, if not their actual, neighbors were thinking and doing (Igo, 2007: 281).
More modest examples may be found earlier. When 17th-century writers started referring to their readers in texts, they also provided a kind of mirror where those readers
could view themselves as a new kind of collective. Think of the first readers of Molire,
reading about themselves as so many people together loving a play, which gave a reason for the author to publish it. There are many instances of texts from above which
could contribute to a sense of a common lived experience among audiences.

Sources: From the side


Sources from the side are texts which do not emanate from the world of media production but from social actors whose main function and interest were not to observe audiences. They did so for other reasons: legal, practical, artistic, professional. For example,
other media heavily represented what would become the major medium, television, at
the time of its arrival. They had their own bias of course, especially the fear of competition. If we talk about advertisements for television, they also represent the needs of sets
of manufacturers. This kind of source has been used in Spigels (1992) pioneering book
about the arrival of television in American homes. Her methodological foreword stresses
the probabilistic character of her conclusions: While the media discourses do not directly
reflect how people responded to television, they do reveal an intertextual context a
group of interconnected texts through which people might have made sense of television and its place in everyday life (Spigel, 1992: 2, emphases added). With similar adequate methodological precautions, cinema could be used in such a way (Ortoleva, 1991:
128). Balbi (2013) has recently used the literature and newspapers as a source for telephone history.
I am aware that my from above/from the side distinction is not always clear-cut.
However, texts from the side are about different kinds of interest than texts from
above. They may be prejudiced, but they may also come from people who write more
freely or, at least, less predictably (albeit with fewer material resources for observation)
than people governed by strict professional and political interests. In 1855, Nathaniel
Hawhorne (quoted in Altick, 1998), then in Britain, wrote in his diary, In Leamington,
we heard no news from weeks end to weeks end, and knew not where to find a newspaper (p. 348). Altick (1998) corroborates this with statistical data of a committee of the
House of Commons on the possible cancellation of the taxes on newspapers more
quantitative, but with a vested interest to prove that the taxes hinder circulation: a good
example of combination of sources from above and from the side.
For 18th-century readers, Darnton (1990) gives the examples of legal sources such
as inventories and Chartier (2003) that of artistic sources such as paintings. For early

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cinema, reviews have been used by Janet Staiger (1992), a move which allowed her to
displace the attention from the cinematic text itself to the discursive context and, eventually, to a historical re-imagination of the audiences. These are only a few examples of
an extremely rich array of sources, which requires much sifting, however, as the texts
mentioned, for the most part, are not supposed to be only, and not even mainly, about
audiences.

Sources: From below


Here, the spatial metaphor carries with it a sense of a world with less power and less
influence. It also suggests a sense of imbalance to be corrected: much before media history, general history has known the move from the world of the powerful to the narrative
of the people, the humble and the voiceless. Without romanticizing, one should first take
a careful inventory of the places where audiences may have talked. As Rose (1992)
emphasized, and contrary to the first reaction of many researchers, the supposed voiceless often spoke or wrote much more than theorists, who are eager to speak in their stead,
assume. The early history of readings provides us, again, with the best examples of historical imagination: accounts of reading found in correspondences, in biographies
(including working-class autobiographies, starting from the early 19th century) and in
diaries (we saw an example, earlier), but also in the literature: readers of Dickens will
think of scenes of public readings of newspapers, which, to the best of my knowledge,
have not been exploited by historians, although Dickens, as journalist, as serialized novelist (to use an anachronological lexicon), as public reader of his novels, is often quoted
in the history of reading (e.g. Altick, 1998).
A source often exploited by historians is letters addressed to writers, to newspapers
and to various institutions. Lyon-Caen (2006) has shown us the remarkable place occupied by popular writers (Balzac and Eugne Sue) in romantic France through a remarkable analysis of letters to the authors. With a small number of letters (550 in all), she
shows the variety of appropriations by readers who use the novel to decipher the reality
in which they live, especially their own social position in society, practising a remarkable
form of bricolage identitaire, a far cry from both the cultivated, Academic reception of
the literature and the fantasies on the disastrous influence of the popular novel which
were frequent at the time. As we move ahead in time, it becomes easier to find audiences
reporting on themselves, on their media consumption, directly or indirectly. Here, we
overlap media messages: very early on, the mass press has invited its readers to contribute, to ask questions, in publications called, in the United Kingdom in the 1880s (Altick,
1998: 363), Answers to Correspondents or Titbits, which had an Australian version
(Griffen-Foley, 2004). More generally, the letters published in the press are an important
source. Nord (1995) has analysed newspapers reading through the letters of readers to
editors of two Chicago newspapers in the early 20th century, as a transaction between
text and readers (p. 68), a place where editors and readers were negotiating new ways of
reading at a critical time for American journalism. Editors cued readers (p. 67) to read
in certain ways, while readers had trouble adapting to the new norm of professional
objectivity and read mostly according to the organized communities (religious, political) they belonged to. Contrary to a simplistic narrative which sees audience

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participation as a relatively recent phenomenon, through phone-ins, talk-shows and of


course the Web 2.0, it has always been there. A specific problem of critique of sources
applies here: doctoring and fabricating were present from the start and all the way until
today.
To resurrect silent or rare voices, media research has started applying, after other
contemporary historians, the method of oral history (Bourdon, 2011). This has grown to
such an extent that historians have warned against a new fetishism of oral sources,
replacing the fetishism of the written document mentioned by Bloch (2004/1954).
Dominique Schnapper mentioned the risk of falling into a
double illusion of reality the illusion of touching on lived experience itself and of totality:
the researcher dreams of discovering the whole of the lived experience, the whole of the
individual, of the family group, or even of the whole social group. (Quoted in Descamps,
2001: 811)

Memory researchers remind us here of the inherently (and continuously) reconstructive


character of memory. They also insist that the convergence of narratives among the same
generation can be a collective reconstruction: different life-stories do not constitute,
here, sources which can be triangulated. Media historians can corroborate life-stories
with different sources, like Penatti (2013), who uses both TV viewers life-stories with
newspapers of the time for analysis of the early days of TV in Milano, and Kuhn (2002),
who combines the fruit of an investigation among past UK cinema audiences with an
analysis of the films (see also Dhoest, this issue). Studying the reception of crime programmes through focus groups (for another example of the use of focus groups, see
Reifova, this issue), Livingstone etal. (2001) suggested that different generations had
been using different interpretive frames, with each generation appearing to adopt the
interpretive frames of its youth (p. 185).

Media artefacts and messages as sources


What about the media themselves, meaning both physical characteristics and messages?
Chartier (2003) noted how the physical characteristics of books may teach us about readers: how they held books when reading, for example; how they stored them. This is no
less true for historians of modern media, who can investigate television sets in the same
way while adding many other sources. Two schools from technology studies, which both
deconstruct artefacts and show how they are connected to society, could be inspiring for
historians: Actor Network Theory (Latour, 2005; Madel, this volume) and Social
Construction of Technology (SCOT) (Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2005). Especially interesting is the study of the early use of technology, when several social groups may fight to
impose different appropriations of a new medium. In this crucial phase, several interpretations and practices of the medium may coexist, with users, manufacturers and regulators, all involved in the process of construction (for an example, see Balbi, 2013).
However, media messages, not the physical media (pace MacLuhan), have attracted
most attention from historians. Whether anything about the audience can be deduced
from the analysis of films, television and newspapers is a much-vexed question. Rose

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(1992) has taken to task reader-response critics for what he called the receptive fallacy,
defined as assuming that
whatever the author (or, shall we say, any media professional) put into a text or whatever the
critic chooses to read into that text is the message that the common reader receives, without
studying the responses of any actual reader other than the critic himself. (p. 47)

While textualists are busy repatriating the audiences into texts, historians make the opposite effort: they try to extract audiences from texts, especially from media messages, and
they elaborate rules which allow them to do so. Douglas (2008) suggests that an intertextual reading of massively circulated messages helps researchers understand how a prevailing common sense, might accumulate across and through these multiple texts (p. 74,
see also Bird, 2008). Using a metaphor from television, we may call this the prime time
effect. It is a major tool to understand the formation of a dominant opinion on a given
subject at a given time.
An ambitious example is provided by Gilens (1999) on the reasons why Americans
hate welfare. He has studied mass media depiction of poverty from 1950 to 1992, completed by studies of American public opinion (combining sources from above with
media messages). His research says something about a specific ideology massively
circulated by the media of a given country. It contributes to illuminating a weakness of
democracy at a given point of American history.
As a conclusion about sources, it is worth insisting on the importance of corroborating
sources which are actually different (life-stories of viewers of the same generation are
not different enough), emanate from actors with different interests and resort to different
indicators (past ratings can be corroborated by contemporary individual testimonies and/
or retrospective life-stories). This goes together with the necessity not to prioritize or
fetishize a given category of sources. In many ways, each methodology relying on one
source produces its own audience. Media ethnographies have long produced resistant,
autonomous audiences (as noted by Butsch, 2000: 284; Downey and Fenton, 2003). Lifestories have produced audiences who incorporate media consumption into their lifecourses. Ratings produce masses of passive viewers/readers/listeners. Market research
produces consumers. Historians should directly confront these sources and accept their
inherent contradictions, but also exploit overlappings and convergences.

Conclusion: Texts as sources and the formation of


audiences
To sum up, historians have many good reasons to strive and detextualize audiences: if
trained in communication research or cultural studies, they have been told, repeatedly,
about textualism. Or they have been exposed to the idea that professional representations
of audiences are (mostly or only) instruments of power and not sources of knowledge. In
addition, they must be wary of the power of narratives always prowling at the back of
their workshop, which may pre-shape their conception of history. Detextualizing means
considering carefully each possible source (text, artefact, testimony) and ask oneself,
what can this tell me about past audiences and their evolution?

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Of course, audience history is not only about detextualizing but also about organizing the findings into a text (which is a historical text prepared by confrontation with
sources, not a fiction). How will historians describe their work? I have added to academic jargon detextualizing, but I would also like to simplify our lexicon. What do
we call the constitution of audiences across history? I think we should avoid the word
creation (the notion of a creation of the audiences is usually associated with the
power of media elites from above, for example, in Buckingham, 1987; Ettema and
Whitney, 1991). We should definitely stop talking about audiences as fictions.
Audiences might be called imagined communities, although the fad around the phrase
is problematic, especially as Anderson insists on the fact that the national imagined
community is related to a sense of being physically bounded by a territory and politically sovereign (which has only occasional relevance for media audiences). Finally,
shall we talk of the making of audiences, as many authors (including Butsch, 2000;
Igo, 2007) do? Making is better than creating, as it suggests some room for manoeuvre
for actors other than the creators, including the audience themselves. It has strong historical credentials, including for social groups with more objective characteristics than
media audiences, such as social classes (Thompson, 1963). So it seems to be the best
choice, if one remembers that making was originally used to insist on the fact that the
history of social groups was a social process and had nothing natural and that it also
went both ways: to quote Thompson (1963), the working class made itself as much as
it was made (p. 194). However, all those words, in many ways, tend to insist on the
textual side of the audience, and they all date back to (at least) 20years ago, when it
was important to denaturalize social processes. We are no longer so naive. We all know
that no social group, and no media audience, can be written about as a pre-existing
entity, before research investigates this. I would simply suggest that our work is to
study the formation of audiences.
Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or
not-for-profit sectors.

Notes
1. I have moved from audience to public. This couple (and the variations across languages
and cultures, see Livingstone, 2005) has been much written about. Suffice it for me to write
here that (as Latin languages invite me to do) I do not separate both notions. Indeed, I suggested that the very public was born as a media (print) audience. However, the non-media
aspects of the public are not discussed in this article.
2. It is worth noting here that historians of totalitarianism have debated about the (little) room
for manoeuvre left to citizens in such regimes, especially around media consumption. In such
cases, they invite us not to talk about resistance but of dissidence or relative immunity
(Kershaw, 2000: 194195). See Reifovas (this issue) article for a similar discussion.

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