Doing audience history: questions, sources, methods.
2014-11-24T14:01:30Z (GMT) by
Audience history poses a methodological as well as an intellectual challenge. Everyday practices of readers, viewers and listeners are typically beyond the remit of sources found in institutional archival collections, and the researcher is often left with a plethora of sources that only marginally address the object of study, and rarely amount to a clear-cut, homogeneous understanding of audiences and their historical practices. Contemporary audience surveys, documents produced by governmental, administrative and legal bureaucracies, professional testimonies, oral history interviews and other sources each offer their own vision of the audience. How does one move beyond these multiple, often contradictory visions, to a reasonably coherent history of the actual everyday practices and thoughts of media users? Given the overwhelming variety, yet in some sense also paucity of relevant sources, it is of no surprise that media historiography has often given preference to safer fields: the history of institutions and media content. Recent years have of course seen some notable advances in the field of audience historiography – most prominently Richard Butsch’s (2000) path-breaking study of American audiences in the 19th and the 20th century, Butsch and Livingstone’s (2013) the edited collection exploring the variegated meanings of audiences historically and globally, as well as the fast growing body of historical studies of film reception and movie-going (e.g. Staiger 1992, Stacey 1994, Maltby et al. 2007, Kuhn 2004). Nonetheless, it is fair to say that historical research on media audiences is still in its infancy. There have been only very few attempts to systematically address its key concerns and methodological principles (see Biltereyst et al. 2012 for an exception), and the empirical focus of existing work has been somewhat uneven, with most research focusing on film and cinema-going and much less on broadcasting, for instance. Furthermore, despite the growth of single country case studies from beyond the western world, we have yet to develop a more synthetic and explanatory account of the differences and similarities between audience histories globally.