There are lots of things being written about Stuart Hall today after he passed away last night. Most of the stuff that is being written is about how he is the “father of multiculturalism” and one of the first public Scholars from England to really transcend the boundaries of the academy. And this makes sense. His writing on gender and race in Great Britain has been extremely influential in the way modern leftists conceive of oppression and social justice. He is indeed a towering figure in the intellectual world.
I would write more about this, but to tell you the truth, I really don’t know much about that part of Hall’s work. No, I know him more as one of the leaders of a group of Scholars out of Birmingham, England in the late seventies and early eighties better known as the cultural studies movement. This group of scholars heavily influenced the way that I and many other in the field of popular culture studies understand the role of popular culture in our lives. Additionally, the entire field of American Studies can be considered an extension of the cultural studies movement.
Hall never actually wrote that much about popular culture. In fact, the one piece that he is known for is only 15 pages. The piece I speak of is called Encoding/Decoding. When I teach popular culture studies classes, it only takes about half a class period to go over the basic model. The encoding/decoding model is a generalized model for the production and the reception of culture, and the thing about it is, it’s perfect. As someone who spent a great deal of the last 10 years thinking about and researching popular culture, I have yet to find an situation where it is not applicable. In fact, when people ask me what was the main takeaway from my dissertation about Sabermetrics is, I tell them that “Stuart Hall was right and encoding/decoding works for everything.”1
We academic types spend a great deal of time reading other’s people work with the specific goal of trying to find weaknesses in theories and arguments, and despite it being published in 1977, I have yet to find a valid critique of the model. Which is why I consider this to be Hall’s greatest achievement. The model itself is fairly simple – producers of culture encode messages that are influenced by the producers social and economic circumstances, and in turn, those messages are decoded by consumers of culture in a way that is influenced by their social and economic circumstances. Despite it’s simplicity, it has proven time and time again to be a powerful and illuminating way to understand how popular culture “does” things. A simple concept that almost completely explains a social phenomenon – what else could one want to achieve in life as a scholar?
Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read Encoding/Decoding. If not as a tribute to a very smart man, then at least do it to make your stupid self just a little bit smarter.
- The other thing I tell them is that Pierre Bourdieu was right and Distinction also works for everything, but he died years ago [↩]