Studying media representations therefore involves interpreting the creation of new forms or ways of understanding reality. As Stuart Hall (1997) argues, this approach differs from more traditional notions of studying media representations as “false” or “misrepresentations” of some reality or experience. This concept of “misrepresentation” assumes that there is a “true” or “fixed” meaning associated with some external “reality” against which a media text can be compared as either “true” or “fixed” to that “reality.”
However, the meaning of that external “reality” itself is a construction of media. Media texts are not simply external ways of representing a reality “out there.” They themselves constitute the meaning of reality. The cultural meaning of “party time” is created by beer ads, which portray social practices that are valued by participants who believe that drinking beer constitutes “having a good time.” To hear more on what Stuart Hall as to say about this, go to and click on the video:
Dan Chandler argues that this more constructivist approach moves away from analysis of stereotyping or bias—that presupposes some fixed, objective meaning to an analysis of the institutional forces or systems that use representations to construct and maintain their own ideological agendas. He therefore focuses attention on the “systems of representations” that work to create certain cultural meanings through media texts to demonstrate that certain practices are “natural” or “common sensical.” As he notes: “A key in the study of representation concern is with the way in which representations are made to seem ‘natural’. Systems of representation are the means by which the concerns of ideologies are framed; such systems ‘position’ their subjects.”
Museums, particularly anthropological or ethnographic museums that portray past cultural worlds, can construct a version of those worlds that reflect certain cultural attitudes about those worlds (Walsh, 1992). From this constructivist notion of representation, these museum exhibits are neither mirroring or reflecting past cultures; they are actually creating a version of those cultures. It is often the case that these exhibits of Asian, African, South American, and/or Third World countries often reflected a Western, colonialist discourses that positioned. For example, museums, as systems of representations, portray cultures in ways that are assumed to be “scientific.” During the 19th and early 20th century, European and American museums often exhibited “other” cultures in as inferior, primitive, or exotic. These exhibits reflected a Western political and ideological perspective of colonized sections of the world (Lidchi, 1997). For example, an exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair portrayed the Igorots, a Philippine tribe, as purchasing and eating dog meat, a representation that only served to portray them as “primitive” or “savage” (Lidchi, 1997, p. 196).
Media representations and cultural models. Hall also argues that representations reflect cultural values. He notes that cultures serve ways of making sense of the world. For example, they provide us with “maps of meaning” or frameworks for classifying the world according to some hierarchical value system—what is most versus least valued; who has power and who does not; what practices are or are not condoned or sanctioned. These “maps of meaning” or cultural models serve to order people’s lives. As Gee (2001) notes:
Cultural models tell people what is typical or normal from the perspective of a particular
Discourse…[they] come out of and, in turn, inform the social practices in which people of a Discourse engage. Cultural models are stored in people’s minds (by no means always consciously), though they are supplemented and instantiated in the objects, texts, and practices that are part and parcel of the Discourse (p. 720).
For example, value stances towards social practices in schools ultimately reflect cultural models. Much of American schooling revolves around cultural models of “individualism” associated with middle-class values (Bellah, et al., 1996). Within a middle-class value system, the individual is assumed to be an autonomous being who is not dependent on institutional support. Being a complete individual is equated with being independent from constraints or forces, while being an incomplete individual is equated with being dependent on institutions (Jung, 2001). Within schooling, the ability to act on one’s own or being self-disciplined is highly valued in school as a marker of individuality; lack of “self-discipline” is equated with an inability to “control one’s self” and one’s emotions. Emotional expression/outbursts are perceived as problematic and as needed to be controlled (Jung, 2001).
Representations and discourses. As noted in Module 4 on critical discourse analysis, media texts represent experiences in terms of various discourses constituting meaning. Again, discourses are ways of knowing or thinking based on, for example, scientific, legal, religious, sociological, economic, political, psychological orientations. Museums represented colonized cultures in terms of the discourses of “Orientalism” reflecting a Western ideological position of the middle-eastern, Muslim cultures as exotic, mysterious, elusive, and potentially dangerous (Said, 1979).
In studying representations, students attempt to identify the various discourses shaping the representations of particular groups, communities, experiences, or phenomenon. These discourses reflect the economic, political, and ideological agendas of institutions, corporations, communities, or political organizations. For example, as noted below, students may examine how the beauty industry employs discourses of gender to define the ideal female body weight as slim consistent with the discourses of femininity, popularity, and appearance. By identifying these various discourses, students can then examine the institutions constructing representations through the use of these discourses.
For further reading on methods for analyzing discourses in the media:
Fairclough, N. (2003). Analyzing discourses: Textual analysis for social research. New York: Routledge.
MacDonald, M. (2003). Exploring media discourses. London: Arnold.
Rogers, R. (Ed.). (2004). An introduction to critical discourse analysis in education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Weissn, G., & Wodak, R. (2003). Critical discourse analysis: Theory and interdisciplinarity. New York: Palgrave.
Wodak, R., & Meyer, M. (2001). Methods of critical discourse analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Methods for Analyzing Media Representations
While students may have an intuitive sense of how the media represents certain phenomena, they need to learn some particular research techniques for how to analyze these representations. It is often useful to model these different techniques, demonstrating how you use them in analysis of a particular example.
The following are some steps involved in conducting studies, following by specific aspects associated with analyzing representations:
1. Select a certain groups, worlds, topics, issues, or phenomenon, and then find different representations of this topic/phenomenon in magazines, TV, newspapers, literature, Web sites.
2. Note patterns in these representations in terms of similarities in portrayals/images instances of stereotyping or essentializing categories.
3. Note value assumptions in terms of who has power, who solves problems, how problems are solved.