Representation 5: Encoding/Decoding


The way we are using the terms codes/coding/encoding is as they are used as cultural studies concepts in the study of language and representation. This particular use draws on -or makes use of – the way the terms are more generally understood in everyday talking. This usage combines several of the dictionary definitions:

Code noun (RULES)

C1 [C] a set of rules that are accepted as general principles, or a set of written rules that say how people in a particular organization or country should behave

Clinics will be subject to a new code of conduct and stronger controls by local  authorities.

[C] a set of principles that are accepted and used by society or a particular group of people

a moral code
a code of behaviour/ethics

More examples

Code noun (LANGUAGE)

B2 [C or U] a system of words, letters, or signs used to represent a message in secretform, or a system of numbers, letters, or signals used to represent something in a shorter or more convenient form

The message was written in code.
Each entry in this dictionary has a grammar code.
For our purposes, language is often coded by rules (like those of traffic lights), and shared values or principles (like the value of human life, the need for its safety). It is also like the idea of a secret code in the sense that these rules or values or principles are represented by signs … that do not simply or directly self-represent.

Coding (sorry, traffic lights again x 2)

We’ve been talking about the ways that language represents concepts, and they different ways that those concepts are classified and related to each other as representational systems.

We said that some of the organizing principles are difference and similarity, sequence, and causality.

We talked about coloured traffic lights as a system of representation in which the colours red, amber and green are organized on the basis of their difference from each other and on the basis of sequence.

So we might imagine how the people who came up with the idea of traffic lights made (constructed) their representational system in terms of:

Difference: First, red and green and amber are very clearly different from each other.

Sequence: Second, the sequence red, amber, green and green, amber, red ensure that drivers can prepare to start driving, or prepare to stop (the sequence red, green, amber would cause accidents, right?)

Sometimes traffic lights don’t work and a traffic officer has to stand in an intersection and direct traffic to stop and go, using her hand signals. This works, but it is not as good as the traffic lights system because communicating wait, or prepare to stop or go is  too difficult in hand signals.

But both the lights system and the hand signals serve the same purpose. They each work to communicate a series of imperative statements that we could put into words as follows:

  • Stop and do not proceed until you are instructed to do so.
  • Slow down and prepare to stop.
  • Stop.
  • Be prepared to start.
  • Go.
  • Keep going (do not stop).

Both systems of representation (hand signals, the coloured lights) are codes of communication, the signifiers (a coloured light, a hand gesture) are coded by the logic of traffic management which seeks to facilitate the principles of efficiency (efficient transport) and human safety.

Q. How do traffic users interpret the signifiers?

A. We know the code.

At the denotative level we see a series of coded signifiers (red light/amber light/green light/amber light/red light …).  We know (decode) the  code, recognize the difference between red, amber, green in terms of their signifieds (stop, wait, slow down, prepare, go, keep going).

At the connotative level we understand the whole system as a being coded by the need to have our conduct guided for traffic management (for efficiency and safety).

Does that mean we (we drivers, we pedestrians, we cyclists) understand/interpret the system exactly as its designers intended we should? To talk about that we need a little more theory.

Encoding / Decoding Theory

1980 – Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall’s Encoding / Decoding Theory suggests that those who receive communication (he calls them the audience) derive their own meaning representations.

Listeners/viewers/audiences actively read representations and don’t just accept them passively.

They interpret according to their own cultural background and experiences.

Hall suggested that representations are actively read in three main ways.

  • A dominant or preferred reading of a text or representation is the way that its creators want an audience to understand and respond to it.
  • An oppositional reading of the text is when an audience completely rejects the message.
  • A negotiated reading is when the audience interprets the text in their own unique way, which might not be the way its producer intended.

Decoding traffic lights (small group discussion 1)

We’ve already talked about how red, amber and green lights are coded (encoded) on the basis of traffic management.

Now let’s decode them on the basis of Stuart Hall’s theory (note there may not be a strictly correct or incorrect set of answers, but varying interpretations).

  • What might a dominant/preferred reading of traffic lights look like (how might we explain it)?
  • What might an oppositional reading of traffic lights look like (how might we explain it)?
  • What might a negotiated reading of traffic lights look like (how might we explain it)?

Decoding Blackness, Whiteness and “Yellowness” (small group discussion 2)

Have a look at the traditional Anglophone and contemporary Western coding of Blackness involving the signified concept “Black People”.

Traditional Anglophone

Darkness evil devilish savage/primitive
dangerous sinful forbidden black people

Contemporary Anglophone

Cool Beautiful Powerful Black people
Discriminated Naughty
  1. Can you use the organizing principle of difference to make (to construct) traditional and contemporary Anglophone [American] meanings for “whiteness”?

2.a  Here is what your class (and the other sophomores) thought the colour yellow represents in Anglophone culture:

yellow people  sunshine seashore  aging hazard/warning.

What kinds of encoding use the word yellow to represent these meanings?

2b. Try to imagine how Anglo-Americans traditionally (18/19thC) understood “Yellow” as a term for Chinese and other Asian peoples (for example, Japanese, Filipino …).

3. OK, working as a class group. Let’s use Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding theory to talk about the traditional Anglophone representations of Blackness involving Black People.

a. The dominant interpretation = ?

b. The oppositional interpretation = ?

c. The negotiated interpretation = ?

3. Now, work in your small groups to use Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model to  decode traditional Anglophone representations of Whiteness and Yellowness.

Note: we could do a similar exercise decoding rural/urban people in China.

Homework: Watch one or/both of the following movies (please ensure you have watched one of them by class next week)

green book







Leave a Reply