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Challenging Communication Research

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Edited By Leah A. Lievrouw

Communication scholarship has not enjoyed the same kind of theoretical cohesion or ontological security as some disciplines. The field’s intellectual «roving eye» and resistance to establishing a single core body of knowledge has inspired serial rounds of soul-searching and existential doubt among communication scholars, on one hand, and celebration and intellectual adventurism, on the other. The theme of the 2013 ICA annual conference thus raised an interesting question: For a field that is perpetually in flux and «decentered», what exactly is, or should be, challenged? How, and by whom?
The chapters in this collection, chosen from among the top papers presented in London, suggest that the challenges themselves are constantly being reinvented, broken down and reorganized. The communication discipline undergoes continuous change rather than following an orderly, stepwise path toward the neat, complete accumulation of knowledge. The chapters challenge familiar approaches, notions or assumptions in communication research and scholarship and reflect on the field’s multifaceted and increasingly open character in an era of shifting social relations, formations and technologies.
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Chapter One: The Ironic Incongruity of Canonical Common Sense in Critical Communication: The Case of Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding” Model

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CHAPTER ONE

The Ironic Incongruity OF Canonical Common Sense IN Critical Communication

The Case of Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding” Model

ANITA VARMA1



There is an ironic incongruity between critical models of communication seeking to challenge “crudely conservative” common sense (Gramsci & Forgacs, 1988, p. 346) and uncritical applications of these models. A case study of this incongruity lies in contemporary usage of Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding” model (1993/1973, 1980). The troubling irony beneath the surface of applications of Hall’s model only becomes visible when the studies are juxtaposed with the historical moment in which Hall wrote “Encoding/Decoding.” Beyond Hall’s particular model, this chapter proposes that “being critical” means reflexively looking for such incongruities. Without a critical approach to the foundations of critical studies that attends carefully to the irony of incongruity, these foundations may be rendered stale, weighty anchors that stagnate the field instead of serving as compelling starting points for substantive elaboration and revision.

Foundational texts like Hall’s originally sought to destabilize—not neatly replace—existing dominant theories because, as Hall (1992) argued, “the only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency” (pp. 265–266). Hall’s encoding/decoding model has become fraught with fluency over the past three decades, making continued critical scrutiny imperative. As communication scholars study new media settings using critical models, these scholars should incorporate critical reflexivity about the origins and intentions...

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