Detextualizing: How to write a history of audiences

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This article discusses the specific epistemological and methodological difficulties which historians of audience face while taking stock of recent developments in the field. It starts with a definition of the audience as an entity with both objective and subjective dimensions. It refutes the textualist claim according to which audiences are pure discursive entities. Put into historical perspective, textualism appears as less postmodern than romantic. This article then warns historians against another form of less conscious, ‘rampant textualism’: being influenced by ‘grand narratives’ based on axiologies of hopes and fears triggered by the media. They may provide interesting ideal-types but should not be considered as directly relevant to history. The main part of this article is devoted to a typology of sources, following four categories: from above (coming from media, political, administrative elites), from the side (references to audiences in other media, including art and literature), from below (written and more recently oral expressions of audience members) and from the media themselves (both physical artefacts and media messages). It shows the advantages and drawbacks of each and explains the danger of pitching one against the other (e.g. ‘good’ ethnography, against ‘bad’ statistics).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-21
Number of pages15
JournalEuropean Journal of Communication
Issue number1
StatePublished - 14 Feb 2015


  • Audience research
  • communication historiography
  • epistemology
  • methodology
  • public sphere

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Language and Linguistics


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