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Interpretation Within the Audience Analysis Theories and the Crusade for True Empiricism

Melissa Wolfe
Individual characteristics such as attitudes, beliefs, previous knowledge, and experiences all play a part in how we process knowledge. It is relevant in composition processes as well.

Audience analysis frameworks do not address an important aspect of communication in writer/audience relationships. This element is the humanistic aspect of cognitive processing, which encompasses emotional and cultural aspects. These elements exist on behalf of the writer as well as the reader, which without taking either into account lead us to a less than full understanding of how we can progress in our studies around this issue. We continue to study and theorize about how to improve interactions between writer and audience. Although current theories seem to add considerations important in the audience analysis process and the writer/audience relationship, there remains a need to find ways to address the truly empirical aspects of human interpretation.

James P. Zappen conveys the importance of bridging the field of technical communication with humanistic processes: "[Technical communication] involves users who may not be readers but who are, or ought to be, participants in communication and decision making" (38). He states "a rhetorical approach that is genuinely pluralistic will further seek an "identification" with the public interests at risk and will accommodate but will not coopt those interests" (40). It is valuable to include social communities within discourse communities because the field impacts the greater whole of society. As Zappen argues, if the audience is separated socially or politically, then there is little change we can affect in those realms.

Empiricism is the current theoretical approach predominantly used by modern theorists; it forms the basis of scientific method practices today, which involves observation, experimentation, and the notion that knowledge is a reflection of our experiences. The theories in audience analysis adapt this approach with interpretations that stem from individuals processing knowledge from personal experience. This includes factors of cultural norms, socio-economic status, emotional states, beliefs and other internalized social constructions. There are two variations of audience involvement in written discourse which have been taken up by communication theorists: a passive audience which merely inputs information received and an audience actively involved with the context to the degree that readers create new meaning in partnership with an author. An empirical influence to this framework is what we shall look at since most theorists utilize empirical practices today. If we are to address empiricism in discussions of audience, implications of the audience define a body of readers comprised of individuals who bring different personalities and presumptions into the reading process. Empiricists advocate knowledge from direct observation of phenomena and introspection. Readers are a collection of individual minds, each with correlating unique experiences and perspectives. Interpretation of text is then based on behavioral and social constructions brought to the text by both authors and readers. Although this construction implies consideration of all levels of human cognitive influences, the design of audience roles in text interpretation misses some of these considerations leaving us with further work in finding a model truly empirical in nature.

I will present current frameworks in communication theoretical studies that pose further question about the interpretation process of written discourse. Assumptions are made both about an audience’s reading and an author’s writing process. While there is little argument existing opposing considerations of audience in the writing process, there remains a variety of analyses on how writers should consider their audiences and the value of how audiences subsequently understand and interpret what they read as a result of these considerations.

Let us first examine audience adaptation influences in text. With a further understanding of the writer’s processes involved in this task, we may deconstruct the building blocks of current audience theory. Audience adaptation is an initial step to evaluating the relationship between writer and reader. It is the concept of an author structuring and styling the way information is written based on who the author feels will be reading her text; the consideration of audience affects the style, tone and way an author chooses to write as a result. A writer is forming thoughts and conveying information in a style she believes will help an audience better understand context. As Merrill D. Whitburn et al. contended in 1979, "scientists and technologists need considerable practice in developing alternative ways of expressing the same materials" (353). Although Whitburn’s contention is more than 20 years old, technical communication practitioners still today work on creating new forms of expression. These practices provide a means to share discourse with audience members from an array of perspectives and knowledge bases. "The personal touch arouses interest, and interest sharpens awareness and understanding" (Whitburn 354). Adapting work for particular audiences is a significant topic of study for many writers and the implications reveal that language forms should vary by audience, medium, culture, and other considerations for greater effect. Defining message style in a way reflective of how readers individually perceive the world develops further mutual understanding and a means of effectively communicating. Interpretations of text rely upon processing information in relation to an individual’s experiences and previous knowledge. Whitburn advocates a style of writing in response to what he perceives as an increasing dilemma of failing to integrate audience adaptation techniques in written discourse.

"For some time, I have been troubled by the inadequacy of the stylistic tools I have been providing my students. Their work tends to lack artistry it its smaller units, and their resulting stance toward writing tends to be overly passive" (Whitburn 354). While Whitburn raises a valuable concern to utilize rhetorical devices in the writing process, audience adaptation does not fully address the complexities involved with defining audience characteristics. To stylize work toward a particular audience, a writer must develop assumptions about who the audience consists of and how they would interpret ideas. The concern in these assumptions is that audiences are often indefinable as a whole in these characteristics. For example, elements difficult to perceive are an individual reader’s behavioral or cultural influences affecting the reader’s interpretations. Attitude, mood and emotional states all affect how we communicate with each other. By generalizing these states of the audience members, audience adaptation fails to provide an appropriate method to address such empirical elements of a reader and writer.

Russell Long echoes Whitburn’s concern for adapting written discourse toward preconceived notions of how a writer should relate to her audience :

Writing texts…share exactly the same basic set of premises: that observable physical or occupational characteristics are unvaryingly accurate guides to attitudes and perceptions, and that people sharing certain superficial qualities are alike in all other respects. I suggest this approach to audience awareness embodies two very important flaws in reasoning. The first, and most obvious, is simply that we would not tolerate this sort of noxious stereotyping in any other context […]. The second flaw in this approach to audience is the unwitting assumption of agonistic relationship (Long 223).

Long points out how generalizations of audience conception may hinder the ability to communicate effectively by focusing on too vague of an audience construct. Written discourse would lack meaning and engagement to its audience. Audience stereotypes would only corrupt our intrinsic efforts as technical communicators to convey information and elicit critical thought. Long advises focusing less on audience characteristics and more on a writer’s responsibility to create an active role in leading an audience. This role would not perpetuate stereotypes then, but allow the writer to think more cognitively of how a reader will interpret the text. The writer would actually establish relationship with the reader and consider how she wishes the audience to interpret information. Although Long supports the important element of a more creative process of composition and thought toward audience interpretation, the model is constrained by focusing the relationship to be determined by the writer. Effective empirical interpretations keep in mind contributions of both the writer and the audience; this develops a more collaborative construction.

Expanding upon Long’s assessments is a focus toward developing more social thought in a collaborative writing process taken up by Linda Flower and John Hayes in "The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem." Flower and Hayes shed light upon the notion of refining the writing process to contemplate meanings for both the author and audience, resulting in an act of discovery. (Flower and Hayes 21)

Rhetorical value is emphasized by finding meanings throughout the composition process. The writer is no longer confined to just conveying text interpretations to readers but is able to produce new interpretations while composing:

A writer in the act of discovery is hard at work searching memory, forming concepts, and forging a new structure of ideas, while at the same time trying to juggle all the constraints imposed by his or her purpose, audience, and the language itself. Discovery, the element, and its product, new insights, are only the end result of a complicated intellectual process (Flower and Hayes 21)

The act of discovery the authors refer to follows more closely the interpretation process of the human mind. Seldom do ideas and meanings develop along the same linear process as when composing the written word; cognitive processes tend to be more dynamic. Taking into account how readers will interpret or follow the author’s thought process in the written discourse is a meaningful determination of how effectively the information will impact the readers. Flower and Hayes also suggest the use of rhetorical devices underlies the assumption thought must be given toward the audience and how best to influence them. With these considerations in mind, the writer naturally progresses to a more collaborative outcome as the author will have created a relationship with the audience and shaped the discourse accordingly. As a result of one study Flower and Hayes conducted, the authors believe a rhetorical approach to written discourse can develop more intricate images of writers themselves as creators and the readers as audience:

One of the most powerful strategies we saw for producing new ideas throughout the composing process was planning what one wanted to do to or for one’s reader. A second kind of purpose writers represent to themselves involves the relationship they wish to establish with the reader (Flower and Hayes 27)

Being able to identify and analyze the rhetorical challenges of the discourse is key to utilizing and formulating helpful constructs for writer/reader understanding and interpretation. Persuasion of an audience implies convincing an audience to think or act a particular way. To comprehend and employ individual motivations for accepting new ideas and meanings, I believe a deeper understanding of values, ethics and culture could contribute to even more creative outcomes between writer/reader dynamics. Inclusion of these elements is representative of an empirical framework and provides a more encompassing understanding of rationale behind approaches to interpretation.

Flower and Hayes introduce compelling conclusions to their study. Specifically they mention good writers completely address the rhetorical problem at hand; good writers build a substantial concept of how their goals affect the reader; and good writers accumulate information about the reader and themselves in the process (29-31). The intent to cultivate meaning and initiate further discovery within the composition stage through these suggestions is valuable but their model focuses strongly on author development of audience; Flower and Hayes don’t quite capture all the malleable qualities of the audience. They empower the author but offer no means to assist authors in how to envision accurate representations of their audience. They don’t address the reader’s goals directly in helping to determine how an audience interprets meaning.

Walter J. Ong studied this aspect in another analysis of the writer/reader relationship. Ong’s method adds upon the idea of Walker Gibson to differentiate audience between a "mock reader" and a "real reader" (Gibson 2). This recognizes how an author must develop an interaction with the reader by casting the reader in a role. Using the mock reader role leads to the most effective communication because it is a fictionalized construct of what the author intended to cast the reader as. Ong expands this concept by placing responsibility on the author to engage the readers through previously fictionalized roles. Ong designates the author as the sculptor of the writer/audience relationship who casts the audience as a mock reader (Ong 17). The author is therefore trying to lead the reader and comes into a role him/herself. This role is that of the "speaker." The relationship between the writer and reader then reaches its pinnacle when the speaker and mock reader communicate. At this level, both parties are engaged and an exchange of ideas may occur as the reader has the ability not only to take in the meaning of the text but to be persuaded by the author’s point of view. With these constructions, Ong addresses the creativity granted to the writer who may recognize the fluidity of the reader.

Although Ong takes the writer/reader relationship to a different level of exchange, his assumption that all roles are based on previous ones neglects the possibility for new roles to occur. The creative processes granted to the writer and reader are then limited; readers are forced to assume confined definitions of their fictionalized mock reader roles. This barrier may certainly affect the potential interpretation capabilities of the audience as well.

One of the most recent forms of audience models is introduced by Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford in "Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: the Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy." This model defines audience addressed as a concrete, real audience where the audience’s characteristics are known and intentions of both the writer and reader are clear (156). Audience Invoked implies a fictionalized version of the reader where the writer constructs the characteristics and intentions of the readers (160). Ede and Lunsford introduce this framework and advocate for effective communication by using both methods. "The most complete understanding of audience thus involves a synthesis of the perspectives we have termed audience addressed, with its focus on the reader, and audience invoked, with its focus on the writer" (167). In looking at previous theoretical approaches, the authors believe:

Each side of the current debate oversimplify the act of making meaning through written discourse. Each side,…has failed adequately to recognize 1) the fluid, dynamic character of rhetorical situations; and 2) the integrated, interdependent nature of reading and writing (156).

This framework acknowledges how a reader’s experiences play a role in the interpretation of text. It also addresses the writer’s need to consider this aspect of the reader and how they will contribute toward the meanings derived from the text. "A fully elaborated view of audience, then, must balance the creativity of the writer with the different, but equally important, creativity of the reader. It must account for a wide and shifting range of roles for both addressed and invoked audiences" (169).

Ede and Lunsford’s model achieves new ground and assumes the writer and reader may change between these two models within the same discourse. However, these are still creations of the author and are not necessarily accurate representations of the audience member. The model assumes writer and reader must fall into either of these roles and leaving them somewhat displaced as real readers able to bring their own cognitive processes to the interpretation task. I believe writers and readers can create their own roles within a text even outside of this model. Readers are individualistic in what they bring to the text, as well as writers. We are each influenced differently by what we read and experience, interpretations of such experiences vary as well. If we fail to recognize the potential differences we have, we are not fully communicating with whom we wish to share information with. If we adjust our written discourse to apply toward real audience members with our own preconceived beliefs and expectations of those members, we limit our ability to effectively communicate within an empirical construct.

Social constructions of both the author and audience require further development in a truly empirical audience analysis framework. Audiences can consist of unpredictable roles, roles which they discover in the text and rather than an author placing herself in various preconceived notions of roles to address this malleability, authors should become more flexible in how to approach a sense of audience. Instead of trying to place herself and audience members in roles, the author can convey a relationship by revealing herself. Thus no creative assumptions are made. The author can share different aspects of herself who is the one entity all humanistic and cognitive aspects are known. In turn, an audience does not need to fit into any particular preconceived roles in the reading process; audience members can contribute their own social, cultural and cognitive processes resulting in connecting with the text as closer constructs of themselves. As Robert G. Roth writes in "The Evolving Audience: Alternatives to Audience Accommodation," creating an audience may then transform into a process of creating "an ideal reader who is in essence one’s best self" (50). Author and audience still develop a sense of discovery but it is within themselves and more as themselves, taking into consideration all personal social constructions. Some authors choose to write with themselves as the only intended audience, yet their form of thought and meaning does not necessarily mean any less to other readers. This style of audience conception merely focuses on revealing different aspects of the self as an author. The many ways writers and audience can develop interpretations in text is further addressed by Roth:

As writers compose they conceive of audience in more ways than traditional audience-analysis approaches alone can account for. They may see their audiences as subject to revision and as indefinite and multi-layered, and they may also, in more specific contexts or when writing in more transactional modes, see these audiences as fixed and definite (54).

Roth emphasizes the concept of an evolving audience when authors write more about what matters to them in an empirical sense, with reference to emotional ties and personal beliefs, resulting in stronger interactions in writer/audience relationship (53).

David Roberts also touches upon the need for developing a more encompassing audience analysis framework in "Difficulty Teaching Audience Consideration," Roberts relays frustrations in the "static" audience approaches currently studied and recommends more flexibility in audience construction: "A more articulate other self with respect to audience would help the writer answer questions about audience that cannot be supplied by the kinds of initial or preliminary decisions made through audience classification, situational analysis, or readability-adaptation procedures (147)."

This flexibility includes the author’s ability to become an active reader to her own composition and shift between the two to nurture a more creative relationship.

The shifting minds of both writer and reader in discourse is taken up by Mary B. Coney as well. We choose roles as we’re reading so effective communication results from deeper considerations of the writer’s audiences: "Goals of efficiency and clarity, supported by empirical science and fostered by traditional pedagogy and texts, underestimate the reader’s contribution to the creation of meaning in texts"(326).

The audience’s complexity and the writer’s awareness of this are valuable considerations in building more active communication between the writer and audience. Acknowledging how different audience members can be, it serves both the author and reader not to underestimate what each can contribute to the process as a whole. Coney suggests more active rhetorical roles but I believe the roles created should be based from not preconceived ones or from ones we envision others to be in. Truly empirical relationships encompass internal social constructions only individuals can know and convey. This is valid for both author and audience; we can engage in more powerful creative interpretations by focusing on ourselves and allowing freedom of these cognitive processes without formal constraints.

The writing process represents a social construction of author and audience so personal social construction influences can naturally contribute to written discourse. Individual characteristics such as attitudes, beliefs, previous knowledge, and experiences all play a part in how we process knowledge. It is relevant in composition processes as well. Without increasing our knowledge and studies in the empirical relationship between writer and audience, we fail to realize our full potential as communicators, whether we convey technical information or any other subject matter. Failure to give further consideration on how to improve our abilities to relate the writer and audience does not promote development in our skills as technical communicators. The value of empirical elements in audience analysis has yet to reach fruition. When we are able to contribute aspects such as personal creativity and social or cultural influences into the relationships we forge through written discourse, we will be able to communicate more effectively to our audiences within and outside of the technical communication field.

Works Cited

Coney, Mary B., "Contemporary Views of Audience: A Rhetorical Perspective." Association of Teachers of Technical Writing Volume XIV, Number 3 (1987): 319-336

Coney, Mary B., "Technical Communications Theory: An Overview." Foundations for Technical Communication: Theory, Practice, and Program Design (1997): 1-15

Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford, "Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy." CCC35 (May 1984): 155-71

Flower, Linda and John Hayes. "The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem." CCC 31 (Feb 1980): 21-32

Ong, Walter J. "The Writer’s Audience Is Always A Fiction." PMLA 90 (1975): 9-21

Roth, Robert G., "The Evolving Audience: Alternatives to Audience Accommodation." CCC 38 (Feb 1987): 47-55

Whitburn, Merrill D., Marijane Davis, Sharon Higgins, Lindsey Oates and Kristene Spurgeon,"The Plain Style in Scientific and Technical Writing." Journal of Technical Writing and Communication Volume 8 (1978): 349-357

Zappen, James P., "Rhetoric and Technical Communication; An Argument for Historical and Political Pluralism." JBTC Vol 1. No 2. (Sept 1987): 29-44

Copyright © 2001 by Melissa Wolfe. All rights reserved.
Last modified January 31, 2005 at 10:27 PM

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