Monthly Archives: April 2017

Over the past few decades there have been tremendous developments in audience research. Sonia Livingstone’s (2014) book chapter captures some the highlights of these developments. Unsurprisingly, Livingstone’s chapter includes  Stuart Hall’s ‘encoding/decoding’ model that has been of outstanding influence in the field. Hall’s concept is closely related to ‘reception theory’ (Iser 1980) and Morley’s (1993) concept of the “active audience”. By and large, when audience research discussed the active audience it was turning away from the idea that media content was passively received by a people sitting in front of their radio and television set. The focus shifted from passive reception to (active) interpretation of media content.

A couple of years ago I came across articles published by the Indian-American scholar Lakshmi Srinivas based at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Srinivas research (2005, 2010ab) immediately struck me as very exciting as it took the ‘active’ in ‘active audience’ literally. She was and remains interested in people’s action and interaction when they visit cinemas. Last year (2016), Srinivas published her research as a book entitled “House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience“.


In the book, Srinivas discusses how in India people actively participate in the production of the cinematic experience. She begins her exploration outside the cinema hall where people queue to purchase tickets and wait to enter the auditorium. Inside the auditorium a social structure emerges that  can be based on people’s social class but is also related to the nature of the social grouping that attendance a film screening. Where they sit people create a space where all group members can comfortably participate in the film experience. Children for example may sit on prepared blankets and consume food that has been brought to the cinema. During the film it is very common to vocalise loudly responses to the film’s content, such as to locations or actors that are recognised. People also sing along to tunes that are part of the film. Or if they are not interest in long musical sequences they might use the time to chat with others, leave the cinema for socialising outside, or having a smoke. Whilst in Western cinemas it is generally assumed that everybody sitting in the same auditorium sees and experiences the same film, audience members in Indian cinemas construct their cinematic experience in interaction with others and by fitting together the bits of the film they see with content they pick up from conversations with others.

I highly recommend Srinivas’ “House Full” to everyone interested in film consumption and audience research. A more comprehensive review of the book has been published in Symbolic Interaction. 




Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/Decoding. Culture, Media, Language, 128–138.

Iser, W. (1980). The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Livingstone, Sonia (2012) Exciting moments in audience research – past, present and future. In: Bilandzic , Helena, Patriarche, Geoffrey and Traudt , Paul, (eds.) The social use of media: cultural and social scientific perspectives on audience research. ECREA Book Series. Intellect Ltd, Brighton, UK, pp. 257-274.

Morley, D. (1993). Active Audience Theory: Pendulums and Pitfalls. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 13–19.

Srinivas, L. 2005. Imaging the Audience. Journal of South Asian Popular Culture. 3 (2): 101–116.

Srinivas, L. Cinema Halls, Locality and Urban Life. Ethnography. 11 (1): 189-205

Srinivas, L. Cinema in the City: Tangible Forms, Transformations and the Punctuation of Everyday Life. Visual Anthropology, 23 (1): 1-12. [Lead article. Selected for Editor’s Choice].

Srinivas, L. (2016). House full : Indian cinema and the active audience. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

vom Lehn, D. (2017). Reengaging with the “Active Audience”: An Ethnography of Indian Cinema. Symbolic Interaction.



Across the social sciences as well as some of the technical sciences like CSCW or HCI there is great interest in “interaction”. Studies explore interaction between systems, interaction between human beings, often called “users”, and systems, interaction between two or more people and much more. In 2011, together with Will Gibson (UCL/IoE) I co-edited a Special Issue of Symbolic Interaction (Vol.34(3)) concerned with different ways in interaction features in symbolic interactionism. The introduction to the Special Issue can be found HERE. Below is the Table of Content of the issue:-

Symbolic Interaction Vol.34(3)

                   Interaction and Symbolic Interactionism (pages 315–318)

Dirk vom Lehn and Will Gibson

    1. “Scissors, Please”: The Practical Accomplishment of Surgical Work in the Operating Theater (pages 398–414)Jeff Bezemer, Ged Murtagh, Alexandra Cope, Gunther Kress and Roger Kneebone


      Book Review

Last week, I have attended a fascinating workshop organised by Mathias Blanc at the Louvre-Lens and Meshs in Lille. The workshop forms part of a project Mathias runs in cooperation with the Louvre-Lens and their current exhibition “The Le Main Mystery“. As part of the project “Ikonikat” Mathias and the team developed an app run on tablet computers that encourage visitors to the exhibition at the Louvre-Lens to mark-up areas of painting they have seen. The traces that people leave on the iPad are an interesting novel form of data to understand what people consider to be relevant when looking at paintings.


The workshop included participants from Austria, France, Germany and Great Britain who in teams worked on data gathered with Ikonikat and with video-cameras in the exhibition. In their subsequent presentations the participants drew on their respective expertise in art history, eye-tracking, image analysis, and video-analysis. The presentations led to fascinating discussions about the relationship between looking at and seeing art and the scientific, social-scientific, and sociological analysis of exploring museums and looking at works of art. I used my slot for a short discussion of relationships and differences between visitor research, investigations using eye-tracking and studies of social interaction in art museums.

Visitor Research has long been defined by studies using quantitative measures to assess the effectiveness of exhibits in attracting and holding people’s attention; the best-known measures are attracting and holding power – for a discussion of the relevance of ‘time’ as a measurement for visitor research see the Special Issue in Curator: The Museum Journal Vol.40(4) [1997]. In 1976, Harris Shettel, now a classic in visitor research, published a study in which he explored the attracting and holding power of exhibit elements. For the purpose of the study Shettel placed a camera behind exhibits to capture visitors’ eye movement. In a way, Shettel’s innovative research can be seen as a precursor to recent studies using more complex eye-tracking equipment.

Eye-Tracking is used by visitor researchers as well as by art historians to identify the elements of paintings (or other exhibits) that people’s eyes fixate for a measured time and where they ‘jump’ (‘saccade’) from there. The result are images transposed onto paintings that show the movement of a spectator’s eyes across a canvas. The analysis of these images allows researchers like Raphael Rosenberg who participated in the workshop to compare spectators’ visual behaviour with art historical theories about the form and content of paintings. Over recent years, eye tracking studies have moved out of the research laboratory into museums and are increasingly interested in how other actions, such as speaking, influence looking at works of art.

As the response by Gregor Wedekind revealed art historians are not in agreement about the use and usefulness of eye-track within the discipline. Not only is the technical effort of eye-tracking studies large but also the outcome at times seems to reflect knowledge about works of art and their form and content that art historians have held for a long period of time.

Sociological Interpretation of Pictures – Save for the scientific analysis of looking at art  conducted by art historians and cognitive psychologists, in sociology there are strands of research that has emerged in light of Alfred Schütz’s phenomenological analyses. For example, Jürgen Raab presented the phenomenological analysis of pictures and Roswitha Breckner presented objective hermeneutics as two methods designed to reveal contemporary people’s interpretation of images.

Social Interaction in Museums has been investigated for more than two decades. Whilst earlier research in Visitor Studies considered the presence and actions of people in museums as ‘social factors’ since the mid-1990s research originating either in socio-cultural theory (Crowley, Knutsen, Leinhardt and others) explores how what is being looked at and how experiences and learning arises at exhibits are the result of social interaction, talk and discussion. These studies often have a particular interest in people’s ‘learning’ from exhibits and therefore, for example, compare the content of people’s talk with the content of exhibitions.


Change of Perspective: Visitors’ Point of View

The approaches exploring people’s experience of exhibits and exhibitions can be described as ‘scientific’ or “formal-analytic” (Garfinkel & Sacks 1974). Researchers taking the perspective of the scientific observer categorise and measures the behaviour. They often consider behaviour as a response to the physical, visual and social environment.

For long, interactionist research has  challenged the scientific view of ‘behaviour’ and developed theories and methods to investigate ‘actions’ and their social organisation from the perspective of the ‘actor’; how do people produce their actions at particular moments in a situation? In developing ethnomethodology Harold Garfinkel proposed to eliminate the distinction between the scientific and the actor’s perspective. Thus, he radicalised interactionist and related approaches who argued for a theoretical change in perspectives and asked for a practical change of perspectives. As researchers we are not using typologies to describe people’s actions but we are interested in the practical organisation of people’s action. In other words: we are interested in how an action orients to a prior action, and how the action provides the context for a next action (Heritage 1984).

Audio-/video-recordings  provide access to this recursive interrelationship of actions as they are produced in front of exhibits. Rather than using a formal-analytic scheme to categorise action video-based studies of interaction (Heath, Hindmarsh & Luff 2010) examine in detail the moment-by-moment emergence of action. They examine the (social) organisation of people’s talk, gestures, bodily and visual action and their orientation to the material and visual environment. In museums, this means that they are concerned with revealing how people who, for example, stand at a painting look at the piece in concert with each other, use talk and gesture to jointly examine a particular exhibit element together and provide each other with ways of making sense of the object. Rather than considering action to be stimulated by exhibit elements, as visitor research has often argued, video-based research that draws on Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology inspects how people orient to each other and how they systematically embed aspects of the environment in their action and interaction.


Implication of Video-based Research in Museums

Visitor research is a largely applied field of research. From its origins it was concerned with assessing the effectiveness and to inform the design and development of exhibits. and exhibitions. However, by considering the material and visual material to be external to people’s action and interaction and conceiving it as a stimulus of action visitor research ignores the social organisation of action.

By focusing on the ways in which people organise their action and how they contingently intertwine their action with material and visual aspects of the environment, video-based studies that draws on ethnomethodology can inform, for example, the design of information resources deployed in museums and galleries. This requires systematic studies of how people orient to labels and paintings in art museums, how they use information provided in labels in their examination of works of art and in their talk and interaction with others. They can show that labels as well as novel interactive systems and devices are not only information sources for individual users but that the technology as well as the information displayed on them often become a resource that people embed within their interaction with others and that they use to influence and shape each other’s experience of art.


Bachta, R. J., Filippini-Fantoni, S., & Leason, T. (2012). Evaluating the Practical Applications of Eye Tracking in Museums | In Museums and the Web. San Diego, CA.

Bitgood, S. (1993). Social influences on the visitor museum experience. Visitor Behavior.

Bitgood, S., & Shettel, H. H. (1996). An overview of visitor studies. The Journal of Museum Education, 21(3), 6–10.

Breckner, R. (2010). Sozialtheorie des Bildes : Zur interpretativen Analyse von Bildern und Fotografien. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2010). Video in Qualitative Research. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65.

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2008). Configuring “Interactivity”: Enhancing Engagement in Science Centres and Museums. Social Studies of Science, 38(1), 63–91.

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Klein, C., Betz, J., Hirschbuehl, M., Fuchs, C., Schmiedtová, B., Engelbrecht, M., … Rosenberg, R. (2014). Describing Art – An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Effects of Speaking on Gaze Movements during the Beholding of Paintings. PLoS ONE, 9(12), e102439.

Knoblauch, H., Schnettler, B., Raab, J., & Soeffner, H.-G. (Eds.). (2006). Video-Analysis: Qualitative Audiovisual Data Analysis in Sociology Methodologies of Video Analysis. New York: Peter-Lang.

Massaro, D., Savazzi, F., Di Dio, C., Freedberg, D., Gallese, V., Gilli, G., & Marchetti, A. (2012). When Art Moves the Eyes: A Behavioral and Eye-Tracking Study. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e37285.

Raab, J. (2008). Visuelle Wissenssoziologie. Theoretische Konzeption und materiale Analysen (Erfahrung – Wissen – Imagination): Theoretische Konzeption und materiale Analysen (1. Aufl.). UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH.

Shettel, Harris H. 1976. An Evaluation of Visitor Response to ‘Man and His Environment’. Report no. AIR-43200-7/76-FR. Washington, D.C.” American Instituts of Research.

vom Lehn, D. (2010). Examining “Response”: Video-based Studies in Museums and Galleries. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research, 4(1), 33–43.

vom Lehn, D. (2012). Configuring standpoints: Aligning perspectives in art exhibitions. Bulletin Suisse de Linguistique Appliquée, 96, 69–90.

vom Lehn, D. (2014). Harold Garfinkel: The Creation and Development of Ethnomethodology. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

vom Lehn, D. (2017). Harold Garfinkel und die Kultursoziologie. In S. Moebius, F. Nungesser, & K. Scherke (Eds.), Handbuch Kultursoziologie: Band 1: Begriffe — Kontexte — Perspektiven — Autor{_}innen (pp. 1–10). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

vom Lehn, D., & Heath, C. (2016). Action at the exhibit face: video and the analysis of social interaction in museums and galleries. Journal of Marketing Management, 32(15–16), 1441–1457.