Symbolic Interaction

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

Im August 2015 findet in Chicago die jährliche Konferenz der Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction statt.

Weitere Information und ein Call for Sessions befindet sich auf dieser Website.

Der Blog der Vereinigung ist hier.

Die Zeitschrift der Vereinigung Symbolic Interaction wird von Wiley veröffentlicht. Hier Editor ist derzeit Professor Robert Dingwall. Der Blog der Zeitschrift ist hier und der YouTube Channel mit Videoabstracts und Interviews befindet sich hier.

Great to see so much interest in Howard Becker’s work. Becker’s recent interview with Les Back resonates very well with two recent articles in Symbolic Interaction. Only last year, Clinton Sanders published his “Recollections of working with Howard Becker“, an article that was accompanied by an interview that Tom DeGloma conducted with Sanders. Currently, Symbolic Interaction publishes Thaddaeus Müller’s article that traces the development of Becker’s famous articles collected in the book “Outsiders”. Taken together the two articles and Back’s interview make up for an excellent starting-point to go back to Becker’s Outsiders and his other works that has come out of his studies at the University of Chicago and his discussions and email exchanges with Robert Faulkner.

See for example

Robert Faulkner & Howard S. Becker. 2009. ‘Do you know?’ The Jazz Repertoire in Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

or most recently

Howard S. Becker 2014. What about Mozart? What about Murder? Reasoning about Cases. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


If anybody is interested in reviewing this latest book of Becker for Symbolic Interaction, please get in touch with me.