Critical Approaches

If you’ve already taken Foundations of Media Theory -- or if you've been exposed to theory elsewhere -- you're probably already familiar with many of the theories -- formalism, semiotics, ideology, rhetoric, narrative, genre, psychoanalysis, feminism, cultural studies, discourse, etc. -- that inform methodologies of textual analysis. I’ve provided a few handouts on my Foundations of Media Theory page that may serve as a refresher or a gloss help to get you up to speed. Thomas Lindlof and Bryan Taylor provide an overview of several “Theoretical Traditions and Qualitative Communication Research” – including Verstehen, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, ethnography of communication, critical theory, modernist critical theory, postmodernist critical theory, feminism, and cultural studies – in their Qualitative Communication Research Methods, which is a book I've excerpted for the MRM course reader (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002): 29-62. Plus, the following resources are helpful – at least they always have been for me:

And here are some general references for textual analysis:

  • Media and Communication Site's Textual Analysis section
  • The Literary Criticism Web
  • Robert C. Allen, Ed. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 2nd Ed. (Universit of NC Press, 1992).

The texts we’ve read for this week are concerned primarily with textual analysis in the traditions of literary criticism (Larsen) and art history (Rose), which is quite different from the social scientific approaches, some of which we'll address in our lessons on qualitative and quantitative methods. One significant difference is that quantitative approaches focus primarily on manifest (denotative) meaning, while qualitative and critical approaches are more concerned with latent (connotative) meaning. The primary, common concerns of the approaches we'll be addressing in this lesson are with questions of meaning and interpretation. [Image Credit: Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1970 -- Analyze that text! (Tracey)]

In his “The Humanities In Media and Communication Research,” Jensen discusses the disciplinary and theoretical traditions that have informed the humanities’ practices of textual analysis. He notes the contributions of rhetorical theory, hermeneutics (interpretation), phenomenology (experience), semiotics; the “discursive turn” in the mid-20th century; art history, literary criticism, linguistics, and film studies; and the new challenges posed by postmodernism, feminism, and cognitivism (15-39).

You may remember from our lessons on “Surveying the Field” and “Exploring Topics” that one’s perceived role as a researcher – and thus one’s approach to textual analysis – is defined in part by his or her theoretical “affiliation.” This chart from a cyberfeminism class at Penn State identifies a few roles that the interpretive researcher might assume, depending on his or her theoretical framework.

There are many ways to approach a text, too – as a story, as a representation of a genre, as a product of coded meaning, as a form, etc. The question of what a “text” is is something that has concerned theorists and researchers in a variety of disciplines – from the arts and humanities to the social and cognitive sciences. Ruth Wodak, in her Approaches to Media Texts, discusses the nature of “text”:

Media texts are perceived as dialogic, and the readings depend on the receivers and on the settings. Researchers presume, therefore, that readers/listeners or viewers interact with media (not only by writing letters to the editor but also by interpreting and understanding them in specific subjective ways). Media texts also depend on intertextual relations with many other genres, diachronically or synchronically. Texts relate to other texts, represented by the media, through quotes or indirect references, thus already adding particular meanings or decontextualizing and recontextualizing meanings. Media thus produce and reproduce social meanings. Barthes (1966/1994), in his essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” differentiates between the work and the text. Work refers to the artifact, to the fixed pattern of signifiers on pages, whereas text refers to the process of meaning making, of reading. Fiske (1987/1989) takes up Barthes’s differentiation to distinguish between a program (on television) and a text: “Programmes are produced, distributed, and defined by the industry: texts are the product of their readers. So a programme becomes a text at the moment of reading, that is, when its interaction with one of its many audiences activates some of the meanings/pleasures that it is capable of provoking” (p. 14).

The question of "what is a text?" has also been taken up by such notable figures as Foucault, Ricoeur, and Derrida, to name just a few. And although they don't quite have the name recognition or the leverage of a Barthes or a Foucault, Goran Sonessson, Professor Semiotics at Lund University in Sweden, provides a helpful discussion of the concept of "text" in cultural semiotics, and Daniel Chandler addresses similar issues in his discussion of intertextuality.


Okay. We've paid a bit of attention to our key terms; we now know what the "textual" and the "analysis" in "textual analysis" refer to -- or, at the very least, we know that the meaning of these terms is conditional -- that is, it depends on which theoretical tradition you identify with and what methods you're using. Now, before we start to explore the various approaches to textual analysis, you should know that these approaches are, in a sense, organized into their own form or structure or narrative. They arose in response to existing theories and within particular historical contexts -- and there's a story to their evolution. I'll tell you that story -- albeit the abridged version that offers frustratingly little in the way of character development. The real story is one of epic proportions -- and we simply don't have time for the Interpretive Iliad.

Alright, so maybe you don't care about the story and you just want the how-to manual. I'm afraid it isn't quite that easy; I can't give you step-by-step instructions on "how to do a discourse analysis." There is no "Genre Study in Five Easy Steps!" Each of these approaches has its own theoretical foundation and its own specialized vocabulary -- and the only way to figure out how to appropriately apply those specialized terms and to build a strong theoretical framework around your own analysis is to study each approach until the "gestalt" becomes clear for you, when you have a sense of how it all fits together. Rose acknowledges that "before choosing your method and commencing your analysis, need to do two sorts of preparatory reading" (29):

First, you need some contextual knowledge about the texts you'll be analyzing. How was it made? Who was it made by and for? What technology was involved in its creation? What are its material qualities? What conventions shaped its production? She advises that you examine your subject through three modalities: the technological, the compositional (what is it made of? what are its formal properties?), and the social (what are the economic, political, and other social relations, institutions, and practices that surround the text and that form the context in which it is made and used?) (Rose 17)

Second, since there are a variety of critical approaches, and since "different theoretical standpoints have quite different methodological implications," you "need to address some of the theoretical issues raised [in this lesson] before plunging into...analysis" (Rose 29). After familiarizing yourself with these approaches to the point that you have a sense of what their primary concerns and analytical techniques are, you can decide which approach best matches your own convictions about what matters most in the text you're studying, or which framework or technique would be best suited for the type of critical work you want to do. "Theoretical decisions will enable you to focus your methodological strategies," Rose says. " think that the audience is the most important site at which the meaning of an image is made, and that the social is the site's most important modality (these are theoretical choices), then there's no point doing huge amounts of research on the production processes or the technologies of the image you're concerned with" (Rose 29).

This raises an important issue: you can't look at everything all at once. Rose acknowledges that "there are very few studies of [media] culture which attempt to examine... [everything -- production, the text iself, the audience; the technological, the compositional, and the social], and those that do suffer...from a certain analytical incoherence.... [E]ngaging with the debates in [media] culture means deciding which site and which modalities you think are most important in explaining the effect" of a text (29).

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, authors of Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT 2000), are like Rose in that they propose "to explore digital technologies themselves as hybrids of technical, material, social, and economic facets" -- that is, to approach the study of digital technologies through various modalities. However, "it is difficult," they acknowledge, "to hold in relief all the aspects of a technology at any one rhetorical moment” (B&G 78). In short, as I said before: you can't do it all -- so it's good to know your options and choose the best fit.

Despite the fact that this is all very complicated -- and that my official recommendation is that you at least familiarize yourself with each of the following approaches so that, first, you've got a greater selection to choose from, and, second, you know how to use the terms and you're not misconstruing the theory to make it work for you, I know full well that not all of the following discussion will be relevant to you -- and that you're not going to read all this stuff. So, for the more, shall we say, "pragmatic?" among you, I'll include the "nuts and bolts" information in text boxes so that you can easily locate all the "useful" stuff -- although, I must say, knowing how to contextualize these approaches is quite "useful," too.


I've heard it before: students study critical approaches in a methodology class and wonder why, exactly, psychoanalysis or semiotic analysis counts as a research method? Why should explicating Alien in terms of the id, ego, and superego constitute a research project? Well, if that's all you're doing -- taking a text and applying a theory, which is what lots of undergrad and fresh-out-of-undergrad papers do -- it's not research. It's a fun, clever, and maybe even provocative application. So, you found lots of phallic symbols in Lord of the Rings? Good for you!

But what's the point?

These approaches become research when they're approached systematically -- you select and justify your sample, you systematically practice the analysis, you draw conclusions -- and when they're put in the service of some larger project, when you link the critical approach to larger ethical, moral, political, economic, psychological, cultural, etc., concerns. Many of the theories we address below already contain this higher-level or "deeper" level of awareness; its key theorists already know how their approach means something -- socially, culturally, historically. It's your job to exploit the full scale of the theory -- to take your analysis to the level of the "deep structures" (to universalize a concept from structuralism) -- and explain how and why it matters. You do the semiotic analysis of the film because, you argue, it matters how films are syntagmatically organized; this work has ideological implications. It matters how different population groups are represented in magazines because these issues have bearing on identity construction and politics. You make the film about illegal immigrants, or female maximum-security prisoners, or abused pets, because these stories need to be told for some reason. The so what? question is often the hardest to answer -- but, once you do, it gives such rewarding purpose to your work.

So, without further ado....


In the early 20th century formalism arose at least partly in response to -- in opposition to -- existing theories that posited a causal link between "art" and "life." Literature, the formalists (although they didn't actually call themselves that) thought, is not a product of life, or of living -- and despite what the Marxists might believe, it is not a reflection of class struggle. To the contrary, literature arises out of, well, literature.

Formalism is a type of criticism that emphasizes the "form" of a text rather than its content. Furthermore, formalists eschew extra-textual elements like history, biography, and politics. In other words -- and this is a gross oversimplification -- they don't care about what a text says, or from what context it has arisen and in which context it operates.

Major figures in Formalism included Victor Shklovsky (Theory of Prose), Boris Eichenbaum (Theory of the Formal Method), Vladimir Propp (Morphology of the Folktale), Yuri Tynianov ("On Literary Evolution"), and Roman Jakobson ("Linguistics and Poetics"). These Russian Formalists emphasized the "literariness” of artistic texts, which, they claimed, resided in the text’s linguistic and structural features rather than in its subject matter. RP: What would be the filmic or televisual or photographic equivalent of "literariness"?

Claude Gandelman and Marc Tsirlin, in the Dictionnaire International des Termes Littéraires, suggest that Wassily Kandinsky, who, they say, "discovered" non-representative or non-figurative abstraction, "may also be said to have paved the way for Russian formalism. Kandinsky sought to achieve pure pictoriality without representation - just as Roman Jakobson, ten years later, was after pure literariness without narrative content. Kandinsky's book, On the Spiritual in Art (1910) was clearly a landmark on the way toward formalism. Thus, formalism can be said to be inscribed within the general trend toward abstraction at the beginning of the twentieth century." [Image Credit: Abstract Art]

The Formalists also introduced the distinction between what they called "syuzhet" and "fabula"--roughly translated as "discourse" and "story"--that is, the distinction between the abstract storyline (fabula) and the virtually infinite number of ways in which that story can be "plotted" (discourse, or syuzhet). The Formalists often focused on texts that had "complex, sophisticated, and often self-reflexive plots and language, features that flaunt their 'literariness' (Tristram Shandy, the Quixote, Nikolai Gogol's skaz narration, etc.)" (Christine Rose, UW Oshkosh). We’ll discuss these concepts in greater depth in our section on Narrative Analysis.

RP: In the meantime, though, can you think of any media examples that the Formalists might have enjoyed? A filmic, televisual, or web-based counterpart to Tristram Shandy? Something with a "complex, sophisticated, and often self-reflexive plot and language"? Are there any media professionals who care more about the form of their medium than the content? Pop music managers, maybe? Blockbuster film producers?


Some scholars say that "New Criticism" is "new" only because its first practitioners were ignorant of formalist schools in Europe, and particularly in Russia. And some regard New Criticism and Formalism as interchangeable terms -- but others like to present (dare I say "romanticize"?) New Criticism, with its roots in the American South (namely, at Vanderbilt University), as Formalism "with a human face" -- that is, a Formalism more interested in the organic wholeness of a poem, and more concerned with "close reading" (defined below) than with establishing the literariness of a text.

New Criticism arose, in part, in response to biographical criticism that looked at the work of art as a reflection of the author -- sometimes so much so that critics focused entirely on the author's biography and didn't bother to read the text! Crazy! Warren Hedges of Southern Oregon University also links the school's emergence to "new forms of mass literature and literacy" and increased consumption.

Why might this be the case? Why might such a social context give rise to this new kind of criticism? Hedges says it's because the New Critics regarded the "Western tradition" as an "unbroken, internally consistent set of artistic conventions and traditions" that are just a valid and valuable today. We must protect these traditions against the sullying effects of commercialism and vulgarity, they thought.

Leroy Searle, in the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, discusses New Criticism's popularity from the 1920 through the 1950s; he writes: "since these decades coincide with the institutional rise of English departments and the development of academic literary criticism in the United States, New Criticism has exerted a complex and lasting influence on the shaping of educational programs in literature and, more generally, on the literary culture of the English-speaking world." Might the rise of a new form of criticism therefore be linked also to various practices of institutionalization: of the English department and academic lit crit? This "institutionalist" view resembles what Rose refers to as "discourse analysis II," which we'll address later in this lesson.

The New Critics have owe much to Samuel Coleridge Taylor, the English poet, critic, and philosopher, who, in his critical writings, presented the poem as a “unified, organic whole which reconciled  its internal conflicts and achieved some final balance or  harmony.” Similarly, in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), Cleanth Brooks, an American literary critic and a chief figure among the New Critics, presents the poem as “a hierarchical structure of  meaning, of which one correct reading can be given" (Tim Spurgin, Lawrence University). Click the image to the left to see a larger-scale scan of Brooks's essay on Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Take note of his focus on unity and the balance of opposites; ambiguity, paradox, and irony were signature New Critical terms [Image Credit: Bruce Harvey's Literary Theory].

In Formalist fashion, New Criticism regards the text as autotelic; that is, it is complete within itself, unified in its form, and independent of its author's life, its historical context, etc. While one of Formalism's main "signature" concepts is "literariness," New Criticism's major legacy is "close reading," which the Literary Link defines as follows:

a finely detailed, very specific examination of a short poem or short selected passage from a longer work, in order to find the focus or design of the work, either in its entirety in the case of the shorter poem or, in the case of the selected passage, the meaning of the microcosm, containing or signaling the meaning of the macrocosm (the longer work of which it is a part). To this end "close" reading calls attention to all dynamic tensions, polarities, or problems in the imagery, style, literal content, diction, etc.

This microcosm is what Coleridge referred to as the "germ" in his Biographia Literaria:

For every principle contains in itself the germs of a prophecy; and, as the prophetic power is the essential privilege of science, so the fulfilment of its oracles supplies the outward and, (to men in general,) the only test of its claim to the title.

Janice Patten, a professor at San Jose State University, identifies several elements you should look for in a "close reading" of a text:

  • figurative language (similes, images, metaphors, symbols)
  • diction
  • literal content
  • structure
  • style
  • characterization
  • tone
  • assessment (How does the passage relate to the text as a whole?)
  • context
  • texture
  • theme
  • thesis

And here are a few other recommendations for close reading: McClennen @ PSU; Roy Johnson, author of Studying Fiction (Manchester University Press); and Reed College's Online Writing Lab.

The limitations of such an approach are obvious. Let's begin with what New Criticism brackets out of its analysis -- context and biography -- and which should be taken into consideration in any "holistic" textual analysis. Furthermore, New Critics, by assuming the existence of consistent Western cultural tradition, play down diversity and change within the Western tradition and ignore historical "cultural" exchanges between West and East. In addition, New Critics' valuation of work for its internal consistency contradicts many other artistic and cultural standards that value a work of art for such "non-formal" things as its "cultural work."


Vladimir Propp, someone we encountered earlier in our discussion on Russian Formalism, is known for offering a morphology -- a "study of forms" -- of the Russian folktale. He broke a large sample of folk tales into their smallest narrative units, which he called "functions," and provided a typology of the tales' narrative structures. Looking at the types of characters and kinds of action in these folk tales, he concluded that there are only 31 generic "functions," or "narratemes," in the traditional Russian folk tale. His Morphology of the Folktake served as a foundational text for narrative analysis. Click on the image to the left to access a larger-scale scan of a spread from his Morphology of the Folktale.

Semiotician A. J. Greimas presents a simplified model of narrative action based on the unit of the "actant," of which there are six: Subject (looking for the Object), Object (looked for by the Subject), Sender (of the Subject on its quest for the Object), Receiver (of the Object to be secured by the Subject), Helper (of the Subject), and Opponent (of the Subject). Other narrative theorists include Roland Barthes, Paul Ricoeur, Robert Scholes, Jonathan Culler, Northrup Frye, Wayne Booth, and Joseph Campbell, in no particular order.

Gerald Prince, in the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, defines narratology, or theory of narrative, as follows:

It examines what all narratives, and only narratives, have in common as well as what enables them to differ from one another qua narratives, and it aims to describe the narrative-specific system of rules presiding over narrative production and processing. The term "narratology" is a translation of the French term narratologie--introduced by Tzvetan Todorov in Grammaire du Décaméron (1969)--and the theory historically falls into the tradition of Russian Formalism and French Structuralism. Narratology exemplifies the structuralist tendency to consider texts (in the broad sense of signifying matter) as rule-governed ways in which human beings (re)fashion their universe. It also exemplifies the structuralist ambition to isolate the necessary and optional components of textual types and to characterize the modes of their articulation. As such, it constitutes a subset of Semiotics, the study of the factors operative in signifying systems and practices.

One important starting point in the development of narratology was the observation that narratives are found, and stories told, in a variety of media: oral and written language (in prose or in verse), of course, but also sign languages, still or moving pictures (as in narrative paintings, stained-glass windows, or films), gestures, (programmatic) music, or a combination of vehicles (as in comic strips). Furthermore, a folktale can be transposed into a ballet, a comic strip turned into a pantomime, a novel brought to the screen, and vice versa. This arguably means that narrative, or more specifically, the narrative component of a narrative text, can and should be studied without reference to the medium in which it occurs.

RP: Would you like to dispute this claim? How might choice of medium impact storytelling? And what about translations: how does a story change when it's adapted, say, from novel to film form? See Seymour Chatman's "What Novels Do That Films Can't (And Vice Versa)" from the Autumn 1980 Critical Inquiry.

Here are some general narratology references: Manfred Jahn presents "A Guide to the Theory of Narrative." And a mysterious Ms. Bar, who seems to be an ESL teacher, also has some helpful hints for conducting a narrative analysis on her website; this is probably the way you learned to approach prose in high school English class.

David Kaufmann of George Mason University provides some advice for approaching a narrative by asking two questions:

  1. Who is telling the story?: first-person omniscient narrator, first-person unreliable narrator, third-person omniscient narrator, free indirect discourse
  2. How is the tale told?: Some narratologists have focused on what has been narrated, and others have been concerned with the way it's been narrated -- but still others "consider both the events presented and their presentation pertinent to the exploration of [the narrative's] possibilities" (Prince). In other words, a set of events can be presented in different ways -- in the order in which they occurred, or in a different order; it's the narratologist's job to examine the "narrated, the story presented," independently of "the narrating, the discourse," the way in which the story is told. This is where the concepts of fabula and syuzhet become relevant -- and Kaufmann provides a helpful explanation:

According to Aristotle (who was writing about plays, and in particular, about Sophocles), a plot is a single action, whose beginning leads to a middle which leads directly to an end. You will notice that this definition, obvious as it may seem, is actually based on the notion of causality: the beginning of the action (frequently interpreted in this century as the disruption of a previous state of affairs) causes the middle which in turn causes the end, at which point the disruption is ended and the old state of affairs is reinstituted, or a new one is set in place.

Of course, not all tales begin at the beginning. Horace (not quite as old as Aristotle, but still pretty ancient) noted that epics (here he is thinking of Homer) begin 'in medias res," that is, in the middle of the thing. There can thus be a discrepancy between the "single action" as it "actually" takes place and the order in which the story is told. Think of a detective story: a murder has taken place. The detective, who enters "in medias res," has to figure out what has already happened: s/he must reconstruct the plot. The story will be about this reconstruction.

In order to account for and describe the discrepancy between the plot and the way the plot is represented, critics and theorists have distinguished between "plot" and "story." Actually, they use a number of different terms for this dichotomy, in part because they are working from the rather untranslatable Russian terms "fabula" and "syuzhet."

RP: Can you think of films or television shows that place fabula and syuzhet in different relationships -- for instance, with the story and plot coinciding or diverging, or in which the plot seeming to disappear, leaving us with the artful "telling" of an absent story? Are there approaches to screenwriting or scriptwriting that are based on narrative "formula"?

David Bordwell has made much of fabula and syuzhet in film. Here's "Principles of Narration," a chapter from his Narration in the Fiction Film (Methuen 1985). Theories of Eisenstein and Pudovkin's montage, too, are often based on these concepts. Colin Crisp, in his "The Rediscovery of Editing in French Cinema, 1930-1945," also addresses the use of montage and other editing techniques in structuring film narrative.

Prince identifies four common criticisms of narratology: narratological models are reductive; narratological models are too static and unable to look at the dynamics of a narrative; narratology neglects the context in which narratives occur; and, finally, there can be no narratological model that addresses both the what and the way of storytelling, since one will always have primacy over the other. These criticisms -- founded or unfounded -- have contributed to the decline of narrative inquiry.

As I've tried to stress in my Foundations of Media Theory classes, theory is fashion -- or, rather, particular theories go in and out of fashion. And narrative, some might say, is like stirrup pants. Or acid wash. Then again, for all I know, stirrup pants and acid wash may be in again. Whatever. You get the point. In the early 90s -- and a quick search of JStor or one of the library's online databases will attest to this -- academic journals featured several articles asking "What Ever Happened to Narratology?" and "Narrative: Where Arst Thou?" But narrative's still here; we're still telling stories. And the way we tell stories is ever-evolving. Just look at films like Adaptation and tv shows like 24 -- both are examples of new forms of media storytelling. Steven Johnson, author of Interface Culture (among other titles) and co-founder of FEED and, claims in his new book, Everything Bad Is Good for You (Riverhead 2005), that the increasinly complicated narrative structure of popular entertainment -- shows like 24 and The Sopranos, and several video games -- has the potential to improve our "make us smarter." In an April 2005 article in the New York Times, he writes:

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ''24'' episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all.

Other fields far removed from literary criticism have discovered the value of studying narrative. At a “Narrative Matters” conference at St. Thomas University in Canada, scholars presented several workshops that addressed applications of narrative analysis inside and outside literature and media studies. One workshop targeted “researchers in the social sciences who are interested in the analysis of particular social (and personal) phenomena; who are using stories and story-telling as tools to analyze these phenomena; and who approach social phenomena as experiential and cultural phenomena through the lens of personal experience and identity-formation (development). The focus is on the analysis of narratives as ‘ordering devices’ for the world that is depicted within the story (characters in the ‘there + then’); the world of the interaction (characters in the ‘here + now’); and the formation of a sense of self (and identity).” Another addressed uses of narrative analysis in therapy; it focused on “steps for deconstructing dominant stories and for reconstructing alternative ones; the processes of authoring, re-authoring, externalizing, and reflecting; thickening descriptions of people’s lives; creating audiences for alternative stories; the power of protest; and working with cultural, gender, and therapeutic narratives." Other discussions showed how narrative analysis could be useful in journalism, health care, and psychology. The journal Narrative Inquiry addresses several of these cross-disciplinary and professional applications of narrative analysis. And as the image above shows, some people are even using computers to analyze narrative structure. Oh, brother. [Image Credit: Jan Christoph Meister].

And here are a few other resources and examples:

  • Here you can see the topics of several applications of narrative analysis in colloquia at North Carolina State University; the presentations included narrative analysis of everything from Beowulf and Myst, the video game; from quantitative measures of “narrative success” to gendered styles of storytelling.
  • Daniel Chandler presents three examples of narrative analysis, including one that presents a possible application of the practice in addressing social problems and issues of identity: Osama Ammar's "Outing the Narrative: The Positioning of Coming-Out as Cultural Practice by Narrative Cinema Through Narrative Disclosure, Representation of the Closet and Attitudes Towards Homophobia."
  • Christoph Raetzsch looks at how filmmaker Alain Resnais and novelist Marguerite Duras partnered to tell the story of Hiroshima in Hiroshima Mon Amour. See his article "In the Maze: Alain Resnais' film Hiroshima Mon Amour as an Early Metaphor of the Virtual" on Medamatic.
  • Jonas Heide Smith looks at interactive fiction -- and actually uses the terms fabula and suyzhet! -- in a Game Research article. There has been a great deal written about interactive fiction lately, including Nick Montfort's Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction.
  • R. J. Voithofer presented "Teaching Computers to Tell Stories: Framing the Design and Research of Learning Environments Through Narrative Theory" at the American Education Research Association conference in 1999.
  • Edward Branigan wrote Narrative Comprehension and Film, and here's Horst Ruthrof's review of the book, which provides an extensive synopsis of Branigan's arguments, in Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture.
  • A quick search of the New School library's online databases produce several articles featuring narrative analysis. Here are a few titles: "The Pursuit of Perfection: A Narrative Analysis of How Women's Magazine Cover Eating Disorders," "Vladimir Propp in Hollywood," and "Narrative Film Music"

Susan Chase, in her "Narrative Inquiry: Multiple Lenses, Approaches, Voices" in The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd ed. (Denzin & Lincoln, Eds., 2005), argues that narrative inquiry does have a future -- as long as it attends to these critical issues:

  • She warns that the "'trauma culture' we currently inhabit encourages proliferation of personal narratives about trouble and suffering without offering a theory and politics of social change." In addition, our present-day "interview society" fosters "romantic assumptions that narrators reveal 'authentic' selves and speak in their 'own' voices..." (669-70). She argues that narrative researchers "need to do more, collectively, to integrate a critique of the trauma culture / interview society with a discussion of methodological issues involved in conducting empirical research (e.g., inviting and interpreting narrators' stories" (670).
  • She argues that more attention be paid to the relationship between Western and non-Western narrative theories and practices: "What do Western narrative researchers (and Westerners in general) have to learn from the ways in which non-Westerners narrate the self, narrate group identities, or integrate folklore narratives into personal narratives?... If self or identity is not the central construction in…non-Western narratives,… what is? What do non-Western narrative researchers have to teach their Western counterparts about the kinds of narratives that need to be heard and about interpretive and narrative strategies for presenting and performing them? What is the relationship among narrative, narrative research, and social change in non-Western societies?...” (670).
  • She urges researchers to consider the relationship between narrative inquiry and technological innovation: “How are e-mail, chat groups, online support groups, and instant messaging changing the meaning of ‘naturally occurring conversation’? How are they creating new arenas for narrating the self and for constructing identities, realities, relationships, and communities?” What new risks and ethical issues does research of computer-mediated communication present?” (670).
  • She even addresses the potential of popular culture to reinvigorate narrative analysis. She urges researchers to consider “…what do we have to learn from Ensler’s (2001) wildly successful Vagina Monologues? How did Ensler transform interviews with women about their bodies into performances that have sparked a massive international movement against violence against women?” (671)

RP: Do you find in Chase's recommendations any new directions for narrative analysis in media research or production?

Okay, before we continue, let’s check in to see how we’re all doing.

Walk to the closest mirror and take a look at yourself. Do you see any smoke coming out of your ears? No?

Good, then let’s move on, shall we? Remember: what does not kill you will only make you stronger.

My friends have a special inspirational message for you. Click on the image. Turn on your speakers. If you're in a public place, you might want to use earphones; this could be embarrassing.


There is another kind of formal analysis that focuses not on the form of media content -- that is, not on linguistic or structural features of the text written on the page, or the forms of the film's plot and story -- but, rather, on the form of the medium itself. Medium theory, according to Joshua Meyrowitz,

...focuses on the particular characteristics of each individual medium or of each particular type of media….Broadly speaking, medium theorists ask: what are the relatively fixed features of each means of communicating and how do these features make the medium physically, psychologically and socially different from other media and from face-to-face interaction? Medium theory examines such variables as the senses that are required to attend to the medium, whether the communication is bi-directional or uni-directional, how quickly messages can be disseminated, whether learning to encode and decode in the medium is difficult or simple, how many people can attend to the same message at the same moment, and so forth. Medium theorists argue that such variables influence the medium's use and its social, political, and psychological impact ("Medium Theory" In Crowley & Mitchell, Eds., Communication Theory Today, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Or, as Larsen puts it, these formal analyses “highlight the material specificity of the medium in question. What are its particular properties, and how do these properties translate into communicative possibilities? (in Jensen 120).

The medium -- and particularly in this case, the medium's physical and symbolic forms -- is the message. You probably recognize this quotation from McLuhan (at least you should); his Understanding Media exemplifies this type of formal analysis.

Martin Goodwin and Liz Wells look at the unique forms of the photograph in “Seeing Beyond Belief: Cultural Studies as an Approach to Analyzing the Visual” in van Leeuwen and Jewitt, Handbook of Visual Analysis (Sage): 73, 83). First, they address the shape of the camera's input device and interface and the origins of those conventions. They write:

The very existence of the rectangular frame of the camera and its picture plans was designed into cameras at an early stage in the history of photography. The round lens of a camera creates a circular image which shades off into obscurity at its circumference. Some two hundred years before the first successful chemical fixing of the camera images, ‘ the portable camera obscura of the early nineteenth century was fitted with a square or rectangular ground glass which showed only the central part of the image made by the lens’ (Snyder and Allen, 1982: 68-9). This, as [Snyder and Allen] point out, was the outcome of adjusting the camera image to meet the requirements of ‘traditional art,’ the rectangular easel painting. This is a good example of the way in which a convention exists while its historical origins are forgotten (73).

Consider also the icons – for portraits, night scenes, landscapes, action shots – on automatic cameras; these, too, are inspired by the anticipated form-driven conventions of the medium.

Perspective, too, is a convention that we've "naturalized":

…perspective, organized in relation to a singular imaginary point of origin, stands in for the emphasis on the individual concomitant with the emergence in the West of entrepreneurial capitalism. Thus the viewing position constructed via the camera cannot be seen as ideologically neutral (Goodwin & Wells 83).

Goodwin and Wells look at several material qualities of the photograph:

  • Edges or boundaries (e.g., Is the subject isolated or contextualized?);
  • Depth of Field (Does it restrict or amplify the information we’re given?);
  • Quality of light (Use of shadows, highlights, etc.?);
  • Frame or Moment Chosen (Why that gaze? Why that particular moment?)

RP: Since we don't actually look at film, but, rather, at its projected image, how might we analyze its physical forms? Do physical properties of the film have a bearing on "the medium's use and its social, political, and psychological impact"? What about the form of the projection screen, and the environment in which the projection takes place? [Image Credit: Cyber-heritage]



If you know anything about semiotics or structuralism, you've probably seen both -- or precursors of both -- woven throughout all the aforementioned schools of thought, movements, and approaches. Ronald Schleifer writes in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism,

Even before the term "structuralism" was coined, many of the principles of structural linguistics (if not the rigorous definitions of structure articulated by Jakobson, Jan Mukarovsky in Prague, and Lévi-Strauss in Paris) influenced Russian Formalism in its study of the particular "effects" of literature produced by the "elements" of literature and narrative. An understanding of Russian formalism is important for an understanding of the development of literary structuralism in Prague and Paris, because in focusing on the formal "devices" that create literary effects, it attempted to produce a "science" of literature, in the same way that Saussure attempted to produce a "science" of linguistics. However, Russian formalism assumed that "literature" could be legitimately--that is, "scientifically"--isolated from other cultural phenomena. This assumption led Jakobson, Mukarovsky, and Lévi-Strauss to oppose "structure" to "form" as the central concept of understanding. That is, the opposition, implicit in formalism, between form and content does not allow for a conception of literature as a cultural as well as an aesthetic phenomenon.

Structuralism, in contrast, offers a framework of understanding in which what is structured is not simply "content" but rather phenomena already structured on a different "level" of apprehension, so that the isolated content implicit in literary "formalism"--in New Critical formalism as well as in Russian formalism--betrays the dynamic relational nature of meaning.

Okay, sure. That clears it up.

What Schleifer is trying to say -- and would say, if he weren't so intent on writing like an academic -- is that Structuralists believe that meaning, as John Lye of Brock University more accessibly puts it, "is not identification of the sign with object in the real world or with some pre-existent concept or essential reality; rather it is generated by difference among signs in a signifying system." The Formalists would have us believe that literature is a self-contained unit -- but the Structuralists beg to differ. Its meaning, they argue, derives from its existence within a culturally constructed system of difference; we know what something means because we know that it is not its opposite, or something other than what it is. Structuralists realize that a work of art has meaning because meaning is "already structured" on a deeper, systematic level that goes beyond the covers of the text or the frame of the painting.

Let's put it another way: "Structuralism is a way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the perceptions and description of structures. At its simplest, structuralism claims that the nature of every element in any given situation has no significance by itself, and in fact is determined by all the other elements involved in that situation. The full significance of any entity cannot be perceived unless and until it is integrated into the structure of which it forms a part (Hawkes, p. 11, quoted in "Introduction to Modern Literary Theory")."

And semiotics, "simply put, is the science of signs. Semiology proposes that a great diversity of our human action and productions--our bodily postures and gestures, the social rituals we perform, the clothes we wear, the meals we serve, the buildings we inhabit--all convey "shared" meanings to members of a particular culture, and so can be analyzed as signs which function in diverse kinds of signifying systems (Abrams, p. 170, quoted in "Introduction to Modern Literary Theory").

If you've already taken Foundations of Media Theory, you should be familiar with structuralism and semiotics. If you haven't yet taken FMT, you'll learn about these concepts when you do take the class. And so, because these topics are addressed in another of our core classes, we won't spend much time addressing them here. I will, though, direct you to some web resources for a quick introduction or a review:

Semiotics has had some fruitful partnerships with cognitivism. Cognitivism derives its theoretical inspiration from the hard sciences – neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, medicine, and computer science – and is regarded as a third academic culture, in addition to the social sciences and humanities. From this perspective have arisen theories about the evolutionary or biological origin and development of human communication; theories of artificial intelligence; and “information processing” approaches to semiotics, narratology, and other forms of textual analysis.

There are innumerable examples of semiotic analyses of media texts -- but we'll focus on one that has proven widely influential: Christian Metz's work on filmic syntagms. Metz, as Larsen tells us, intended to "describe cinema as a general langue" (121). Daniel Chandler reminds us of the distinction between langue and parole:

Saussure made what is now a famous distinction between langue (language) and parole (speech). Langue refers to the system of rules and conventions which is independent of, and pre-exists, individual users; parole refers to its use in particular instances. Applying the notion to semiotic systems in general rather than simply to language, the distinction is one between code and message, structure and event or system and usage (in specific texts or contexts). According to the Saussurean distinction, in a semiotic system such as cinema, 'any specific film is the speech of that underlying system of cinema language' (Langholz Leymore 1975, 3). Saussure focused on langue rather than parole. To the traditional, Saussurean semiotician, what matters most are the underlying structures and rules of a semiotic system as a whole rather than specific performances or practices which are merely instances of its use (Semiotics for Beginners).

Also central to Metz's theory is the distinction between paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis. Again, Chandler provides clear definitions:

Structuralists study texts as syntagmatic structures. The syntagmatic analysis of a text (whether it is verbal or non-verbal) involves studying its structure and the relationships between its parts. Structuralist semioticians seek to identify elementary constituent segments within the text - its syntagms. The study of syntagmatic relations reveals the conventions or 'rules of combination' underlying the production and interpretation of texts (such as the grammar of a language). The use of one syntagmatic structure rather than another within a text influences meaning....

Whereas syntagmatic analysis studies the 'surface structure' of a text, paradigmatic analysis seeks to identify the various paradigms (or pre-existing sets of signifiers) which underlie the manifest content of texts. This aspect of structural analysis involves a consideration of the positive or negative connotations of each signifier (revealed through the use of one signifier rather than another), and the existence of 'underlying' thematic paradigms (e.g. binary oppositions such as public/private). 'Paradigmatic relations' are the oppositions and contrasts between the signifiers that belong to the same set from which those used in the text were drawn.

Syntagmatic concerns positioning (Why is this placed beside/inside/above/far from that? Why does this come before/after that?), while paradigmatic concerns substitution (Why did you select one particular sign instead of another? Why is your actress wearing a black dress rather than a white dress?). For more on paradigms and syntagms, paradigmatic analysis, or syntagmatic analysis, see Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners.

In film and tv, Chandler says, "a syntagmatic analysis would involve an analysis of how each frame, shot, scene or sequence related to the others (these are the standard levels of analysis in film theory). At the lowest level is the individual frame. Since films are projected at a rate of 24 frames a second, the viewer is never conscious of individual frames, but significant frames can be isolated by the analyst.  At the next level up, a shot is a 'single take' - an unedited sequence of frames which may include camera movement. A shot is terminated by a cut (or other transition). A scene consists of more than one shot set in a single place and time. A sequence spans more than one place and/ or time but it is a logical or thematic sequence (having 'dramatic unity').

Metz (1974) argued that there are eight filmic syntagms -- which were analogous to sentences -- that were defined by the ways in which narrative space and time are ordered.

  • The autonomous shot (e.g. establishing shot, insert)
  • The parallel syntagm (montage of motifs)
  • The bracketing syntagm (montage of brief shots)
  • The descriptive syntagm (sequence describing one moment)
  • The alternating syntagm (two sequences alternating)
  • The scene (shots implying temporal continuity)
  • The episodic sequence (organized discontinuity of shots)
  • The ordinary sequence (temporal with some compression)

Since Metz put forward his model, others have created their own (often simplified) variations.

There are several web resources that can provide you with the specialized vocabulary you need to conduct a syntagmatic analysis of film:

Here, for instance, is a glossary of shot sizes (extreme close-up, long shot, etc.)

Daniel Chandler offers a "'Grammar' of Television and Film" with graphics illustrating camera distance and angle, shot angles, camera and lens movement, etc. A great resource.

And here's a dictionary of cinematographical and film production terms adapted from James Monaco's How to Read a Film (Oxford 1981) and The Film Studies Dictionary (Blandford, Grant & Hillier, London 2001)

    And here are some examples of shot-by-shot syntagmatic analyses by Raymond Bellour:

Raymond Bellour, "The Film We Accompany," Rouge: a shot-by-shot analysis of Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star [A review of Bellour's The Analysis of Film (IN Univ Press, 2000)]

Finally, here's an article on the establishing shot in Godard's Pasion. A whole article on one shot.

The concept of codes is also central to semiotics. A code, according to John Fiske, is "a rule-governed system of signs, whose rules and conventions are shared amongst members of a culture, and which is used to generate and circulate meanings in that culture." In his "Codes of Television," Fiske presents a model of the multiple levels of coding in television; the models applies equally well, with slight modifications, perhaps, to other forms of media. The model's utility lies not only its recognition that media productions are multidimensional and, thus, coded on multiple dimensions -- but its utility lies also in Fiske's insistence that one of these dimensions is ideological. He writes:

The reading position is the social point at which the mix of televisual, social, and ideological codes comes together to make coherent, unified sense: in making sense of the program in this way we are indulging in an ideological practice ourselves, we are maintaining and legitimating the dominant ideology, and our reward for this is the easy pleasure of the recognition of the familiar and of its adequacy. We have already become a ‘reading subject’ constructed by the text, and, according to Althusser, the construction of subjects-in-ideology is the major ideological practice in capitalist societies.

Level One: Reality

An event to be televised is already encoded by social codes such as:

  • appearance (e.g., beauty, hair color, nose size)
  • dress (e.g., class, ideology in clothing)
  • makeup (e.g., ideology of lipstick)
  • environment
  • behavior
  • speech
  • gesture
  • expression
  • sound

Level Two: Representation

These are encoded electronically by technical codes such as:

  • camera (framing, focus, distance, movement of camera or lens, camera placement, angle and lens choice
  • lighting (e.g., soft/harsh light)
  • editing (e.g., heroes given more time)
  • casting (bring intertextual meanings from other shows and films, interview shows, fan mags, etc.)
  • music
  • sound

Which transmit the conventional representational codes, which shape the representations of, for example:

  • narrative
  • conflict
  • character
  • action
  • dialogue
  • setting
  • casting

Level Three: Ideology

Which are organized into coherence and social acceptability by the ideological codes, such as those of:

  • individualism
  • patriarchy
  • race
  • class
  • materialism
  • capitalism

Semiotics of course has its limitations, too, which Rose spells out. First, its readings of individual texts raise questions about the representativeness and generalizability of its findings. RP: What might semioticians do to increase the representativeness of their work? Second, semiotics is steeped in dense, elaborate theoretical terminology. Just think: if you read the above discussion -- with its mentions of paradigms, syntagms, codes, etc., -- without having ever heard of semiotics, you'd be terribly lost, right? Third, semiology discourages reflexivity, which is a crucial part of any research project. "[R]eflexivity," Rose writes, "is an attempt to resist the universalizing claims of academic knowledge and to insist that academic knowledge, like all other knowledges, is situated and partial. Reflexivity is thus about the position of the critic, about the effects that position has on the knowledge that the critic produces, about the relation between the critic and the people or materials they deal with, and about the social effects of the critic's work" (130). Sometimes, researchers preface their reports with an autobiography to explain how his or her social position affects his or her work. See Ian Stronach, Dean Garratt, Cathie Pearce, and Heather Piper's "Reflexivity, the Picturing of Selves, the Forging of Method." RP: How do media makers practice reflexivity? Or are they not obligated to? What kinds of media makers should be reflexive about their work, and which are absolved of the responsibility?

GENERIC ANALYSIS (no, not the analysis of store brand products)

Genre is another of those concepts that you may have already encountered in FMT. One of the initial challenges with generic analysis is settling on a definition of genre. And, once again, we turn to Mr. Know-It-All, Daniel Chandler, for "An Introduction to Genre Theory." [Is there any topic about which this guy hasn't written?] Pay particular attention to his D.I.Y. Generic Analysis. Deborah Knight also offers "Making Sense of Genre," and Chandler has posted several texts on genre theory on his Media & Comm Studies Site. The picture to the left has nothing to do with genre; I just thought we needed a picture right about now, so I put one in. But now that I think of it: stock photos have genres. How are they classified?

Larsen offers several definitions of genre: (1) the contractual definition: genre is a contract between sender and receiver; (2) the semantic definition of genre: what is it about? what are its themes or motifs?; (3) the material definition of genre: what is its material form?; (4) the syntactic definition of genre: what is the structure of text? what is its sequential organization or composition?; and (5) the pragmatic definition: what are the demands of the situation on the discursive characteristics of a given centre? what are producers' intentions governing the production of texts? what are their purposes for making them?

Here are my slapdash notes on ways to approach generic analysis:

  • Genres are defined equally by producers and consumers of media content

Jane Feuer (in Channels of Discourse) distinguishes between theoretical and historical conceptions of genre

  • “…literary genres tend to be…theoretical to a greater extent than do film and television genres, which tend to be historical. The former are “deduced from observation of preexisting literary facts.” That is to say, “some genres are accepted by the culture, while others are defined by critics.” (140)
  • Historical Genres: “rhetorical and pragmatic constructions of an analyst, not acts of nature” (141)
  • Genres both preserve and help to develop textual forms

Feuer: aesthetic approach: “all attempts to define genre in terms of a system of conventions that permits artistic expression, especially involving a system of conventions that permits artistic expression, especially involving individual authorship”; “also includes attempts to assess whether an individual work fulfills or transcends its genre” (145)

“…the classical Hollywood narrative style and genres help to regulate the production of difference by producing their own differences within very circumscribed structures of similarity” (142)

  • Genres are aids to production and to reading of texts

Feuer: ritual approach: “sees genre as an exchange between industry and audience, an exchange through which a culture speaks to itself” (145)

“For the audience…genre assures the interpretability of the text” (144)

  • Rick Altman: “In his view, the genre serves to limit the free play of signification and to restrict semiosis. The genre, that is to say, usurps the function of an interpretive community by providing a context for interpreting the films and by naming a specific set of intertexts according to which a new film must be read. The genre limits the field of play of the interpretive community. Altman sees this as an ideological project because it is an attempt to control the audience’s reaction by providing an interpretive context. Genres are thus not neutral categories….” (Feuer 144)

Feuer: ideological approach: “views genre as an instrument of control” (145)


  • Stuart Hall: genre “depends on the use of a particular ‘code’ or meaning system, which can draw on some consensus about meaning among users of the code…in a given culture” (McQuail, Mass Communication Theory, 4th ed. (Sage): 333)
  • Feuer: “When film studies turned toward semiotics and ideological criticism, the idea of the genre as a threshold or horizon for individual expression gave way to an interest in the genres themselves as systems and structures. Thomas Schatz has referred to the semiotic interest in genre as ‘the language analogy.’ He says that genre can be studied as a formalized sign system whose rules have been assimilated (often unconsciously) through cultural consensus. Following Claude Lévi-Strauss, Schatz views genres as cultural problem-solving operations. He distinguishes between a deep structure that he calls film genre and a surface structure that he calls the genre film. The genre film is the individual instance, the individual utterance or speech act (parole). The film genre is more like a grammar (langue), that is, a system for conventional usage.” (143)

Limitations of Generic Approach: There is a “built-in tendency to structuralize the model in such a way that it is impossible to explain changes or to see a genre as a dynamic model. The basis of much genre theory in the language analogy tends to remove it from history as well and to emphasize structure over development” (151)


RP: How is the concept of genre relevant to media creators, producers, marketers, ratings-measurers, etc.?


Instead of looking at a photograph or a film with an exclusively "semantic" eye -- that is, looking for units of meaning and how those units are organized into meaningful composites -- we should also know how to look at art and media with the "good eye." According to Rose, the “good eye” is a kind of visual connoisseurship: It “involves the acquisition of extensive first-hand experience of works with the aim, first, of attributing works to artists and schools, identifying styles and establishing sources and influences, and second, of judging their quality and hence their place in a canon” (Fernie 1995, quoted in Rose 34).

Goodwin and Wells agree that non-language-based critical approaches have much to offer in the analysis of images. They acknowledge differences between critical approaches that are informed by art history – including Panofsky's iconology and iconography – and by semiotics. The former “allow us to start from noticing things about images rather than about written language and then seeking to apply linguistic concepts to images” (“Seeing Beyond Belief: Cultural Studies as an Approach to Analyzing the Visual” In van Leeuwen and Jewitt, p. 71).

Here's an iconograpic analysis of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (1434). [Image Credit: Mnemosyne]. See also Mnemosyne's "Course in Iconography."

Although Rose lays out a methodology that keeps us primarily within the frame, so to speak, her method is not strictly formalist because she does advocate supplementing a compositional analysis with contextual information: “knowledge about particular painters, about the kinds of painting they did, about the sorts of visual imagery they were looking at and being inspired by.”

Rose offers guidelines for compositionally analyzing still imagery. We should consider:

  1. Content: “What does the image actually show?”

  2. Color: hue (the actual colors), saturation (purity of color), value (lightness or darkness:

  3. Spatial organization: volumes in the image, space in which the volumes are placed (angle, distance, height)– offer a particular viewing position (interpellation – integrating political economy), e.g, perspective

  4. Light: type, sources

  5. Expressive content: affective characteristics (connotation)

When looking at moving images, we should consider:

  1. Mise en scene: screen ratio (ratio between height and width of image); screen frame (is action contained on screen, or does it take place beyond its boundaries?); shot distance (see again the dictionary of shot sizes), focus (deep focus, shallow focus, sharp/soft); angle (elevation, roll); points of view (reverse-angle, third-person); pan, tilt, roll, tracking, crane (see this guide for film analysis from the CO Film School)

  2. Montage: how shots are put together (syntagmatic analysis), editing, cuts (continuity cutting, jump cuts, unmarked cut, dissolve, iris, wipe, rhythm)

  3. Sound: environmental, speech, music; source; parallel sound; contrapuntal sound

Michael Goldberg of the University of Washington at Bothell has his own suggestions for "how to read a film."


But wait! There's more! We'll save that for next time....