Reviews 2017

Revitalising Audience Research: Innovations in European Audience Research

Revitalising Audience Research: Innovations in European Audience Research. Ed. Frauke Zeller, Cristina Ponte, and Brian O’Neill. New York: Routledge, 2015. 304 pages. £70.00 (hardback).

The fifth publication in the Routledge Series in European Communication Research and Education focuses on audience research, a field of scholarship that views audiences as active meaning makers and examines how they use and engage with all sorts of media, both old (television, radio, etc.) and new (internet-mediated communication), with a greater focus on the latter in this volume. This volume also aims to present studies that illustrate some of the methodological discourses and practices that have emerged from the recent audience transformations that have resulted from these new media. Audience studies share major assumptions, methods and concerns with research on reader-response, and not unlike children’s literature, it is also a field that prides itself on interdisciplinarity. This is evident in Revitalising Audience Research as the studies presented in this volume cross various boundaries, whether methodological, academic, theoretical or national. In addition, the volume is multinational, including authors from fifteen countries, and shows the potential for moving forward with collaborative and comparative research.

As the editors are quick to point out, the word "revitalising" in the title is used as an adjective to refer to the range of European audience studies that it captures. It highlights work that responds to the current changes in audience behaviour and media landscapes as well as the challenges they raise for research. The book thus aims to introduce "new paradigms, methods or conceptual developments in the field" (1). While several articles examine children’s and young people’s media use, none are concerned with children’s literature per se. However, given the rapidly occurring transformations due to digital technologies and the increasing multimodality of texts and multimodal literacy practices among children and young people, scholars of children’s literature might find some of the ideas and methodologies presented in the volume useful.

The volume contains 14 articles, divided into two sections: the first looks at innovation in research methodology and the second presents emerging fields of research. At a first glance, the titles of the articles may appear intimidating. They are long and wordy, and contain unfamiliar concepts. However, within the articles, these concepts are for the most part clearly explained and relevant theoretical frameworks and literature are well-presented. As a result, the articles offer a rich, comprehensive and for the most part accessible introduction to various areas of research, providing children’s literature scholars with the opportunity not only to venture into new territories but also to consider some more familiar terms, such as "agency" or "identity," from different perspectives.

The conception of identity is one of the themes that various chapters in the first section address. Chapter 1, for example, does this through "avatar studies" but attempts to understand the interaction between both "online" and "offline" identities, while Chapter 2 argues for using autoethnography to collect data and reflect on the creation of identity. Chapter 5 proposes using linguistic methodology for analysing computer-mediated interaction to show how online group identity is constructed and developed. Linguistic ethnography is another method offered in Chapter 6 to explore identities but in this case within "the power relationships between cultural producers and their audiences in digital societies" (117). Along with the fluidity of identities, the fluidity of context is also explored, particularly in Chapter 3, which posits that a traditional research method such as the interview must be expanded to become more performative and participatory so that the participants themselves contribute to the knowledge about construction of context. The other two chapters in this section consider consumption and performance: in Chapter 4, in the case of software (with the author arguing for the need for "software literacy") and in Chapter 7, in the case of news consumption across two countries.

In the second section, engagement with social networking sites is addressed in five of the seven articles, while the two remaining articles examine the use of big data in audience research (Chapter 14) and audience orientation in an environment where "different media are articulated in relation to and exercise power over one another" (6), with a focus on digital television (Chapter 12). Three articles deal with the media use of children and young people, one of which we found particularly thought-provoking for children’s literature researchers, especially those interested in constructions of childhood. In Chapter 8, "From the Womb to the Tomb," Dafna Lemish and Galit Nimrod team up to propose a framework for the comparative study of media use among two age groups that are on opposite ends of the life cycle, children and older people. Both groups are perceived as vulnerable and dependent, often treated as homogeneous groups and subjected to various forms of ageism. As media users, they share a common paradox: they may "have the greatest amount of free time, [but]...face more constraints to beneficial use of leisure" (152) and "share a heightened dependency on...media as...extensions to the social world outside their reach" (152). This chapter raises an interesting question for children’s literature: as a field that has drawn on so many different areas of enquiry, should children’s literature turn its sights to the field of gerontological studies? The two other articles concerned with children and young people focus on young user's moral judgement of online risky behaviour (Chapter 9) and how they frame their decisions to not use social media (Chapter 10).

Scholars of children’s literature who work with reader response are well aware (or should be) of the difficulties and limitations of gathering and analysing this type of data. A few of the authors in this volume also warn about limitations and generalisations in audience research. Media audiences have various forms of agency but their behaviour is affected by factors such as gender, age, socio-economic status, among many others, and is inscribed within social structures, sometimes leading to contradictory practices and responses. In addition, scholars working in non-European and non-Western contexts will need to critically engage with these articles as some concepts and general trends might not apply to their contexts, beginning with the question of access. However, with these considerations in mind, just as children’s literature has borrowed from communication studies in the past, there is more room for "borrowing" from communication and audience studies as well as for considering more mixed-methods approaches. In particular, this volume will be of interest to those who are concerned with examining methodological innovations in research into readers’ practices, whether these readers are reading books or being active online.

Evelyn Arizpe and Susanne Abou Ghaida
University of Glasgow, United Kingdom