girl posing for camera

Stuart Hall and Representation

What is Representation?

Stuart Hall believed representation was the “process by which members of a culture use language… to produce meaning”. It is the organisation of signs, which we use to understand and describe the world, into a wider set of values of ideologies. These meanings are not fixed or “real”; they are produced and defined by society.

Systems of Representation

Hall (1997) identified two “systems of representation” – conceptual maps and language.

Conceptual Maps

The first system consists of the mental representations we carry around in our minds. You should have no trouble picturing your friends and family, or the places you have visited recently. Experiences and events remain vivid long after they have concluded. We have the ability to imagine abstract concepts and theories. Even fictional worlds and mythical creatures can be fully realised in our thoughts.

These ideas are all representations of what we might consider to be the real world.

Conceptual Map:

If you have seen a donut,
you can visualise it in your mind.

Importantly, we can distinguish once concept from another because we are fully aware of their similarities and differences. We know doors are not the same as windows, up is the opposite of down, and there is a strong contrast between black ink on a white page.

We also recognise the complex relationships between concepts and group them into clusters and categories: colours, types of buildings, emotions, subjects in school, our neighbourhood, faith, the moon and the stars, and so on. By creating systems of concepts, or conceptual maps, we can give meaning to our world.

Language

Although we are individuals with our own perspectives and histories, we actually experience most things with other people and form similar interpretations of the world. This makes it easier for us to exchange our conceptual maps by translating them into signs – gestures, written and spoken language, images and other methods of communication.

The language we use to communicate with each other is the second system of representation.

A Simple Exercise

Hall used a very simple exercise with his students to demonstrate how this representation process worked. First, he would ask them to take a good look around the room and focus on different objects. This would make them conceptualise each object in their minds.

He then asked them what they saw. Of course, his students would use words to refer to the objects which he was able to decode because he understood what they meant.

In this way, representation is the process that links our conceptual map of the world and the meanings we construct through language.

Approaches to Representation

Stuart Hall (1997) summarised three approaches to understanding the representation process: reflective, intentional and constructionist views.

The Reflective View

This approach to understanding representation suggests the signs we use communicate with each other reflect their true meaning because language acts like a mirror to the world.

Visual signs often have some sort of relationship to the physical form of the objects they represent so, in terms of semiotics, Charles Peirce might categorise these signs as icons. However, as Stuart Hall pointed out, a picture of a rose “should not be confused with the real plant with thorns and blooms growing in the garden”.

Ferdinand de Saussure debated if onomatopoeic words and interjections were evidence of the reflective quality of language, but he believed these signs were not organic and there was “no fixed bond between the signified and signifer”. In other words, signs are part of our culture rather than the natural world.

To what extent do news organisations reflect the real world in their reports? Join the debate in our guide to framing which outlines how their use codes and conventions can influence the audience’s interpretation of the story.

The Intentional View

By contrast, the intentional approach suggests we impose meaning on the world through the signs we use to describe it. When you are talking to a friend, the words you use to encode your message will mean exactly what you intended them to mean.

If you have read our guide to Hall’s encoding / decoding model of communication, you will already know he dismissed this approach to understanding the representation process. We may produce media texts, but their meanings are limited by the framework of knowledge of that particular period and culture. Hall also proposed the audience could have a negotiated or even an oppositional interpretation of the text. This leads us to the constructionist approach to understanding representations.

The Constructionist View

Things exist in the physical world. Our conceptual maps are based on reality, but representation is a symbolic practice and process. Remember, Saussure argued there is no natural relationship between the sign and its meaning or concept.

Put simply, we construct meanings by organising signs into a system.

Stuart Hall mentioned the language of electric plugs in the UK to illustrate this approach. Before 2006, red wires were used to carry the current from the power supply to the appliances. The system was changed to match the European standards so brown wires are now live. In this way, colours have no fixed meaning and their definitions can quickly change.

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