Since at least the mid-1970s, academics interested in media and cultural studies have wanted to better understand how people interpret the media texts which surround them. In order to see why this is the case, it is necessary to have some understanding of the philosophical movements referred to as ‘structuralism’ and ‘poststructuralism’. These movements share a common assumption: that language and other forms of representation, including images, do not simply reflect the world they describe; rather, they construct particular ways of thinking about the world we live in (see Chapter 6). Consequently, it is important to understand how people are interpreting the world around them.
Structuralism is the name given to a series of intellectual enterprises associated with several French thinkers who became prominent in the 1960s. The linguist Saussure, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the cultural critic Roland Barthes all believed that the meanings that were generated from texts were not simply reflections of reality, but structured the way in which people made sense of the world (Hartley 1994, p 303). Poststructuralist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida allow readers more power in the meanings that they make of the world, but share the assumption that representations do not simply reflect the world, but rather allow for particular ways of constructing interpretations of it.
A common example of this assumption—that our ways of describing the world actually construct our own particular view of the world—is the fact that the Welsh language does not have any word for the colour that in English is called ‘brown’. For a person speaking only Welsh, there are no brown objects in the world. Of course, there are objects that are the colour English speakers call brown, but a Welsh speaker would not organise them into a separate category of their own (Hartley 1982, p 17) (see also Carroll 1956).