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About Participations: history and founding principles

The purpose of Participations has always been, and continues to be, to provide a focal point – a coming-together-place – for all kinds of work under the general and generously understood heading of "audience and reception studies". The Journal aims to include and embrace work across all fields of media and culture, from a wide range of theoretical and methodological bases, giving space to a full range of questions and debates. But – and it is an important qualification – coming together is not possible without recognising that audience and reception research has some distinctive, and even problematic histories. In talking to each other, in sharing our research and learning from each other, certain requirements are generated.

When Participations was launched in 2003, its goal was more than anything to offer a space for publishing research in our area. The frequent experience of scholars – both new and experienced – was that many Journals across the fields of media and culture, the humanities and social sciences were unsympathetic, even sometimes plain hostile, to work on audiences. It was seen as irrelevant, or even slightly threatening. Along with this went a recognition that, while there were places a-plenty (conferences, seminars, courses) where other kinds of ideas could get discussed within particular academic subject areas, researchers working within audience and reception studies could feel very alone. Opportunities for debating, cross-fertilisation, networking, building collaborations were few and far between. Yet at the same time the Journal's founders were sensing that there was beginning to be a burgeoning of kinds of audience and reception research. Particular topic domains – books, theatre, music, dance – that had hardly touched audiences (except for limited commercial purposes) were beginning to do so. New media were becoming a new 'hot topic', and the expansion of ways of interacting with the media was attracting attention. The number of doctoral students attempting audience or reception research (the meanings and relations of those terms were of course under debate) was rising – although it could be a problem that sometimes their supervisors were insecurely grounded in appropriate methods and approaches. New ways of researching – online methods of recruitment, for instance, or the exploration of already-circulating materials (reviews, debates, 'paratexts'), for instance – were developing, alongside rediscovery of older methods (eg, ethnographies). Alongside this, fan studies (with its attention to the distinctiveness of devotees) was emerging. New theoretical positions and debates were emerging. And so on.

Participations wanted to be part of all this, and maybe play a role in promulgating these developments. And with the internet emerging, both as a means of research, and as a way round previous print publishing constraints, we launched there. Some of our early ambitions have not come to fruition. We did talk, in the early days, about organising our own annual or biannual conferences. For a number of reasons, this didn't happen. We wondered – hoped – that perhaps collaborations would arise directly through the workings of the Journal. Perhaps marginally, this happened in particular cases – but it has not been a headline feature. But nonetheless, gradually the Journal established a distinctive space for itself, and not least (we sense) among students, many of whom welcome its free-to-use position, its emphasis on clarity of explanation of methods, display of evidence, and contextualisation of argument. Plus, there are just a lot of damned fine pieces of work … (thank you, Agent Cooper). Participations is now among the longest-lived online-only Journals. Since our launch, we have so far (to May 2017) published more than 400 essays – as our new Index demonstrates.

The title was very consciously chosen, in order to move the Journal away from any appearance of being an 'effects' journal. Its plural form emphasised our belief in the variety of meanings and responses. The word itself, we felt, indicated an interest in cultural communities and practices. To read, to listen, to watch is to take part in collective activities. These were the Journal's founding interests and inclinations.

A great deal has changed since our launch. Although in some subject fields audience research remains marginal(ised), in others it has begun to claim important space for itself. There are still few dedicated postgraduate courses, training people in its traditions and methods. But it is acknowledged and addressed within more, and including at undergraduate level. A number of big academic organisations (for instance ECREA, 2007-) now have dedicated 'Audience' sections. And of course other journals – Transformative Works and Cultures (2008-), Reception (2009-), and the Journal of Fan Studies (2013-), for instance – have emerged alongside us. (There had long been one other – Empirical Studies of the Arts (1983-) – which quite regularly published work on audiences, but almost entirely within a psychological/experimental tradition.) Meanwhile the signs are that some of the more generalist journals in particular subject fields have become more open to us. Or maybe it is that we have just become more confident about submitting to them?

Of course alongside the growth of academic audience and reception research there has been the massive expansion of commercial research, coagulating in particular under the heading 'Big Data', with its specialist companies, algorithms and automated systems. The mining of Big Data generated in particular by online talk, social media, and captured commercial data is a Big Business in itself, working with amounts of cash that no academic in our field can even dream of. And of course Big Data research has its own academic disciplines at its beck and call: neuro-psychology, behavioural economics, and 'nudge' theories of politics and marketing. There are inescapable political arguments to be had about the functions of this kind of work (its models of human behaviour, its ownership and confidentiality, its influence). The broader relations between the kinds of knowledge produced by such research, and those which we publish, remain to be explored.

In at least one respect, Participations remains very distinctive – and it is a distinctiveness that we have tried but not succeeded in reducing. From its inception, the Journal has operated a system of open refereeing, under which names of authors and referees are known to each other. This apparently small difference has had major ramifications. It has encouraged a culture of critical-supportive reviewing which has meant that, where many Journals "celebrate" their Rejection Rate (as some para-macho sign of how tough and demanding they are), we would rather celebrate an Improvement Rate: the proportion of essays which, from being problematic, were brought on to a point where they are worthy of publication; and an Approval Rate, the proportion of authors who write to us, after publication, thanking us for the helpfulness of our editorial processes. Having virtually pioneered this way of doing things, we have tried on a number of occasions to get other Journals to consider adopting such an approach. In this, we have failed. But we are unapologetic about our stance – we believe that it has in a small way helped succour the growth of our field.

It was partly in response to this series of changes that Participations two years ago restructured its Editorial Board and shifted its emphasis. While of course still welcoming individual submissions, we began to think more strategically about issues that need working on. Members of our new Editorial Board – now drawn more widely from among experienced researchers – are variously planning and working on particular Themed Issues, where there may be wider benefit in assembling strong and innovative work in the one place.

Where then does our field currently stand, theoretically? It is all too easy to produce over-simplified histories of models of audiences – an almost parodic list of 'first there was effects theory (with its linear and cumulative assumptions), then came uses and gratifications (and we all looked for 'needs'), then we discovered encoding/decoding (though we only ever seemed to find 'decodings'), and then the internet came along and we all just interacted and produced and performed'. This misses out great chunks of history, whole parts of the world, and a lot of the actual practices of researchers.

Perhaps a better way to characterise the current situation is that, while there are a number of models currently available, none of them is widely seen as answering all key questions – or even, generating all the questions that we need to ask. But in the other direction, there is a sheer accumulation of strong, well-founded bodies of research, deploying many different approaches and methods, and penetrating so many areas. There do remain a few bits of almost virgin territory – for instance, why is there still almost nothing on poetry's audiences? where is the work on amateur theatre's audiences? – but these are exceptional. It is perhaps a pity that there are very few cases where the capacities of different methods can be seen to be tried out on the same topic (perhaps the rare exception – still to be mined properly – is the two big international projects on the Hobbit film series). But what this accumulation of good research does is to shift and complexify what will count as a viable 'model'. Where and how such an overarching model might emerge, we haven't a clue. In the meantime, the purpose of our Journal remains to be a locus and focus of that growing richness.

But it does mean, as we said at the beginning of this Statement, that there are responsibilities. Participations is interested in publishing all kinds of good audience or reception research (tell us what you understand by those terms (or your equivalents … this is part of the necessary dialogue about fundamental concepts) – but we are most interested in research which sees itself as contributing to a conversation and dialogue between approaches. We will consider but are less interested in work which is wholly enclosed, unreflexively, within one approach, and which never thinks about now its findings might be of interest, use, or challenge to other people within our broad field.

Participations remains in important senses a project, a bit more than just an academic journal.

  Last updated 2017-05-15