The problem of audiences in communication research has generated strong methodological adaptations and a good deal of scrutiny. Although a view of the passive mass audience continues to haunt our work, theory and research on the uses of industrial and post-industrial consumer media have incorporated notions of audiences as active interpreters and co-creators of meaning. The active audience framework, catalyzed by Stuart Hall’s 1980 essay “Encoding / Decoding,” has inspired ethnographic studies of a range of popular media products and the multiple interpretations and practices brought by media use. Interpretation, enjoyment, and use of media requires creativity on the part of audiences, but it also reﬂects cultural constraints on the range of possibilities for what can be understood. Audience research from a cultural studies perspective strives to understand how culture constrains yet makes possible the meanings brought to and drawn from mass media content. Cultural constraints are not necessarily enduring and constant; they can
change over time in a mutually constituting relationship with communication technologies and media content. To understand the historical development of contemporary interpretive frameworks, we must engage the history of ideas and make problematic the power dynamics engendered by certain ways of seeing. Similarly, historians need methods for conceptualizing the audience in studies of past uses of media and communication. Historians cannot use participant observation, interviews, and surveys to assess the social role of media products in aggregating attention, facilitating interaction, and mobilizing meaning in the everyday lives of people who are long gone. Conversely, as Peters reminds us in this volume, we should keep in mind that audiences of the present are every bit as ephemeral as audiences of the past. Empirical researchers of either persuasion do well to shift from a positivist to a pragmatic approach to evidence. To this end, essays by Richard Butsch, Susan Douglas and S. Elizabeth Bird address the uncertainties of absolute historical knowledge (or, in Peters’ terms, the dream of perfect communication between present and past) while urging creativity in the use of historical methods and sources to triangulate research across media industries, textual content, and the practices of everyday life.