Elihu Katz is Trustee Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Scientific Director of the Guttman Institute of Applied Social Research. Tamar Liebes is Professor of Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Director of the Smart Communications Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Together, these scholars have conducted research into cultural differences in the interpretation of American television drama - most notably the US prime-time melodramatic soap opera, Dallas, which was broadcast in many countries. These notes offer an outline of some of their key findings.
Katz and Liebes assembled 'focus groups', each of 3 married couples (in each an initial couple invited two others from amongst their friends). Each group viewed an episode of Dallas in the hosts' living-room and then took part in a 'guided discussion' (for about one hour) with the researchers, moving from relatively open to less open questions. The discussions were in the group's native languages. A researcher initiated the discussion by asking the viewers to retell the episode which they had just watched together (Katz & Liebes 1985: 190; Katz & Liebes 1986: 152 and in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 531; Katz & Liebes 1988: 278). Finally individuals completed a brief questionnaire concerning whether and with whom they normally watched and discussed the programme. The participants were from similar age-groups and educational backgrounds - all were lower middle-class with high school education or less (though Liebes notes that more of the Russians and the Arabs tended to have had some higher education - 1998: 290). They were all regular viewers of the programme, which in Israel was subtitled in both Hebrew and Arabic. In their main studies there were ten groups each of:
(Katz & Liebes 1985: 188; Katz & Liebes 1986 152 & in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 531; Katz & Liebes 1988: 278).
Another study (Liebes & Katz 1989) also included Japanese groups (the programme had lasted only a few months in Japan).
The programme raised many issues. 'The subjects of the statements are similar enough among the ethnic groups to suggest that a programme like Dallas may indeed set agendas for thinking and talking, not so much by imposing these subjects, but by evoking primordial concerns and perhaps even by offering opportunities for discussing them' (Katz & Liebes 1986: 167-8 and in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 533). Viewing the programme led to discussions of issues such as success, loyalty vs opportunism, honour, money and happiness, family relations, sex roles and the functions of children. Family far outweighed business as a focus of concern (Katz & Liebes 1985: 197).
In their 1986 article the researchers note four basic topics in the referential topics discussed:
Liebes and Katz note that there was considerable agreement over the rank order of topics: motivation was the most widely discussed topic except amongst the Arabs. Nevertheless, there were differences of emphasis amongst the various groups. The Arabs mainly referred to kinship roles and norms; for other groups this was the second most frequent topic. Moral dilemmas were a key concern of both the kibbutz and Arab groups whilst only the Americans made frequent reference to business relations (Liebes & Katz 1986: 154).
In accounting for motivation the Americans and the kibbutz members tended to offer somewhat Freudian psychological explanations (thus avoiding 'blame'). Many of the Russians tended to offer explanations based on the idea that social roles determined behaviour. The Moroccans also 'blamed' society but as a Hobbesian jungle in which individuals have to fend for themselves. Only the Arabs (who focused on family interrelations and moral dilemmas rather than on motivation) regarded individuals as responsible for their own actions (Liebes & Katz 1986: 154-5).
The most frequent theme perceived in the programme was that the rich are unhappy - though the Arabs tended to stress 'the Americans are immoral' (Liebes & Katz 1986: 155; Liebes & Katz 1989: 210-11). However, 'when discussing the programme informally, the groups which were most moralistic in their replies to the formal question - the Arabs and the Moroccans - say it teachers that one has little choice but to act immorally; in effect, the message they perceive is that immorality pays' (Liebes & Katz 1986: 155).
Topics were generalized by viewers to refer to universal human problems or immediate personal concerns. In discussing the relationship of the programme to real life, the Russians in particular generalized the characters to abstract or universal social categories such as 'businessmen', 'women' or 'Americans'. Others personalized the programme, relating the characters to their 'we'-groups or to themselves (the Moroccans and Arabs more seriously; the Americans and the kibbutz members more playfully) (Katz & Liebes 1985: 197).
Within a group, there was disagreement about how things should have turned out - the viewers took sides over issues raised within the programme (e.g. whether an action was justified). Viewers also sometimes evaluated the apparent values of the programme when these differed from those embedded within their own culture. For instance, Arabs made moral judgements about the programme in terms of their own opposing cultural norms (Katz & Liebes in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 533). Arabs tended to see in the programme 'moral degeneracy' whilst Russians were more likely to note 'rotten capitalism' (Liebes & Katz 1989: 209). A Moroccan Jew and a kibbutz member both rejected the material values of the programme - though outright rejection was not universal (Katz & Liebes 1985: 192-4). The researchers comment that it was clear that some people were 'discussing and evaluating not only the issues of the Ewing family but the issues in their own lives' (Katz & Liebes 1985: 194).
The tendency to make sense of the story within a familiar cultural pattern sometimes led to distorted interpretations. For instance, an Arab group assumed that Sue Ellen, having run away with her baby from her husband JR must have returned to her father's home (when in fact it was the home of her former lover and his father) (Katz & Liebes 1985: 191).
The researchers found that the various ethnic groups differed in their 'critical distance' from the programme.
The Arabs and the Moroccan Jews interpreted the programme 'referentially' (relating the story to real life). Referential retellings take for granted that the characters are real and treat the programme as if it were some kind of documentary (Liebes & Katz 1989: 209). 'Referential readings are probably more emotionally involving' (Katz & Liebes 1986: 153 and in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold: 532); the more traditional groups were more 'involved' in the programme (Katz & Liebes 1986: 168 and in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 533). Culturally, the researchers comment, the Arabs and the Moroccans were probably most distant from Dallas.
The Russians interpreted the programme more analytically or critically (relating primarily to the dramatic construction of the narrative, themes and features of the genre). For this mode of viewing the researchers also use the somewhat misleading terms 'poetic' (Katz & Liebes 1985) and 'metalinguistic' (Katz & Liebes 1986: 153 and in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 532; Liebes 1988). Such viewers showed awareness of the programme as separate from reality and questioned the accuracy of the representation (Liebes & Katz 1989: 209). In one study they suggest that analytical readings are probably more detached than referential readings (Katz & Liebes 1986: 153-4 and in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 532). But elsewhere they note that 'critical reactions do not necessarily imply distance' (Liebes & Katz 1989: 218). Whilst being respectively analytical and referential, the Russians and the Arabs did have some similarities - being more 'serious' and in preferring the rhetoric of evaluation (good/bad) compared to the other groups (Katz & Liebes 1985: 195-6).
The American and kibbutz groups seemed to interpret Dallas more flexibly - both analytically and referentially. The researchers attribute the lesser 'involvement' of the more 'modern' groups (at least the American and kibbutzniks) to their socialization in the genres of television which allowed them to discount its reality and to relate to it light-heartedly, 'not considering it worthy of moral outrage' (Katz & Liebes 1986: 169 and in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 534) - only the Russians were concerned about ideological manipulation.
Looking at the ratios of critical to referential statements, the highest ratios (more critical) were those of the Russians, then the kibbutzniks and the Americans, with the Arabs and the Moroccan Jews having the lowest critical ratio (more referential) (Liebes & Katz 1986: 156-7). In short, the 'Western' groups made more critical statements. Overall, referential statements were far more frequent than critical statements (Liebes & Katz 1989: 218) and most statements were observations and explanations of behaviour rather than evaluative (Katz & Liebes 1986: 167 and in Boyd-Barrett & Newbold 1995: 533). The researchers emphasize that even the most critical groups also spoke referentially (Liebes & Katz 1989: 218).
The researchers also noted that whilst most statements overall had a 'serious' character (e.g. relating the programme to life 'realistically') some were more 'ludic' or 'poetic' (e.g. playfully imagining what being like the characters might be like). The Americans and the kibbutzniks used more ludic statements than other groups (Liebes & Katz 1986: 157-8). Liebes and Katz add that the Russians tended to analyse the programme, the Americans and the kibbutzniks tended to personalize it, whilst the Arab groups actively argued against its moral values (Liebes & Katz 1986: 163). The Arabs were strikingly more evaluative than the other groups; the Moroccans were slightly more evaluative than the Western groups (Liebes & Katz 1986: 166).
Tamar Liebes (1988) noted the importance of 'selective perception', reporting differences of focus in retelling the episode:
(Liebes 1988: 281)
She notes that the retellings of the more traditional groups, the Arabs and Moroccans, tended to be linear (and tended to focus on one of the storylines). They focused on the action-oriented subplot, 'defining the hero's goals and adventures in trying to achieve them' (Liebes 1988: 289). Such retellings proceeded inductively 'from the presumed reality of the characters' (Liebes 1988: 286). They retold the story in 'closed' form 'as if it were an inevitable progression' (Liebes 1988: 289). Liebes observes that 'by perceiving these episodes as stories with happy endings, linear tellers, ironically, blind themselves to the essence of the serial, which is that it must go on! Instead, they constantly seek to impose a scheme such as Propp's [a standardized narrative framework] which, by definition, cannot work' (Liebes 1988: 286). She adds that 'the linear retelling... correlates with a "hegemonic" reading in which the reality of the story is unquestioned and its message is presumably unchallenged' (Liebes 1988: 286). Linear retellings tended to make the characters more rigidly stereotypical than intended by the producers. The researcher adds that linear retellings can be seen epistemologically as sociological: the story was framed in terms of an extended family in an ancestral house 'holding itself together in the face of contests of power' (Liebes 1988: 289). 'The invocation of the sociological perspective helps to explain the relatively frequent use of family roles when labelling characters in linear retellings' (Liebes 1988: 288). The characters were often referred to by family role rather than by name. Liebes notes that 'the concern of these two ethnic groups with power and relative position in family and society may be related to their social position in Israel: the one a politically suspect minority and the other an ethnic minority with experience of status deprivation' (Liebes 1988: 289).
The kibbutz and American retellings tended to be segmented, often focusing on selected 'evocative' characters or relationships in relation to the psychological interests of the viewers. These retellings were the most open-ended or 'future-oriented' (in contrast to the determinism of the linear and thematic forms). Segmented retellings made use of existing knowledge of characters to speculate on future complications. These viewers - especially the Americans (Liebes & Katz 1989: 215) - also took account of the real-life personalities of the actors and of their relationships with the producers. In segmented retellings characters were referred to by both their character names and the performers' stage names. Illustrations from the story were chosen for their emotional effects. Segmented retellings can be seen epistemologically as involving a psychological or psychoanalytic perspective (Liebes 1988: 287). The kibbutz and American participants were comparatively secure, second-generation viewers who could 'afford the luxury of interest in the individual (i.e. in themselves)' (Liebes 1988: 290).
The Russian retellings tended to be thematic and involved the application of a deductive political organizing principle and a suppression of detail: these viewers were concerned with the ideological motives of the producers (which they tended to stereotype as capitalist propaganda), whom they saw as manipulated by big business. As with linear retellings, the thematic retellings were 'closed' and deterministic but 'the determining force' was ideological rather than referential (Liebes 1988: p. 289). The Russians saw the story as a false picture of reality. Illustrations from the narrative were chosen to highlight the persuasive power of the programme. These viewers paid particular attention not to the names of the characters or the actors but to the names of the producers and writers in the credits. Alluding to the theoretical framework of Hall (1980) and Morley (1908), Liebes notes that 'the paradigmatic [thematic] retelling... is more likely to accompany an "oppositional" reading... whereby critical awareness of an overall message surely sounds an alarm that the message may be manipulative' (Liebes 1988: 286-7). Thematic retellings can be seen epistemologically as ideological (Liebes 1988: 287).
The researchers reported in a separate publication that Arab and Russian groups made more statements about the thematic content of the program - (themes, ideology and message) - whilst the Americans made more statements about the programme's form (genre, formula, dramatic function of characters) (Liebes & Katz 1989: p. 208-9).
Liebes suggests that gender differences might have played a part in the forms of retelling which were favoured in the groups. From the perspective that soap operas are a 'feminine' form, she argues that the segmented retellings (of the kibbutz and American retellings might be attributable to the greater participation of women in these discussions, whilst the linear retellings, 'aiming at final solutions' might reflect 'the greater "manliness" of the two more traditional cultures' (Arab and Moroccan), noting that the Arab women had been at least initially reticent (Liebes 1988: 284).