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«by Sarah Kathryn Knudson A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of Sociology ...»

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audience. It has also paid scant attention to theoretical developments in other branches of media reception studies when considering audiences—a mutually limiting oversight that has inhibited opportunities for broad theory building. Taking two fundamental premises from reception studies—the acknowledgement that all texts are polysemic or “open” to a certain extent, and that audiences’ readings of texts can range from being close to those intended by the creator to negotiated or oppositional (Dines and Humez, 2003: 3-6)—Chapter 4 uses the case of self-help consumption in a context of cultural diversity to examine how modes of reading are generated.

Chapter 4’s central argument, the finding discussed above that combination of type of book and primary motive for consumption combine to generate particular modes of reading, and its discovery of two overarching modes of reception (targeted and habitual) in self-help audiences, offer yet another theoretical framework and basic terminology that should be broadly applied to studies of reception in other practical, non-fiction genres. This characterization of reception modes comes out of in-depth interviews with readers in which they explained how and why they consumer the genre, and represents durable (perhaps lifelong) approaches to reception. My discovery of two subsidiary reception modes (talking back and transcoding) in habitual readers— particularly those with multiple minority statuses and experiences of uprooting and discrimination—demonstrates the fruitfulness of bringing a theoretical approach popular in feminist research to studies of reception, namely studying the influence of minority statuses on how readers read texts. This approach offers possibilities for more nuanced understandings of factors influencing reception, without losing sight of gender as a variable of particular interest vis-à-vis relationship advice for heterosexuals.


This dissertation draws on qualitative data from textual analyses and in-depth, semi-structured interviews, and is organized into five chapters; three substantive chapters are written as independent publishable papers, with a common introductory chapter and concluding chapter.

Although the substantive chapters can stand alone as empirical studies and theoretical commentaries, they also speak to one another and should be seen as part of a broader project intended to illuminate three fundamental areas of cultural analysis: context, text and audience reception. While cultural production (of which context is a component) is not a focus here, it is 13 nonetheless acknowledged throughout this project as having a significant influence on both cultural goods and their audiences. As other studies of culture industries have demonstrated (e.g.

Becker, 1982; Peterson and Anand, 2004), we cannot ignore the power of cultural gatekeepers such as editors in shaping textual content and by extension influencing possibilities for reception.

Chapter 2, the first substantive chapter, maps out fifty years of ideological trends in bestselling advice books’ ideas about women’s perceived needs and wants in relationships. It juxtaposes the analysis of trends against an historical overview of social changes, and considers the linkages between text and context. Whereas Chapter 2 looks longitudinally with a focus on women, Chapter 3 turns to the growing sub-genre of men’s books and examines more recent publications (from 1995 onward), concentrating on constructions masculinity prescribed by authors. It also raises the issue of changing prescriptions for gendered behaviour throughout the life course, paying attention to how constructions of masculinity vary by age of target audience. Here, the masculinities literature is drawn on for theoretical guidance and insight. After considering text and context, the dissertation shifts to audience reception in Chapter 4 and considers the complex ways in which the biographies, socio-demographic profiles and perceived needs and wants of adult consumers from various walks of life interact to influence their ways of consuming relationship self-help. This chapter makes a concerted effort to link theoretical insights arising from the data to opportunities for broader theoretical development in reception studies. Chapter 5 offers a summary of the dissertation’s findings and contributions in furthering understandings of self-help products, ideas about gender relations and processes of reception; it also provides commentary on how the three distinct studies presented here speak to and build upon each other.

In closing, it acknowledges limitations of the research, and suggests new lines of inquiry stemming from the results presented here.


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promising future as influential, ubiquitous products. Beyond arguments about the genre’s popularity and durability—and the likelihood that this research will therefore offer an important reference point for scholars looking back on the genre’s development—there are several compelling reasons for carrying out this research and acknowledging its originality.

First, it offers the first combined look at relationship self-help’s context, texts and reception that is both longitudinally focused and that includes equal emphasis on products for men and women.

Its longitudinal focus reveals nuance and ideological tensions in messages that would go undetected in shorter sampling frames, and its interest in the growing area of men’s products enables initial theoretical development on masculinities, self-help and the life course. In so doing, these new approaches accomplish a central goal of the dissertation by correcting prior presumptions and arguments about ideological trends; here, I show that the time-limited samples of earlier research led to misinterpretations regarding dynamics of change in advice and content of messages. Consequently, I succeed in increasing and providing more accurate knowledge about ideological trends in advice books. The new theoretical and conceptual vocabulary that this dissertation generates from its look at men and self-help picks up where more descriptive commentaries on masculinity and advice reading have left off (e.g. Kimmel, 2006; Singleton, 2003); this enables us to address why certain themes or processes predominate among men’s books and male audiences, and lays a foundation for future investigations.

The research also offers the first look at minority audiences’ consumption of the genre, consequently expanding understandings of reception in minority groups and drawing attention to the growing issue of cultural dissonance between product and audience. As with the dissertation’s section on masculinities, it offers fresh theoretical insight (discussed above) that can be applied to analyses of various cultural goods and combinations of audience diversity. Yet another original contribution made here is the dissertation’s look at reception in a new combination of texts and consumers: practical non-fiction read by a heterogeneous group of consumers with a predominantly non-pleasure motive for reading. Again, this generates theoretical understandings with very broad applicability. Although prior research on modes of reading has generated excellent knowledge about how reading occurs, this contribution finds something new to add to understandings of reception and should be integrated into all future research on modes of reading.

15 Though I anticipate that the findings presented here will be of greatest interest to sociologists, producers and distributors of cultural goods such as advice products could stand to learn a lot from the analysis of audience reception provided here, and would be advised to take note of the audience’s diversity and oft-experienced cultural dissonance between products’ prescriptions and their own lived experiences. Tailoring products to better meet the expectations of changing audiences would not only increase industry profits in this case, but also holds the promise of diminishing the exacerbation of social inequalities through products’ more progressive and inclusive messages about intimacy. Such win-win situations are rare. Finally, a project like this accomplishes a goal that lies at the core of sociological inquiry (Mills, 1959): it problematizes and politicizes a highly popular but often hidden and private practice—the consumption of relationship advice—and demonstrates how the personal issue of relationship troubles, including how we conceptualize and seek to resolve them, are shaped in relation to broader social forces.


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The Case for Studying Relationship Self-Help Changes in advice book messages over the past fifty years reflect and speak to the many cultural and structural changes that have impacted how heterosexual men and women think about and live out their intimate lives. Sociologists can therefore turn to relationship self-help to illuminate changing gender relations, social structures and ideologies. As key social structures in North America (for instance, the church and extended families) where individuals once sought guidance about their relationships lose cultural potency (Bellah et al., 1985), and insecurities about social and economic structures—namely our families, our intimate relationships, our jobs and career trajectories—become increasingly insecure or unclear (McGee, 2005), people are turning to alternative sources of advice, of which self-help books are a readily available option.

Their accessibility and low cost, along with the privacy they offer readers, suggest that they will remain a popular source for relationship advice in the coming years (Schudson, 1989; Simonds, 1992; Starker, 1989).

It is also probable that self-help books, by virtue of the excitement and sense of community they often generate among readers, will retain their status as a top-selling genre (Schudson, 1989;

Simonds, 1992; Starker, 1989). What is more, self-help authors (who are, in many cases, major media personalities) are what Bourdieu (1984) terms “cultural intermediaries.” They are active shapers of culture through the advice they dispense and the assessments they make of changes and trends in intimate life, and set the agenda for talking about contemporary intimacy.


Self-Help Amidst the “Chaos” of Contemporary Love

Though the popularity of self-help literature and relationship advice is widely acknowledged in sociological research (see Carpenter, 2008; Neville, 2007; Whelan, 2004), sociologists disagree about the nature of relationship advice books’ content and their impact on intimate relationships.

Most researchers (e.g. Boynton, 2003; Clarke and Rúdólfsdóttir, 2005; Connell and Hunt, 2006;

Coontz, 2005; Ericksen, 1999; Hazleden, 2003, 2004; Hochschild, 1994; Illouz, 1997; Jamieson, 1998; Ménard and Kleinplatz, 2008; Peril, 2002, 2006; Siegel, 2000) suggest that advice literature champions conservative, regressive or simply unhelpful approaches to developing and sustaining relationships.

Another—albeit smaller—camp of scholars opposes these views and argues that advice books help men and women expect and achieve more egalitarian relationships. The most frequently cited proponent of the genre, Anthony Giddens, posits that the genre promises to contribute to a “democratization” of heterosexual intimate relationships (1991: 78, 1992). While those who share Giddens’ optimism do not claim that relationship self-help works directly to challenge and change structural arrangements that contribute to the perpetuation of gender inequalities, they propose that the genre offers considerable potential for spurring readers to political protest that can engender democratizing changes in gender relations. As McGee notes, the self-help culture is frequently seen as “a prepolitical form of protest: as individual dissatisfactions that could be channeled toward political participation” (2005: 23). She proceeds to assert that two core ideas on which the self-help genre is premised—self-determination and self-fulfillment—hold political possibilities “that might be tapped for a progressive, even a radical, agenda” (2005: 24). In so doing, she puts forth the idea previously articulated by Taylor (1999: 10) that feminist criticisms of women’s self-help have been “excessively harsh.” This perception of self-help’s democratizing power to engender political protest and macro-level social change is evident in Steinem’s argument that self-help offers women and men the potential to ignite a “revolution from within,” as the process of self-discovery and awareness of oppression push readers to demand and fight for political change (1992: 10). Further, Steinem proposes that self-help constitutes a tool for political mobilization that even women who are suspicious of activist involvement in group contexts might feel comfortable employing. Selfhelp’s promotion of revolution from within, says Steinem, succeeds in ending the artificial but 18 oft-imagined polarization between social activism and self-exploration (1992: 3-10). To Taylor, who examines the role of self-help reading or “bibliotherapy” within the broader context of selfhelp movements (i.e. collective, politicized efforts wherein individuals with like problems or situations collaborate in obtaining information and offering support), the self-help genre— whether focused on health or relationship concerns—promotes gender equality by offering women broader (meaning socially contextualized) understandings of their problems (1999: 12, 18). Consequently, she credits self-help for confirming women’s shared experiences of oppression rooted in gender, and for illuminating the same linkages between the personal and the political that Steinem discusses (1992: 16). As Taylor points out, some of the most famous and bestselling self-help manuals marketed to women, notably the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective classic, Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971), are explicitly feminist and encourage use of self-knowledge to challenge authority and the “expert opinion” often rooted in patriarchal institutions like the medical system (1999: 15-19).

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