What Is a Reception Theory?

Debra Barnhart

A reception theory is a philosophy, usually applied to literature, that recognizes the audience as an essential element to understanding the work's larger meaning. According to this sort of theory, a book or article’s true purpose cannot be understood without considering the readers. It teaches that overarching purpose or meaning is a process of interaction and reaction between the reader and the text, and can change based on who is interpreting the words. It is believed to have developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and many scholars say that it peaked then. It still has an important place in many discussions of literary criticisms, but in most cases it’s considered alongside a number of other theories, traditional and more modern. Reception theory has also spread to many other art forms, including theater, film, painting, and sculpture, and is an important part of discussions and criticism of those genres as well.

Reception theory emphasizes the importance of reader interpretation of works of literature.
Reception theory emphasizes the importance of reader interpretation of works of literature.


Most scholars agree that critical reception theory was first formally introduced in the late 1960s, most likely in Germany, and peaked in the 1970s and 1980s as it spread across the intellectual circles of Europe and much of the Western world. It was at that time one of the most influential forms of literary criticism in academic circles, and was often also known as “reception aesthetics.” Some of the most profound pieces of literature to come out of that period were written with the assumption that audience interpretation would shape their meaning, which gave rise to a unique and identifiable literary genre of works. This is not to say that works written either earlier or later didn’t ascribe to this theory or don’t have many of the same characteristics, but rather that the identification with audience aesthetics is often most profound in works from this period.

Cultural background, education, and the reader's native language all play a role in his or her understanding of a book.
Cultural background, education, and the reader's native language all play a role in his or her understanding of a book.

Importance of Individual Experiences

In broad terms, the theory assumes that the reservoir of life experiences a reader brings to the reading process is crucial to how he or she interprets an author’s creation. Cultural background, education, and of course the reader's native language all play a role in his or her understanding and emotional response. The theory suggests, in other words, that the reading experience activates and engages pre-existing experiences and memories. Readers are also expected to approach a novel, poem or short story with certain expectations about these forms of literature and what they will entail, and will relate these expectations to their previous reading experiences.


Reception theory has been applied to many different art forms and has even been used in the analysis of landscape architecture and archeological studies. Many factors can shape the interpretation of a work of art, whether it be a painting, a novel or a film. With each of these particular art forms, the theory recognizes not just the validity of individual interpretation, but also cultural interpretations that shift as a result of changes in economics, lifestyle, religious beliefs and innovations in technology. On this understanding, the core meaning of a piece of work can and to some degree should be expected to change over time, with changing circumstances, readerships, and social constructs. This could potentially open up the field of societal application to almost constant interpretation and reinterpretation of any given work.

Compared with More Traditional Theories

Traditional literary theory, which dominated prior to 1960, did not place as much emphasis on the reader’s function in the creative process. Rather, the focus was almost entirely on the author as well as the form and construction of the literary piece. Literary form typically takes into account whether the piece is a novel, short story, poem, or play. In addition, the author’s style and choice of literary devices, such as character development, setting, imagery and point of view, are also important considerations.

Traditional literary criticism asks questions about what the author was trying to communicate, how the work fit into a particular genre, why the author chose a particular literary device, and how the author’s background and experience influenced the creative process. Considering the reader’s interpretation adds another layer of complexity. Most modern criticism and analysis takes something of a universal approach, looking at a given work from various angles.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@hamje32 - I would say that with literature you could make a fair case for traditional literary criticism, where you take a decent stab at author’s intention to come up with what is a reasonable sense of his meaning.

In other disciplines, it’s a different story. Take archaeology, for example. One archaeologist may dig up a piece of super sharp, finely honed and precise flint – perhaps shaped into a hexagon or something like that.

He asks what purpose it could serve. Another archaeologist might ask, Could such precision be the work of the ancients, or did they get help from UFOs?

That sounds crazy, but I’ve heard it (at least on television). So your worldview does shape your interpretation of art, in my opinion.


@MrMoody - What do you think of interactive theater? Here the audience is actively involved in the drama presentation.

They may hold props or shout back things or stuff like that. I think this is reception theory taken to the hilt. No two theater performances will ever be the same.

The audience will, in the end, define the ultimate meaning for the art work. I’ve never seen these performances but I find the concept intriguing.

Personally, I would just be the fly on the wall. So I don’t think that I would alter the final meaning in any way whatsoever. But still it would be fun to watch.


@Mammmood - I don’t know; you can’t deny the influence of your own experience in determining real meaning in a piece of art. Are you suggesting that ten different people, armed with the same historical and contextual information about a literary novel, are going to come up with the same interpretation? I think not.

That’s because even history requires interpretation. Sure you have bare facts but there is some subjectivity in how you understand history. For example, did we steal America from the Native Americans or did we help them in the end? That’s a value loaded question and you will find historians on either end of the spectrum.

So while I don’t think literary works should be subject to wild flights of fancy in interpretation, you have to give some leeway to the critic’s point of view.


This sounds like a very subjective approach to literary interpretation. Sorry, I never bought into it when I was in college and I still don’t to this day.

In college the students would read a literary text and read into it whatever they wanted, in many cases quite oblivious to what I thought were clear contextual clues that signaled the author’s meaning.

When I tried to engage in traditional literary interpretation, I was told by the professor, “You can’t really know what the author meant.” Okay, maybe we can’t know with total certitude, but can we at least make a fair approximation?

My point was that if you were going to look outside the text for clues to meaning, look at the author’s life, his upbringing, and the times in which he lived. Look there, not in your own experiences as a reader.

Alas, I found myself in the minority in my convictions. To my classmates, every piece of art was a Rorschach test: read into it what you will.

Post your comments
Forgot password?