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formal analysis

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A mode of analysis focusing primarily on the identification and description of the formal features (see also form) of a text or artwork and on their relations—rather than on its explicit content, or without reference to its specific cultural or historical context (see also decontextualization). It can involve treating examples as typical of a particular period, movement, and/or style—tending to underplay differences within such codified ‘isms’. Even where a particular theoretical approach leads form to be analytically separated from content (a problematic strategy often associated with formalism and structuralism), this form of analysis can (but does not always) include the exploration of stylistic connotations (including the expressivity of material form, such as brushwork in painting) and the ideological analysis of forms (see also closed forms; open forms). Formal analysis can only be a partial analysis, since it backgrounds content, context, and audience factors, and as such it may form part of a larger analytical project. Purely formalist approaches may seek to be objective, but they can also be criticized as privileging the elite interpreter, and their relative abstraction leads to them sometimes being perceived as ‘arid’. See also textual analysis.

Subjects: Media studies

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