Semiotics Research Paper

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Semiotics is an interdisciplinary field that studies ‘the life of signs within society’ (Saussure 1959, p. 16). While ‘signs’ most commonly refers to the elements of verbal language and other vehicles of communication, it also denotes any means of representing or knowing about an aspect of reality. As a result, semiotics has developed as a close cousin of such traditional disciplines as philosophy and psychology. In the social sciences and humanities, semiotics has become an influential approach to research on culture and communication particularly since the 1960s. This research paper describes the classical origins of semiotics, exemplifies its application to contemporary culture, and outlines its implications for the theory of science.

1. Origins: Logic And Linguistics

Two different senses of ‘signs’ can be traced in the works of Aristotle (Clarke 1990, p. 15) (see Aristotle (384–322 BC)). First, the mental impressions that people have, are signs which represent certain objects in the world to them. Second, spoken and written expressions are signs with which people are able to represent and communicate a particular understanding of these objects to others. The first sense, of mental impressions, points to the classical understanding of signs, not as words or images, but as naturally occurring evidence that something is the case. For example, fever is a sign of illness, and clouds are a sign that it may rain, to the extent that these signs are interpreted by humans. The second sense of signs as means of communication points towards the distinction that came to inform most modern science between conventional signs, especially verbal language, and sense data, or natural signs. Modern natural scientists could be said to study natural signs with reference to specialized conventional signs.

Given the ambition of semiotics to address the fundamental conditions of human knowledge, it has been an important undercurrent in the history of science and ideas. The first explicit statement regarding natural signs and language as two varieties of one general category of signs came not from Aristotle, but from St. Augustine (c. AD 400). This position was elaborated throughout the medieval period with reference, in part, to the understanding of nature as ‘God’s Book’ and an analogy to the Bible. However, it was not until the seventeenth century that the term semiotic emerged in John Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). Here, Locke proposed a science of signs in general, only to restrict his own focus to ‘the most usual’ signs, namely, verbal language and logic (Clarke 1990, p. 40).

1.1 Peircean Logic And Semiotics

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was the first thinker to recover this undercurrent in an attempt to develop a general semiotic. He understood his theory of signs as a form of logic, which informed a comprehensive system for understanding the nature of being and of knowledge. The key to the system is Peirce’s definition of the sign as having three aspects:

A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. That sign stands for something, its object.

An important implication of this definition is that signs always serve to mediate between objects in the world, including social facts, and concepts in the mind. Contrary to various skepticist positions, from Antiquity to postmodernism, Peirce’s point was not that signs are what we know, but how we come to know what we can justify saying that we know, in science and in everyday life. Peircean semiotics married a classical, Aristotelian notion of realism with the modern, Kantian position that humans necessarily construct their understanding of reality in the form of particular cognitive categories.

A further implication is that human understanding is not a singular internalization of reality, but a continuous process of interpretation, what is called semiosis. This is witnessed, for example, in the process of scientific discovery, but also in the ongoing coordination of social life. Figure 1 illustrates the process of semiosis, noting how any given interpretation (interpretant) itself serves as a sign in the next stage of an unending process which differentiates the understanding of objects in reality. Although Peirce’s outlook was that of a logician and a natural scientist, semiosis can be taken to refer to the processes of communication by which cultures are maintained and societies reproduced and, to a degree, reformed.

Semiotics Research Paper Figure 1

One of the most influential elements of Peirce’s semiotics outside logic and philosophy has been his categorization of different types of signs, particularly icon, index, and symbol. Icons relate to their objects through resemblance (e.g., a realistic painting); indices have a causal relation (e.g., fever as a symptom of illness); and symbols have an arbitrary relation to their object (e.g., words). Different disciplines and fields have relied on these types as analytical instruments in order to describe the ways in which humans perceive and act upon reality.

1.2 Saussurean Linguistics And Semiology

Compared with Peirce, the other main figure in the development of semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), placed a specific focus on verbal language, what Peirce had referred to as symbols. Probably the main achievement of Saussure was to outline the framework for modern linguistics. In contrast to the emphasis that earlier philology had placed on the diachronic perspective of how languages change over time, Saussure proposed to study language as a system in a synchronic perspective. Language as an abstract system (langue) could be distinguished, at least for analytical purposes, from the actual uses of language (parole). The language system has two dimensions. Along the syntagmatic dimension, letters, words, phrases, etc., are the units that combine to make up meaningful wholes, and each of these units has been chosen as one of several possibilities along a paradigmatic dimension, for example, one verb in preference to another. This combinatory system helps to account for the remarkable flexibility of language as a medium of social interaction.

To be precise, Saussure referred to the broader science of signs, as cited in the introduction to this research paper, not as semiotics, but as semiology. Like Locke, and later Peirce, Saussure relied on classical Greek to coin a technical term, and the two variants are explained, in part, by the fact that Peirce and Saussure had no knowledge of each other’s work. Moreover, in Saussure’s own work, the program for a semiology remained undeveloped, appearing almost as an aside from his main enterprise of linguistics. It was during the consolidation of semiotics as an interdisciplinary field from the 1960s that this became the agreed term, overriding Peirce’s ‘semiotic’ and Saussure’s ‘semiology’, as symbolized by the formation in 1969 of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. It was also during this period that Saussure’s systemic approach was redeveloped to apply to culture and society.

One important legacy of Saussure has been his account of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. This sign type is said to have two sides, a signified (concept) and a signifier (the acoustic image associated with it), whose relation is conventional or arbitrary. While this argument is sometimes construed in skepticist and relativist terms, as if sign users were paradoxically free to choose their own meanings, and hence almost destined to remain divorced from any consensual reality, the point is rather that the linguistic system as a whole, including the interrelations between signs and their components, is arbitrary, but fixed by social convention. When applied to studies of cultural forms other than language, or when extended to the description of social structures as signs, the principle of arbitrariness has been a source of analytical difficulties.

2. Applications: Media, Communication And Culture

It was the application of semiotics to questions of meaning beyond logic and linguistics which served to consolidate semiotics as a recognizable, if still heterogeneous field from the 1960s. Drawing on other traditions of aesthetic and social research, this emerging field began to make concrete what the study of ‘the life of signs within society’ might mean. The objects of analysis ranged from artworks to mass media to the life forms of premodern societies, but studies were united by a common interest in culture in the broad sense of worldviews that orient social action. The work of Claude Levi-Strauss (1963) on structural anthropology was characteristic and highly influential of such research on shared, underlying systems of interpretation which might explain the viewpoints or actions of individuals in a given context. It was Saussure’s emphasis on signs as a system, then, which provided a model for structuralist theories about social power (e.g., Louis Althusser) and about the unconscious as a ‘language’ (e.g., Jacques Lacan).

Of the French scholars who were especially instrumental in this consolidation, Roland Barthes, along with A. J. Greimas, stands out as an innovative and systematic theorist. His model of two levels of signification, reproduced in Fig. 2, has been one of the most widely copied attempts to link concrete sign vehicles, such as texts and images, with the ‘myths’ or ideologies which they articulate. Building on Louis Hjelmslev’s formal linguistics, Barthes (1973) suggested that the combined signifier and signified (expressive form and conceptual content) of one sign (e.g., a picture of a black man in a French uniform saluting the flag) may become the expressive form of a further, ideological content (e.g., that French imperialism is not a discriminatory or oppressive system). Barthes’ political agenda, shared by much semiotic scholarship since then, was that this semiotic mechanism serves to naturalize particular worldviews, while oppressing others, and should be deconstructed.

Semiotics Research Paper Figure 2

In retrospect, one can distinguish two ways of appropriating semiotics in social and cultural research. On the one hand, semiotics may be treated as a methodology for examining signs, whose social or philosophical implications are interpreted with reference to another set of theoretical concepts. On the other hand, semiotics may supply also the theoretical framework, so that societies, psyches, and images are understood not just in procedural, but also in actual conceptual terms as signs. The latter position is compatible with a variant of semiotics, which assumes that also biological and even cosmological processes are best understood as semioses. This ambitious and arguably imperialistic extension of logical and linguistic concepts into other fields has encountered criticism, for example, in cases where Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness has been taken to apply to visual communication or to the political and economic organization of society.

A semioticization of, for instance, audiovisual media (for example, see Visual Images in the Media) can be said to neglect their appeal to radically different perceptual registers, which are, in certain respects, natural rather than conventional (e.g., Messaris 1994) (for example, see Cognitive Science: Overview). Similarly, a de facto replacement of social science by semiotics may exaggerate the extent to which signs, rather than material and institutional conditions, determine the course of society, perhaps in response to semioticians’ political ambition of making a social difference by deconstructing signs. In recent decades, these concerns, along with critiques of Saussurean formalist systems, have led to attempts to formulate a social semiotics, integrating semiotic methodology with other social and communication theory (e.g., Hodge and Kress 1988, Jensen 1995). On the relations between semiotics and other fields, see Noth 1990.

A final distinction within semiotic studies of society and culture arises from the question of what is a ‘medium’. Media research has drawn substantially on semiotics to account for the distinctive sign types, codes, narratives and modes of address of different media such as newspapers, television or the Internet (for example, see Mass Media: Introduction and Schools of Thought). A particular challenge has been the film medium, which was described by Christian Metz (1974) not as a language system, but as a ‘language’ drawing on several semiotic codes. Beyond this approach to media as commonly understood, semioticians, taking their inspiration from LeviStrauss’ anthropology, have described other objects and artifacts as vehicles of meaning. One rich example is Barthes’ study of the structure of fashion, as depicted in magazines (Barthes 1985). The double meaning of a ‘medium’ is another indication both of the potential theoretical richness of semiotics and of the pitfalls of confusing different levels of analysis.

3. Theory Of Signs And Theory Of Science

It is this double edge which most likely explains the continuing influence of semiotic ideas since Antiquity, mostly, however, as an undercurrent of science. The understanding articulated in Aristotle’s writings of signs as evidence for an interpreter of something else which is at least temporarily absent, or as an interface which is not identical with the thing that is in evidence to the interpreter, may be taken as a cultural leap that has made possible scientific reflexivity as well as social organization beyond the here and now. Further, the sign concept has promoted the crucial distinction beginning with Aristotle between necessary and probable relations, as in logical inferences. Returning to the examples above, fever is a sure sign that the person is ill, since illness is a necessary condition of fever. But clouds are only a probable sign of rain. Empirical social research is mostly built on the premise that probable signs can lead to warranted inferences.

The link between a theory of signs and a theory of science has been explored primarily from a Peircean perspective. For one thing, Peirce himself made important contributions to logic and to the theory of science generally, notably by adding to deduction and induction the form of inference called abduction, which he detected both in everyday reasoning and at the core of scientific innovation. For another thing, the wider philosophical tradition of pragmatism (for example, see Pragmatism: Philosophical Aspects), which Peirce inaugurated, has emphasized the interrelations between knowledge, education, and action, and it has recently enjoyed a renaissance at the juncture between theory of science and social theory (e.g., Bernstein 1991, Joas 1993). By contrast, the Saussurean tradition has often bracketed issues concerning the relationship between the word and the world (Jakobson 1981, p. 19), even if critical research in this vein has recruited theories from other schools of thought in order to move semiology beyond the internal analysis of signs.

For future research, semiotics is likely to remain a source of inspiration in various scientific domains, as it has been for almost 2500 years. In light of the record from the past century of intensified interest in theories of signs, however, the field is less likely to develop into a coherent discipline. One of the main opportunities for semiotics may be to develop a meta-framework for understanding how different disciplines and fields conceive of their ‘data’ and ‘concepts’. The semiotic heritage offers both systematic analytical procedures and a means of reflexivity regarding the role of signs in society as well as in the social sciences.


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