Semiotics

In Brief:

Semiotics is a key theory that underpins Media Studies as well as other cultural, linguistic and communications studies (think: Photography, English Language, Linguistics, Cultural Studies, Communication Studies etc). As such, there are a number of key thinkers, key words and key ideas that you need to know as part of and as a foundation to, any of these courses.

From an Academic Perspective:

Semiotics is a way of understanding how we are separated from the beasts! It is a fundamental body of academic thinking that suggests that Language is the primary mode by which human beings attain consciousness are able to communicate with sophistication and thereby able to address ideas of being – ontology – and knowing/understanding – epistemology. In other words, the foundation point for recognising human civilisation. So pretty big ideas!

Symbolic Interactionism

One way of understanding the world and oneself (ontology) and discovering how we know anything (epistemology) is to look at the theory of symbolic interactionism.

Symbolic interactionism is a recognised sociological theory that proposes the idea that reacting, interacting, responding and developing is the process through which we essentially become aware of ourselves (our identity) and our place in society and in relation to others. Overall, it is the process that makes us human – as opposed to non-human life forms.

It is a philosophical position that offers an opportunity to interpret, define and understand the relationship between ourselves as individuals and ‘the other’, which for Mead is the central mechanism of existence that ‘enables the human being to make indication to himself of things in his surroundings and thus to guide his action by what he notes.’ (1934, p. 180) In other words, symbolic interactionism identifies the process in which the individual and the community can be recognised in a symbiotic relationship of both ‘self’ and ‘other’.

Let’s make it easy

This means essentially that we understand who and what we are through interactions with others.

At the heart of this thinking is the idea that language is key to our understanding.

At the heart of this idea is the notion that language is made up of various signs and symbols, so we need to understand and break down the concept of semiotics which is the study of signs.

As Howell puts forward, ‘through language and structure we become . . . we attain consciousness of self as generalised other’ (2000, p. 27), recognising, in a later work, that the ‘community and self are intrinsically linked.’ (2013, p. 89)

  • Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
  • Howell, K. (2000). Discovering the Limits of European Integration: A grounded theory approach. New York: Nova Science Publishers.
  • Howell, K. (2013). An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology. London: Sage.
  • Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Semiotics

Semiotics is the study of signs. It is a recognised academic tool to allow students to interpret a range of texts. So in terms of Media Studies, it allows students to deconstruct (ie breakdown) specific media texts in order that they may be able to present a better understanding of both:

  • how they are constructed
  • what they mean

This is why semiotics is closely linked to Media Language, as the process of deconstructing and analysing helps students to identify what elements are used to construct a specific media text and more importantly why they might used. This approach is known as critical thinking. Critical thinking means asking not only ‘what’ but ‘why’ and ‘what does that mean’, it is a cornerstone of academic work and is encouraged to be used as part of any practical work. In other words, remember to think when you do, as this will make your work much more interesting, developed, informed, nuanced, intelligent, creative . . . etc etc.

I have written some blog posts about different media languages, for example the language of print, the language of radio, the language of moving image, so please look at these posts in conjunction with this one.

Key theorists

Usually in most media, cultural and communication courses there are three main theorists that are examined and applied:

  • Ferdinand De Sausure
  • C S Pierce
  • Roland Barthes

And generally the following key language is part of this process:

  • Ferdinand De Sausure – signifier / signified
  • C S Pierce – icon / index / symbol
  • Roland Barthes – denotation / connotation / myth

Overview

To provide some context and overview I will provide a brief explanation for each one:

Ferdinand de Sausure

Ferdinand Sausure (1857-1913) was interested in Linguistics, in other words, he was interested in Language – so you can see why we look at him in Media Studies. As a brief overview, he was interested in the connection between’ a thing’, ‘an object’, a something’ and the meaning that human beings then attach to ‘this thing’.

He wanted to explore this area, as it seemed to suggest that things don’t have an innate meaning, rather that meaning is given to things, often through some form of interaction – hence, the notion of symbolic interactionism.

Sausure then developed an approach to understanding the way in which meaning is created by detaching the signifier (the thing, the object) and the signified (the meaning). So it is important to try and use these two terms when referring to Sausure, when you are discussing key elements or signs in a text.

C S Pierce

Pierce  (1839 -1914) was also a Linguist. Also interested in Language. Also therefore appropriate to Semiotics, when you are looking to use some key language to deconstruct a cultural text. Again he was looking to develop an understanding of the way in which Language is a way of connecting meaning to different signs. Often he is used to identify different types of sign, which can be categorised into three distinct categories:

  1. An iconic sign – which has a direct connection to its’ object (ie it looks or sounds like the object)
  2. An indexical sign – which has an indirect link to its’ object (think smells)
  3. A symbolic sign – which has a random or arbitary link based on a shared knowledge or an agreement, for example, a shared culture or language (think letters, words, writing, shapes, squiggles, colours, sound effects, facial expressions, hand gestures, clothing, hair styles, etc)

I don’t want to present an example deconstruction in this post, as you need to do that in class with your teacher, but if you look at the featured image on this post, you can start to identify a range of different signs.

  • iconic signs – people, glasses, dummy etc things that are present which have a direct connection to its’ object (ie they are not real people, they are a photograph of people, they are not real glasses, it is a photograph of a real pair of glasses). In this way you can start to break down the object – in this case the elements in the photograph – to the objects in real life.  A process which disconnects the signifiers (the things) from the signified (what these things might mean). As such, you can start to understand how reality is constructed through symbolic forms. Or how the world is re-presented / represented through the media.
  • Indexical signs – look at the type of clothing that young people wear, what does that link to? The clothing that I am wearing, which may indicate who I am and what is the relationship between the young people and myself? What do glasses link to? What does placing the glasses on the dummy head mean? All of these signs have indirect links to meaning, because in this instance, we have think about what we see (the signifier) and what it might mean (the signified). In other words, it is not obvious and requires some interpretation, in that the sign provides an index to meaning, but it is not direct, explicit or clear.
  • Symbolic signs – the hand gestures, the writing, the use of black and white & colour, all of which have random or arbitary links.  In other words, you really have to know something about hand gestures and be part of a culture that agrees on their meaning for this to make sense. In a more simple illustration you have to be able to understand the English Language to read and decode the writing, as this would not make sense if you didn’t. At a micro level the signs ‘R.I.P.’ only make sense if you are part of a community or language group that is familiar with this. At a more advanced level, you can only make sense of the meaning of this photograph is you are able to notice and decode the relationship between one sign and another. For example, the hand gestures, the facial expressions and the clothing.
  • Indeed, the way in which signs work together is worth recognising (although this is not associated with Pierce). For example, a group of similar signs is known as a paradigm and the way in which signs work together is often called a syntagym.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) is often seen as a founding father of Media Studies, as many of his books look at the way in which media texts hold meaning. For example, Mythologies (1957) looks at wrestling, Roman films, soap powders and detergents, steak and chips, striptease, plastic . . .

Roland Barthes is often seen as a structuralist in other words, he was interested in tracing the relationship between significant societal structures, like the media and popular culture and identifying how they made an impact on society and individuals. In particular, he was interested in the ways in which dominant structures created dominant ideologies. To that end, he was keen to encourage a reading of cultural texts from an analysis of what they were (analysing the object), which operates at a denotative level (think for examples elements and signs that are in a newspaper, or radio programme, film, television, advert or web-page), to what they might mean, which is at a connotative level.

Beyond this Barthes felt that by understanding a range of meanings (connotations) from a range of similar texts (paradigms) it was possible to develop an understanding of an overarching dominant ideology or at a point that Barthes identifies as a myth. In other words, an argument is presented that suggests that the mass media contribute to a dominant ideology around gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, class and status, which are actually are myths. It could be then argued that these myths are actually in-line with the dominant ideology (attitudes, values and beliefs) of the dominant groups in society.

This aligns his views to a Marxist interpretation of society (one based on the ideas of Karl Marx), where the dominant ideology of society is actually the ideology of the dominant groups in society, which may not necessarily be in everybody’s interest or benefit.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.

Marx, German Ideology (1845)

Following this line of thought, cultural texts that appear to support the dominant ideology can the therefore referred to as ‘reactionary’ as opposed to texts which challenge the dominant ideology which can be referred to as ‘radical’. Although, what soon becomes apparent in any textual analysis is that most texts usually appear to have elements that are both radical and reactionary. As such, it may be necessary to think further about where meaning comes from, because if we think about it with reference to the theory of symbolic interactionism, then we need to consider the role of the audience in constructing meaning, as well as thinking about the role of the author of a text, or even the institution that made it. This idea can again be referenced to Barthes in his proposition of the ‘Death of the Author‘ and will be explored in another post follow this link if you want to find out a bit more.

For now here are some excellent animated videos that help to explore some of the ideas that I have put forward.

The best way forward I would suggest is to take these ideas and make them your own! For example, you could make some revision notes using the key words in ‘bold’ and then try to apply them to some of your set texts that you have been looking at in your course, or that you know you will be examined on. Try writing short, separate individual paragraphs.

Feel free to send me your work, ask a question or let me know how I could improve this post. Leave a comment or contact me via twitter or email.

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