Semiotics – A case of overinterpretation? (1)

Semiotics has been defined as the science of the life of signs is society (Saussure, 1974). Social semiotics has developed out of an intensive critical reading of earlier work, particularly of the so-called founding fathers, Saussure  and C. S. Peirce. Some accounts of semiotics suggest that there are two traditions stemming from these two founding fathers: continental semiotics, a rationalist, structuralist form deriving from Saussure;  and American semiotics, a more behaviourist and positivistic approach that derives from Peirce.


Semiosis stresses systems and products rather than speakers and writers as connected and interacting in a variety of ways in concrete social contexts. It attributes power to meaning, instead of meaning to power. It views forms of communication as corresponding to particular forms of social organisation which cannot survive without them (Hodge & Kress, 1988:1-2)and it highlights the ideological complexes that are constructed in order to constrain behaviour by structuring the versions of reality on which social action is based.

From the moment children are born, they are subject to the effects of semiosis and culture. The new-born enter at once into a semiotic relationship with other humans around them and, in a process which ceases only at death, they construct a world of meaning, and are constructed by an already semioticised world.  That process is constantly interactive and dynamic; children are not simply tabulae rasae to be inscribed by culture but they are active participants in their own cultural formation, neither simply inscribed by culture, nor simply assimilating cultural forms, values and processes. In a semiotic reality, producers of messages rely on recipients for them to function as intended. This requires recipients to have knowledge of a set of messages on another level, messages that provide specific information about how to read the message. This higher level-control mechanism is called a logonomic system (Hodge & Kress, 1988: 4).

Logonomic systems are a set of rules prescribing the conditions for production and reception of meanings. They specify ‘who’ claims to initiate or know meanings about ‘what’ topic ‘under what circumstances’ and ‘with what modalities’.  A logonomic system is itself a set of messages, part of an ideological complex but serving to make it unambiguous in practice. Where structures of domination are unchallenged, a logonomic system serves the dominant by ensuring that acts of semiosis ultimately assure their dominance. Where structures of domination are underchallenge, logonomic systems are likely areas of contestation.  The logonomic rules are specifically taught and policed by concrete social agents coercing concrete individuals in specific situations by processes, which are in principle, open to study and analysis.    Logonomic rules rest on a set of classifications of people, topics and circumstances which are the result of contestation over long periods, but which ultimately derive from the ruling ideas of the dominant group. (Hodge & Kress, 1988:5) When a logonomic system allows, for example,  a statement offensive to women to be read as a joke, this means a particular structure of gender relations in which males are dominant. When a logonomic system allows for a text to legitimise racial constructions as valid, this reflects a particular  structure of relations  in which certain group is dominant.

Hodge and Kress explain that the motor of semiotic change is the desire to express difference. This desire proceeds from the need of specific groups to create internal solidarity and to exclude others. Differences can be expressed by marked choices and significant transformations at any level in a semiotic hierarchy, from the micro level (accent, style or grammar) through the meso level (item, phrase, ensemble) to the macro level (topic, theme, cosmology, metaphysics).  These differences exist to express group ideology and group identity.  They normally form functional sets of metasigns (pervasive markers of group allegiance) whose meaning is social rather than referential. Metasigns of group identity are normally constructed out of transparent  signifiers. The culture of a group performs the same functions for it as the metasigns in individual codes.  A culture, then, is a complex that consists of metasigns from a range of codes (speech, clothing, food) with a common core of social meanings.

Verbal language appears too limited for social semiotics for meaning is seen to reside so strongly and pervasively in other systems of meanings, in visual, aural and behavioural codes that concentrating in words alone is not enough.  To some, this may appear to be an overinterpretation of every aspect of reality, perhaps an obsession with the different spheres in meaning.

But, how has social analysis come to this point in the understanding of meaning and at what point in time did meaning became an issue of concern to scholars? More in part two of Semiotics, a case of overinterpretation?

Saussure, Ferdinand de ([1916] 1974): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Wade Baskin). London: Fontana/Collins
Hodge, R. & Kress, G., 1988, Social Semiotics, Cambridge: Polity Press

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