Semiotics Essay

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Semiotics is an interdisciplinary field that studies “the life of signs within society” (Saussure 1959, 16). While ‘signs’ most commonly refer to language and other symbolic communication, it may denote any means of knowing about or representing an aspect of reality. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce was the first thinker to develop a general semiotic (Peirce 1992–1998). He understood his theory of signs as a form of logic, which informed a comprehensive system addressing the nature of being and knowledge. The key to the system is Peirce’s definition of the sign as having three aspects: a ‘sign’ (or representamen), an ‘object’ that the sign refers to, and an ‘interpretant,’ which is somebody’s understanding of the object via the sign. The key implication is that the relationship between objects in the world, including social facts, and concepts in the mind is always mediated by signs. A further implication is that human understanding is not a singular internalization of reality, but a continuous process, what Peirce called “semiosis.”

One influential element of Peirce’s semiotics has been his categorization of different types of signs, especially icon, index, and symbol. ‘Icons’ relate to their objects through resemblance (a realistic painting of a landscape); ‘indices’ have a causal relation (a photograph registers a segment of that landscape); and ‘symbols’ have an arbitrary relation to their object (a novelist puts aspects of the landscape into words).

Compared with Peirce, the other main founder of semiotics, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, focused on verbal language (and used the term ‘semiology’). The main achievement of Saussure was to outline a framework for contemporary  linguistics. In contrast to the ‘diachronic’ emphasis of earlier philology, Saussure proposed to study language as a system in a ‘synchronic perspective.’ Language as an abstract system (‘langue’) could be distinguished 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. Each of these units is chosen as one of several possibilities along a ‘paradigmatic dimension;’ for example, one verb in preference to another. An important legacy of Saussure has been his account of the ‘arbitrariness’ of the linguistic sign. A sign is said to have two sides, a ‘signified’ (concept) and a ‘signifier’ (the acoustic image associated with it). The point is that the interrelations within the linguistic system of representation are arbitrary, but fixed by social convention, and hence open to critique and change.

It was the application to wider social and cultural issues that consolidated semiotics as an interdisciplinary field from the 1960s. The influential work of Claude Luvi-Strauss (1963) on structural anthropology examined cultures as systems of interpretation, and inspired critical analyses of culture, society, and the human unconscious as “languages”. Roland Barthes (1973) suggested that the combined signifier and signified (expressive form and conceptual content) of one sign (e.g., a magazine picture of a young black man in a French uniform saluting the flag) may become the expressive form of a further, ideological content (e.g., that French imperialism was not a discriminatory or oppressive system). This semiotic mechanism serves to naturalize particular worldviews, while obscuring others, and can be exposed analytically.

In current research, semiotics is applied to the study of texts and as part of ‘social semiotics,’ integrating semiotic methodology with other social and communication theory (e.g., Jensen 1995). Semiotics has also influenced theory of science by emphasizing the role of signs as evidence of necessary or probable relations, as in logical inferences. As such, semiotics offers means of reflexivity regarding the life of signs both in society at large and in scientific disciplines and fields


  1. Barthes, R. (1973). Mythologies. London: Paladin.
  2. Bignell, J. (2002). Media semiotics: An introduction, 2nd edn. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  3. Jensen, K. B. (1995). The social semiotics of mass communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Luvi-Strauss, C. (1968). Structural anthropology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  5. Peirce, C. S. (1992–1998). The essential Peirce. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
  6. Saussure, F. de (1959). Course in general linguistics. London: Peter Owen.

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