In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Semiotics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Secondary Theorists from Structuralism through Post-Structuralism
  • Secondary Theorists and Deconstruction

Anthropology Semiotics
Douglas Glick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0112


Semiotics is broadly concerned with how signs mediate meaningful relationships in human minds, in social interactions, and even in human interactions with animals and computers. Though it has its own widely cited central theorists, theoretical schools, and areas of study, it is not widely institutionalized as a formal discipline in academics. Perhaps for this reason, semiotic theory and practice extends across many distinct areas of social life, and there are significant areas of disagreement about both theory and method. Indeed, it is clear that not all those carrying out semiotic work are aware of other theorists and the applications and debates to which their work is tied. In this sense it is more of an area of interest, organized by a broad concern with the production and comprehension of sign-mediated meaning than an academic discipline with more clearly defined goals, methods, and debates. It can be summarized as a series of influences stemming from the analogical extensions and critical reactions to the work of its two founding theorists, Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Peirce. These influences have carried semiotics from linguistics and philosophy into anthropology, literary studies, film studies, mass media studies, advertising, marketing, and visual studies. Intellectual movements such as modernism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism can be related to it as well.

General Overviews

Sources that attempt to give a general overview of semiotics are typically similar. Two very basic principles unite semiotics. One is a broad concern with sign-mediated meaning. The second is that semiotics begins with the work of Saussure and/or Peirce. Thus most overviews follow a similar plan. They introduce the central concepts of one or both of these authors and then discuss how their ideas have been utilized by other theorists. Finally, they review the ways in which these concepts have been applied analytically to different contexts of communication. Within this general framing, however, there are significant differences. Some are written in a simpler style and aimed at the general reader, whereas others are more challenging. Some focus more on particular semiotic applications at the expense of others. Chandler 2002 takes a social constructivist position in a book that is easy to read and aimed at a general reader. Cobley and Jansz 1999 is similar but focuses on philosophical questions. Deely 1990 problematizes the goals of semiotics in ways that will interest those new to this field of study. The book’s strength is to develop a philosophical answer to the question of what makes semiotics distinct from other approaches to meaning and human representation. Guiraud 1975 explores many of the distinct fields that semiotics is applied to, but it does so through the lens of the author’s own philosophical concepts. A classic text, Hodge and Kress 1988, takes semiotic analysis into contexts of social interaction and investigates the social power of signs in context. The text is by two key figures in contemporary semiotics, and they have done much to promote the semiotic analysis of social life. In addition, their work is key to understanding recent semiotic work on the mass media. Johansen and Larsen 2002 makes use of six basic semiotic concepts to introduce beginning students to the field. Nöth 1990 is considered to be among the best reference books in terms of its comprehensiveness and accuracy. In entries that are typically relatively brief, the author takes historical, conceptual, generic, and institutional perspectives on the field. Sebeok 2001 presents an introduction from the perspective of a leading American semiotician. As such, more so than the others, the book is an introduction to core semiotic concepts from a Peircean perspective.

  • Chandler, Daniel. 2002. Semiotics: The basics. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203166277

    A thorough, easy-to-read introduction cited by many as an excellent place to start. Developed out of a course for beginning students. Available online, including updates and an extended list of references and a glossary.

  • Cobley, Paul, and Litza Jansz. 1999. Introducing semiotics. Edited by Richard Appignanesi. Cambridge, UK: Icon.

    An introduction for beginning students. The book motivates a philosophical interest in the subject and is particularly strong in providing a thorough historical purview of those who have contributed to the field. It details basic concepts and applies them to a broad range of fields. Visual examples appear throughout.

  • Deely, John. 1990. Basics of semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    A book written for graduate students who are particularly interested in a philosophical approach to the subject. Provides a good introduction to the philosophical traditions of realism and idealism as they relate to semiotics and the epistemological and ontological debates that emerge from its application. Not well suited for beginning students.

  • Guiraud, Pierre. 1975. Semiology. Translated by George Gross. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Suited to those looking for concise sections on the concepts of form, function, and substance. It covers many of the social and aesthetic codes that are studied in various fields and relates them back to core founding concepts. One of the first introductions to cover semiotics and the mass media.

  • Hodge, Robert, and Gunther Kress. 1988. Social semiotics. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    This classic text moves semiotic analysis from abstract theoretical discussions about isolated signs and categorical systems of classification to contexts of social interaction. Extending the work of Voloshinov, the authors problematize how signs mediate power in social interactions by focusing on gender and class as they are mediated by ideology.

  • Johansen, Jørgen Dines, and Svend Erik Larsen. 2002. Signs in use. Translated by Dinda L. Gorleé and John Irons. London: Routledge.

    Drawing on various traditions, the authors propose six basic semiotic concepts: code, sign, discourse, action, text, and culture. They are adapted here into a unifying synthesis proposed by the book and then applied in chapter after chapter to a very broad range of sign-using experiences. Written for the beginning student.

  • Nöth, Winfried. 1990. Handbook of semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Not a book to be read cover to cover. It will help readers see connections among different research traditions, theorists, and concepts. It is particularly useful as a resource on the pioneering theorists in the field. It also includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Sebeok, Thomas A. 2001. Signs: An introduction to semiotics. 2d ed. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    The author is a central figure in the history of semiotic thought. The book is not overly technical and includes a useful glossary. It is written for undergraduate and graduate students.

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