Semiotics - The Science behind Meaning, Symbols & Signs

Academic Sources: A Theory of Semiotics by Umberto Eco, A Semiotic Analysis of Corporate Language: Organizational Boundaries and Joint Venturing by C. Marlene Fiol, and Reading Images: the Grammer of Visual Design by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen.

[Disclaimer: if you're not interested in the philosophical foundation behind semiotics and are only interested in how you can apply it, skip to the fourth paragraph starting with "New media technologies..."]

You would think that something as abstract as meaning can't be understood by a science - right? Everything about the nature of meaning seems to be interpretive, subjective, and personal. Introducing semiotics - the social science that studies the nature of meaning and ‘meaning-making.’ This discipline is concerned with the symbolism conveyed by objects and words. At the most rudimentary level, meaning is a product of the interaction between a sign system and a de-coder. At all times, we are perpetually engaged in this relationship and are constantly decoding the signs around us. According to semiotician Umberto Eco, the meaning of anything that holds symbolic value can be understood on five levels- physical, mechanical, economic, social, and semantic. Eco uses the example of an automobile to illustrate the area of meaning each of the five levels is concerned with;


1.    On the physical level, an automobile is understood by its weight, the specific metals and materials which it is composed of, and other sensory details like smell and feel.


2.    On the mechanical level, an automobile is understood as it is used to fulfill the function of transportation and the way in which obeys certain laws of mechanics like velocity and gravity.


3.    On the economic level, the automobile is understood as an asset that contains exchange value.


4.    On the social level, the automobile is understood as an indicator of social status, power, and prestige over others.


5.    On the semantic level, the automobile is understood as one cultural unit in a much larger cultural system composed of many units. These units are signs created by cultural relationships. These signs acquire the symbolic value that creates meaning in verbal or iconic communication. 

Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication. As mediums of communication become more sophisticated and omnipresent (aka - as our life becomes digital), it becomes increasingly important to have a conscious awareness of the meaning behind the signs around us. By breaking down each sign into the five dimensions of meaning proposed by Eco, we can access valuable insights into the meaning that these signs are communicating to society. Semiotics offers a lens through which we can understand phenomena in mass communications because it offers a uniform way to understand all types of modern communication (pictures, digital media, song, film, poetry) based on their characteristics in common. In A Theory of Semiotics, Umberto Eco explains that mass communication can be observed and studied as a unitary object insofar as three conditions exist:


1.    An industrial society which seems to be comparatively homogeneous but is, in reality, full of differences and contrasts.


2.    Channels of communication which make it possible to reach an indefinite circle of receivers in various sociological situations.


3.    Productive groups exist which actively work out and send out given messages by industrial means.


When these conditions exist as they do in contemporary society, “the differences in nature and effect between the various means of communication fade into the background compared with the emergence of common structures and effects… behavior and relationships of production and value function as such precisely because they obey semiotic laws,” (Eco). As a result, semiotics can provide a singular methodology that can be applied to the analysis of any mass communications phenomenon. 


New digital media technologies, particularly social networks, allow mass communications phenomena to occur faster than ever. The explosive growth of digital media has led semioticians to focus particularly on how social interests and ideologies influence the evolving meaning of signs. As social networks become populated by both people and corporate entities, corporations have learned to leverage these digital technologies and have grown to play a crucial role in influencing and guiding the evolution of signs. In social networks, words and pictures are used to tell stories and build narratives – these narratives can be analyzed semiotically. In A Semiotic Analysis of Corporate Language: Organizational Boundaries and Joint Venturing, C. Marlene Fiol uses narrative semiotic techniques to uncover patterns of internal and external boundary definitions in letters that chemical companies sent to shareholders. Shareholder letters are a great data set for semioticians because they share the common purpose of portraying a positive corporate image to an important constituency, their production is ruled by a rigid set of conventions regarding their format and what they must address, and the final production is approved by the CEO.  Letters use symbolism and story-telling to achieve these goals that are concerned with shaping meaning. By breaking apart the stories told in 30 letters to shareholders into their narrative component parts, Fiol discovered that the narrative structures within the letters of the best firms was very similar to the narrative patterns found in myths and folktales. The function of meaning-creating in these letters was best accomplished when it mimicked the same patterns of meaning-creating seen in cultural artifacts like myths and folktales. Since shareholders were much more receptive to letters that followed the folk-story narrative pattern, semiotic analysis was able to inform CEOs how to best frame their stories to shareholders, which in turn generated tangible value for these companies. 


In Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen used the socio-semiotic approach to yield seven key conclusions about the meaning-seeking behavior of readers. The seven assertions were;


1.    Readers prefer new information and expect it to be on the right in the semiotic space.


2.    Readers prefer the most general information at the top and the most specific information at the bottom.


3.    Readers look for the most important information in the center of the page and less important information on the periphery.


4.    Readers look for graphically salient elements (however, ‘what is made salient is culturally determined’).


5.    Readers look for paratexts.


6.    Readers follow elements connected to each other by framing devices such as lines and arrows.


7.    Readers scan the semiotic space before taking a closer look at certain units.


Although some of these assertions may appear to be obvious generalizations, it’s important to keep in mind that semiotics is a social science that endeavors to qualify these assertions as laws rather than generalizations. If we can use semiotics to predict meaning-seeking behavior in media consumption to a degree of scientific accuracy, the potential value of semiotic analysis in various applications would be incredible. These assertions were later tested and qualified with empirical data in Entry Points and Reading Paths on Newspaper Spreads: Comparing a Semiotic Analysis with Eye-Tracking Measurements, wherein three Swedish academics conducted an eye-tracking experiment to test socio-semiotic assertions about the textual spread and use of space in newspapers. Semiotic elements (like texts, paratexts, graphics, and thematic markers) in newspapers were analyzed according to three semiotic components; information value and structure, salience, and framing. From the above socio-semiotic assertions by Kress and Leeuwen, assertions 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 were validated strongly with empirical data, assertion 1 was inconclusive, and assertion 7 was found to be false (Holsanova et al.). The deductive approach of semiotics was almost entirely validated by the inductive approach of eye-tracking studies. The value and power of being able to understand and predict meaning-seeking behavior when people interact with media has an incredible range of possible applications for practitioners and academics alike.