Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.4 Critical Social Research

2.4.1 The Development of Critial Social Research Structuralism Semiology Structuralism
Structuralism is a philosophical perspective that, although derived in part from Marx's critique of capitalism, also has other roots. Two other key structuralist influences on critical social research derive from anthropology, encapsulated in the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, and from linguistics, notably in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure.

[Note that in some writing, structuralism is linked heavily, if not exclusively, with linguistic structuralism.]

Both Saussure and Levi-Strauss subscribed to the underlying principle of structuralism, which is that the world is made up of relationships rather than things. This means that the significance of any element cannot be grasped independently of the structure of which it forms a part. For structuralists, the key is the system as a whole and the relationships within it. The whole system, moreover, is more than the sum of the parts. Structuralists seek out 'deep structures' underlying the surface features of such phenomena as language, society, behaviour and philosophical systems.

Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, argued, among other things, that the structure of 'primitive' myths reflect the structure of the society from which they come. By deconstructing the myth, and ignoring all the surplus detail, it was possible to isolate the internal structure of the narrative and show how that reflected the social structure.

Saussure's structuralist linguistics was set out in Cours de linguistique générale (Saussure, 1916); although not using the terms 'structure' and 'structuralism' it is the source of much of the terminology of structuralism. Saussure essentially argued that language is an interlocking system. Words do not have any intrinsic meaning. They have no meaning taken in isolation from the language in which they are part. Rather, each word derives its meaning from other words.

Furthermore, a word is a carrier of a meaning. Each word consists of two things, a 'signifier', the written word or the sound, and the 'signified', what it relates to. The signifier and the signified combine into a 'sign'. The 'sign' carries the meaning. So the word "dog" is a sign that consists of a signifier (the three letters D-O-G, which combine into a sound that rhymes with log) and a signified (a hairy quadruped that barks). (Other approaches to structuralist linguistics include the work of Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Roman Jakobson, Louis Hjelmslev and Algirdas Greimas).

Saussure's structural linguistics and Levi-Strauss' study of myths come together in the semiology of Roland Barthes. (Barthes has subsequently also beeen relabelled as a poststructuralist.

Top Semiology
Semiology (or semiotics) is the theory of signs. The two terms tend to get used interchangeably although, historically, 'semiology' tended to refer to the approach derived from the work of Saussure who coined the phrase (in French) 'semiologie', and 'semiotics' to the work of Peirce, who referred to himself as student of semiotics (see Section for a brief account of the role of Peirce in the development of pragmatism).

Although Peirce and Saussure are both, retrospectively, credited with a founding role in modern semiotics, the development of semiotics within sociology tends to draw much more heavily on the Saussurian legacy, notably through the work of Roland Barthes (see Section 5). More generally, semiology is the study of all patterned communication systems, both linguistic and non-linguistic, for example, literature, advertisements, etiquette, ritual and other non-verbal forms of communication such as fashion.

Although rooted in linguistics, semiology has been developed within sociology, particularly in the analysis of the communications media, cultural studies, and film studies.

Semiologists argue that signs are arbitrary. However, taking Saussure's notion of the interrelationship of linguistic systems, the underlying assumption of semiology is that as human actions or productions convey meaning there must be an underlying system of conventions and distinctions that makes this meaning possible. The role of semiology is to discover the conventions that make signs what they are.

Sociological semiology (by which we mean the application of semiological analysis to understanding the social world rather than specifically linguistic analysis) seeks to study sign systems and meanings within society. The core of sociological semiology is to uncover the myths or ideology that underlies examples of sign systems.

See Section 5 for detailed discussion of methods and examples of sociological studies using semiotic analysis.


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