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

5. Document analysis and semiology

5.1 Introduction
5.2 Document analysis for what?
5.3 Establishing the nature of documents and categorising them (external analysis)
5.4 Approaches to document analysis
5.5 Evidence of occurrence
5.6 Content analysis
5.7 Qualitative document analysis
5.8 Historical research

5.9 Hermeneutics
5.10 Semiology

5.10.1 Introduction
5.10.2 Arbitrariness of signs
5.10.3 Social semiology
5.10.4 Social myths

5.11 Critical media analysis
5.12 Aesthetics. art criticism, art history

Activity 5.10

5.10 Semiology

5.10.1 Introduction
Semiology is the science of signs. Signs are any words, gestures, pictures or other forms of communication that convey meaning. Semiology has been used to examine written documents, works of art, moving images, toys and fashion.

Semiology (also referred to as semiotics) analyses any sign system with a view to understanding what is both clearly denoted and what is implied, or connoted, by the signs used in a specific context.

Semiology takes various forms and derives from linguistics.

The linguistic approach has influenced literary criticism, leading away from the study of an author's biography or a work's social setting and toward the internal structure of the text itself. Semiotics is not limited to structural linguistics, it has been adapted and developed in sociology, in particular in the analysis of the mass media, film and cultural studies.

This Section will focus on social semiology to explore its objectives and methodology. Social (or sociological) semiology is usually considered to be based on the work of Roland Barthes, who developed approaches that derived from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in Europe and Charles Pierce in the United States. Some commentators use Saussure's term, 'semiology' to refer to the Saussurean tradition and 'semiotics' to refer to the Peircean tradition. However, the two terms have become interchangeable in most commentaries on the field.

Other semiotics theorists, discussed in Daniel Chandlers's comprehensive Semiotics for Beginners (Chandler, 1994-2017), include, Charles Morris, who developed a behaviourist semiotics, Louis Hjelmslev, Algirdas Greimas, Yuri Lotman, Christian Metz, Julia Kristeva, Roman Jakobson. Semiological study of popular culture has been undertaken since the middle of the 20th Century (semiological study of the bible dates back even further) and can be seen in the work of Umberto Eco, Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard, Michel de Certeau and Arthur Asa Berger.


5.10.2 Arbitrariness of signs
A key aspect of semiology is the assertion by Saussure that signs are arbitrary. This means that signs are not naturally related to the things they signify (or represent) but are determined by convention. Saussure argued that there is no inherent or necessary relationship between the thing that carries the meaning (the signifier, usually a word or symbol) and the actual meaning that is carried by the sign or symbol (the signified). For example, the word 'house' is not a house; the meaning of house could be carried by any string of letters (in French it is 'maison'). In English, that meaning is carried by the letters h, o, u, s, e combined into a single written word and consequent sound.

For Saussure, language is conventional, it is a self-contained system of signs: each element is meaningless by itself and meaningful only by its differentiation from the other elements.

Pierce argued that although arbitrary, signs were of three types: icon, which at least visually represented the object they signified (such as, the simplified depiction of a male and a female on toilet doors); index, which has meaning based upon some cause and effect relationship (for example, a weathervane carries certain meaning because of the wind); symbol, which are entirely arbitrary conventions such as words in a language, as mentioned above.

Some commentators (such as Phillip Vannini, 2007) draw a clear distinction between structural semiotics and social semiotics. However, other views suggest much overlap in practice, with the latter drawing on the former, albeit, that in some ethnographic-based analyses, the structural rigour of semiological analysis of signs is relaxed (see for example, CASE STUDY Condom use in Malawi).


5.10.3 Social semiology
Barthes (1967, p. 9) declared, in 1964, that 'semiology aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification'.

Semiology is underpinned by structuralism and is part of the general development of structuralist approaches to social scientific enquiry.

The intention of structuralism is to search out 'deep structures' underlying the 'surface features' of phenomena. When used in the social sciences it is particularly concerned with revealing underlying ideology

Sociological semiology seeks to study significations and meanings within society. The core of sociological semiology is to uncover the myths or ideology that underlies examples of signification systems.

Language is increasingly seen as crucial to the understanding of consciousness and social life. Traditional approaches to ideology took language for granted and concentrated on the context of discourse. Ideology is found, however, in both the uses of laguage (the selection and combination of signs) and in the signification system. Thus the study of ideology, derived from Saussure and Barthes, has been developed to take account of the linguistic significance of social practices and discourses.

Social semiology (hereafter just semiology) is essentially a critical social research methodology. It is very different from content analysis , which is a positivistic method that attempts to enumerate instances in a text and draw conclusions using statistical analysis. Stuart Hall (1980), director of the influential Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in the 1970s, noted that the development of semiology as an alternative to the dominant content analysis approach to mass media research was due to a growth in the interest of how the media represents the dominant ideology.

A semiological approach considers that any sign consists of two parts a signifier (what can be seen) and a signified what the signifier means. So a road sign consisting of the number 30 in a red circle is a sign (signifier) with a clear meaning in a given context. On a road in the United Kingdom the sign means (signifies) that the speed limit for motorised vehicles is 30 miles per hour. In France the same sign would signify a limit of 30 kilometres per hour – somewhat slower.

Someone unaware of the road traffic sign conventions in the United Kingdom would not necessarily know what the sign signified and may infer an incorrect meaning. So the meaning of any sign is dependent on its context and the ability of the reader of the sign to decode the meaning.

A 30-mile per hour road sign is explicit and unambiguous for British drivers. What is denoted by the sign is clear. The driver may ignore it, though, interpreting the sign as 'moderate speed and avoid going over 40 miles an hour'. This may not be a wise reading but what it illustrates is that any sign system has a clearly denoted signifier and a 'second order' connotation.

Consider another example. 'Red rose' is a sign. The utterance of the word or the written word is the signifier. What is signified is a red flower that typically grows on a thorny bush. The denoted meaning, then, is that of a red flower. However, in a given context, there is a connoted meaning that goes beyond the simple denotation. In England, a red rose is the symbol for the county of Lancashire, it is also used in some circumstances to refer to England, for example, a red rose as a badge on a rugby shirt. In certain contexts a red rose signifies romance or passion. Thus 'rose' as a sign is not just the combination of signifier and (first order) signified. Rose as a sign has a first-order denoted meaning (a flower) but also takes its meaning or value from its context leading to a second-order connotation (a region, a country, passion).

Semiology seeks to understand the underlying messages encapsulated in signs. As a critical approach it attempts to get beneath the surface of apparent meanings and examine the underlying aspects.

For example, Fiske and Hartley (1978) undertook a semiotic analysis of News at Ten, Come Dancing and various television police series, seeking out the underlying presuppositions of the programmes. Similarly, Hodge and Tripp (1986) examined children's semiological decoding of a cartoon series called Fangface. What each of these studies attempted to show was that beneath the obvious content of media messages there was a second level of meaning that related to a set of taken-for-granted myths about the social world.

A semiological approach has also been applied to the analysis of advertisements. Anderson, Dewhirst and Ling (2006), for example, have undertaken semiotic analyses of cigarette advertisements (see ). Television advertisements are a series of signs. For example, an advertisement for a brand of ready meals (Healthy Options) opens with a man holding a tray of two already-cooked meals, and there is a microwave oven in the background. The viewer is invited to fill in what is missing, that is, that he has opened the packet, put it in the microwave and, minutes later, taken out two delightfully cooked dinners. The simple connotation is that it takes no effort to cook the 'healthy' food. This is contrasted with a second man who runs into the room and flops on to the sofa. His attempts to be healthy have clearly involved a lot of effort.

There is a clear implication that the man who has cooked the food is cleverer than the man who has worked-out in the gym. The story goes on to reaffirm this. The first man has invited the second man's girlfriend to dinner. Her physical appearance and clothing connotes her concern with 'healthy living' and the first man has been clever enough to cook her a meal of which she would approve. He has only cooked two meals and further excludes the other man by making a witticism and squeezing between him and his girlfriend on the sofa. Cleverness is clearly associated with effortlessness and the voice-over confirms this by telling us that 'you do not have to be health mad to choose the healthy option'.


5.10.4 Social myths
The connotative level operates within the context of the scenario of the Healthy Options advertisement. However, it does not just get its meaning from the advertisement. It draws on the taken-for-granted notions of the viewer. These operate at a deeper, 'mythical' level. Myth, in this sense, does not mean ancient myths (in the sense of creation myths); rather it means those everyday common-sense notions that are taken for granted. Regarding the roles of women, the myths until recently were that women are nurturers and carers. Women's primary work is domestic work; additional work is for 'pin-money'. Women are weak, indecisive and manipulable (whereas men are strong, decisive and determined) and so on. (These myths persist in some social settings!) Myths, in this sense, then, are broader social presumptions and the connotations in media messages draw on these.

In the Healthy Options advertisement, several myths are drawn upon to make the connotation effective. First, there is the idea that healthiness is associated with attractiveness. More heightened awareness of the nature of the food we eat and the activity we engage in has led to a reconceptualisation of being healthy. (This has not always been the case; vegetarianism, for example, used to be depicted as the pursuit of spotty, emaciated, bearded cranks.)

Second, and specific to the analysis of gender stereotyping, is the myth of domestic labour. The presumption is that women do domestic labour. So showing a man cooking surely contradicts a basic myth? However, a reconsideration of the advertisement reveals that the man is not shown cooking. Rather, he has already cooked. The viewer is not even shown him opening the packet. Indeed, he is not even seen in the kitchen. The microwave is in the lounge! This appears to be a flat without a kitchen. The man is dissociated from domestic labour completely. The overt connotation embodied in the voice-over message that it takes no effort to prepare healthy food if you use this product is confirmed by the implication that it is so simple a man can do it. This implication draws on and reconfirms the myth of domestic labour being a female occupation. Finally, the advertisement draws on the myth of male strength, determination, intelligence and decisiveness, and female weakness. The woman in the advertisement takes a completely passive role, takes no part in the manoeuvring between the two men, and is effectively manipulated by the 'clever' man.

Advertisements deliberately manipulate connotations. They do so to create a transference of meaning from the action or surroundings in an advertisement to the product. Various techniques are used. In the Healthy Options advertisement the clever male is always associated with the food; he never puts the tray down. The not-so-clever male is clearly excluded from the food. The viewer is invited to make the transference subconsciously (Judith Williamson, 1978, in Decoding Advertisements, explores this process in great detail using over 100 advertisements).

Activity 5.10
Undertake semiological analysis of one (or more) television advertisements you have seen, drawing out the connotations and the underlying social myths that the advertisement draws on.

The semiotic approach has been used in other research besides mass media content, where the analysis has been based on documented conversations or observations. For example, Bakker and Bakker (2006, p. 71) undertook a semiotic analysis of club DJs. Their observation study focused on 'changes in technology, in aesthetic conventions and in the meanings of subcultural practices' in an 'attempt to shed light on the semiotic dynamics of music-making'. They were interested in understanding the 'historical, semiotic, and interactionist significance of the musical beat in the social world of club reggae DJing'.

Iddo Tavory and Ann Swidler (2009) undertook interviews with people in rural parts of Malawi about condom use to combat AIDS. Condoms were rarely used, especially with married partners, and the study explored why that was through a semiotic analysis of the documented conversations, see CASE STUDY Condom use in Malawi.



Note: Greimas attempts to take on the methodological problems of Barthes'  semiotic analysis, especially in respect of written texts. His attempt involves breaking down the semantic universe into micro-universes and establishing the principles of organisation, thus attempting to arrive at rules that account for the meanings produced when the units are combined into sentences/discourses. Return

Next 5.11 Critical media analysis