Other than as 'the study of signs' there is relatively little agreement amongst semioticians themselves as to the scope and methodology of semiotics. Although Saussure had looked forward to the day when semiotics would become part of the social sciences, semiotics is still a relatively loosely defined critical practice rather than a unified, fully-fledged analytical method or theory. At worst, what passes for 'semiotic analysis' is little more than a pretentious form of literary criticism applied beyond the bounds of literature and based merely on subjective interpretation and grand assertions. This kind of abuse has earned semiotics an unenviable reputation in some quarters as the last refuge for academic charlatans. Criticisms of structuralist semiotics have led some theorists to abandon semiotics altogether, whilst others have sought to merge it with new perspectives. It is difficult to offer a critique of a shifting target which changes its form so fluidly as it moves.
Semiotics is often criticized as 'imperialistic', since some semioticians appear to regard it as concerned with, and applicable to, anything and everything, trespassing on almost every academic discipline. John Sturrock comments that the 'dramatic extension of the semiotic field, to include the whole of culture, is looked on by those suspicious of it as a kind of intellectual terrorism, overfilling our lives with meanings' (Sturrock 1986, 89). Semiotic analysis is just one of many techniques which may be used to explore sign practices. Signs in various media are not alike - different types may need to be studied in different ways. As with any other process of mediation, semiotics suits some purposes better than others. Semiotics does not, for instance, lend itself to quantification, a function to which content analysis is far better adapted (which is not to suggest that the two techniques are incompatible, as many semioticians seem to assume). The empirical testing of semiotic claims requires other methods. Semiotic approaches make certain kinds of questions easier to ask than others: they do not in themselves shed light on how people in particular social contexts actually interpret texts, which may require ethnographic and phenomenological approaches (see McQuarrie & Mick 1992).
Semioticians do not always make explicit the limitations of their techniques, and semiotics is sometimes uncritically presented as a general-purpose tool. Saussurean semiotics is based on a linguistic model but not everyone agrees that it is productive to treat photography and film, for instance, as 'languages'. Paul Messaris disputes that we need to learn to 'read' the formal codes of photographic and audio-visual media, arguing that the resemblance of their images to observable reality is not merely a matter of cultural convention: 'to a substantial degree the formal conventions encountered in still or motion pictures should make a good deal of sense even to a first-time viewer' (Messaris 1994, 7). John Corner has criticised the way in which some semioticians have treated almost anything as a code, whilst leaving the details of such codes inexplicit (particularly in the case of ideological codes) (Corner 1980).
Sometimes semioticians present their analyses as if they were purely objective 'scientific' accounts rather than subjective interpretations. Yet few semioticians seem to feel much need to provide empirical evidence for particular interpretations, and much semiotic analysis is loosely impressionistic and highly unsystematic (or alternatively, generates elaborate taxonomies with little evident practical application). Some semioticians seem to choose examples which illustrate the points they wish to make rather than applying semiotic analysis to an extensive random sample (Leiss et al. 1990, 214). William Leiss and his colleagues argue that a major disadvantage of semiotics is that 'it is heavily dependent upon the skill of the individual analyst'. Less skilful practitioners 'can do little more than state the obvious in a complex and often pretentious manner' (Leiss et al. 1990, 214). Certainly, in some cases, semiotic analysis seems little more than an excuse for interpreters to display the appearance of mastery through the use of jargon which excludes most people from participation. In practice, semiotic analysis invariably consists of individual readings. We are seldom presented with the commentaries of several analysts on the same text, to say nothing of evidence of any kind of consensus amongst different semioticians. Few semioticians make their analytical strategy sufficiently explicit for others to apply it either to the examples used or to others. Structuralist semioticians tend to make no allowance for alternative readings, assuming either that their own interpretations reflect a general consensus or that 'their text interpretations are immanent in the sign structure and need no cross-validation' (McQuarrie & Mick 1992, 194). Semioticians who reject the investigation of other people's interpretations privilege what has been called the 'Úlite interpreter' - though socially-oriented semioticians would insist that the exploration of people's interpretive practices is fundamental to semiotics.
Some semiotic analysis has been criticised as nothing more than an abstract and 'arid formalism' which is preoccupied with classification. Susan Hayward declares that structuralist semiotics can lead to 'a crushing of the aesthetic response through the weight of the theoretical framework' (Hayward 1996, 352). Semiotic analysis often shows a tendency to downplay the affective domain - though the study of connotations ought to include the sensitive exploration of highly variable and subjective emotional nuances.
In structuralist semiotics the focus is on langue rather than parole (Saussure's terms), on formal systems rather than on processes of use and production. Structuralist studies have tended to be purely textual analyses, and it has been suggested that even when semioticians move beyond textual analysis, 'they subordinate other moments to textual analysis' (Johnson 1996, 98). Semiotics can appear to suggest that meaning is purely explicable in terms of determining textual structures. Such a stance is subject to the same criticisms as linguistic determinism. In giving priority to the determining power of the system it can be seen as fundamentally conservative. Purely structuralist semiotics does not address processes of production, audience interpretation or even authorial intentions. It ignores particular practices, institutional frameworks and the cultural, social, economic and political context. Even Roland Barthes, who argues that texts are codified to encourage a reading which favours the interests of the dominant class, confines his attention to the internal textual organization and does not engage with the social context of interpretation (Gardiner 1992, 149-50). It cannot be assumed that preferred readings will go unchallenged (Hall 1980). The sociologist Don Slater has criticised the functionalism of structuralist semiotics, arguing that material practices such as the 'reading of texts' must be related to the social relations which give rise to the 'politics of cultural practice'. Functionalism, he comments, 'admits of thoroughly internal solutions to problems of determination' (Slater 1983, 259). David Buxton also argues that structuralist approaches 'deny... social determination' and he insists that 'the text must be related to something other than its own structure: in other words, we must explain how it comes to be structured' (Buxton 1990, 13). We must consider not only how signs signify (structurally) but also why (socially); structures are not causes. The relationships between signifiers and their signifieds may be ontologically arbitrary but they are not socially arbitrary. We should beware of allowing the notion of the sign as arbitrary to foster the myth of the neutrality of the medium.
Dominic Strinati notes:
Feminist theorists have suggested that despite its usefulness to feminists in some respects, structuralist semiotics 'has often obscured the significance of power relations in the constitution of difference, such as patriarchal forms of domination and subordination' (Franklin et al. 1996, 263).
Synchronic analysis studies a phenomenon as if it were frozen at one moment in time; diachronic analysis focuses on change over time. Insofar as semiotics tends to focus on synchronic rather than diachronic analysis (as it does in Saussurean semiotics), it underplays the dynamic nature of media conventions (for instance, television conventions change fairly rapidly compared to conventions for written English). It can also underplay dynamic changes in the cultural myths which signification both alludes to and helps to shape. Purely structuralist semiotics ignores process and historicity - unlike historical theories like Marxism.
As Hodge and Tripp note, there can hardly be 'an exhaustive semiotic analysis... because a "complete" analysis... would still be located in particular social and historical circumstances' (Hodge & Tripp 1986, 27). This is reinforced by the poststructuralist stance that we cannot step outside our signifying systems. Semioticians seek to distance themselves from dominant codes by strategies aimed at denaturalization. The notion of 'making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar' is now a recurrent feature of artistic and photographic manifestos and of creative 'brainstorming' sessions in many fields. The phrase itself has been attributed to the German poet Novalis (1772-1801, aka Friedrich von Hardenberg), who declared that the essence of romanticism was 'to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar'. The concept is found amongst other Romantic theorists such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. The notion is also closely associated with Surrealism and with Brechtian 'alienation'. However, its adoption by semioticians probably owes most to Russian Formalist criticism (Lemon & Reis 1965). Victor Shklovsky argued in 1916 that the key function of art was estrangement, defamiliarization or 'making strange' (ostranenie) - i.e. renewing our perception of everyday things and events which are so familiar that our perception of them has become routinized (Hawkes 1977, 62-67). Russian Formalism was a key influence on the development of semiotics in Eastern Europe, and the legacy of 'making the familiar strange' is an important one for semiotics. However, as Simon Watney notes, the strategy of defamiliarization is itself, of course, ideological and has been associated with the notion that the tactic of surprise may serve to banish 'distortions' so that we may 'objectively' perceive 'reality' (Watney 1982, 173-4). Clearly the strategy of 'making the familiar strange' needs to be coupled with an awareness that whilst we may be able to bypass one set of conventions we may never escape the framing of experience by convention.
John Sturrock notes that some commentators, such as Mikhail Bakhtin - a literary theorist - have used semiotics for the 'revelatory' political purpose of 'demystifying' society, and that such approaches can lead to 'loaded' 'readings' of society simply as an ideological conspiracy by one social class against the rest (Sturrock 1986, 91). Sturrock favoured 'a more or less neutral' approach, but few theorists would be likely to accept the possibility of such neutrality. Marxist theorists in particular emphasize 'the politics of signification' - signification cannot be neutral ('value-free'). John Tagg comments that he is 'not concerned with exposing the manipulation of a pristine "truth", or with unmasking some conspiracy, but rather with the analysis of the specific "political economy" within which the "mode of production" of "truth" is operative' (Tagg 1988, 174-5). Structuralist theorists tend to assume that we can use semiotic analysis to look beyond signs to an 'underlying' pre-given reality, but post-structuralist theorists have argued that this is impossible - we cannot stand outside our sign systems.
Guy Cook argues that there is a tendency for some semioticians to represent communication as a simple process of 'decoding':
Cook adds that 'a weakness of the semiotic approach is its exclusive devotion to similarities, and then an air of finality once these similarities are observed, which blinds it to what is unique' (ibid., 70). Rosalind Coward and John Ellis also comment that 'structural analysis proved to be inadequate to account for the differences between texts' (Coward & Ellis 1977, 5). The focus on 'underlying structures' which characterizes the structural formalism of theorists such as Propp, Greimas and LÚvi-Strauss neglects 'surface forms' which may be important in themselves (Cook 1992, 71). This is particularly vexatious for literary critics, since it appears to ignore issues of stylistic difference.
Varda Langholz Leymore, who herself employed a structuralist approach, argued that:
Some contemporary theorists have rejected a purely structuralist semiotics. But such a rejection need not involve a wholesale rejection of semiotics. Influential as it has been, structuralist analysis is but one approach to semiotics. Many of the criticisms of semiotics are directed at a form of semiotics to which few contemporary semioticians adhere. Whilst some semioticians have retained a structuralist concern with formal systems (mainly focusing on detailed studies of narrative, film and television editing and so on), many have become more concerned with 'social semiotics' (Hodge & Kress 1988). A key concern of social semioticians is with what Stephen Heath calls the 'specific signifying practices' (see Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 55). Such 'reformed' semioticians practise 'poststructuralist' semiotics, focusing on what one has called 'situated social semiosis' (Jensen 1995, 57). This at least is the rhetoric of social semioticians, but the extent to which social semiotics has so far met the concerns of sociologists is debatable. However, it is early days: 'social semiotics' is still under construction. Contemporary theorists who have associated themselves with this development include Gunther Kress, Robert Hodge, Theo van Leeuwen, Klaus Bruhn Jensen, Paul J Thibault and Jay Lemke (Hodge & Kress 1988; Jensen 1995; Lemke 1995; Kress & van Leeuwen 1996; Thibault 1997).
Victor Burgin notes that, of several discourses, 'Marxism and psychoanalysis [the latter particularly derived from the work of Jacques Lacan] have most informed [poststructuralist] semiotics in its moves to grasp the determinations of history and the subject in the production of meaning' (Burgin 1982b, 144-5). Strinati argues that semiotics has been used 'to render the Marxist theory of ideology less deterministic and instrumental. However, this still tends to underestimate the ways in which what is produced is itself subject to conflicts and negotiations, and how the meanings produced may not be uniform, consistent, unambiguous or reducible to a coherent dominant ideology' (Strinati 1995, 127; see also Tagg 1988, 23ff, 153-83). Another inflection of semiotics is Foucauldian - emphasising 'the power effects of discursive practices' (Tagg 1988, 22).
It is only fair to note that much of the criticism of semiotics has taken the form of self-criticism by those within the field. The theoretical literature of semiotics reflects a constant attempt by many semioticians to grapple with the implications of new theories for their framing of the semiotic enterprise. Furthermore, contemporary apologists have noted that there is nothing new about the emphasis on the social dimension of semiotics. The roots of social semiotics can be traced to the early theorists. Neither Saussure nor Peirce studied the social use of signs. However, Saussure did envisage semiotics as 'a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life'. As for Peirce, the notion of semiosis as a dialogic process is central to his thinking. Signs do not exist without interpreters, and semiotic codes are of course social conventions. However, it has to be acknowledged that an emphasis on the social dimension of semiotics in the form of the study of specific meaning-making practices is relatively recent outside of specialized academic journals and it is not yet much in evidence at the heart of the activities of many semiotic researchers.
Semiotics is not, never has been, and seems unlikely ever to be, an academic discipline in its own right. It is now widely regarded primarily as one mode of analysis amongst others rather than as a 'science' of cultural forms.