Semiotics for Beginners
D.I.Y. Semiotic Analysis: Advice to My Own Students
Semiotics can be applied to anything which can be seen as signifying something -
in other words, to everything which has meaning within a culture.
Even within the context of the mass media you can apply semiotic analysis to any
media texts (including television and radio programmes, films, cartoons, newspaper
and magazine articles, posters and other ads) and to the practices involved
in producing and interpreting such texts. Within the Saussurean tradition, the
task of the semiotician is to look beyond the specific texts or practices to the
systems of functional distinctions operating within them. The primary goal is to
establish the underlying conventions, identifying significant differences and
oppositions in an attempt to model the system of categories, relations
(syntagmatic and paradigmatic), connotations, distinctions and rules of
combination employed. For instance, 'What differentiates a polite from an
impolite greeting, a fashionable from an unfashionable garment?' (Culler 1985, 93);
the investigation of such practices involves trying to make explicit what is
usually only implicit.
A 'text' (such as a printed advertisement, an animated cartoon or a radio news
bulletin) is in itself a complex sign containing other signs. Your initial
analytical task is to identify the signs within the text and the codes within
which these signs have meaning (e.g. 'textual codes' such as camerawork or
'social codes' such as body language). Within these codes you need to identify
paradigm sets (such as shot size: long shot, mid shot, close up). You also need
to identify the structural relationships between the various signifiers
(syntagms). Finally you need to discuss the ideological functions of the
signs in the text and of the text as a whole. What sort of reality does the text
construct and how does it do so? How does it seek to naturalize its own
perspectives? What assumptions does it make about its readers?
I strongly recommend detailed
comparison and contrast of paired texts dealing with a similar topic: this is a
lot easier than trying to analyse a single text. It may also help to use an example
of semiotic analysis by an experienced practitioner as a model for your own
- Identifying the text
- Wherever possible, include a copy of the text with your analysis of it,
noting any significant shortcomings of the copy. Where including a copy is
not practicable, offer a clear description which would allow
someone to recognize the text easily if they encountered it themselves.
- Briefly describe the medium used, the genre to which
the text belongs and the context in which it was found.
- Consider your purposes in analysing the text. This will affect
which questions seem important to you amongst those offered below.
- Why did you choose this text?
- Your purposes may reflect your values: how does the text
relate to your own values?
- How does the sign vehicle you are examining relate to the
- Is it one among many copies (e.g. a poster) or
virtually unique (e.g. an actual painting)?
- How does this influence your interpretation?
- What are the important
signifiers and what do they signify?
- What is the system within which these signs make sense?
- What reality claims are made by the text?
- Does it allude to being fact or fiction?
- What references are made to an everyday experiential world?
- What modality markers are present?
- How do you make use of such markers to make judgements about the
relationship between the text and the world?
- Does the text operate within a realist representational code?
- To whom might it appear realistic?
- 'What does transparency keep obscure?'
(Butler 1999, xix)
- To which class of paradigms (medium; genre; theme) does the whole text belong?
- How might a change of medium affect the meanings generated?
- What might the text have been like if it had formed part of a different genre?
- What paradigm sets do each of the signifiers used belong to? For example, in photographic,
televisual and filmic media, one paradigm might be shot size.
- Why do you think each signifier was chosen from the possible alternatives within the same
paradigm set? What values does the choice of each particular signifier connote?
- What signifiers from the same paradigm set are noticeably absent?
- What contrasted pairs seem to be involved (e.g. nature/culture)?
- Which of those in each pairing seems to be the 'marked' category?
- Is there a central opposition in the text?
- Apply the
commutation test in order to identify
distinctive signifiers and to define their significance. This involves an imagined
substitution of one signifier for another of your own, and assessing the effect.
- What is the
syntagmatic structure of the text?
- Identify and describe syntagmatic structures in the text which
take forms such as narrative, argument or montage.
- How does one signifier relate to the others used (do some carry more weight
- How does the sequential or spatial arrangement of the elements influence meaning?
- Are there formulaic features that have shaped the text?
- If you are comparing several texts within a genre look for a shared
- How far does
identifying the paradigms and syntagms help you to understand the
- · What tropes (e.g. metaphors and metonyms) are involved?
- How are they used to influence the preferred reading?
- Does it allude to other
- Does it allude to or compare with other texts within the genre?
- How does it compare with treatments of similar themes within other genres?
- Does one code within the text (such as a linguistic caption to an advertisement or
news photograph) serve to 'anchor' another (such as an image)? If so, how?
semiotic codes are used?
- Do the codes have
double, single or no articulation?
- Are the codes analogue or digital?
- Which conventions of its
genre are most obvious in the text?
- Which codes are specific to the medium?
- Which codes are shared with other media?
- How do the codes involved relate to each other (e.g. words and images)?
- Are the codes broadcast or narrowcast?
- Which codes are notable by their absence?
- What relationships does the text seek to establish with its readers?
- How direct is the
mode of address and what is the significance of this?
- How else would you describe the mode of address?
- What cultural assumptions are called upon?
- To whom would these codes be most familiar?
- What seems to be the preferred reading?
- How far does this reflect or depart from dominant cultural values?
- How 'open' to interpretation does the sign seem to be?
- Social semiotics
Benefits of semiotic analysis
- What other contributions have semioticians made that can be applied productively to the text?
- What insights has a semiotic analysis of this text offered?
- What other strategies might you need to employ to balance any shortcomings of your analysis?