Social Semiotics

Social semiotics is an approach to communication that seeks to understand how people communicate by a variety of means in particular social settings. Modes of communication are what they are not because of a fixed set of rules and structures, but because of what they can accomplish socially in everyday instantiation. With this emphasis, a key question is how people make signs in the context of interpersonal and institutional power relations to achieve specific aims. This is fundamentally important since semiotic systems can shape social relations and society itself. One essential aspect of social semiotic theory is the principle that modes of communication offer historically specific and socially and culturally shared options (or ‘semiotic resources’) for communicating. Study of communication from this perspective seeks to identify and inventorize the semiotic options that are available to communicators, and that they choose to make. These options should be seen not as fixed, but as having meaning potential that is realized in context and in combination with other choices. In this sense the meanings associated with these selections is always in a process of ongoing flux as they are continually adapted to social encounters. In the context of multimodality, the implication is that all modes should be studied with a view to the underlying choices available to communicators, the meaning potentials of resources and the purposes for which they are chosen. From a social semiotic perspective, this includes study of how communicators create texts (including the role of technology) and how people interpret texts.

Social semiotics has been strongly influenced by the work of Michael Halliday. In his 1978 book Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning he sets out a number of key premises of his linguistic theory, with key features including a functional perspective, the ‘metafunctions’, that language is a system of options and meaning potential. Social semiotics has been greatly influenced by the work of Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress in their seminal text Language as Ideology (1979, 1993). While this classic volume pioneered the critical analysis of language and laid out much of which was to later be called critical discourse analysis, it made a number of key contributions to social semiotics that later translate into certain approaches in multimodality.

A shift from the emphasis on language to other semiotic systems was pioneered by Hodge and Kress in Social Semiotics (1998) and by Kress and van Leeuwen in Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (1996, 2006). In these volumes, which have led to the subsequent emergence of multimodality itself, the principles developed in relation to language were applied to different communicative modes. With a focus on visual design, they examine texts in relation to a socially created network of options that have meaning potential realized in the context of use, that serves ideological interest and that is framed by relations of power. Subsequent work has also applied these principles to the various modes of embodied communication.

Editor: Diane Mavers
Other contributor: David Machin

Key References
Halliday, M.A.K. (1978)
Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning
London: Edward Arnold

Hodge, R. and Kress, G. (1998)
Social Semiotics
Cambridge: Polity Press

van Leeuwen, T. (2005)
Introducing Social Semiotics
London: Routledge

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