Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Denotation, as a noun, means that which is marked or signified. As a verb, to denote means to specify, signify or point out.

explanatory context

In some fields of philosophy, denotation is opposed to connotation; the former refers to particulars while the latter is an abstract (dictionary) definition.


Denotation in literature is in effect the generalised meaning of a word. For example, 'pig' denotes a domesticated animal grown for its meat. This is contrasted with connotation where pig might connote pigginess and applied to chauvinist males, law enforcers, etc.


It is arguably difficult to make a clear separation between connotation and denotation, a point developed in semiology.

analytical review

Chandler (2011) writes:

'Denotation' tends to be described as the definitional, 'literal', 'obvious' or 'commonsense' meaning of a sign. In the case of linguistic signs, the denotative meaning is what the dictionary attempts to provide. For the art historian Erwin Panofsky, the denotation of a representational visual image is what all viewers from any culture and at any time would recognize the image as depicting (Panofsky 1970a, 51-3). Even such a definition raises issues - all viewers? One suspects that this excludes very young children and those regarded as insane, for instance. But if it really means 'culturally well-adjusted' then it is already culture-specific, which takes us into the territory of connotation..

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 5


Chandler, D., 2011, Semiotics for Beginners: Syntagmatic analysis, last updated 10 November 2011, available at, accessed 21 January 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Panofsky, E., 1970a, Meaning in the Visual Arts. Harmondsworth: Penguin

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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