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.


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core definition

Semanalysis a late form of semiological analysis that denies the ideologically-free notion of denotation and focuses on how the text creates meaning as opposed to what the text means.

explanatory context

Semanalysis is the term coined by J. Kristeva to distinguish a later form of semiological analysis from the earlier varieties which leaned heavily on Barthes. Semanalysis is also known as 'Tel Quel' semiology after the French journal that was devoted to its promotion and dissemination.

Semanalysis criticises early semiology for ignoring the role the signifier could have in producing the signified. Early semiology took a work as a closed message, as a product.

Semanalysis proposes a theory of texts as producers of meanings, i.e. is concerned with how the text creates meaning as opposed to what does the text mean.

The production of meaning is a form of intertextuality (i.e. texts do not stand alone but in relation to other texts), There is a working of old texts to produce a new text. However, a printed text (or pheno-text as it is referred to in semanalysis) is not a structured meaning. Its meaning must be uncovered. The pheno-text is, according to semanalysis, only intelligible through the geno-text - i.e. its genesis. The pheno-text is the surface, i.e. signified structure, the geno-text is the 'significant productivity' (the foundation).

Therefore, semanalysis has a different angle on ideology. Whereas linguistic structuralism and (early) semiology had collapsed ideology into language, semanalysis finds ideology in the textual production of meaning.

Thus ideology appears in the process of the production of meaning. This differs from early semiology where Barthes had identified ideology with connotation. I.e. a connoted second system of meaning had appropriated an innocent (denotative) language.

Semanalysis opposes this separation arguing that ideology is present in the process of constitution of every sign and operates by closing the meaning of the text. Denotation only pretends to be innocent and, in effect, it is the last connotation, that which seems to both found and close the reading and which itself appears to be natural.

The fixing of meaning is accomplished in relation to the subject. The subject and the meaning are both produced (unlike in structural linguistics where they are both given).

This position is actually developed in Barthes' later work (notably S/Z) and in the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

Semanalysis attempts a mediation of Marx with Freud. It assumes (some would argue incorrectly) that Marx alone is simply mechanical materialism while Freud alone is idealism.

Semanlysis uses Lacan and Althusser as representatives of Freud and Marx, respectively. This has led to problems of attribution and confusions over the notion of ideology, according to some comentators. In particular, by relying on Althusser's view of ideology as material force and ignoring the effect of material praxis, semanalysis tends to see ideology as being the material base rather than as having a material base.

The outcome is that semanalsis envisages revolution only after a change in the psychology of the individual: one needs a revolutionary subject for a revolution. This is idealist and contrary to Marx who argues that ideology is effected by changes in material conditions with revolution being the result of revolutionary practice; the revolutionary subject gains revolutionary consciousness through changed material existence.

Arguably, semanalysis' concern with the production of meaning parallels Gadamer's shift in hermeneutics.

analytical review

Johanne Prud'homme and Lyne Légaré (2006):

The intent of Julia Kristeva's semanalysis is to reveal the dynamics of the signifying process [signifiance]. The expression "engendering the formula" aptly illustrates the motile nature of the "signifier-emerging as text" (Kristeva, 1969, 217): the specific sign whose function is to represent this engendering, which we will follow step by step.


Oxford Reference (2019) cites material from A Dictionary in Critical Theory:

Julia Kristeva's attempt in The Revolution in Poetic Language (1984) to fuse semiotics and psychoanalysis so as to produce a method of analysis capable of simultaneously comprehending the process of the formation of texts and the process of deciphering texts. It was intended to transcend the limitations of the Hegelian dialectic and provide a method that was genuinely materialist and at the same time able to deal with what she would term abjection, the unrepresentable excess semiotics overlooks. Although a rich synthesis of post-structuralist methodologies and ideas, semanalysis was in many respects a failed experiment and Kristeva soon abandoned it herself. Her later work does not use the term at all. However, out of the project of developing semanalysis arose the concept of intertextuality, which has become a bedrock concept in critical theory.


associated issues


related areas

See also







Researching the Real World Section 5


Kristeva, J., 1969, "L'engendrement de la formule", Semeiotike : recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris, Seuil, pp.. 216–310. Quotes translated.

Oxford Reference, 2019, 'Semanalysis', available at, accessed 14 June 2019.

Prud'homme, J.and Légaré, L., 2006, 'Semanalysis. Engendering the formula', in Hébert, L. (Ed..), Signo[online], Rimouski (Quebec), available at, accessed 14 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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