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

Semiology (or semiotics) is the theory of signs.

explanatory context


Traditionally semiology is divided into three components, semantics (the study of meaning) syntactics (the study of grammar) and pragmatics (the study of the actual purposes and effects of meaningful utterances).

More generally, semiology is the study of all patterened communication systems, both linguistic and non-linguistic.


Semiology is an approach that is rooted in linguistics but that has been appropriated by sociology, particularly in the analysis of the communications media, cultural studies, and film studies.

Semiology is underpinned by structuralism. When used in the social sciences it is particularly concerned with revealing ideology.

Semiology covers several realms of enquiry including:

a. conventional signs for direct communication: language, semaphore, etc.

b. ambiguous communication codes: literature, aesthetics. (These are anbiguous because it is not easy to see elements, that, once revealed tend to be undermined and parodied).

c. codified conventions with no apparent direct communicative content: ettiquette, ritual, fashion, pasttimes, commercial objects, etc.

d. study of conventions and discourse of any discipline: not the subject itself but the knowledge production process that takes place within a discipline.

In general, semiologists are opposed to logocentrism because they argue that signs are arbitrary. More radical semiologists argue that logocentrism is unnaceptable because the original meaning of a sign is not recoverable; meaning is something that should be created not recovered; meaning can be re-made by active interpretation.


Culler (1980) suggested that the notion of a science of signs was developed more or less independently in Europe and the United States around the turn of the century. In the United States, Pierce suggested the construction of a system of signs which he labelled semiotic analysis. In Europe, Saussure had suggested the fundamental elements of the structuralist approach.


Saussurian Linguistic Semiology

Semiology is usually seen as rooted in Saussurian linguistics (although there are similarities with Pierce's pragmatism). For Saussure, linguistics was part of the grand system of signs and semiology is the scientific study of the 'life of signs within society'. Semiology would reveal what signs consist of and what laws govern them.

The underlying assumption of semiology is that as human actions or productions convey meaning there must be an underlying system of conventions and distinctions that makes this meaning possible. By taking linguistics (one of many sign systems) as a model Suassure showed that it is a mistake to attach substance to arbitrary signs. Thus Sausssure is opposed to logocentrism. The signifier is not a temporary representation through which one moves to get at the signified. The signifier is an arbitrary representation of the signified that gets its meaning from a system of distinctions. The role of semiology is to discover the conventions that make signs what they are.

Semiological analysis then aims to distinguish langue from parole, that is, get at the system behind the 'linguistic' objects and to identify syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations between elements.

Saussure privileges the structure of signs to the detrement of their practical functions, that is, ignores the subjects who use them and, through speech, actually change langauge. Saussure sees language as stable and independent of actual use.


The Prague circle proposes the view of a 'phonological system' that provides the clue to understanding specific phonemes, which are supposedly structured in language. Linguistics investigates these underlying structures.


Sociological semiology

Sociological semiology seeks to study significations and meanings within society. The core of sociological semiology is to uncover the myths or ideology that underlies examples of signification systems.

Language is increasingly seen as crucial to the understanding of consciousness and social life. Traditional approaches to ideology took language for granted and concentrated on the context of discourse. Ideology is found, however, in both the uses of laguage (the selection and combination of signs) and in the signification system. Thus the study of ideology has been developed to take account of the linguistic significance of social practices and discourses. This approach derives mainly from the work of Roland Barthes. He extended Saussurian lingustics to cover all signification systems, including fashion, food and so on. It is through Barthes' work that semiolgy has been incorporated into sociology, notably in media studies.

Barthes approach to semiotic analysis of myth works as follows.


A sign comprises of two elements: the signifier and the signified; and semiotic analysis is concerned with the relationship between the two i.e., the sign.


The signifier is not the thing but the mental representation of the thing. The signified is not self-evident but depends upon the level of reading. Barthes provides an example.


Rose is a sign. The utterance of the word or the written word is the signifier. What is signified is (usually) a flower that typically grows on a thorny bush.


In certain contexts, though, the rose signifies romance or passion. Thus rose as a sign is not just the combination of signifier and (first order) signified. Rose as a sign takes its meaning or value from its context.


Barthes argues that it is from the sign in context that we form our 'common sense knowledge' for signs contain two meanings, the denotative (i.e. literal or face value meaning (a rose as a flower)) and connotative (i.e. underlying or interpreted message, the symbolic meaning (a rose as symbolising romance)). What is being signified is not always self-evident and we need to move from the (first level) denotation to the (second level) connotation


The first stage of analysis is to examine the denoting sign through a deconstruction into signifiers and signifieds.


The second stage involves a critique of these denoted signs in order to reveal the connoted symbolism.


Finally, these connotations are examined and the myth (or ideology) that underpins these symbolic representations is elaborated.


In effect, then, the denoted symbols are themselves to be seen as preliminary signifiers at a second order, or mythical, level. Such preliminary denotations are then critically assessed to establish the nature of the transcendental connoted symbols.

For example, Barthes points to a front cover photograph of the magazine 'Paris Match' at the time of the Algerian crisis which showed a black soldier saluting the French flag. He says that at one level we see the signifier (the photo) and the signified (the soldier saluting) combined into a 'first order' sign of black soldier saluting flag. At this first level of reading this has no political connotation. At a second level, the first order sign becomes the signifier and the signified is 'French imperiality'. This leads to a mythical level/second order sign of 'the greatness and impartiality of the French empire,in which all subjects irrespective of colour faithfully serve the French flag'.




A.  photo

B. soldier saluting



C. Black soldier saluting flag

D. French Imperiality



E.  France is a great empire and all her ‘sons’ without colour discrimination faithfully serve under her flag.



A is the first order signifier; B is signified; C is the sign

A, B & C operate at the denotative level

C then becomes the second order signifier D is signified at the connotative level E is the connoted sign


Craib (1984) updates this image in by referring to white policemen mixing with blacks at the Notting Hill Carnival.

Barthes generalised the concept of myth and used it as a basis for confronting ideology. Thus he developed a semiological approach which enabled the 'second order' structure of contemporary mythology to be revealed.

For example, in analysing representation of women, the determination of denotive and connotive meanings alows us to expose the stereotype myths and ideology inherent in statements such as 'take it like a man'. The denotation of which is 'be brave and strong', the stereotype is therefore the stereotype image of macho men. The connotation is that men, unlike women, are strong, brave, don't let their feelings show; a myth that helps to legitimate the wider ideology of an innate superiority of men over women, which forms the basis of patriarchy. However, Barthes is not clear on the relationship between connotation, myth and ideology and there are problems with the semiological analysis of myth.


Problems of Semiological Analysis of Myth


Three problematic areas arise as a result of Barthes semiological analysis of myth. These are the distinction between denotation and connotation; the link between connotation, myth and ideology; and the relationship between encoding and decoding .


Denotation and Connotation

It is debatable whether it is possible to fully divorce denoted from connoted meaning when analysing sign systems.

As signs are arbitrary there is no natural content. That is, signs do not denote in a neutral, objective sense, they are not neutral or pre-ideological as they are produced by the operation of a code. Signs aquire meaning based on their relations to other signs within the linguistic structure.

Thus, some semiologists (for example, Stuart Hall and Maria C.Heck) argued that denotation is merely an analytic device. It implies nothing more than a Barthesian first order relationship of signifier and signified. There is no suggestion, in adopting it as an analytic tool, that the denoted level is pre-ideological or neutral. Denotations are produced by the operation of a code and signs are not natural. The distinction between denotation and connotation is an analytic rule of thumb with no equivalent distinction in the real world in the sense of denotation being literal meaning and connotation being associative meaning.


Thus, to divorce denotation from connotation is arbitrary. All signs are culturally specific and arbitrary even when they are so widespread they appear to be natural (particularly if they are iconic signs because they incorporate aspects of what they represent).

Other semiologists (e.g. Vernon), however, suggests that denotation is in effect naturalised or universalized connotation. Coding serves to distinguish the denoted from the connoted message. Widely used codes encompass the denotation while esoteric or sub-codes point to the connotation. In which case, denotation involves identifying those 'naturalised', or widely used fixed meanings that can be distinguished from the more fluid meanings, which provide the opportunity for more extensive ideological re-presentations.


There are four different views on the retention of the distinction between denotation and connotation. First, Barthes, who argues that although sign systems are relational and arbitrary there is a 'residual' element in significations that connotation does not exhaust. For him, 'There  always  remains 'something denoted'  (otherwise  the discourse  would not be possible) and the connotations are always  in  the  last analysis discontinuous  and  scattered signs, naturalized  by the denoted language which carries them' (Barthes, [1957] 1974, p. 91).

Second, the view that the distinction is meaningless because ideological meanings are present in both processes. (See semanalysis)


Third a mediating position between these two extremes (suggested by Baudrillard) who argues that denotation and connotation represent a different degree of ideological interference in each case.


Fourth is the view that the distinction is useful from a methodological point of view (Hall, 1980) because signs are apparently fixed and natural at the denotative level and it is therefore easier to construct the ideological connotation given to them. Denotative terms, then, have their ideological value fixed. They are not pre-ideological.

Connotation, Myth and Ideology

It is arguable that, in Barthes work, the distinction between connotation, myth and ideology is not clear.

Language  becomes the vehicle, the signifier of a second structure of meaning. According to Barthes, myth is a double system, in which the signifier is already a structure of signification in itself. Myth is somehow hidden and difficult to decipher because its signification is constituted  by a sort of constantly moving turn-stile which presents the expression alternately as a meaning in itself, and as  a form or signifier of other content.  (Larrain, 1979, p. 134)

However, Barthes does distinguish between semiological analysis, which addresses the form of myth, and ideological analysis, which situates and contextualises myth. Connotation is the second order analysis of sign systems and opeates semiologically at the level of mythological reading but must be contextualised for an ideological critique.

Other analysts (Heck, 1980) have argued that from Barthes point of view, myth should be regarded as a special case of connotation. Thus, for example, the analysis of the term pig.

When pig (signifier) refers to the concept very useful animal that provides meat, bacon, etc. (signified) then the signification, the sign, is 'animal, pig'.

At a second level, connotation, the denoted sign becomes a signifier, for a new sign e.g. 'pig, policeman'.


| 'pig' | useful animal |

| animal, pig | pigness |

| pig, policeman |

The connotation is determined by lexicons or 'sub-codes' that operate within a limited domain. In a different context, such as feminist dialogue, pig connotes male chauvinist. Thus myth is simply a widespread connotation which has become dominant or hegemonic (in a given context), i.e., it universalizes particular lexicons, which become amplified to reality itself and are therefore 'naturalized'. For Heck, a critical semiological method would see the distinction between denotation and connotation as an analytic one. One should avoid any suggestion that the denoted level is pre-ideological. Indeed the ideological component of language should be fully acknowledged, she argued, as after all it is intrinsic to any semiological approach.

While the meaning of a sign is contextual, the context is indicative of a domain of preferred meanings that reflect a dominant cultural order.

The domains of ‘preferred meanings’ have the whole social order embedded in them as a set of meanings, practices and beliefs: the everyday knowledge of social  structures, of  ‘how things work for all practical purposes in this   culture’, the rank order of power and interest  and  the  structure of legitimations, limits and sanctions. Thus to classify a ‘misunderstanding’ at the connotative level, we must refer, through the codes, to the orders of social life, of  economic and political power and of  ideology. Further, since these mappings are ‘structured in dominance’ but not closed, the communicative process consists not in the unproblematic assignment of every visual item to its given position within a set of prearranged codes, but of performative rules—rules of competence and use, of logics in-use which seek actively to enforce or pre-fer one semantic domain over another and rule items into and out of their  appropriate meaning-sets. Formal semiology has too often neglected this practice of interpretive work, though this constitutes, in fact,  the real relations of broadcast practices in television. (Hall, 1980, p. 134)

Thus, semiological analysis of media is directed towards how the media reflects dominant ideology(ies). The notion of a domain of meanings firmly situates semiological analysis in the framework of structuralist social analysis because to develop a connotative analysis it is necessary to refer through the codes, to the social, economic and political nature of power and ideology.

From the point of view of semiological practice, it is important to avoid 'manufacturing' ascribed connotations. This can be guarded against by adopting an attitude of sustained critique.


Encoding and Decoding

Structuralism in general, and semiology in particular, has been criticised for often being too concerned with the objective structure of messages at the expense of the deciphering/ciphering writing/reading processes (Hall, 1980). It is argued that addressers and addressees do not always communicate on the basis of the same code. Thus it is important to take into account the circumstances of communication and the receiver's own code as well as the internal context.

Encoding (the author) and decoding (the reader) are the separate parts of the process of text preparation. Encoding [the connoted element of] a message is not identical with decoding practices. Encoding can prefer but cannot prescribe or guarantee decoding, which has its own conditions of existence (Hall).

Where encoding and decoding are wildly abberant (and there are no limits within which encoding and decoding reside) then there is no communication. Where encoding prescribes decoding then there is perfectly transparent communication.

Usually, real communication lies between the two and involves three levels of encoding and decoding. These are hegemonic (dominant), negotiated (corporate) and oppositional.

The presence of the ideological in a discourse does not consist of immanent properties of the texts, but of a system of relationships between the text and its production, circulation and consumption.

The problem of encoding and decoding is directly addressed by Eco (1979) in his analysis of the role of the reader.

Overview of Semiological Analysis

Ideology inheres in all sign systems and the denotative level is in no way natural. However, dominant ideology, (a function of material conditions of existence) provides the basis for a hegemonic denotation which provides an analytic frame. The connotative level may thus be broached. However, one must bear in mind the following. First, the determination of the hegmonic denotation and the immersion of the researcher within a non-transparent ideological structure means that connotation can not be identified absolutely. Connotations are socio-historically specific and must remain subject to further critical inspection. Second, one can not assume an isomorphism between encoding and decoding of messages, at either a denotative or connotative level.

analytical review

Heffernan (undated) described semiotics as follows:

Semiotics is a science that studies the life of signs in society. It is the opposite to the postivist method of content analysis. It is used a lot in media analysis.
In semiotics, the analyst seeks to connect the signifier (an expression which can be words, a picture or sound) with what is signified (another word, description or image). The use of language is noted as it is considered to be a description of actions. As part of language, certain signs match up with certain meanings. Semiotics seeks to understand the underlining messages in visual texts. It is related to discourse analysis and forms the basis for interpretive analysis.


Mick (1986, p. 201) summarised semiotics as follows:

Summary. This concise introduction to semiotics has identified the sign as the fundamental vehicle connecting objects in the broadest sense and human reactions (interpretants). This overall process of semiosis is the basic subject of semiotics and the mechanism by which meaning is created, maintained, and altered. There are different kinds of signs by virtue of their relations with their objects (e.g., icons, indexes, symbols); signs also relate to their interpretants in various ways (e.g., deductively, inductively, abductively). Since signs cannot function independently, the systemic structural level of sign relations is focused upon as codes with underlying rules. Saussure's specification of paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations and Morris's distinctions among syntactics-semantics-pragmatics and puredescriptive- applied semiotics are exemplars of semiotic approaches to the study of codes, semiosis, and meaning. As Peirce emphasized, signs in the human environment- especially symbols-must be understood by the way they are situated within a wider social context, where both their arbitrariness and meaningfulness are revealed.

associated issues


related areas

See also







Researching the Real World Section 5.10


Barthes, R., [1957] 1974, Mythologies (Selected and translated by A. Lavers). London, Cape. (First published Paris, 1957, and in English, London, Cape, 1972).
Culler, J., 1980, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, New York, Routledge.

Hall, S., 1980, 'Encoding/Decoding' in Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A. and Willis, P. (Eds.), Culture, Media, Language, London, Hutchinson, pp. 128–38.

Heck, M., 1980, 'The ideological dimension of media messages' in Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A. and Willis, P. (Eds.), 1980, Culture, Media, Language. London, Hutchinson, pp. 122–27.

Heffernan, C., undated, 'Document analysis', available at, accessed 17 March 2013 , still available 30 November 2016, still available 5 May 2017, 'not found' 14 June 2019.

Larrain, J., 1979, The Concept of Ideology, London, Hutchinson University Library.

Mick, D.G., 1986, 'Consumer research and semiotics: exploring the morphology of signs, symbols, and significance', Journal ofConsumer Research, 13(2), pp. 196–213.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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