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

Text refers to an excerpt from a written document although its meaning has expanded in some social analyses to include any cultural artefact or even any occurence, location or theory.

explanatory context

Text originally referred to an excerpt from a written document, such as the a 'text' from the bible that might be the basis for a sermon in a Christian church. In everyday parlance, text still refers to a written form of communication, such as a textbook. However, in some sociological perspectives, text has a wider meaning and refers to any cultural object: thus in media analysis, a television programme can be referred to as a text for analytic purposes.

So, more generally, text refers to the internal structure and organisation of a cultural product or set of representations and can be used to refer to a novel, a poem, a film, an advertisement or a painting. Each may be analysed as a text. The term is used in this wide sense in structuralism , semiology , film studies and cultural studies.


Postmodernism overuses the term 'text' almost to the point of meaninglessness as it refers not just to cultural objects from print to film to artworks but also to events, persons, places and any other thing in a given given socio-cultural context.

analytical review

Ryan and Ryan (undated) webiste state:

Most discussions of “text” revolve around interpretation of “texts”, rather than a definition of the term itself. But what exactly is a text? The word “text” comes from the Latin texere, to weave. Deriving from the Latin, most definitions place “text” as a linguistic structure woven out of words or signs. To call something a “text” implies that the words, phrases, lines or sentences of which it consists have not been arranged this way by chance, but have been produced by a person and with certain kinds of intentions. Therefore, a text contains meaning which is open to interpretation.

Sometimes a text can mean anything that we can “read” or analyse, such as fashion, or a map. However, most times we come across the word “text” it has an explicitly literary meaning. The term was first used to denote parts of the Bible studied by scholars, or the body of a literary work which was subject to the scrutiny of editors and bibliographers.

Nowadays, readers and critics alike use it to signify any piece of written or spoken discourse, especially when they want to avoid giving value judgments such as “literary” or categorising something, such as calling it a “novel”. Therefore, text is seen as a neutral term. However, if we see what the theorists think of “text”, particularly P.D. Juhl and Roland Barthes, we see they think of it as anything but neutral.

Often, “text” is automatically equated with “literature” or “literary work”, and the two terms can seem interchangeable. Roland Barthes noted this in Image, Music, Text (1977), saying that “text” had replaced “work” in common usage. However, he made a distinction between “work” and “text”: “the work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language, it only exists in the movement of a language”. Therefore, text is the linguistic structure, the work is the whole product. He also called the term fashionable, the product of the sliding or overturning of former categories.

Jerome J. McGann also refers to “text” as being a fashionable term. Using poetry as an example, he has a particular dislike for the conflation of text and poem, that is, when a poem is referred to as a text instead of a poem. In McGann's words, this “vulgar usage confuses the fundamental difference between a poem's text – which is one thing – and a poem – which is quite another”. So what distinction is McGann referring to here? Like Barthes, he understands text to be a linguistic structure, while the poem is a literary work. The poem is an entity that is distinct from its linguistic constitution. Also like Barthes, McGann notes that modern criticism fails to distinguish clearly between a concept of the poem and a concept of the text.

McGann's refusal to call a poem a text points to Barthes' idea of a Text. Text (with a capital “T”) is all concrete and written texts which have ever existed or which ever will exist. Barthes elaborates on this by saying that all texts refer to one another and are connected through the existence of Text. Each text refers back differently to the infinite sea of the “already written”. To call poem a text infers that it is purely a verbal construct, and places it within the immaterial realm of Text rather than the concrete world of the “work”.

Barthes has woven a complex theory out of defining what a text is, and how the idea of text relates to interpretation. Initially though, it is sufficient to remember that when we refer to something as a “text”, we mean its linguistic structure or the signs that convey meaning and allow interpretation. A “work” is what you are either holding in your hands, or downloading onto your computer screen.

Mann (1996) states:

Under postmodernist theory, everything can be read as a text, and all readings of each text are equally meaningful, if not valid. Meaning and truth are thus plural, changing, and subjective.

associated issues

Open and closed texts: Umberto Eco

Eco (1979) develops a semiological approach to his analysis of 'open' and 'closed' texts or messages. 'An open text is a paramount instance of a syntatico-semantico pragmatic device whose foreseen interpretation is part of its generative process'. (Eco, 1979, p. 3)

When first printed in 1965 this seemed like an intrusion into the structuralist view of a 'semiotic texture to be analysed in itself and for the sake of itself.' It seemed to be opposed to the structuralists recource to an underlying structural order. 'To postulate the co-operation of the reader does not mean to pollute the structural analysis with extra-textual elements. The reader as an active principal of interpretation is a part of the picture of the generative process of the text.' (Eco, 1979, p. 4)

Thus in generating and organising a text an author requires a notion of a 'model reader' who shares the same codes and can thus interpret the author's generative codification. All texts explicitly select a model reader via the use of 1. specific linguistic code 2. literary style 3. specific specialisation indicies.

Texts presuppose a model of competence (Eco uses as an example Waverley) but also build up competence by purely textual means. (Waverley, for example, asks reader to accept certain traditions of chivalry as said...). (See Eco, 1979, pp. 7-8).


That codes will not always coincide does not bother the author of a closed text. Having posited the 'average' or model reader texts that 'obsessively aim at arousing a precise response on the part of more or less precise empirical readers ... are in fact open to any possible 'aberrant' decoding. A text so immodestly 'open' to every possible interpretation will be called a closed one.' (Eco, 1979, p. 8).

Superman, Fleming's James Bond novels, and Sue's work as well as soap operas belong to this closed category. 'They apparently aim at pulling the reader along a predetermined path, carefully displaying their efforts so as to arouse pity or fear, excitement or depression at the due place and at the right moment'. (Eco, 1979, p. 8). However, such texts while pre-planned do not plan the reader. Superman can be read as a new form of romance but can also be read in other ways—each independent of the others. This cannot happen with open texts (such as Finnegan's Wake) because it outlines a 'closed' project of its model reader as a 'component of its structural strategy'.

'It is possible to be stupid enough to read Kafka's Trial as a trivial criminal novel, but at this point the text collapses' (Eco, 1979, p. 9–10).

An open text is thus nothing else but 'the semantic-pragmatic production of its own model reader'.

related areas

See also







Researching the Real World Section 1.4.4


Barthes, R., 1977, Image, Music, Text. Essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana.

Eco, U., 1979, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the semiotics of texts, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Mann, D., 1996, 'What is Postmodernism?', Philosophy Today, 23, September.

Ryan, S. and Ryan, D., undated, 'What is a Text?', The Academy, Foundation: Fundamentals of Literature and Drama, available at, accessed 8 May 2013, still available 29 December 2016, 'not found' 15 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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