In Search of Semiotics

So, I understand that semiotics is defined as ‘everything that can be taken as a sign’ (Eco, 1976: 7) and I understand it has what sometimes appears to be a complex set of characteristics. But frankly, I am confused about what it actually is. Is it a discipline, is it an epistemology, is it a methodology, is it a collection of methods, is it a philosophy or is it some sort of cultural studies cult?

I accept this may be as a result of my own ignorance, I may not have read the right books or papers, it is certainly possible I have not read enough of them but trying to fathom this out is not proving easy. It seems to sit within a social constructionist and interpretative paradigm but while some authors surface this others do not. I think this is partly why I felt such frustration in reading Jobey’s account of ‘Young Brooklyn Family.’

I have been trying to find critiques of semiotics and a few have surfaced but they seem to be far from the norm. Given my personality type (as explored in assignment three) it is perhaps little surprise that I was becoming increasingly sceptical about the apparent lack of a counter-narrative to semiotics, or at least some debate of its shortcomings. Although some semiotic analysts do refer to interpretation and some also acknowledge wider contextual factors not all do as I found with Jobey. It is hard sometimes to distinguish interpretations from those presented as fact.

As someone who has been involved with ethnographic research I am familiar with positivistic arguments being made against interpretative methodologies as well as having to be clear about the criteria against which the research can be judged. I have seen very little of this in the texts I have read so far around semiotics. That is not to suggest they are not there, it may just be that I have not encountered them to date.

I was pleased to find one paper that does offer a critique in a way that is coherent, comprehensible and resonated with my experience. Chandler (2002) offers various criticisms, in summary:

  1. The boundaries of semiotics seem to be ever expanding and have become so fluid it can now encompass almost every academic discipline – what Chandler refers to as the ‘imperialism’ of semiotics
  2. Semioticians are not always explicit about the limitations of their techniques
  3. There is an absence of transparency in the analysis of signs, implying they are objective realities rather than subjective interpretations
  4. Some analyses appear to have a preoccupation with classification which has a tendency to ‘downplay the affective domain’ and in doing so moves away from the subjective creating the illusion of objectivity
  5. Structural semiotics is only concerned with textual structure and in doing so negates the wider cultural context in which the text sits. In not taking account of the cultural context the impact of power structures, hierarchies and wider social constructs are ignored. As Chandler (2002) notes ‘the relationships between signifiers and their signified may be ontologically arbitrary but they are not socially arbitrary.’
  6. There is a concern that much of semiotics has become associated with a simple process of ‘decoding’. For me this has an ontological implication in that it suggests there is a single reality or truth to be uncovered if you know how to read the signs correctly

Semioticians have recognised some of these shortcomings and Chandler (2002) goes on to describe the ‘turn’ to the social and post-structuralism, which has an equal concern with both structure and process.

I am pleased I took time to think about this further and it has helped reassure me that it is not necessarily something I am missing, this is in fact a complex and contested field. In terms of responding to my initial question of ‘what is semiotics’ it may be easier to think about what it is not and here I am inclined to agree with Chandler (2002) when he states:

Semiotics is not, never has been, and seems unlikely ever to be, an academic discipline in its own right. It is now widely regarded primarily as one mode of analysis amongst others rather than a ‘science’ of cultural forms.

References and citations:

CHANDLER, D. 2002. Semiotics for Beginners. Criticisms of Semiotic Analysis [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 16th May 2016].

ECO, U. 1976. A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press/London: Macmillan.


Assignment Four Reflections

Title: A picture is worth a thousand words

Having looked at a number of submissions for assignment four by other OCA students I have adopted slightly amended self-assessment criteria that provide more scope for reflecting on my essay.

Demonstration of subject based knowledge and understanding

This assignment has helped develop my subject knowledge around visual analysis and really exploring some of the basics of semiotics in particular. My understanding of semiotics has increased although with that has come a questioning of some of its underlying assumptions (see my entry In Search of Semiotics). In completing this essay I also acquired insights into the work of a single photographer and gained an experiential understanding of how I might apply the process I used to my own work and other photographers going forward.

My initial concern that the image might not have been regarded as having enough content has long since been dispelled. I still regard it as a powerful image that offers a depth of meaning (some of my fellow students have also had a similar response on seeing the photograph). Taking the work of an emerging photographer about whom there is not a large established body of knowledge also allowed me to develop my own responses without being unduly influenced by the reviews of others.

I think overall I have demonstrated a grasp of the review process and an understanding of the work of Dara Scully (although I know she would not write about her own work in this academic form).

Demonstration of research skills

I enjoyed the research activity for the essay, which took a number of forms:

  • Gaining more insight into Dara Scully’s photography, her background and her body of work
  • Other relevant photographers/photographs – either similar or different approaches to representing childhood and coming of age
  • Semiotics
  • Reading photographic images – other analysis approaches
  • Psychoanalysis and object relations
  • Theories around childhood and its meaning as a concept

This took longer than I had anticipated but its breadth provided a useful sensitising framework (Bruner, 1996) from which I could develop the depth of my own reading of The Cut. On initial reading of the image I thought I would be using concepts from psychoanalysis and objects relations such as the Mirror Stage (Lacan, 1949)   or Paranoid-Schizoid position (Klein, 1986) or possibly the plait as a transitional object  (Winnicott, 1951) but as my research progressed it was the interpretation of ‘childhood innocence’ that came to the fore.

The research took a process I am familiar with involving cycles of divergent and convergent thinking until my analysis was complete. It also followed a series of iterative stages: data collection, synthesising, analysis, and conclusions.

Demonstration of critical and evaluation skills

I think I have worked through a clear process of critical review and was open to the process taking me in a direction I might not have initially anticipated. I created a framework for the essay that was intended to highlight the interpretative nature of the exercise. The structure for the essay aimed to have a logical flow:

  • Personal reasons for selecting the image
  • Background to the photographer
  • Comparisons
  • Theoretical exploration of the childhood theme
  • Conclusions including a personal reflection

Feedback from other OCA students helped refine the structure and content, although I am not sure this intended structure was evident to all. It felt particularly important to draw out intertexuality as part of the evaluation by highlighting my personal responses to the image as well as considering where it might be placed within the wider field of representing childhood (both in visual and written texts). If I understand the concept correctly this has taken more of a social semiotic approach.

During the process I came across this quote from Chandler (2002):

Semiotic analysis often shows a tendency to downplay the affective domain – though the study of connotations ought to include the sensitive exploration of highly variable and subjective emotional nuances. (Chandler, 2002)

I found this to be an important distinction for me in evaluative terms as the affective domain (i.e. my emotional response) was the foundation for selecting the image in the first place and relates closely to this being an interpretative piece of research rather than an empirical natural science experiment.


Given the complexity of some of the concepts and the depth I could have gone into in relation to the photograph I did find the 1,000-word limit quite challenging. While I am satisfied with the result I know there was more I could have drawn out and explored. That said the word limit was a useful discipline in terms of tightening my language and trying to be clear about the structure. Sharing earlier drafts with some of my fellow students was a useful way of checking how some of the concepts were received by others, and inevitability there were elements I thought I was communicating well that were not clear to others. I am grateful to everyone who spent time to read the essay and comment.

My thanks to Steve Middlehurst for sharing his self-assessment criteria for the essay.

References & citations

BRUNER, E., M 1996. My Life in an Ashram. In: PATTON, M., Q. (ed.) Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. 3 ed. London: Sage Publications.

CHANDLER, D. 2002. Semiotics for Beginners. Criticisms of Semiotic Analysis [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 16th May 2016].

KLEIN, M. 1986. Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. In: DU GAY, P., EVANS, J. & REDMAN, P. (eds.) Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.

LACAN, J. 1949. The Mirror Stage. In: DU GAY, P., EVANS, J. & REDMAN, P. (eds.) Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.

WINNICOTT, D. W. 1951. Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. In: WINNICOTT, D. (ed.) Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock.


Decoding the decoding: Liz Jobey review of a Young Brooklyn Family

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. Arbus, 1966

A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. Arbus, 1966

The fictions we make about photographs are as unreliable as they are unavoidable.(Jobey, 2005)

This review for me started well with this opening statement, it highlights the interpretative nature of ‘reading’ photographs and reflected some of the critiques I have been looking at in terms of semiotics. However, from this point forward I find myself getting increasingly frustrated about what is to me an apparent melange of denotation and connotation with one sometimes being presented as the other.

Jobey starts with a mix of description and interpretation of the image. Highlighting how the viewer might imagine the lives and futures of the family in the photograph – ‘you can’t help wondering what will become of them.’ In the next few sentences it seems clear the assumption of the reviewer is that their futures are not likely to be bright. The review then moves through a series of phases:

  • Some background to the image
  • Denotation
  • Placing Arbus in context and biographical information
  • Arbus backstory
  • Different perspectives on Arbus’ wider body of work
  • Legacy
  • Denotation
  • Concluding connotation and wider social context

From my perspective the flow is not always clear and moves in and out of the image in an attempt to place both Arbus and the photograph in context. It was not so much the structure that troubled me as some of the statements, which for me blurred the lines between fact and interpretation. Statements like:

  • ‘…you can’t help wondering…’
  • ‘We pity them partly…’
  • ‘…her bland white baby…’
  • ‘They look or their marriage looks, already exhausted…’
  • ‘What is clear…’
  • ‘What is disturbing…’
  • ‘…her appearance seems absurd…’
  • ‘…its power comes from the ordinariness they dispute…’

I highlight these phrases because of their resoluteness and the sense of assuming I as the reader/viewer am complicit in these understandings. In my case there were several points where I did not make the interpretation apparently being made for me and where I felt unsubstantiated projections were being made. Only a couple of times does Jobey allude to an interpretation by saying ‘his expression suggests’ or ‘it is an extension of the impression given’. At no point does she appear to own her interpretations and place them in the first person.

I appreciate it may seem that there is an impertinence in my critique of Jobey’s essay, it is after all a comprehensive review, but going through this process has helped me in thinking about the importance of language and the recognition of the interpretative nature of semiotics. I needed to understand the source of my irritation in reading some of the passages. It has also highlighted the challenge of making personal interpretations and assuming that they can be generalised, something that other social science research methodologies have been grappling with for years in a way I haven’t yet seen to the same degree in this field.


Jobey, L. (2005). A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing , N.Y.C. 1966. In S. Howarth (Ed.), Singular Images: Essays on remarkable photographs (pp. 67-76). London: Tate Publishing.