FRONT PAGE / POSTS
by Malcolm Evans| Brighton, UK
Tuesday, 31 May 2011
tags: africa, europe, network, semiotics
Having led a two day training programme last week for the UK Market Research Society in London I’m currently (31 May 2011) at Vaal River near Johannesburg with a similar professional training workshop for the international market research/consumer insight organisation ESOMAR. At these occasions people often ask for a wiiki-type proper (but not too exhaustive) explanation of semiotics. Likewise academic specialists like to know how applied commercial semiotics works (and is evolving). Below the two birds with one stone – kissed, that is, for “He who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise” as William Blake says. And you can’t do better than that. Except help improve this starter definition by filling a feedback box with essential points overlooked below or things you can express in much better ways.
Semiotics, from the Greek semeion (‘sign’) is the study of semiosis, or systems and activities involving signs that exist in human culture and in nature – from spoken or written language to visual representation, music, taste and smell cues, signaling between animals (‘zoosemiotics’), medical symptoms, hormonal messaging, and the coding of the genome and microbiome. Semiotics embraces all processes of expression, communication and significant interaction at all levels throughout the universe which in the words of C.S. Peirce, early twentieth-century American philosopher and one of the founders of the modern discipline of semiotics, “is perfused with signs”.
The history of semiotics extends back to ancient Greece, where semiotike, alongside ethics and natural philosophy, was one of the three great pillars of human knowledge. There are similar processes of interpretation and decoding signs in all other human civilisations. The other great founding figure of today’s version of the discipline, operating like Peirce around the turn of the twentieth century, was Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure the father of modern linguistics, who formalised the systematic description of languages and posited beyond linguistics a larger, inclusive “science of the life of signs in society” which he called semiology. This field of study identified by Saussure and inspired by the methods of structural linguistics was to become, in the second half of the twentieth century, a driving force in the development of anthropology and ethnography (Claude Lévi-Strauss), philosophy, psychoanalysis and historical inquiry into discourse and the ‘archaeology of knowledge’ (Derrida, Lacan, Foucault) and analysis of any form of cultural expression – narrative, literature, art iconography, film and popular culture generally (e.g. Propp, Greimas, Metz, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Umberto Eco).
Semiotics (or semiology) applied to consumer insight and marketing has drawn on the traditions of both Peirce and Saussure. As befits a practical approach in which accessibility and client actionability override any niceties of academic definition or territoriality, commercial semiotics has looked more like an eclectic toolbox than a philosophically uniform or consistent discipline. Adjacent academic areas, like cultural studies for example, have been raided to enrich this applied methodology – through for example the application of Residual, Dominant and Emergent code mapping to understanding (and helping create) cultural trends and to developing a brand’s cultural equities and communication strategy.
Commercial semiotics in this broad sense, focusing on cultural and communication codes to help enhance client brand communications in competitive and cultural context, has experienced a sharp rise in influence with the growth of brand strategy and management since the 1990s, and particularly with the rise of megabrands requiring cross-cultural and global communication platforms. Current trends see this cultural (strictly speaking semiological) emphasis increasingly complemented by perspectives developed from the work of Peirce and his disciple Thomas Sebeok who saw human culture as part of a larger natural ‘semiosphere’ and refused to elevate it, via a false nature-culture dichotomy, into the sole area of inquiry. With a new convergence of the cultural and nature + culture (biosemiotic) perspective commercial semiotics will engage not only with brand imagery in the context of national and global cultures but also more and more with innovation in product forms and features (taste, smell), ecology and sustainability, and the interplay of ‘rational’ and’ emotional’ behaviours – interfacing increasingly with other emerging disciplines like cognitive psychology & neuroscience, ethnography/webnography and behavioural economics.
© Malcolm Evans 2011