Social semiotics: Towards a sociologically grounded semiotics
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The central argument of our paper is that the lack of contact of semiotics with the social sciences is severely damaging for the field. It is true, as Saussure pointed out, that any science in order to be constituted has to adopt a specific point of view on the world. Semiotics defined its own point of view as that of meaning, which is entirely legitimate and allows the description of semiotic phenomena. However, if we wish to reach a deeper interpretation and explanation of semiotic texts, we need an articulation of semiotics with an epistemologically superior level. Semioticians have looked for this articulation in the framework of an individualistic paradigm, in biology or sometimes in psychology; we counter-propose a sociological paradigm.
There is much current confusion between the concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘society’, which frequently results in their conflation. However, we need to recognize that beyond culture, there exists a very material society, consisting of socio-economic processes and political institutions. Unless we want to assume that semiotic systems descend from heaven, it is reasonable to search for their origins in the material life of society.
Our paper looks at the articulation of semiotics with society (in the sociologist’s sense of the word) first in the area of sociosemiotics and then in sociolinguistics. We argue that it ranges from a weak awareness of society which is dismissed in the name of semiotic relevance (see, for example, Greimas and Courtés) to the systematic articulation of language with the social (see, for example, Bernstein). Finally, we try to demonstrate how an articulation between semiotics and society can illuminate semiotic analysis through the example of case studies from Antiquity to our own times.
The anchoring of semiotic systems in society challenges both Peircian global semiotics and cognitive semiotics, which both imply the historical priority of biology as an explanation of cultural semiotic systems. Both approaches try to pass directly from culture to biology, but the mediation of society impedes such a leap and poses major epistemological questions.