Social semiotics reveals language s social meaning its structures, processes, conditions and effects in all social contexts, across all media and modes of discourse. This important new book uses social semiotics as a one-stop shop to analyse language and social meaning, enhancing linguistics with a sociological imagination.
Social Semiotics for a Complex World develops ideas, frameworks and strategies for better understanding key problems and issues involving language and social action in today s hyper-complex world driven by globalization and new media. Its semiotic basis incorporates insights from various schools of linguistics (such as cognitive linguistics, critical discourse analysis and sociolinguistics) as well as from sociology, anthropology, philosophy, psychology and literary studies. It employs a multi-modal perspective to follow meaning across all modes of language and media, and a multi-scalar approach that ranges between databases and one-word slogans, the local and global, with examples from English, Chinese and Spanish.
Social semiotics analyses twists and turns of meanings big and small in complex contexts. This book uses semiotic principles to build a powerful, flexible analytic toolkit which will be invaluable for students across the humanities and social sciences.
This book has a practical aim. It offers ideas and approaches for readers who want to understand and cope better with their world. Its angle on problems and solutions is its emphasis both on analysing language and meaning as key to understanding society and on society as key to understanding language and meaning. Its basic premise is that meanings are part of every problem and every attempted solution. Language and meaning are crucial for effective action. Analysing them matters.
Social semiotics is a uniquely powerful, inclusive framework for this purpose. It analyses meaning in all its forms, across all modes of language and practice. No other approach can match its scope, in today's multimodal world as in the past. The book is oriented to practice, its ideas and methods always embedded in real-life situations, problems and responses. Its concepts, ideas and models come from many theories. Social semiotics here does not describe and illustrate a well-known body of ideas and apply them. In this book analysis is a laboratory for theory, and theory develops tools for analysis.
The book is not intended as definitive, either about linguistics or about social semiotics. It is embedded in my personal journey, researching such public themes as globalization, digital culture, critical management and postcoloniality and private themes such as love, madness and the meaning of life. I address many different readers because these themes are important to so many people. Many will be university students, from first years to postgraduates. Some may be in linguistics, wanting to understand how language and meaning connect with society. Others may be in sociology, aware of the ever-present role of language and meaning in every issue that engages them. Others may study other fields, such as psychology, philosophy, English, and cultural or media studies. All need a one-stop shop on language and social meaning.
I also write with general readers in mind: thoughtful, intelligent citizens grappling with problems that are usually generic as well as personal. The internet has supported the emergence of a new class of such citizens, sometimes called citizen-scientists, who use the net to cross traditional boundaries between experts and non-experts.
I use a minimum of jargon and explain all specialist terms. I use many accessible examples - mini-stories raising complex issues, mostly available from the internet. To move between my two purposes, exploratory and didactic, I italicize key points as they arise in the flow of exposition.
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Disciplines are socially embedded modes of producing meaning. All students should know about the history and assumptions of disciplines they study. To set the scene for this book I use my personal history with social semiotics to reflect on disciplines and interdisciplinarity.
My story began with the 1968 student 'revolution', which swept through European and American universities, erupting into my studies of literature and classics at Cambridge University. This worldwide movement went viral across the globe without an internet. America played a key if ambiguous role. Its war in Vietnam was a catalyst for young people everywhere to recognize and protest against imperialism. Its civil rights movement was inspiring. The feminist slogan 'the personal is political' changed the agenda. French, German and Italian theory was liberatory, interacting with practice in exciting new ways.
The movement targeted the dominant academic system, but its goals included wider social change and a key role for academic knowledge in achieving it. Forty years later those are still my goals, though I now see many more problems with achieving them.
Disciplinarity then seemed a device to divide and rule. The interdisciplinarity I wanted could not just combine tightly bounded existing disciplines. It needed a more fluid space in which to follow connections and build new practices.
I was drawn to the reflections of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on why his own revolution in 1930s Italy failed. His concept 'hegemony' opened a door for me into unsuspected realities. Hegemony acted through 'intellectuals' to produce 'the "spontaneous" consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group' (1971: 12). Gramsci was imprisoned in the 1930s by the fascist dictator Mussolini, so he was fully aware of the role of material force, 'the apparatus of state coercive power which "legally" enforces discipline on those groups who do not "consent" either actively or passively' (ibid.). I knew that the repertoire of conceptual tools to dismantle the current hegemony must include political, economic and social analysis. I immersed myself in a search across the social sciences.
I also knew the tools to attack hegemonic systems must include ways of analysing the texts and processes through which hegemony acted to create 'spontaneous' consent and apparent 'legality'. I saw that as my task. I was trained in interpretive disciplines, classics and literature, but it seemed obvious that linguistics, the official 'science of language,' was essential. So I turned to linguistics. Noam Chomsky inspired me in this thinking. His courageous politics impressed me, beginning with his critique of American power and 'the new mandarins' (Chomsky 1969) - unscrupulous ideologues of state policy employed in American universities. In his new role as activist the world's greatest linguist taught himself political science. Chomsky's linguistics (1957, 1965) also excited me. I was not sure how his politics and linguistics came together, but I was sure they did and would, in a powerful analytic tool.
In 1972 I went to the new interdisciplinary university of East Anglia in England, specifically to develop 'English studies', an approach later called 'cultural studies'. I was fired up with the promise of Chomsky's linguistics in a matrix of critical approaches. There I met Gunther Kress. Gunther had studied under the British linguist Michael Halliday, and he brought Halliday's work into our mix. We grafted linguistics, drawn from the full range of current schools, onto the Marxist tradition of critical theory (Hodge and Kress 1974; Kress and Hodge 1979; Fowler et al. 1979). The result was first called 'critical linguistics' and later rebranded 'critical discourse analysis', CDA (Fairclough 1989).
Chomsky and Halliday co-existed happily in the pages of our book, but not in linguistics in the world outside. I sadly watched the wonderful enterprise of linguistics become mired in polemics, so virulent that people referred to 'the linguistic wars' (Harris 1993). Chomsky's exciting vision solidified into a fiercely defended orthodoxy, excluding former followers such as George Lakoff (1968) and alternative traditions such as Halliday's (1985).
Linguistics has been frozen in a cold war for four decades. It is long past time for peace to be declared. One task I set myself in this book is to use social semiotics for that purpose. Social semiotics creates a space in which the social function of the opposition between Chomsky and Halliday and their followers is seen as a struggle for position. Social semiotics can then do what it also does well. As a meta-discipline, it places the different proposals about language, meaning and society of these two great linguists in a more dynamic context. The result is not a synthesis but a new, more powerful, comprehensive linguistics in which different or complementary ideas interact and evolve.
I once told Halliday that I aimed to reconcile the opposition between his and Chomsky's linguistics. He smiled sceptically and said: 'I wish you luck with that.' I do not know Chomsky personally, so I have not asked him what he thought, but I suspect I would be lucky to get even a sceptical smile.
Chapter 4 addresses this theme directly, and it weaves into other chapters. I hope both men will read this book and feel respected. But more important is that no one looks to linguistics for insights into language, meaning and society and thinks they have to choose between the two. No ideas are better for being kept 'pure', quarantined from interaction with other competing systems of ideas.
The 'linguistics wars' mirrored and were implicated in another set of 'wars'. In the 1980s there was talk of a 'linguistic turn' in philosophy and social sciences. Ironically, this movement was not a turn to the current discipline of linguistics but a decisive turn away. Given currency by Lyotard (1984), 'the linguistic turn' became a slogan for 'postmodernism', presented as radically opposed to 'modernism' and 'positivism', in a series of 'wars' across academia: 'culture wars', 'science wars'.
Common to these different fields are the concepts of system and structure, a hotly contested legacy from Saussure (1974). They have been understood in different ways, in battles that have divided disciplines and departments. The constructed 'war' between 'structuralism' and 'poststructuralism', and of both with 'empirical' or 'positivist' sociology, tore sociology apart in the 1980s, and the influential...