This chapter lays the foundations for a metaparadigmatic approach, a potential “big tent” for sociology. Peirce’s semiotic “triadic” model is central. Five theoretical arguments at the metatheoretical level are put forward, with each key argument building on the others in a kind of grand synthesis or overarching framework. Currently, all the social sciences are fragmented, with neoclassical economics the least fragmented but now challenged by a new political economics. Parsons attempted to develop “social relations” at Harvard, but that view only lasted for a while. The interpretive approach to the social sciences advocated by Geertz and Bellah is now mostly applied only to some aspects of symbolic interaction, with symbolic interactionism quite separate as an interpretive network. The proposed synthesis is not a final version but it does involve a “broader horizon” (a “sublation” or Aufhebung). The goal is an overarching sociological framework that can be called “semiotic sociology.”
Quite a few influential accounts of group agency (Searle, 1992; List and Pettit, 2011; Tuomela, 2013; Bratman, 2014; Gilbert, 2014) share the view that agency can only be attributed to real individual subjects, while groups can only metaphorically be considered as agents, because only individuals have the capability to really act. This view relies on an unproblematizing conception of the individual subject as a singular, self-identical, and continuous entity among other such entities of various kinds. On the other hand, it is customary to think of meanings as shared, supraindividual items that do not paradigmatically exist solely in the consciousness of one individual, but appear in their interaction. This leaves the semiotic aspect of any kind of action with a curious structural hiatus; on the one hand, the action belongs to the individual, on the other, however, any meaning that is involved in it does not. The goal of the present chapter is to have a closer look at this conceptual knot. Let me state at the outset that I do not believe the problem can be efficiently solved in the framework of the received view of what agency is, nor in the terms of the object-centered ontology on which this view relies. The standard account of agency could be summarized as something like this: an individual mind regularly entertains a variety of identifiable mental states, such as beliefs, thoughts, ideas, and intents. In interaction with its environment, it is capable of forming particular intents to carry out particular actions.
While the interpretive social sciences have been focused almost entirely on the analysis of meaning and structure, my claim is that a third level of analysis is warranted. Just as Saussure argues that a sign’s signifier and signified are joined arbitrarily, so too do syntactic rules arbitrarily dictate the ways in which meaningful phenomena may or may not be conjoined. The rules of cultural syntax thereby enable and constrain the cultural structures we experience every day throughout the social world. That is, these rules determine the limits of how we are able to combine signs and symbols within those cultural structures. For this reason, having a theoretical model with the vision to identify these rules enriches the descriptive and explanatory powers of any semiotic approach to culture.
Semiotics provides key analytical tools to understand the creation and reproduction of meaning in social life. Although some fields have productively incorporated semiotic models, sociology still needs to engage with semiosis mediation.
Written by a diverse group of authors in interpretive sociology, this ambitious volume asks what the relationship between meaning systems and action is, how we can describe culture and which roles we assign to language, social processes and cognition in a sociological context. Contributors offer empirical research that not only outlines the conceptual issues at stake, but also demonstrates ‘how to do things’ with semiotics through case studies.
Synthesizing a diverse and fragmented landscape, this is a key reference work for scholars interested in the connection between semiotics and sociology.
This introductory chapter begins by reflecting on the historically troubled encounters between semiotics and sociology, their multiple beginnings, abrupt separations, and fights over boundaries. On one hand, when going social, semiotics seems more interested in analyses of social artifacts or texts than social life processes in their sociality and not just textuality. On the other, when going semiotic, sociology tends to appropriate formal understandings of structure, only to realize that structuralist efforts are impractical for complex explanations of social life. To overcome these challenges, the chapter proposes integrating two main traditions of meaning-making from the outset: Saussure’s and Peirce’s semiotics. Thus, to lay solid foundation to sociocultural explanation we need a sophisticated theory of signification in social life. A theory where signs—vehicles of meaning—signify via self-referential differentials but also via reflexive indexicalities that anchor them at multiple social levels. Expanding on these themes, the chapter turns to three open problems at the crossroads of semiotics and sociology, namely indexicality and context-making, habituation and power, and culture and cognition. Finally, the contributions are outlined. From different perspectives, each contribution attempts to provide elements to answer: Is there a space for semiotics in an agenda that pushes interpretive sociology forward?
A unifying theme in the chapters in this volume is that semiotics offers important analytic tools for understanding the creation and reproduction of contextual meaning in social life (see Introduction). Consistent with this theme, my research program has centered on the semiotic distinction between the socially marked and the socially unmarked. I have employed these sensitizing analytic concepts to examine a range of issues, including sexual identity (Brekhus, 1996), theoretical attention in sociology (Brekhus, 1998, 2000), cognition (Brekhus, 2015; Brekhus and Ignatow, 2019), risk (Brekhus, 2018), and identity (Brekhus, 2020). Broadly speaking, I focus on identity, difference, cognition, and representation, with a particular interest in the ways that intersecting dimensions of markedness and unmarkedness shape cultural perception, worldviews, cognition, and the reproduction of social inequalities. The semiotic distinction between the marked and the unmarked was first introduced in the 1930s by linguists Trubetzkoy and Jakobson (see Jakobson, 1972; Trubetzkoy and Jakobson, 1975: 162). Linguist Linda Waugh (1982), in her article “Marked and Unmarked: A Choice between Unequals in Semiotic Structure,” developed the marked/unmarked distinction into a broader semiotic framework featuring semiotic pairs such as blackness/whiteness and homosexuality/heterosexuality, across different semiotic systems (see also Zerubavel, 2018, p. 2). Following the lead of Waugh, who argued that the same logic of the actively accented (marked) and the passively unacknowledged (unmarked) that applied to linguistic contrasts also applies to social contrasts, I have helped to import these concepts into the social sciences. In my own work, inspired by Waugh’s analysis, I first applied a semiotic markedness/unmarkedness analysis to sexual identity construction in the US (Brekhus, 1996), wherein I noted that some sexual behaviors and identities are marked as “deviant” and given special labels, while others remain unmarked, unaccented, and even unlabeled.
The past, the present, and the future are different tonalities of temporality, and in order to study their interaction, a processual look at the analytic and concrete level is a much required move for memory studies. The chapter argues that the future is a real territory for memory studies, which can be approached most effectively in terms of a semiotic, cultural sociology. The framework proposed here is grounded on a network-based formalization of cultural systems to depict an autonomous role of cultural encyclopedias and scripts in the micro-level orientation to future action. As it is framed in the chapter, memory work is a building block for a theory of cultural mechanisms (that link the macro level of culture and the micro level of situations), which elucidates how different aspects of culture at the cognitive and pragmatic level are translated mutually within cultural systems and how they transfer into consideration of possible courses of action. The chapter contributes to a theory of memory that is less concerned with the remembrance of the past and more with the working logic of culture and its pragmatic implications.
This chapter applies Peircean semiotics (sign, object, interpretant) and related tools (indexicality, metapragmatics) to rich ethnographic data on HIV disclosure across US local and migrant networks of gay and bisexual men. Interactional grammars of sexual encounters are examined where HIV can be transmitted via polysemic (mis)interpretation. For local sexual networks, silence (sign) about HIV non-disclosure can index “bareback” condomless contexts (object) of ingroup belonging and empowerment (interpretant). For recent migrant men, however, silence during condomless sex may index differently—that sex partners can be trusted to disclose if HIV positive. Thus, silence by some HIV-positive men as empowering response to HIV stigma and rejection may paradoxically create sexual contexts of HIV transmission that recent Latino gay men then encounter. These semiotic pathways act as performative expressions on the ground of larger scale stigma rooted in unequal sexual orders. From a pragmatist framework of social mechanisms, the chapter’s goal is to show how emergent properties of complex systems (structural stigma, HIV disparities) affecting vulnerable populations are partly realized via semiotic mechanisms at the micro-level of sexual interactions.
In March 2021, Dolce and Gabbana (D&G) showed its women’s fall/winter 21 collection in a windowless, audienceless, mirrored fantasia of flashing lights glancing off reflective surfaces. The video showed models sweeping down the runway in shiny metallic garb, glossy white robots rolling along beside them. One “MC” robot seemed to be running the show, strobing lights, and pulsing the music with dramatic sweeps of its humanoid hands. The COVID-19 pandemic may have nixed the customary live show, but not the futuristic exuberance of the presentation. Ostensibly informed by “robotics research and Artificial Intelligence,” D&G’s Instagram (@dolcegabbana, 3/1/21) claimed that this collection was “an attempt to reveal how technology and craftsmanship, two apparently different worlds” can come together. By eliding the notion that technology is craftmanship, the post invokes a rift in signification that has far-reaching consequences. The idea that high fashion and high tech are mutually exclusive has a long history. Fashion, traditionally associated with the feminine, is a luxury world of silk, fur, and leather. The “hand” of a fabric, its feel to the touch, is just as important as how it drapes or looks on the body. The notion of “handmade” is also highly valued, evoking images of patient seamstresses painstakingly beading a one-of-a-kind creation. As the organizers of the 2016 Manus x Machina show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art aptly pointed out, the “oppositional relationship” of the “hand/machine dichotomy” (Bolton and Cope, 2016, p. 9) has governed the culture of fashion since the birth of haute couture in the mid-19th century.
Much social behavior within networks arises ostensibly as an utterance or reciprocal, dyadic response directed to particular others. But fundamental to that behavior’s meaning and relational objectives is the presence of an audience. Indeed, the behavior or gesture may be more urgently targeted at the audience than the putative alter. We use the ethologist Frans de Waal’s term, “side-directed behavior,” to capture this phenomenon, and we use it illustratively to interpret behavior in small groups across a number of settings, such as classrooms, school bullying networks, workplace dynamics, and political patronage systems. We also identify some traces of the concept in classical and contemporary social theory. Finally, we draw out implications of side-directed behavior for how we treat the intersection of social networks and culture. Failing to consider systematic side-directed behavior in coding, depicting, and analyzing networks can lead to the analysis of structures distinctly misrepresentative of reality. Meanwhile, close attention is needed to the semiotics of these situations, which are more complex than what is often dealt with in the literature on sociolinguistics. For example, via what signals do people appreciate the “true” targets of network ties from talk?