In order to understand the world, we need to understand the signs. These are the spoken, written and drawn objects and words of everyday life. The study of these various signs is called semiotics, or the analytical approach to understanding the messages signs communicate (Berger, 2010, p. 3). According to researchers Branston and Stafford (2010), meaning is produced though this (p. 12).
Society and semantics combine because it is the culture of a specific people that build and create the meanings of the various signs they use (Berger, 2010, p. 12). Media does this on a large scale by functioning as a “conveyor belt” of meaning sent to the viewers and readers (Branston & Stafford, 2010, p. 11-12). Two of the most important figures to consider are Saussure and Peirce (Berger, 2010, p. 5). Their combined theories have allowed us to better understand signs, icons, indexes and symbols within the field of cultural studies.
Signs have already been mentioned earlier as the basic unit of semantics, however, there is more to know if proper understanding is desired. For one thing, Saussure places important societal roles on sign as they express certain ideas specific to the culture. For him, signs have to parts: the signifier and the signified. These are the images used and the concept the figure represents (Berger, 2010, p. 5). In other words, there is the physical gesture or image and what it immaterially wants to represent (Branston & Stafford, 2010, p. 12). However, as they change over time, one has the option to study them both at that given time (synchronically) or as they change and develop (diachronically). Also keep in mind that signs can also be understood and interpreted in what they are not (Berger, 2010, p. 6). Let’s look at the example below.
The image above is a common sign known to us all: the baby changing station. The images shown are signifiers for the particular bathrooms with baby changing tables included, called the signified. The people shown with the child and changing the child’s diaper do not directly show the facilities or the parents changing the diaper, but the signs help communicate that.
Peirce’s approach to semantics broke these signs into three different categories: symbols, icons and indexes. Symbols are described as signifiers by convention, needing to be learned (Berger, 2010, p. 6). For example, we do not understand a white flag to mean surrendering, but is symbolic reference is learned. This is because the symbol has some deeper meaning constructed by society. Signs, however, are more used for the depiction of something.
Let’s return to the idea of a white flag seen bellow in the image of Auggie Doggie. The continuous use and almost habit of a truce flag as made it a symbol. No matter how young or old the viewer is, this symbol is understood, making it very successful in society.
An iconic symbol is one which resembles the object or idea is stands for. They are often motivated by one particular part of the signified. This means it is more specific and less arbitrary (Branston & Stafford, 2010, p. 13). In short, it is what they resemble (Berger, 2010, p. 9). An example can help clarify this concept.
The icon of the television is an appropriate example of this particular sign. The close physical characteristics of this cartoon-like depictions closely resembles that image of an old TV with antennas and buttons. While small differences may occur the specific similarities such icons have with real TVs allows for the audience to understand what the icon is.
Indexes are also a clerical term to understand signs in society. These signs are related to the causal links between what is depicted and what it stands for (Branston & Stafford, 2010, p. 14). To reiterate, and index signifies through the connections it drives you to make. In this case, the individual object or occurrence is connected to an individual object. (Berger, 2010, p. 9-10). For example, a dark cloud is an index for a rainstorm as the image signifies the causal relationship between the changing weather.
Return to the idea of using these in research we can compare two sources to see how to properly use them in cultural analysis. In a text by Berger (2010), he goes about suggesting semiotics can be used in research as a way of looking at culture. This is related to the codes we put signs into. The collection of these codes in our lives tell us how to life our lives, what to eat, what to wear and so on. Through observation, these codes can become visible and we can internalize them—even though they go unnoticed. This can lead to understanding cultural behavior. It is here where concepts of the individual unconscious, collective unconscious and cultural unconscious need to be interpreted to be able to see the framework they create for us (Berger, 2010, p. 24).
Comparing this to a reading by Branson and Stafford (2010), their type of semantic research seems to focus more on structuralism. This is when researchers question how meaning is constructed in different ways and areas. Through the study of signs, they suggest that how they come to significance is more important (Branson and Stafford, 2010, p. 12).
Berger, A. A. (2010). The objects of affection: semiotics and consumer culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan. (chapter 1: “The Science of Signs, pp. 3-31)
Branston, G., & Stafford, R. (2003). The media student’s book. London/New York: Psychology Press. (chapter: “Semiotic Approaches”, pp. 11-17)