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A social semiotic model of meaning

Abandon the 1950s information model of communication. It's based on computers, not people, and it doesn't address how things get created in the first place. The communication triangle is ill-applied to human communication as meaning: the receiver's role is reduced to minimal.

Shannon was an engineer, facing engineering problems concerned with switching massive numbers of telephone calls through a finite matrix of lines. He was concerned to produce a mathematical model allowing the fullest use of the system without causing any crashes. The 1948 papers in the Bell System Technical Journal still reverberate. But it is in their crudest reformulations that they have had the greatest technical impact: information as one-way flow. The sender encodes a message. A carrier takes it to another point, where the message is decoded and received. The feedback mechanism is used only to decide whether the message has been transmitted and received efficiently, that is, in the same form and impact intended by the sender. The receiver's role is limited to some form of the response 'message received and understood'. Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics 131

The social semiotic model is generative and rhetorical.

For discussion, we'll specify a creator/maker and a reader/interpreter. In practice, we'll see that the act of interpreting a text involves the same resources and follows the same model as the act of creating it.

We communicate with signs that do not necessarily pre-exist the communicative effort. We generate them.

That is, we link signifier to signified with intent: I give my partner a rose as a sign of an apology. In doing so, the rose becomes a sign as it is the thing, the medium (the signifier) that I link to the signified (my an apology).

My partner interprets the signifier (the rose) as a sign, a yoke between my intent and my affection - or she doesn't. In interpreting the sign, she may yoke the signified (the rose) with something else: guilt, pandering, insincerity… What's important here is that the act of reading the sign is a creative act of yoking signifier with signified to create meaning. Reading is not a passive reception of intention.

A problem: intention gets lost in translation. Semiosis does not preserve intent.

The rose-as-sign doesn't prohibit my partner from yoking the rose to guilt; roses-as-signs make it perfectly possible to do so - but not everything makes it possible. She cannot really yoke the rose to just anything, however. The universe is large but not infinite because we are grounded in time, place, culture, relationships.

Where can things go wrong?

2b837801-8f6c-4224-89d3-3394ddac8198.jpeg The external sign I create in form - externally - is not identical to the one I create in my head. The sign I make outwardly is based on the inward sign, but it's not the same. There will be a slip between my inward sign and the external one. Intent is not encoded.

Ditto my partner reading. The sign she creates in her head is not identical to the one I created materially.

Look more closely at the materiality of what's happening to see where it can go wrong.

To communicate, a creator represents meaning in some external fashion. It must be an external representation or no communication happens.

To create a sign, a person draws on resources - some are material, others are abstract.


  • medium: the material stuff: crayons, voice, scripts, film
  • mode: a system, such as written language, or spoken language, or visual design
  • The resources include the creator's knowledge of the media, mode, genre - all of which are social - and that knowledge may not be as complete as reader.
  • Resources include things like symbol systems: parole.

I create the sign - the meaning - by my more or less deft use of resources, by what I know of the medium, the mode, and the culture. I draw on a cultural resource of a language or set of conventions of flowers that equates, in a very general way, red roses with love, and a single red rose with - well, a number of things: affection, sure, but also apology, as well as frugality and understatement. My knowledge of these conventions might be limited. Other flowers, I assume, mean, by convention, other things.

And here's where problems crop up. If I don't know the medium (flowers) and the genre (apologies) well, I might choose a flower for its aesthetics. That is, I might use the flower to yoke apology with pretty thing. I might select a single sweet alyssum.

On the other hand, if my partner does know the medium well, she might know that sweet alyssum is symbolically associated with the godsess Psyche, with knowledge, understanding, and truth and wonder if that association is meaningful or not. That is, IF my partner knows the symbolic system well.

The way she reads the sign shows us something very very important. The matter is less “Did you mean to associate the flower with Psyche, with knowledge?” It is more important to note this:

By yoking the signifier sweet alyssum with the signified apology, I created a new resource that my partner can now use to make meaning.

“New” only in the sense that it wasn't available to her until I created it. But, once created, she can draw on the sign I have created to represent meaning to herself. She will, in fact, draw on resources to create the meaning that the act will have to her, just as I did in creating the sign: She will interpet - read - the sign. Her resources include her knowledge of the language of flowers, of aesthetics - and most significantly of me: on what she assumes I know.

Like it or not, the signs - forms - meanings you create - mean more than you intend. And less because intent is not coded. Intent is lost in semiosis. You represent your meaning to yourself one way, but in giving that meanong material form you represent it to others in a different way. And that mis-match between seeming intention and meaning others get demonstrates that

The meaning created in material fashion and represented to others is not the same as the meaning represented to one’s self.

To me, the sweet alyssum meant “sorry,” but in part because my knowledge of resources was limited. Others will use my sign as well as other resources I didn't have at the time to create meaning - and that meaning they create is what they will take as meaningful. Not my meaning, but meaningful.

This is to say that

  • the writer/creator draws on resources to create material signs that are
  • then interpreted as resources and by using other resources by a reader

In this way, every reader is as much a creator as the original creator.

Meaning is Controlled by Assumptions of Motivation and Best Selection

It looks like we can just make something mean whatever we want it do, but that's not so. We do have to hold our selves in check when we interpret. Interpretation/reading is not a free for all any more than authorship/creation.

I use the sign presented to me - the flower-as-apology, or a circle-as-car, or crayon-sketch-as-portrait-of-inner-self - as a resource. My interpretation needs to use that sign as a resource or risk interpreting some other sign. This is to say that the sign/signifier - the material thing I look at, hear, interpret - is the thing that links the author and the reader and makes this an act of communication. I don't know if the material form needs to be at the center, but if I move too far away from the affordances of the material thing, I move further away from communication. This is not to say I can't interpret a material form any way I want to. I probably can, but when I do so, I am no longer concerned with communication or the social or the message. I'm more interested in side-stepping the creator.

Which is to say that, to keep reading in control, we need to assume that the sign created is motivated: that the author intentionally yoked signifier with signified, that the link is not arbitrary, and we need to assume that the sign is the best available indicator of the author's meaning. So I do have to assume that, given everything, which might include a limited knowledge of resources, this is the sign that best yokes signifier and signified. It’s an act of grace that makes meaning possible.

These assumptions - that the sign is intentional and the best the author can create - make it possible to read what appear to be scribbles of children's drawings as attempts to represent meaning using a medium. We do need more resources than just the scribble, but we can begin to read.

These assumptions also mean that I am openly creating meaning using resources I have and I can draw on that the creator might not (yet) have. (Example from Kress, Multimodal) A child might create a drawing of his family and place himself between Mom and Dad. I can read that placement as signifying a family with the child himself in the middle, a family where he is protected, shielded, and where Mom and Dad are equally close, but also signifying a family where he comes between Mom and Dad. Not that any of these significations need to be true in reality; that is a different issue. Did the child intend to make that meaning possible? After all, I'm drawing on a lot of socially conventional symbolic meanings here, and this is a little kid!

We don’t need to appeal to intent-in-meaning for semiotic meaning. If we assume - grant in an act of semiotic grace - that the sign the child has offered is the child's best possible indicator of his meaning at the moment, then we can say that the child has made it possible for me to use his resource (the material sign) to create a meaning of family that places him in the symbolic middle. He doesn't know it, and when he comes to know it - when he has more resources available - he might change it. Intent is a black box we don’t need to bring in to semiosis.

The act of communication is a matter of creating signs that another can use to create meanings. In doing so, we probably always communicate more than we represent to ourselves.

Gaps in our knowledge


We might be less than skilled with some resources (cameras, visual composition), genres, even reading. We may not read our own signs as signs, not see the journey underground as a symbolic journey. We don't have to read out 0wn sign, but that doesn't prevent others from doing so. The social and material resources are at hand for this interpretation. I still want to assume that the form is the best representation the author could create, that the link is not accidental or arbitrary but possible because someone made it so. And if we don't want them to, then we have to do something else.


Even if we identify resources, we don't always know the affordances: what meanings are made possible with those resources. Crayon might mean color, but texture might come into it too.


Intent needs more consideration. It can mean, “How does the creator’s internal sign line up with the material sign created?” Or it might be a demand that the creator take responsibility for the meaning the interpretor is making. Or it may be used to restrict possible meanings that others might make. In a social semiotic, intent doesn’t get in the way of meaning because we grant that the sign the creator offers is the best sign the creator can offer at the moment.

In reading, then, we have to

  • “treat [the sign] as motivated conjunctions of meaning and form, that is, the form of the sign is the best available indicator of the meaning.” 145
  • assume that “the sign made outwardly … is based on the sign made before, inwardly, as a result of the 'reading' made [by the producer]. 145 It might not be identical, but it doesn’t have to be.

And so

This model focuses our attention on resources - including, then, rhetorical resources: placement, organization, genres, patterns, and the like.

Draft 10 Aug 2017; revised 20 Oct 2020

See Kress, vanLeeuwen, and Jewitt. See Cubitt's comment on the info theory model.

Course notes: A Social Semiotic Model of Meaning

notes_on_a_social_semiotic_model_of_meaning.txt · Last modified: 2020/10/20 16:48 by morgan