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semiology, semiotics The study of signs and sign systems. Semiology owes much to the structural linguistics of Saussure and developed as part of the upsurge of structuralism during the 1970s. It proved especially attractive to sociologists interested in the analysis of ideology—particularly those with a Marxist or feminist background.

The concept of the sign is taken from Saussure (Course in General Linguistics, 1916). It is seen as a combination of signifier (the material element, sound, or marks on paper) and signified (the concept with which the signifier is associated). The two are bound together like the two sides of a piece of paper. Saussure emphasized the conventional nature of signs. There is no necessary relationship between the sign and its referent; rather, the relationship is socially agreed. We could call our hands ‘daffodils’, and flowers ‘hands’, and nothing would change in the world: it is just that we commonly agree that the daffodil is a flower and the things at the end of our arms are hands. The meaning of any particular sign is defined by its relationship to other signs in the system. For example, we understand the meaning of ‘up’ in relation to the meaning of ‘down’, and cannot conceive of one without the other. Saussure's distinction between speech and language is also important: speech refers to individual speech-acts; language to the structure of signs out of which the speech-acts are formed.

The French structuralist literary critic Roland Barthes is one of the foremost proponents of semiology. Sociologically, his most important book to date has been Mythologies (1957), wherein he subjects various apparently innocent aspects of French popular culture—for example wrestling and steak-and-chips—to a semiotic analysis which reveals their ideological content. Food, for example, may be seen as a language or code. Each item of food is a sign and there are socially agreed rules governing the combination of signs. In some cultures, for example, one does not combine sweet and savoury items. Barthes develops the concept of the sign to analyse what he regards as modern myths. A mythology occurs where one complete sign then becomes a signifier for something else. A picture of an eagle, for example, is at one level a picture of an eagle—a simple sign. On another level, however, it can represent the determination and toughness of the American nation. Similarly, different forms of food carry a meaning beyond the realm of mere nourishment: caviar and hamburgers are more than simply alternative things to eat. By and large this type of analysis is formal: it shows us how sign systems work but it needs to draw on other sociological ideas to connect those workings to wider social processes.

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se·mi·ol·o·gy / ˌsēmēˈäləjē; ˌsemē-; ˌsēmˌī- / • n. another term for semiotics. DERIVATIVES: se·mi·o·log·i·cal / -əˈläjikəl/ adj. se·mi·ol·o·gist / -jist/ n.