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This editorial appeared in Volume 4 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Social Semiotics

by Paul J. Thibault

Social semiotics is the study of human social meaning-making practices of all types. These include linguistic, actional, pictorial, somatic, and other semiotic modalities, and their codeployment. The basic premise is that meanings are made, and the task of social semiotics is to develop the analytical constructs and theoretical framework for showing how this occurs. Meanings are jointly made by the participants to some social activity-structure. They are made by construing semiotic relations among patterned meaning relations, social practices, and the physical-material processes which social practices organize and entrain in social semiosis. In social semiotics, the basic logic is that of contextualization (Thibault, 1991). No semiotic form, material entity or event, text, or action has meaning in and of itself. The meanings these have are made in and through the social meaning-making practices which construct semiotic relations among forms, material processes and entities, and social actions. A given community or subcommunity has regular and repeatable patterns of meaning-making. These are the patterns which are typical of that community. They help to define and constitute the community, as well as to distinguish it from other communities. The epistemology of social semiotics is founded on the theory of dynamic open systems which has revolutionized recent theory and practice in the physical and life sciences. It also has a radically social constructionist orientation, which it shares with a number of other recent developments in the human and social sciences. For these two reasons, social semiotics is well placed to play a key role in the emerging New Dialogue between the humanities and social sciences and the physical and life sciences.

Now, a term such as human social meaning-making, which I have used in the preceding paragraph, is itself an artefact of the central concerns of social semiotic theory and practice. Social semioticians do not pretend that their theories and the analytical constructs that derive from them are a neutral or value-free "window" on an objective and pre-existent reality. Nor do they deny, however, the fundamental and constitutive importance of the physical-material domain in social semiosis. Thus, it is not a matter of asking whether social semiotics better explains the "data" than some other alternative framework. This way of framing the problem overlooks the ways in which even conceptually "inadequate" or "incorrect" theories may be widely accepted and acted upon in some community, not on the basis of their putative "truth" or"falsity", but on account of the social functions they serve in maintaining the overall stability of the social system and the interests of the dominant groups in it.

What, then, are the implications of a term such as human social meaning-making ? How does it differ from the currently dominant theoretical constructs? How does it constitute an alternative to these? The currently dominant alternative assumption may be summarised in the following terms. First, there is the pervasive folk and scientific-theoretical belief in much of linguistics, semiotics, psychology, and philosophy that what we habitually refer to as "concepts", "thoughts", or "ideas" pre-exist and are external to language, so that language simply "represents" or "expresses" these. This implies that conceptual structures, so defined, are independent of the meaning-making practices of a particular community. According to one influential version, these may be language- independent and universal principles of cognition. Social semiotics on the other hand, argues that "concepts", "thoughts", and so on, are, in actual fact, semantic items and relations which are jointly made by the participants to occasions of socio-discursive interaction. Typically, the mentalist paradigm claims that such concepts, etc. are the cognitive properties of individual minds. This brings us to the second assumption which I wish to highlight here. That is, these same accounts have privileged the individual, seen as the locus of a rational and problem solving mind, as the fundamental unit of analysis.

The two assumptions are closely related to one another. My mentioning them here serves to point out that much more is at stake than the mere juxtaposing and confronting of rival theoretical positions. There are far reaching consequences which these alternative positions have for the ways in which we conceive of teaching and learning, the ways in which social debates about these issues get shaped, the consequent forming of value-judgements about the educational process, and the formation of educational policy. This is a recurrent concern in Lemke (1990), which discusses the ways in which educational policy is increasingly being dislocated from the democratic realm of public discussion and value-judgements and relocated in a technocratic domain of expert decision making and managerial systems control, which bypasses the democratic process in the interests of a new technocratic elite.

Cognitive science retains the traditional model of the individual at the same time that it relocates essentially social semiotic patterns in the "mind" of the individual, so conceived. Cognitive science started out as a reaction against behaviourism. The metalanguage of cognitive scientists is founded on notions such as "internal mental representations", "mental models", and "mind as symbolic system". In actual fact, these notions really only amount to redescriptions of semantic patterns which are located in the domain of social meaning-making. Cognitive science posits an unnecessary level of "individual mind" between the biological and social semiotic levels of organization. In so doing, it effectively de-locates semantic patterns from the texts and social activity-structures in which these are made and re-locates them in the "mind" of the individual. More recently, cognitive scientists have increased their appeals to the neurophysiological processes in the brain, yet there is no convincing evidence that semantics is directly tied to or caused by such processes (see Maze, 1991: 171-2, for a critique). Neurophysiological and other bodily processes participate directly in social semiosis; they do not cause it, just as the latter is not explanatorily reducible to the former (Bhaskar, 1979: 124-8; Prod i, 1977).


Bhaskar, Roy. 1979. The Possibility of Naturalism. A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester.

Lemke, Jay L. 1990. "Technical discourse and technocratic ideology" In M.A.K. Halliday, John Gibbons, and Howard Nicholas. Eds. Learning Keeping and Using Language. Vol. Il. Selected papers from the 8th World Congress of applied linguistics. Sydney, 18-21 August 1987, 435-60. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Maze, J.R. 1991. "Representationism, realism and the redundancy of 'mentalese'." Theory & Psychology 1, 2, pp. 1 63-85.

Prodi, Giorgio. 1977. Le Basi Materiali della Significazione. Milan: Bompiani.

Thibault, Paul J. 1991. Social Semiotics as Praxis. Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press.

Paul J. Thibault is Professore associato in English Language and Linguistics, Universita di Padova, Italy. Born in Newcastle, Australia, He studied linguistics and English language and literature at the University of Newcastle before completing his Ph.D. with Michael Halliday at the University of Sydney. He has taught at Murdoch University, and the Universities of Sydney, Verona, and Bologna. Research interests include functional grammar and semantics, discourse analysis, genre theory, semiotics, literary and social theory and, increasingly, child language, educational linguistics and literacy. He has published a monograph, Text, Discourse, and Context: a social semiotic perspective in the Toronto Semiotic Circle series (1986), articles, book chapters and a book, Social Semiotics as Praxis, (Minnesota, 1991). He is currently completing a book for Routledge entitled Re-reading Saussure, as well as working on two others on children's play and the semantics and grammar of interpersonal meaning.

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