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

The Making Of Meaning

Paul J. Thibault

Talking Seience, Language, Learning and Values. By Jay L Lemke, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation 1990, 281pp. JSBN 0-89391-585-3.-ISBN 0-89391-566-1 (pbk.)

Jay Lemke's book is a fine example of the recent progress which the emergent new discipline of social semiotics has made in the study of the processes of human social meaning-making. As the title of his book suggests, the book is more about the relations between language and learning, as well as the heteroglossic conflict of social values and viewpoints which every science classroom lesson instantiates. The present book is a further development of the research report Classroom Communication of Science which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation of the U.S. Government, and completed in 1983. As Lemke points out in Appendix E to the present book, this study was based on the systematic observation and recording of science classroom lessons, mainly from grades 9 to 12, in biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. There is, therefore, an important ethnographic dimension to Lemke's study. This locates it in a wider tradition of recent ethnographic and discourse analysis based approaches to classroom interaction (e.g. Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975; Schieffelin and Gilmore (Eds.), 1986; Hammersley, 1990; Young 1992). The data for this study was collected by Lemke and a small team of researchers who both observed the classroom lessons, as well as made the recordings and field notes on which the lesson transcripts and subsequent analyses are based.

There are eight principal chapters in the book. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the most important analytical constructs of the study. These are the notions of social-activity structure and thematic pattern. In this chapter, Lemke, with reference to a segment from one science classroom lesson, explains the basic principles of these constructs and shows how each contributes one dimension to the overall meaning-making activity which takes place between teacher and students. In Chapter 2, the author further develops the notion of thematic pattern (see below), which he also relates to the semantic conflicts which arise in the meaning-making practices of teachers and students. Chapter 3 provides a fuller discussion of the other principal analytical construct -- the social activity types whereby teachers and students regulate each others' behaviour in the course of social interaction. Chapter 4 further explores the concept of thematic patterns and how these describe shared patterns of semantic relationships. The thematic development strategies on which Lemke focuses here show how the science content of the lesson is built up by the strategic deployment of such shared patterns. Importantly, Lemke shows how these are built up on the basis of the semantics and lexicogrammar of natural language, rather than a separate cognitive realm of 'concepts' or 'thoughts'. Chapter 5 widens the perspective to focus on the norms of scientific discourse and how these get instantiated in specific lessons. Lemke also discusses the ways in which a 'mystique' of science functions to alienate many individuals by creating a disabling, though ideologically functional, disjunction between scientific and everyday ways of talking. In Chapter 6 the similarities and differences between science subjects and the other subjects on the school curriculum are considered. The central message of this chapter is that all school subjects involve specialized uses of language which may conflict with students' expectations and social values. Chapter 7 sees the author make a series of practical recommendations about how teaching practices may be changed in positive ways. However, Lemke is careful to specify at the outset that research alone cannot prescribe technical solutions to what are essentially social problems. These need to be debated and discussed in the public arena of conflicting values and judgments about what sort of change is desirable and necessary. Finally, Chapter 8 presents a theoretical overview of the social semiotic theory which underpins the entire book. A number of Appendices explain the key terminological distinctions Lemke uses. Transcripts of the lesson episodes analyzed are provided after the references.

Lemke's book is much more than an analysis of the science classroom lessons which he and his research team observed and recorded. The analysis of the science lessons is framed by a sophisticated and clearly articulated theory of how language and other semiotic resource systems are the means through which meanings are made. This has important implications both for a general semiotic theory of the processes of social meaning-making in human interaction and for the social rather than individual nature of all learning. While the book's main concern is the development and articulation of a distinctively social semiotic perspective on these problems, Lemke also responds to theoretical alternatives. This is not a question of alternative analyses of the 'same' data, for the analytical constructs are themselves constructive of the data which is analyzed. The important point here is that social semiotics provides both the analytical tools and the theoretical framework is critically challenging some of the dominant assumptions and presuppositions of the currently available theories -- folk and scientific -- about human social meaning-making and their complicity in many of the interests of the dominant and powerful groups in modern western societies. These interests include, most centrally, the desire of the dominant groups to rationalize, naturalize, and legitimate those social practices which best serve their interests, and the relations of control and domination which they would wield over less powerful groups in society. Lemke is keenly aware of the critical and political dimensions of his theory making, and this places him in a wider tradition of critical linguistics and critical discourse analysis (Hodge and Kress, 1992 (1979); Fairclough, 1992a, 1992b).

Lemke's central concern is to show how what he calls thematic and interactional meanings are made in the science classroom lessons which he has analyzed. Most accounts of 'meaning' have given priority to meaning as 'topic' or 'content'. But a system of social meanings, as Lemke shows, is also a system of social interactions. Both analysts and participants may assign priority to the first view of meaning (as topic or content) but it is important not to lose sight of the view of meaning as interaction. It is one of the great merits of Lemke's approach to show consistently that meanings in the first sense can only occur by virtue of their being enacted by a system of interactions. There are, in actual fact, two analytically separable perspectives on any given occasion of discourse: a system of interactions enacts a system of thematic meanings which is imminent in the former.

The starting point for Lemke's approach is the view that the mastery of the various academic subjects is the mastery of their specialized patterns of language use. Thus, the mastery of physics or biology means the ability to make the meanings of physics or biology. There are both spoken and written specializations of the linguistic and other semiotic (actional, pictorial, etc) resources whereby this is done. Lemke's point is that the specific interactional and thematic patterns of physics or biology are socially recognizable and culturally specific modes of deployment of the social semiotic resource systems of a given community.

The specifically thematic meanings of the various science (and other) subject matters are the patterns of meaning relations of the kind which we usually think of as the concepts, content, or subject matter of the given field (e.g. physics, biology, geography, history, and so on). In Chapter 2 Lemke shows, for example, that the classroom teaching of the physics of light and heat as forms of energy involves the specific semantic relations of these terms and the typical (semantic) relations among them. These typical semantic patterns are highly standardized, even when the actual words used from one occasion to another may vary the point is that it is the mastery of the 'underlying' thematic semantic pattern which is crucial rather than the ability simply to memorize the exact words used to enact the subject matter on a given occasion.

At the beginning of the transcript discussed on page 28, the teacher makes the assertion: "The ground is now creating heat energy, from the light energy' Lemke's analysis brings out the ways in which the specific semantic relations of this particular transcript are assignable to a common intertextual pattern in the discourse of physics, i.e. a pattern which connects the semantic items HEAT, LIGHT, and ENERGY to each other in a standard way. The use of capitals here designates the fact that we are talking about more abstract thematic-semantic items, rather than the ways in which these are realized in specific lexicogrammatical choices. There is a common intertextual pattern which is shared by many different occasions of discourse, even though the exact working uses may vary from occasion to occasion. Lemke shows how the lexicogrammatical items energy and light energy are noun phrases which are semantically related to energy by the lexicogrammatical relation which Halliday (1985) calls Classifier-Thing. They classify particular types of energy in the discourse of physics. In the same text, Lemke also draws attention to the intonational emphasis on heat which indicates that heat semantically contrasts with light as different types of energy. In the semantics of everyday language, this contrast is not necessarily made in the same way that it is made in the discourse of physics, if it is made at all. The broader issue is the ways in which thematic-semantic relations of this kind are constructed through the deployment of the lexicogrammatical, intonational, and other resources of the linguistic system in the real time development of the interaction. Further, the same thematic-semantic relations may be instantiated in subtly different ways across many different occasions of discourse.

Lemke's approach to discourse analysis shows how these more global patterns of meaning relations may be directly related to lexicogrammatical choices. Thus, we have a clear picture of the ways in which thematic patterns are built up piece-meal fashion in the give and take of the real time development of the interaction. This is a very different conception from those cognitive accounts which would relocate these regularities in the mind of the individual. This failure of cognitive science to move away from a social and transcendent idealization of semiotic activity in the guise of 'mental representations', and so forth, has also violated recent attempts to 'marry' cultural anthropology with cognitive psychology (e.g. D'Andrade, 1992 Lemke's subtle and refined analyses of thematic and other patterns demonstrates that the regularities of cultural patterning which cultural anthropologists had established in principle can only be adequately grounded in the social meaning-making.

Interactional meanings, on the other hand, refer to the typical patterns of action -- the social activity-structure types -- rather than meaning relations of the thematic-semantic sort. The two types of meaning relations are only analytically, though not constitutively, separable in social semiotics. Action is not separate from meaning. In the science classrooms which Lemke has studied, some of the typical interactional patterns include, for example, the triad structure Teacher Question/Student Answer/Teacher Evaluation, which was first studied by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975). These are typical patterns of action and interaction. They are the regular action types and discourse genres, with their spoken and written variants which specify regular sequencings of types of action, and of the functional constituents which make up, or contribute to, the formation of the whole social activity-structure type.

Lemke constantly emphasises that both thematic and interactional meanings are regular deployments of the social semiotic resource systems of the community. They are the (social semiotic) resources in and through which the social is enacted, maintained, and changed. The social in Lemke's account, is not something which simply IS; it is something which is constantly MADE and REMADE. Lemke's analysis of classroom science lessons has a lot to teach all students of social phenomena. Rather than a normative and canonical definition of Science, Lemke's type of analysis is concerned with its social conditions of existence, with what Foucault would call the 'regime of truth' of science.

This means that Lemke avoids the Durkheimian rectification of society, seen as the explanatory mechanism of the actions of the participants in social action structures. There is, in Lemke's approach, no objectivist assumption that the participants in classroom interaction -- teachers, students, and analysts -- are simply informants whose actions and interactions can transparently reveal the institution of science to the analyst. Such a view would rely on the causal deductive model of explanation: participants supply the analyst with the data whereby he or she can piece together the overall explanatory principles which constitute the particular social phenomenon. Instead, Lemke emphasises the practices -- the social meaning-making practices -- whereby all of the participants -- teachers, students, and analyst -- jointly define, through their practices, what science is, and is not. In this framework, there is not a monolithic and retried institution of Science, which the teacher transmits to the students. Rather, teachers and students jointly enact the specialized meaning patterns of science. This takes place in and through a constant struggle between, for example, 'scientific' and 'common sense' semantic patterns for construing energy.

The classroom episodes which Lemke analyzed and on which he builds his theory of social meaning-making provide much to reflect upon for all practioners of social analysis, and in all domains of social life. There are no stable and fixed social structures and their corresponding rules, in the causal deductive sense. Rather, there is the constant deployment of social semiotic and material resources to make and remake a social order whose 'natural' tendency, it there were not this constant work, would be towards a state of entropy. Lemke's analyses of human interaction has no recourse to the knowledge or competencies 'in the heads' of the individual participants. What is important are the ways in which science and the institutions of science are not retried entities which the analyst brings in so as to explain what is observed. Instead, what is of interest, from Lemke's point of view, are the ways in which the available resources are deployed so as to enact science and the institution of science. Each deployment is a contingent enactment on any given occasion, yet at the same time it is only through the constant reenactment/redeployment of these resources across many different occasions that the power and authority of science is maintained.

In this respect, Lemke frequently calls the reader's attention to the many strategies which both teachers and students deploy when the norms of scientific discourse are seen to have been transgressed or violated in some way. Both teachers and students pull each other back into line when one party or other to the interaction is seen to violate these norms. The meanings of science are not simply given in the discourse. They are not simply transmitted by the teacher to the students, who may or may not understand them in turn. What such classroom debates over norms show is the way in which these meanings, and therefore science itself, is continuously made and remade in and through the contributions which the individual participants make to the building up of both the thematic and interactional dimensions of discourse meaning. Science, in this view, is locally made on each such occasion of classroom interaction. Both teachers and students co-deploy the available meaning-making resources as a set of techniques in and through which they define and redefine the interests, both shared and competing, whose discursive negotiation forms the basis of the social bonds which they jointly enact in the making of the meanings of science. Teachers and students are not stuck together by the cement of the reified institution of schooling. Instead, they are linked together by the constantly mobile play of forces in and through which they struggle over their interests. It is the act of their coming together in this way which enacts the scientific 'regime of truth', at least in the pedagogical context of its secondary reproduction.

Lemke (32) also discusses the conflicts between the specifically scientific thematic patterns which are voiced by teachers and the common sense patterns of meaning which students frequently use in their efforts to make sense of the thematics of the scientific discourse. I fully agree with Lemke that these local conflicts index still wider social conflicts (44, ff). Students, Lemke (47-8) points out, often attempt to talk science in nonstandard ways. This may be because they speak nonstandard dialects of English, or because they come from working class homes where the language practices are different from those expected of them in the classroom. This can lead to conflict and misunderstanding when the patterns of the teacher and the student conflict. Lemke is careful to point out that this is not the fault of the individual teacher. Rather, it is a question of the socially positioned value judgements which teachers take up in relation to the student's ways of construing the thematic patterns. Lemke's observation here owes a good deal to the important work of the British sociologist of language, Basil Bernstein. Bernstein has distinguished between the differential orientations to meaning of middle-class and working speakers. The related work of Bourdieu and Passeron (1990 (1970)) refers to this as "the expression of a socially constituted disposition towards language, i.e. towards the interlocutor and even the object of conversation (op cit., 116). What is required, in my view, is a further analytical reconstruction of what Bourdieu and Passeron refer to as the "productive habitus" (1990: 133n) of the language used, i.e. the relation of language to its users. Their point is that this must not be reduced to its product, the structure of discourse.

They comment that 'The realism of the structure inherent in such a sociology of language tends to exclude from the field of research the question of the social conditions of production of the attitude system governing, inter alia, the structuration of language" (1990 (1970): 134). This would be an important line of research to develop so as to demonstrate the relations between the classroom teaching of science and the much wider field of social relations and practices in relation to which pedagogical practices are coarticulated.


The particular classroom lessons which Lemke analyses are local assemblages of thematic and interactional meaning-making resources. In other words, there is an occasion-specific, or local, structuring of discourse as a recognizable social activity-structure. But Lemke misses a further critically important question: what are the resources in this local assemblage of relations which let the participants know what global system of meaning relations is relevant to this particular occasion? Lemke identifies this as the principle of intertextuality (see also Lemke, 1983b; 1985).

Lemke's basic point is that any occasion-specific discourse is always meaningful only by virtue of the relations it has with other texts, other occasions of discourse. No text stands on its own. The meaning relations between two or more texts create meanings that are different from those that can be made in a single text. However, Lemke's theory of intertextuality represents a decisive advance over most previous attempts. It has most in common with the pioneering work of the Russian theorist of language and culture, Mikhail Bakhtin, whose critically important concept of social heteroglossia showed how the meaning-making practices of a given community construct systems of relations among texts, and in ways which articulate, or give voice to, the different kinds of social positionings and social view-points in a given community. Like Bakhtin, Lemke is interested in reconstructing, analytically, those general principles whereby meaningful patterns are constructed across texts. Importantly, this also includes the question as to which potential meaning relations are not made, or not given voice, in the community. Unlike Bakhtin, Lemke is better able to operationalize his concept of intertextuality with the aid of a fine grained microanalysis of thematic and interactional patterns of meaning, and in ways which show precisely what the basis for the global linkages are.

Lemke's fine grained brand of discourse analysis does not, however, confine itself to establishing which specific other texts stand in an intertextual relation with any given instance. This would be akin to a more restricted notion of intertextuality of the kind which is common in literary studies. In such studies, intertextuality may be no more than a positivistic search for the antecedent source texts which are cited, alluded to, or otherwise referenced in a given text. Certainly, the concept of intertextuality is able to encompass this more restricted notion, yet the signal advance which Lemke achieves is to show that it is not so much a matter of which specific texts are linked together intertextually, but of the more abstract patterns of meanings which the system of intertextuality makes and remakes. Lemke's question concerns the way in which we establish a shared pattern of meaning relations across texts or occasions of discourse even when the exact wording may be different on the two (or more occasions). How, then, do we know that the two texts share a common thematic or other pattern even though the specific linguistic choices they use to express this may vary?

It is on the basis of questions such as this that Lemke distinguishes three principal dimensions along which intertextual relations may be construed. First, there are intertextual relations of the thematic sort. Two or more texts may be said to be 'on the same topic' if there are semantic similarities in the thematic patterns which they deploy. Secondly, texts may be linked intertextually on the basis of their shared evaluative stances towards a particular thematic pattern, or towards some other social point of view. Thirdly, texts which share the same overall social activity structure or generic structure may also be linked intertextually.

Lemke's theory of intertextuality is a significant advance over other theories. This is so because, instead of asking which specific texts are linked in some intertextual relation, he poses the more fundamental question as to which more abstract systems of meaning relations are shared by some intertextual set. The analyst must work to reconstruct these from some intertextual set. It is only at this level of abstraction that the analyst can get a handle on the kinds of meaning relations which are in circulation in a given community. As such, it is a 'higher order' analytical construct and has a status similar to Foucault's notion of discoursive formations.

Intertextuality, Lemke shows, is a general and necessary principle of social semiosis. It is always activated whenever any act of meaning-making occurs. Educational and literacy research need the concept of intertextuality because it indicates the ways in which science, or any other subject in the school curriculum, is constructed in and through specific technologies of literacy. It is no accident, as Lemke shows, that teachers and students call each other to order when breaches of the norms of scientific discourse are deemed to have occurred. The discourse, and, hence, the discipline of science, valorizes an impersonal, abstract and hierarchically integrated world of abstract noun phrases which are linked to each other, not by verbs of action in the human world of doers and doings, but in an abstract world of relations and states, which are realized by verbs such as is and become (133-4).This is not simply a matter of choosing the stylistically correct linguistic forms; these have specific functions and effects in the scientific discourse. The principle of intertextuality better shows that a particular technology of literacy is at work here. This technology entails a system of thematic patterns, the 'rules' for their correct deployment and recognition, the activities in which they are deployed, the value-orientations which participants take up in relation to them. It is technology which is available for productive use by those who have mastered it.

Lemke, in his book, focusses on the official pedagogical text of science, to paraphrase Basil Bernstein (1990), as this is enacted in the classroom interactions which are analyzed. This is not, of course, the primary context of the discursive production of science. Lemke analyzed what Bernstein would call its "secondary context of discursive reproduction" (1990: 192). The primary context, in Bernstein's account of the pedagogical process, refers to the research and development of 'new' ideas, through a combination of state and private funding. This is the domain of the Universities and research institutes. It is, of course, the secondary, pedagogical context which is central in Lemke's study. The pedagogical context is regulated by what Bernstein (1990: 192) calls a principle of decontextualization (from the primary context) and recontextualization in the secondary context of pedagogical transmission and acquisition.

Lemke frequently draws our attention to the ways in which the norms of scientific discourse are seemingly 'independent' of the world of everyday human actions, emotions, ambitions, political struggles, and subjectivities. Importantly, he goes to some lengths to show how, in the classroom teaching of science, the relevant technology of literacy operates systematically to maintain this ideological disfunction between the meanings and practices of science and the world of common sense. In the Bakhtinian parlance, a heteroglossic opposition is construed between them, and this is systematically maintained in the making of meanings in the science classroom. The point I wish to make here is that these decontextualing and recontextualizing dimensions of the technology of literacy which is in question do not so much 'free' science from the mundane world of human toil, ambition, and struggle in the name of an 'objective', 'value-free', and 'universal' truth. They also entail what Valerie Walkerdine (1988: 119) in her study of the discursive practices in the pedagogy mathematics in the home and school contexts of young children, refers to as a systematic 'forgetting' or 'suppressing' of those very meanings and practices which science itself had assumed in the all too human world of the primary contexts of its discursive production.

Talking Science is a major contribution to social semiotic theory and praxis. In refocusing our attention on the irreducibly social semiotic nature of human interaction, Lemke asks us to reconsider the status which our semiotic, linguistic, philosophical, and psychological accounts have conferred on the physical material biological individual, seen as the locus and the ground of our social being. But this notion, even at the level of the individual biological organism, is seriously inadequate. There is no individual per se. The individual is always defined by the ways in which we punctuate the boundaries of some still wider system of relations. Biological systems, no less than social systems, always engage in critical transactions of matter, energy, and information flows across these boundaries. This is why the thermodynamic model of dynamic open and adaptive systems is the relevant model for the social semiotics which Lemke espouses. Educators, semioticians, and linguists have much to learn from the illuminating analyses and the far reaching theoretical and pedagogical consequences which are presented in this fascinating and important book.


1. The author is particularly well qualified for this task. Currently Professor of Science Education at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, he studied theoretical physics at the University of Chicago (PhD 1973). He later moved to CUNY to help set up a new program for the training of secondary school teachers of science. He has worked closely with secondary school teachers ever since. This led to his interest in language and, increasingly, other semiotic modalities as he sought to develop the theoretical framework and analytical tools which were needed to connect what teachers and students do in the classroom with still wider processes of social meaning-making. Initially, he sought the solutions to these problems in the foundational work on communication and learning by Gregory Bateson and the dialectical developmental psychology of Klaus Riegel. The fruits of this work are evidenced in his monograph, semiotics and education, which was published by the Toronto Semiotic Circle (1984). In the preparation of the research report mentioned above, Lemke turned to the social semiotic theory of grammar and discourses which was pioneered by Michael Halliday (1978). He has been a major contributor to the further development of the new, hybrid discipline of social semiotics, as the book under review amply testifies.

2. This is a very different epistemology from the representation of cognitive science. In the cognitive science framework, thematic patterns would amount to no more than an ostensive naming of pre-existing, and possibly culture-free, conceptual structures. However, Lemke shows that science and scientific 'concepts' are the provisional outcome of the struggles over meanings. Such struggles are a regular feature of the many occasions in which students and teachers come together to make the meanings of the science curriculum. It is a question of mobilizing the available social semiotic resources. The emphasis is on the regular and repeatable deployment of these resources in the making of the specialized meanings of the science curriculum.


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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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