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Semiology

April 7, 2010

Roland Barthes speaks on semiology outlined in Chapter 4 of his book. Let’s take a closer look into semiology and the meanings it creates for images.

Semiology is an approach taken to analyze images with an in-depth look of the meaning behind it and traces it in relation to broader systems of meaning. The word itself means “the study of signs;. Semiology depends on a scientific knowledge that contradicts ideals of ideology. Ideology legitimates unequal social power relations and is based on represntations that reflect interests of power. Williamson describes ideology as “the meaning made necessary by conditions of society”. It is a need to belong, to have a social place in society. Semiology is concerned with the social effects of meaning. Advertisements are a prime example of semiology linked with ideology. Ads make a connection that we can relate to our own lives, and thus, believe in these embedded assumptions that lie deep within. Williamson explains her understanding of adverts that there is a clear distinction between ‘real’ structures of society (class relations) and ‘false’ knowledge of social differences imposed by adverts.

Semiological studies tend to concentrate on the image itself with a focus on signs that compose the image. The social effects of an image is also of concern to the modality of the site. Semiology fulfills the criteria needed to examine visual images and take apart the meanings that lie beneath.

When examining images and their meanings, semiological components are utilized. First is the sign, which is made up the signified and signifier. Signified is a concept or object and signifier is a sound or image that is attached to the signified.¬† Ferdinand de Sassure developed this systematic understanding of signs, and stated that there is no necessary relationship between any signifier and signified, and thus is arbitrary. For instance, the word ‘baby’ in English is ‘bimbo’ in Italian. Also, the same signified can have multiple meanings. Baby is a term used between adults to show affection and endearment, and in english ‘bimbo’ is a term used to stereotype certain kinds of women. The referent is the actual object to which the sign is related.

Pierce had a different way of looking at signs. He classified them into three kinds of signs – Icon, Index, and Symbol. Icon being that the signifier represents the signified by having a likeness to it. Things such as a photograph of a tree would be an icon for a tree. Index is an inherent relationship between the signifier and signified. This is different dependent upon culture. A symbol is an arbitrary relation between the signifier and signified.

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