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Chapter 33Semiotics


  1. Introduction.
  1. The goal of semiotics is interpreting both verbal and nonverbal signs.
  2. Roland Barthes held the Chair of Literary Semiology at the College of France.
  3. In Mythologies, he sought to decipher the cultural meaning of visual signs, particularly those perpetuating dominant social values.
  4. Semiology is concerned with anything that can stand for something else.
  5. Barthes is interested in signs that are seemingly straightforward, but subtly communicate ideological or connotative meaning.
  1. Wrestling with signs.
  1. Ferdinand de Saussure coined the term semiology to refer to the study of signs.
  2. A sign is the combination of its signifier and signified.
  1. The signifier is the image; the signified is the concept.
  2. In Barthes’ terms, the signifier isn’t the sign of the signified—rather the sign is the combination of signifier and signified, which are united in an inseparable bond.
  3. These distinctions come from Saussure.
  4. The relationship between the signifier and the signified in a verbal sign is arbitrary.
  5. The relationship between the signifier and the signified in a nonverbal sign is based on affinity and labelled a denotative sign.
  1. A sign does not stand on its own: it is part of a system.
  1. Barthes initially described his semiotic theory as an explanation of myth.
  2. He later substituted the term connotation to label ideological overtones that signs carry wherever they go.
  3. Significant semiotic systems create myths that affirm the status quo as natural, inevitable, and eternal.
  1. COVID-19 mask: From protection of community to threat to individual freedom.
  1. Not all sign systems are mythic.
  2. Mythic or connotative systems are second-order semiological systems built off preexisting denotative sign systems.
  3. Within mythic systems, the sign of the first system becomes the signifier of the second.
  4. The concrete example of mask wearing illustrates Barthes’ position.
  5. At first, a symbol for medical personal protective gear shifts to politicized statement.
  1. The making of myth: The sign of its history.
  1. The shift from “protection of community” to “a threat to individual freedom” followed a typical semiotic pattern.
  2. Every ideological sign is the result of two interconnected sign systems.
  3. The first system is strictly descriptive as the signifier image and the signified concept combine to produce the denotative sign.
  4. The second system appropriates the sign of the denotative system and makes it the signifier of the connotative system. 
  5. This lateral shift transforms a neutral sign into an ideological tool.
  1. The signifier of the denotative sign system is the image of COVID-19 mask in the mind of the person who sees it or puts it on.
  2. The content of the signifier includes the virus, the community of self and others at risk, and the protective fabric. The mask speaks for itself.
  3. The corresponding denotive sign is “protection of community.”
  4. Subsequent usage takes over the sign of the denotative system and makes it the signifier of a secondary connotative sign system.
  5. As a mask of protection is appropriated to support the deep-seated conviction of American individualism, the sign loses its historic grounding.
  1. In service of the mythic semiotic sign system, the mask becomes empty and timeless, form without substance.
  1. Unmasking the myth of absolute free choice
  1. Only those with semiotic savvy can spot the hollowness of connotative signs.
  2. Throughout his life, Roland Barthes deciphered and labeled the ideologies foisted upon naive consumers of images.
  1. Mythic signs don’t explain, defend, or raise questions.
  2. The connotative spin always ends up the same.
  3. Mythic signs always reinforce dominant cultural values.
  1. Ideological signs enlist support for the status quo by transferring history into nature—pretending that current conditions are the natural order of things.
  1. The semiotics of mass communication: “I’d like to be like Mike.”
  1. Because signs are integral to mass communication, Barthes’ semiotic analysis has become an essential media theory.
  2. Kyong Kim argues that “the mass signification arising in response to signs… is an artificial effect calculated to achieve something else.”
  3. Advertisements on television create layers of connotation that reaffirm the status quo.
  1. Critique: Do mythic signs always reaffirm the status quo?
  1. Roland Barthes’ semiotics fulfills five of the criteria of a good interpretive theory exceedingly well: New understanding of people, aesthetic appeal, qualitative analysis, proposal for reforming society, and clarification of values.
  2. While widely cited internationally, the majority of communication scholars in the United States ignore the field of semiotics and the work of its central theorists such as Barthes; thus it receives mixed reviews on the standard of community of agreement.
  3. There are questions about Barthes’ view that all connotative systems uphold the values of the dominant class; one example is the sign of taking a knee, using to protest racial injustice in the United States.
  4. Barthes’ semiotic approach to imagery remains a core theoretical perspective for communication scholars, particularly those who emphasize media and culture.


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Theory Outlines
11th Edition

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Chapter 33Semiotics


  1. Introduction.
  1. The goal of semiotics is interpreting both verbal and nonverbal signs.
  2. Roland Barthes held the Chair of Literary Semiology at the College of France.
  3. In Mythologies, he sought to decipher the cultural meaning of visual signs, particularly those perpetuating dominant social values.
  4. Semiology is concerned with anything that can stand for something else.
  5. Barthes is interested in signs that are seemingly straightforward, but subtly communicate ideological or connotative meaning.
  1. Wrestling with signs.
  1. Ferdinand de Saussure coined the term semiology to refer to the study of signs.
  2. A sign is the combination of its signifier and signified.
  1. The signifier is the image; the signified is the concept.
  2. In Barthes’ terms, the signifier isn’t the sign of the signified—rather the sign is the combination of signifier and signified, which are united in an inseparable bond.
  3. These distinctions come from Saussure.
  4. The relationship between the signifier and the signified in a verbal sign is arbitrary.
  5. The relationship between the signifier and the signified in a nonverbal sign is based on affinity and labelled a denotative sign.
  1. A sign does not stand on its own: it is part of a system.
  1. Barthes initially described his semiotic theory as an explanation of myth.
  2. He later substituted the term connotation to label ideological overtones that signs carry wherever they go.
  3. Significant semiotic systems create myths that affirm the status quo as natural, inevitable, and eternal.
  1. COVID-19 mask: From protection of community to threat to individual freedom.
  1. Not all sign systems are mythic.
  2. Mythic or connotative systems are second-order semiological systems built off preexisting denotative sign systems.
  3. Within mythic systems, the sign of the first system becomes the signifier of the second.
  4. The concrete example of mask wearing illustrates Barthes’ position.
  5. At first, a symbol for medical personal protective gear shifts to politicized statement.
  1. The making of myth: The sign of its history.
  1. The shift from “protection of community” to “a threat to individual freedom” followed a typical semiotic pattern.
  2. Every ideological sign is the result of two interconnected sign systems.
  3. The first system is strictly descriptive as the signifier image and the signified concept combine to produce the denotative sign.
  4. The second system appropriates the sign of the denotative system and makes it the signifier of the connotative system. 
  5. This lateral shift transforms a neutral sign into an ideological tool.
  1. The signifier of the denotative sign system is the image of COVID-19 mask in the mind of the person who sees it or puts it on.
  2. The content of the signifier includes the virus, the community of self and others at risk, and the protective fabric. The mask speaks for itself.
  3. The corresponding denotive sign is “protection of community.”
  4. Subsequent usage takes over the sign of the denotative system and makes it the signifier of a secondary connotative sign system.
  5. As a mask of protection is appropriated to support the deep-seated conviction of American individualism, the sign loses its historic grounding.
  1. In service of the mythic semiotic sign system, the mask becomes empty and timeless, form without substance.
  1. Unmasking the myth of absolute free choice
  1. Only those with semiotic savvy can spot the hollowness of connotative signs.
  2. Throughout his life, Roland Barthes deciphered and labeled the ideologies foisted upon naive consumers of images.
  1. Mythic signs don’t explain, defend, or raise questions.
  2. The connotative spin always ends up the same.
  3. Mythic signs always reinforce dominant cultural values.
  1. Ideological signs enlist support for the status quo by transferring history into nature—pretending that current conditions are the natural order of things.
  1. The semiotics of mass communication: “I’d like to be like Mike.”
  1. Because signs are integral to mass communication, Barthes’ semiotic analysis has become an essential media theory.
  2. Kyong Kim argues that “the mass signification arising in response to signs… is an artificial effect calculated to achieve something else.”
  3. Advertisements on television create layers of connotation that reaffirm the status quo.
  1. Critique: Do mythic signs always reaffirm the status quo?
  1. Roland Barthes’ semiotics fulfills five of the criteria of a good interpretive theory exceedingly well: New understanding of people, aesthetic appeal, qualitative analysis, proposal for reforming society, and clarification of values.
  2. While widely cited internationally, the majority of communication scholars in the United States ignore the field of semiotics and the work of its central theorists such as Barthes; thus it receives mixed reviews on the standard of community of agreement.
  3. There are questions about Barthes’ view that all connotative systems uphold the values of the dominant class; one example is the sign of taking a knee, using to protest racial injustice in the United States.
  4. Barthes’ semiotic approach to imagery remains a core theoretical perspective for communication scholars, particularly those who emphasize media and culture.


You can access the Outline for a particular chapter in several ways:

  • Switch to View by Theory, then select the desired theory/chapter from the drop-down list at the top of the page. Look in the list of available resources.
  • To quickly find a theory by chapter number, use the Table of Contents and link from there. It will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.
  • You can also use the Theory List, which will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.

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