Introducing Social Semiotics

By Theo Van Leeuwen | Go to book overview
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Semiotic functions


The idea of 'functionalism' runs like a red thread through twentieth century thought and practice. Practices previously based on tradition or aesthetics were now thought of as fulfilling pragmatic social functions. Music, for instance, could increase productivity in the workplace, or sales in the supermarket. Films could educate citizens and promote attitudes that suited the social and political climate of the day. Houses were no longer just dwellings but could instil social norms and values in their occupants - I once had an apartment in a building that was originally built as a workers housing project in the 1920s. The windows of the street-side living room were so high that you had to stand up to look out of them. I later learnt that this had been done deliberately to wean the workers away from their habit of hanging out of the window and talking to each other across the street, and to educate them into the values of an inward-looking family life.

Social semiotics, too, has been influenced by functionalism, not least through Halliday's functional theory of language, in which syntax is not a system of formal rules but a resource for social interaction. In this chapter I will compare and contrast how functionalism emerged in three separate fields: the practical field of design - especially architecture - and the theoretical fields of sociology and anthropology on the one hand, and linguistics and semiotics on the other hand. There are two reasons for doing so. First of all, social semiotics is interested not only in multimodal objects of study but also in multimodal (interdisciplinary) theories and methods. Second, my comparison will once again include a look at the history of these theories and methods, in order to show that not only semiotic resources and their uses but also theories and methods arise from the interests and needs of society at a given time, whether researchers are aware of this or not.

Functionalism in architecture

In the nineteenth century, new technologies and new practices began to require new types of buildings - railway stations and factories, for instance. While houses and traditional public buildings were still built in heavily ornamented 'retro' styles - for example, neo-Gothicism - for these buildings new building materials and new construction methods were developed - for example, steel-frame building - and they were built in a functional style, devoid of ornamentation. Eventually this would lead to a new aesthetic, an 'anti-aesthetic': 'If a building provides adequately, completely,


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Introducing Social Semiotics


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