The Ethnographic Semiotics of a Suburban Moral Panic

By Durington, Matthew | Critical Arts, November 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Ethnographic Semiotics of a Suburban Moral Panic

Durington, Matthew, Critical Arts


This article describes Worth's notion of ethnographic semiotics as part of an overall strategy employing the anthropology of visual communication in ethnographic research focused on media portrayals of a suburban community during a moral panic over a concentrated number of teenage heroin overdose deaths. While the full-length ethnography details multiple media events surrounding the moral panic, the central place of one piece of print media is described in detail. This article served as a catalyst for the moral panic that occurred within the suburb, facilitated community response, and became a template for further national media coverage in the United States. In addition, the article became an instrumental research tool for elicitation among informants during ethnographic research. The overall study and employment of Worth's ethnographic semiotics serve as a bridge between foundational studies in the anthropology of visual communication and contemporary methodologies employed in media ethnography.

Keywords: Ethnographic semiotics, U.S. suburban studies, moral panic, visual anthropology

An ethnographic semiotic

Before the death of Sol Worth in 1977, he submitted a funding proposal to the Guggenheim Foundation to write a book entitled Fundamentals of visual communication in preparation for an ambitious visual ethnography of an entire community in central Pennsylvania with Jay Ruby. The proposal was published posthumously in the journal that Worth founded entitled Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication. This journal served as a foundation for a growing field within anthropology that included Sol Worth, Larry Gross, Dell Hymes, Jay Ruby, Richard Chalfen and others who sought to combine methods from linguistics, media analysis and ethnography to conduct studies of visual communication. The goal was to practise a type of communication and media analysis that would be beholden to anthropological practice, thereby answering many of the supposed deficiencies offered by other modes of media study that did not place culture as their primary concern at the time.

The focus of the proposed study by Worth that was not to occur, and the subject of the book that was never written, centered on the practice of ethnographic semiotics. Worth defined the broad ethnographic semiotic approach as 'the study of how actual people interpret a variety of actual visual events' (Worth 1977, 69). This methodology would concentrate on the way in which individuals related to, and were embedded in, multiple media practices in both a generative and a receptive sense. In other words, it would focus on how people acted as cultural producers of visual materials, and on the way in which people interacted with and interpreted visual events in their daily cultural lives. Essentially, how does one make meaning from their visual universe from those visual events that are produced and mediated to them, or, in turn, are generated by them. As Worth states:

   The concept of ethnographic semiotics departs from the customary
   methods of the study of meaning and interpretation practiced by
   critics, scholars and connoisseurs on "great works," either of
   "literature" or "art"--essentially the creation of individual
   interpretations of individual elite artifacts by the elite. The
   concept and methods I wish to explore seek instead to inform the
   reader that the process of interpretation itself as practiced by
   ordinary as well as elite persons and groups upon ordinary as well
   as "great" works could be a goal for the analysis of our symbolic
   world (Worth 1977, 69).

The discussion of the ethnographic semiotic was embedded in Worth's overall project that focused on the application of linguistics and anthropological practice to visual media. While this overall project had its shortcomings, different elements of the approach provided a theoretical framework for the ethnographic analysis of social media events.

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