Signs and Society: Further Studies in Semiotic Anthropology

Signs and Society: Further Studies in Semiotic Anthropology

Signs and Society: Further Studies in Semiotic Anthropology

Signs and Society: Further Studies in Semiotic Anthropology


Brilliantly articulating the potent intersections of semiotic and linguistic anthropology, Signs and Society demonstrates how a keen appreciation of signs helps us better understand human agency, meaning, and creativity. Inspired by the foundational contributions of C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure, and drawing upon key insights from neighboring scholarly fields, noted anthropologist Richard J. Parmentier develops an array of innovative conceptual tools for ethnographic, historical, and literary research. His concepts of "transactional value," "metapragmatic interpretant," and "circle of semiosis," for example, illuminate the foundations and effects of such diverse cultural forms and practices as economic exchanges on the Pacific island of Palau, Pindar's Victory Odes in ancient Greece, and material representations of transcendence in ancient Egypt and medieval Christianity. Other studies complicate the separation of emic and etic analytical models for such cultural domains as religion, economic value, and semiotic ideology. Provocative and absorbing, these fifteen pioneering essays blaze a trail into anthropology's future while remaining firmly rooted in its celebrated past.


Fields of Signs

The domain of semiotic anthropology is considered to be the results of empirical research carried out by anthropologists (in all subfields) that makes use of concepts and methods associated with the tradition of scholarship labeled “semiotics” or “semiology.” Semiotic anthropology is not a formal subdiscipline of anthropology; it is not a “school” of anthropological thought; and it is not confined to researchers affiliated with particular academic institutions or national traditions. To some degree semiotic anthropology emerged as a correction and refinement of symbolic or interpretive anthropology or structural anthropology (Mertz 1985). in addition to the study of linguistic and written codes, anthropologists have employed semiotic notions in the analysis of cultural signs, such as pictorial representations and images, dress and bodily adornment, gesture and dance, spatial organization and the built environment, ritualized behaviors (taboo, divination, and performance), exchange valuables, and food and cuisine. Although anthropology has played a relatively minor role in the development of the larger discipline of semiotics, which is dominated by literary studies, it was an anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who coined the modern label at an interdisciplinary conference at Indiana University in 1962. in her summary comments Mead discussed the possibility of a new term:

Which in time will include the study of all patterned communication in all mo
dalities, of which linguistics is the most technically advanced. If we had a word
for patterned communication modalities, it would be useful. I am not enough
of a specialist in this field to know what word to use, but many people here, who
have looked as if they were on opposite sides of the fence, have used the word
“semiotics.” It seems to me the one word, in some form or other, that has been
used by people arguing from quite different positions. (Mead 1964, 275)

Like all aspects of contemporary research in semiotics, semiotic anthropology is heir to two dominant intellectual strands stemming from the work of American scientist and mathematician Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914) and Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). Peirce and Saussure did not know of each other; much of their writing on semiotics or semiology is fragmentary and took decades to become widely available, and neither discussed strictly anthropological topics with any specificity.

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