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Peter K. Manning “Semiotics and Fieldwork”

December 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Manning, Peter K. 1987. Semiotics and Fieldwork. Newbury Park, London, New Delhi: Sage Publications.


Fieldwork traditions

1) The British Anthropological Tradition. […] a case-based, ethnocentric view, or what might be called an „emic“ or internal perspective that is not general and is limited in its interpretative range to that observed culture. […] a close attention to empirical data, or the facts, rather than to more abstract questions of theory. […] Since much of the work is undertaken alone, there is a degree of auto-didacticism inherent in this approach, as there is still in all forms of fieldworks. […] Is anthropology a sicentific – even in the usual meaning of social scientific – discipline that seeks generalizable knowledge in an objective fashion, or is it a literary craft, modeled on the writing style of Clifford Geertz? (14)

2) The Chicago and Neo-Chicago Traditions. […] membership preceded the analysis in many cases. In another sense, there was an attempt to be a covert or at least marginally participant member stepping bavk to look with new eyes something about which on previously knew. (15) Tactically, as was the case in the British tradition, one was to approach the group openly, and seek to inspire trust and confidence through this open approach to one’s subject population. […] The insider’s knowledge of the social world would, in fact, be partial, and reported as such; there was no assumption, interest, or belief in the idea that one would reveal to outsiders aspects of the society that were destructive to the group studied. (16 – study of underdogs, the powerless). […] Although in many respects the level of generalization was modest, there were continuous attempts to integrate the studies in a social ecological framework, the framework of work and occupations, and of collective behavior. (16)

3) The Existential Tradition. Whereas for Malinowski and associates and the Chicago school of fieldwork, the issues were matters of finding and flatly stating objective truths, the issues for the existential fieldworkers devolve from the researchers’ stance to the world and the transactional relationship between the subject and object. […] Field notes and modes of keeping them became secondary or tertiary issues, rarely discussed in detail in any of the classic sources, nor in those in the existential tradition; it is there as an issue, but seems to be relegated in the published work to questioning of relationship and meaning. (18) There is no assumption here of consensus, of cooperative subjects, or of a single unifying perspective; quite the contrary. The overall aim is to penetrate and reduce the social facades of others using the strategic and tactical weapons of intellectuals. Thus the older rules about secrecy, trust and mutual trust, protection of one’s subjects’ worlds, and, even to some extent, the editing of field reports to save the face of the researcher and the research subjects, no longer hold. (18-19)


Limitations of Fieldwork

1) Ad Hoc Problem Selection. Because the selection of problems is neither theory- nor method-driven; cumulative knowledge available in virtually any area is limited. (23)

2) Limited Domain of Analysis. The combination of ad hoc problem selection and narrowness of focus based on the single investigator model produces studies unlikely to contribute to a body of knowledge addressing theoretically selected and analyzed problems. (23)

3) Role Relationships Are Not Consistent. Field studies, as the above review illustrates, are not based upon consistent definitions of the role of the fieldworker. […] Insofar as the reflective relationship is critical to the enterprise, and that itself is unstandardized, there can be no more than moments, segments of social life, described, and a humanistic perspective displayed. (23-24)

4) Descriptive Focus. The primary rationale for field studies is that they describe a segment of the social world in some detail. (24)

5) Single Case Focus. In the absence of specific dimensions along which some phenomena are being compared, it is difficult to establish the generality of the findings. (25)



The work of semiotics is, as was suggested, to uncover the rules that govern the conventions of signification, whether these be in kinship, etiquette, mathematics, or art. It is not a descriptive technique that aims to lay out the historical or prior conditions necessary or sufficient for the appearance of a phenomenon. […] Its formal and analytic character directs attention to signs and how they signify, both the association among a series or set of signs (such as a menu, list, traffic signs, or a course syllabus) and between a signifier (such as a traffic sign) and a signified (stop; go; no left turn). Because in every sense the system precedes the individual signs, and their associations and functions, attention is directed in the first instance to sign systems themselves as systems. The purpose is then to make formal the discerned relationships. (26)

It [semiotics] is also a form of cultural analysis. All human behavior, once interpreted, is conduct. Semiotics looks at rules that govern conduct. Semiotics distinguishes performance or speech from the rules that govern it or control speech, language rules. (29)

[…] discourse and rules that govern it are seen as governing the possible forms, roles, and actions that one might imagine or impute to a “person.” Persons attain status only as elements of a signifying system. Thus semioticians might see a person as Freudians do, a bundle of symptoms (“a neurotic”), as a set of economic drives for consumption and production, as a chaos of passions as in a Judith Krantz novel, or a disembodied voice as do record producers. These are human constructions of humans, abstractions, and they make social life possible. (31)

Semiotics must proceed to isolate structures as if a definite general structure existed; but to be able to do this, one must assume that this global structure is simply a regulative hypothesis, and that every time a structure is described something occurs within the universe of signification which no longer makes it completely reliable. (32 – Eco “A Theory of Semiotics”, 129)

Social life is a field of signs organized by other signs about signs that communicate various social relations. Sociology can be seen as a subfield of semiotics. (33)

By attending to the codes (ways that content and expression are connected) that order given domains within social groups, and the meanings and social and behavioral responses that are associated with such coding, a conceptual apparatus for the analysis of culture is created. This lens permits isolating, characterizing, manipulating, and recombining elements of a cultural code in a systematic and formal fashion. (35)

Structuralist theories are glossed here as those that (a) contain focus upon binary oppositions within linguistic systems, (b) utilize some model of language as a fundamental metaphor for explaining (some) social relations, (c) view discourse as the primary focus of analysis, and (d) attempt to explain the production of discourse and texts with relatively formal rules and principles. (36)

[…] the referent is not a discriminate parameter among signs. Only their relations to each other are considered. The ideational nature of semiotics is such that even ideas are viewed as signs of a sort. Encoding, or the process of subsuming phenomena to a code is seen as both decoding and encoding simultaneously (since any sign that can be considered as such is coded in some fashion, any action of encoding involves extracting it from one code and entering it into another). Encoding is possible because codes can be combined, conflated, reversed, and layered together, that is, expression and content in one can become a sign in a secondary coding system, and so on. (39)

The actor provides the interpretant. (39)

The concept of a message is a function of a cognitively or semantically isolated text within an organizational field. (42)


Semiotics and Fieldwork

It should be emphasized that semiotics is an analytic technique, not a data-gathering technique. Most fieldwork, and much of the fieldwork literature, focuses on data-gathering. […] Semiotics is a mode of problem identification. (43)

Semiotics is a mode of pursuing the relevant units of analysis within a context. (44)

Semiotics is a way of formalizing analysis. (44)

Semiotics permits, indeed, requires comparisons. Semiotics is based on the central notions of opposition in context as the source of meaning […] This means that studies of single cases, or types, or groups, must involve implicit but perhaps unrecognized comparisons. (46)

Semiotics requires that analysis penetrate surface meaning or mere description and extract underlying modes of understanding. (46)

Semiotics assumes different perspectives on social life. (47)