Looking for the organisation of semiotics

How much do we know about the establishment of the field of semiotics? Eduardo Chávez Herrera (Warwick) shares his observations of semiotics in four countries.

Understanding of the organisation of semiotics in each country is a complicated process. The way in which semiotics as a field is organised in an individual country raises complex questions. The best examples of a comprehensively organised field of semiotics may be found in countries such as Estonia and Italy.

Comparing the organisation of semiotics in the United States, France, Germany and Great Britain, has provided data for the DISCONEX research group. In this post we present some preliminary findings of our transnational research.


Semiotics in the US

In the USA, semiotics is studied by researchers from a wide range of fields; from humanities and social sciences (foreign language linguistics, literature, philology, philosophy, communication, law, cognitive science, anthropology, sociology, psychology, music, design, architecture, film, media, etc.), to geography and mathematics.

Although in the USA Charles Sanders Peirce – a brilliant thinker, established the logical-pragmatic tradition of semiotics, it is not possible to say that American semioticians are entirely Peircean. There is a great deal of interest among researchers in semiotics encompasing linguistic semiotics, anthropological semiotics, and philosophical approaches as well as more experimental approaches in the semiotics of nature (biosemiotics, ecosemiotics, zoosemiotics and so on).

American semiotics lost its main research locations during the 1990s. The most sucessful research centres for semiotics were based in Bloomington, Indiana (directed by Thomas Sebeok) and in Brown University. When Sebeok passed away in 2001 this centre disappeared and its faculty dispersed among different departments. The same happened in Brown with the disappearance of Thomas G. Winner in 2004. Furthermore, there is not a specific programme of study in semiotics in the US. Rather, semiotics is taught as a module or course in several universities and colleges.

Currently, there is no single location where semiotic research is concentrated in the US. Nevertheless, the Semiotic Society of America has been organising an annual conference for the past 41 years. They also edit their flagship journal The American Journal of Semiotics.

Semiotics in France

In France, with the exception of the University of Limoges, semiotics is organised around some disciplinary fields.

Depending on the tradition that researchers follow, semiotics is either called sémiotique (logical-pragmatic trend) or sémiologie (structuralist trend). Both forms entail different paradigms with different theoretical backgrounds and representative researchers.

Because the structuralist tradition was once strong in France, several researchers still prefer to use the term sémiologie rather than sémiotique. The most renowned semiotics thinkers in France were based in Paris: Roland Barthes and Algirdas Julius Greimas. The latter led a seminar in the EHESS and developed the Paris Semiotics Circle.

Semiotics is generally regarded as part of the language sciences in France. Nonetheless, many semioticians come from the Information Sciences and Communication (InfoCom), literature, media, communication, visual arts, education and so on. A few mathematicians and sociologists can be traced as well.

There are three research associations devoted to semiotics in France: the French semiotics association (Association Française de Sémiotique), and the Young researchers semiotics association (Association des Jeunes Chercheurs en Sémiotique) that are actively doing Journées d’Études and conferences. Quite recently (in 2015), Francophile semioticians launched the Romance federation of semiotics (FEDROS).

Paris and Limoges are the main centres for semiotics research. In Paris there are currently 15 labs and Unités de Formation et de Recherches dealing with semiotics research compared to 20 remaining labs and UFRs in other regions of France. As previously mentioned, semiotics in France remains active in the field of language sciences, and has found a place in the area of Information and Communication Sciences. However, at least four labs from social sciences and design have semiotics researchers.

The most well-know semiotics journal in France is Actes Sémiotiques, founded by Greimas himself in 1977. It is still published in Limoges by his former students.

Semiotics is taught in 25 French universities as a course in BA and MA degrees. It is possible to obtain an MA in Sémiotique et Stratégies in the CERES and an MA in Expertise en Sémiologie et Communication at the University of Paris-Descartes. PhD programs in language sciences (with specialization in semiotics) are also offered in Limoges and Paris.


Semiotics in Germany

Despite the fact that there has been a semiotic tradition in Germany and the German speaking territories in Europe since the 19th century – channelled via linguistics, semiotics is not an established discipline there.

German researchers working in the field of semiotics are dispersed throughout the social sciences and humanities, ranging from disciplines such as linguistics, literary studies, architecture, communication sciences, philosophy, law, Slavic studies, German studies, cognitive sciences, and so on, as well as disciplines like medicine or mathematics.

Although there are some departments with working groups dedicated to semiotics (like the Arbeitsschwerpunkt Semiotik at the Technische Universität Berlin) semiotics is rather a toolbox and field of interest integrated into other disciplinary interests and activities.

The German Society for Semiotics (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Semiotik), the most visible organisation in Germany, was founded in the 1970s and has remained active since then.

Semiotics is included in the curriculum of several universities as specific courses in BA and MA level, but there is no specific PhD programme in Semiotics in Germany.

The most relevant publication is the journal Zeitschfrit für Semiotik. Established in 1979 and edited by Roland Posner, this journal is co-edited alongside the Austrian association of semiotics (ÖGS) and the Swiss Society for Cultural Theory and semiotics (SGKS/ASSC).

Great Britain

Among the four countries DISCONEX investigates, Great Britain has the fewest organisations for semiotics. In Britain, scholars dealing with semiotics come from a wide variety of fields. Communication, media and design are their main areas of interest. We also found people specialized in theatre, music, education, management and English, as well as mathematicians.

Researchers working on semiotics in British universities have been found in a wide range of departments (among them, Theatre, Film and TV Studies, Art, Design and Humanities, Hispanics, Media and Communications, Russian, Social Sciences, French, Archaeology and Anthropology, Music, Culture, Communication and Media), and Schools (Creative Studies and Media, the Cardiff Schools of English, Communication and Philosophy, Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, the Manchester School of Art, the Newcastle School of English, Literature Languages and Linguistics, the School of Business and Management, the Business School and so on).

Currently, there is no association for semiotics in the UK or related institutions. The British section of the International Association for Semiotics Studies executive committee is represented by Paul Cobley (Middlesex University London), who is also the president of this institution.

Semiotics is taught as an elective course in BA and MA programs at several universities. Lecturers, senior lecturers and readers are actively engaged in Semiotic research. There is a single professorship of semiotics (and education) at the University College London.

The organisation of semiotics differs widely in the four countries discussed. Semiotics appears to be stronger in some countries than others. However, more detailed analysis of its organisation and related fields is needed to provide an overview of the status of semiotics. This may possibly be carried out in a greater number of countries. An ambitious undertaking but a necessary one.

Image: Aalto University in Helsinki (source: Flickr)

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