Critical Literacy & Interaction
Spinning webs of meaning, language and social reality
University of Aruba, Faculty of Arts & Science
General Education: SW&D / OGM
August 26, 2010
Lecturer: Nadia Dresscher
• Back to unit 1: Assignment about identity and
communication, some notes on the interplay
between identity and communication
• We will take a look on the meaning-making
process and the role language plays in this
What is the relationship between
communication and identity?
• Please reflect on the interplay between the shaping of
identities and communication. How does your own identity
relate to communication? Can you describe how ‘you are’ in
communication? How do you relate to others when
communicating and what does this says about your identity?
• ?
Negotiation of identities
• The ‘self’ (self-identity) is based on innumerable
messages about the ‘self’ that the individual gets from
the world.
• Relationships and the input (messages) they give us
about ourselves, helps form (shape and re-shape) our
• This is a continuous process
• Interpersonal communication plays an important role
in the negotiation of identities
• But also the groups we want to belong to , we belong
to or don’t belong to shapes our identities (social
The ‘self’ In negotiation with others
Our identity…
• Identity is changeable, constant in a process of shaping
and re-shaping
• Identities are observable; we communicate it in differ
forms (our cloths, language we use, our behavior,
communication is behavior
• Identities are a product of their time (Jane Austen’s
Pride and Prejudice characters vs. Facebook
• We look for acknowledgements (bevestiging) in our
communication with others.
• Our ‘self’ is reflected through the mirror that others
put in front of us
So far:
• Communication is a dynamic process
• We make sense of ourselves and the world we
live in by negotiating meaning, interpretation
and identities through messages
• Sender and receiver interactions are based on
coding and decoding of messages. Messages
are composed of codes/signs
• Stepping into ‘the signs’ zone…
Mind, Language, Communication, Meaning
The study of language provides a window into the
workings of the mind, and bears on issues of how
the mind represents meaning, how we interpret
and understand the world
The Meaning of Meaning
• Communication is a social process:
• To capture and study the intangible process of communication
[negotiation of meaning] we will start by focusing on how meaning
is being created at the level of language
• Where Language plays a fundamental role in creating and
sustaining realitie
• How?
• We will focus on the meaning making process through the social
semiological approach
Spinning, weaving, flow of meaning
Greek: dia and logos:
The flow of meaning
Communication is a
Functions of Language (Jackobson,
The constant engagement with meaning relies on
the assumption that people do not produce texts
at random and without any purpose but have
specific intentions to communicate and certain
goals to achieve. Language is capable of realizing
numerous functions:
1. Referential function: conveying information
2. Emotive function: expressing inner states
3. Phatic function: establishing or maintaining a
channel of communication (‘Ta hasi calor awe’)
Functions of Language (Jackobson,
4. Poetic function: when the choice of the form is the
essence of our message
5. Metalinguistic function: when the language talks about
itself (e.g. The word ‘computer’ means…)
6. Directive function: seeking to affect the behavior of the
addressee (e.g. ‘Come back’)
7. Contextual function: framing communication as a
particular kind (e.g. ‘Let’s start our discussion by…’)
8. In additional to these functions, there are numerous
others such as: requesting, offering, apologizing, pleading,
complimenting, advising, warning etc.
The structure of Human Language (1)
• = a systematic set of sounds, combined with a set of
rules, for the sole purpose creating meaning and
• These sounds are representing symbolically in the
language’s alphabet, this is called phonemes. There is
no natural relationship between sounds and their
accompanying alphabet (e.g. there is no natural
relationship between the letter ‘c’ and the sound ‘see’)
• When combined, phonemes become words
(=morphemes). (There is also no natural relationship
between the word cat and the fuzzy little animal)
The structure of Human Language (2)
• All languages have a set of rules for combining
the sounds to create meaning. This set of rules
is called syntax or grammar
• Through syntax, sentences are generated.
Through syntax, sound and meaning are
• Okay, but let’s get to the core of the language
business: it is a system of signs
Meaning-making process
of meaning
Meaning-making is at the core of our
We have to constantly negotiate what it
means to be humans, to be women, men,
sisters, brothers, professionals, Christians,
friends, lovers
A tribute to the legendary
linguist: Ferdinand de
• Founding father of SEMIOLOGY
= the science of signs and
• he dedicated most of his life in
discovering the underlying
system upon which the process
of meaning making is based
•Other contributers to semiology
are Pierce, Levi-Strauss, Barthes
and Kristeva
•Underlying philosophy: there is
an essential difference between
the psychical world and the
social world. The key to
approaching this difference is
focus upon the human meaning making process
Human beings
through the use of
Introduction to semiology:
the study of signs and meanings (in Saussure’s terms):
• We zoom in the relationship between a sign
and its meaning
• We need the following components: Sign,
Signifier and signified:
The Sign consists of a signifier and the
The sign consists of :
a signifier (refers to the material aspect)
a signified (the mental aspect)
What is a tree? (sign)
An Aruban Tree
2 different level of meaning combined
into 1
• The material level (signifier)level of
denotation: literal meaning
• The mental level (signified)connotation:
interpretative level
• The sign represents the combination of
the two
We can relate this to Ogdon and Richard’s Semantic
(thought) Warm,
cuddly, loyal
(thing) DOG
5 basic principles of semiology (1)
1. We make meaning through our shared use of
symbols –including language as a symbolic sign
system (conventionality)
2. What symbols mean is not inevitable. Rather it is
based on our socio-political and cultural
 there is no fixed relationship between the signifier
and the signified. Although they always work
together (there cannot be one without the other)
the actual bond between them is arbitrary*
(*there is no natural relationship between them like thunder,
lighting and rain)
5 basic principles of semiology (2)
3. Meaning is inseparable of context
 Nueliep’s (2009) contextual model of
communication can help us capture the
communication process in the layers of context
 :it is in the middle of these waves of contexts
that we negotiate meaning
 Words pass through context to context, this
constantly changes their meaning
 Context is key to meaning
A contextual approach to communication (Neuliep,2009)
Layers of different contexts:
Definition of each context:
An accumulated pattern of values, beliefs and behaviors, shared
by an identifiable group of people with a common history and
verbal and non-verbal systems
(the overall rules of communication)
Subgroups/minorities group that exist within the main culture.
The psychical, geographical location of the interaction. The
‘when’ and ‘where’ the rules of communication (culture) apply
The individual characteristics of each interactant, including their
cognitions (mental models), attitudes, dispositions and
motivations. This context focuses on how individuals gathers,
stores and retrieves information. Individual perception is
affected by culture, moreover how individuals develop attitudes
about others (e.g. stereotype) varies from culture to culture
The relationship between the interactants.
Whenever people come together they establish a relationship.
Each person assumes a role, your interaction varies as a
function of what role you are assuming
5 basic principles of semiology (3)
4. Meaning is relational
we make sense of things (objects, words, actions)
in relation to other things
– binary opposites (opposition)
– Derrida’s concept of différance (if the signifier means
this, it doesn’t mean that)
E.g. beautiful is not ugly, evil is the opposite of good
A dog is not a cat
(categorizing process)
5 basic principles of semiology (3)
5. We engage in these processes largely
Social semiotics, more than just
• Semiotics, however, moves beyond language to study all the
meaning systems in a society.
• For instance: fashion, advertising, popular culture genres like TV
and movies, music, political discourse, all forms of writing and
• Semiotics contributes to communication studies by providing
a method for uncovering and analyzing how a whole system of
signification like a movie genre, fashion images, or TV works in a
• Meaning making is not purely individualistic: it is a process and
product of collectives. Meanings are generated and agreed within
particular social and cultural contexts
Changing meanings of the concept of
beauty (1975 vs. 2010):