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How Signs Are Used to Construct Meaning


Semiotics, the study of processes of signs, as well as the use of symbols in communication at both a personal and a grouped setting is often viewed at as the basic element of the construction and understanding of meaning. Furthermore, signs have been known to mediate meaning, thus confirming that indeed, semiotics are a key factor in the manipulation of signs in order to construct meanings.

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According to Bignell (2002), there is a link between the concept of meaning on the one hand and its semantic aspect on the other hand. It is thus possible to manipulate signs in a similar manner to the way other objects are manipulated. Nevertheless, in the obtaining of the required knowledge for a specific sign system, it is not enough just to manipulate “the material form” that its sign depicts only.

Anthropologists of culture have for a very long time now held the argument that the construction of meanings is “an imaginative” but also a process that has culturally been structured. In addition, these cultural anthropologists have often argued that those behind the creation of meanings do not have to be aware of the entire aspects of the context under which they are seen to communicate.


The cultural anthropologists have further offered ways through which artifacts can be viewed at as complex texts that are liable to reading as well as decoding, except that now, they have an added twist that allows fro a constant shift in meanings and designs up until closure (Langdon, 1992).

According to Bignell (2002) it is often assumed in the media fraternity that meanings usually get communicated by signs. As such, semiotics is seen to be involved with the way signs functions. In addition, language has often been touted as the most basic form of communication for humans. Bignell (2002) further posits that all our experiences and thoughts (indeed our very own identity) is dependent upon the sign systems that tend to exist in the society under which we live in, and this is what gives meaning and form to reality and consciousness.

Similar sentiments have also been echoed by Crotty (1998), who has argued that it is through our daily interaction with the world’s realities that meaning traces its existence. Crotty (1998) further opines that meaning in the absence of a mind, can not be present. Crotty further asserts meaning, rather than what is being discovered, has to be constructed. In this regard, perhaps it would be prudent to harbor the thought that signs are often a representation of meanings.

Mitchell (1995) has noted that representations are a description of the signs that assumes the place of, and stand for, another thing. As such, people are able to better understand and comprehend the realities of the world courtesy of its representation through signs and by extension, the meaning of the world that such people are able to construct. Mitchell (1995) has further observed that in order for meanings to have a true sense of the world, there is a need to manipulate these.

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O’Shaughnessy and Stadler (2005) have also argued for the need of constructing new ways that would help in the perception of reality, seeing that people are only able to come into terms with reality when representation of such a reality has been used. If we were to view the world from a phenomenon perspective, then we would come to a realization that already, the world that we are living in is full of a multitude of meanings.

The form in which we are able to encounter the world, then, is what gives meaning to it. In addition, the manner in which we resolve to react to the world gives it yet another meaning. In her article, “What value is there in studying advertisements?” Rebecca Howard (2008) argues that the prime reason for commercial advertising is to enahce4 goodwill and familiarity in both the image and name of a certain company, as opposed to the actual product.

Howard (2008) has specifically cited the advertisement that was sponsored by the shoe manufacturer, Nike prior to the commencement of the 1998 world cup in France. In the advertisement, the Brazilian national team is featured in an airport, kicking the ball around, while another football star, Eric Cantona, watches the team from the comfort of an airplane seat. In this particular instance, Nike does not intend to promote any one of its particular products. Rather, the company wishes to link itself with to an image that signifies both excellence and quality.

The impression that is effectively created in the minds of the audiences watching this advertisement, and indeed to al the football fans around the globe, is that Nike, despite being the most superior sportswear the world over, can also be attributed to the success behind the Brazilian football team.

In the print media, the use of signs to construct meaning is abundant. They are usually utilized in the delivery of knowledge through for example, the use of formats and diagrams. For instance, some textbooks shall often have parts that utilize asterisks to emphasize these (Contreras et al 2008).

In this case, the asterisks is used as an index that signifies to the readers that they should take into consideration the clarification of say, the publisher on a particular topic, or word. Such a sign then, denotes the cultural reference of such a term, its political correctness, or even the acknowledgement of such a particular source. According to (Contreras 2008), theories of the media provide the audience with various perspectives regarding how they (the media) are able to construct reality.

It is through the use of such theories that people are able to not only judge, but also select based on a variety of information that has been availed to them by the media.

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From a semiotics point of view, print media shall always be seen as inclining towards a selection of the kind of information and ultimately, the knowledge that they are to publish.

According to Howard (2005) it is quite possible to study advertisements based upon the language that they use, their meaning, structure, their appearance, as a form of art from an aesthetic perspective, and based upon the possible reaction they are likely to cause. At this point, it would perhaps be appealing to pose the question if, for example, all the different signs that are used to communicate, have different meanings to the intended audience, and the manipulations done by the communicators in an attempt to effectively appeal to the audience.

In light of this, would it be in order for one to assume that meanings of signs are often given, as opposed to being constructed? According to Crotty (1998) there are different ways through which individuals construct meanings, just as there are various variations in terms of personalities, even in a case whereby the phenomenon may be similar.

Howard (2005) provides that meanings are as a result of construction, as opposed to being given. In this particular case, advertisements are seen as just vehicles of providing us with a text. It is then left on us to make use of our knowledge and experiences to construct meaning based on what we are able to see. For instance, the Boddington beer has a slogan that depicts it as “the cream of Manchester”. Based on the knowledge and experiences that we have, we are able to construct meaning out of this slogan, and decipher that it is a beer that is being promoted, and not crème. It is only the texture of this product that has been likened to that of crème, and not beer, as a product.


Semiotics can thus be seen to be very central to everyday communication. Basically, humankind is forever communicating across various cultural divides. This is when the true meaning of signs comes in, for one does not have to rely on a full knowledge of a certain language in order to communicate.

As long as one is able to construct meaning out of the signs that are provided, this is all that seems to matter. For this reason, there is no single specific way that signs could be manipulated to construct a given meaning. This is at the discretion of an audience, although communicators aspire to simplify the role of deciphering such signs.


  1. Bignell, J, 2002, Media semiotics: an introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  2. Contreras, M, Lim. E, and Espinola, J. (2008) “Dissecting print media Institutions Using Communication Theories”. De La Salle University. Web.
  3. Crotty, M, 1998, The foundations of social research. London: Sage.
  4. Howard, R, 2008, “What value is there in studying advertisements?”
  5. Lorimer, R, 1994, Mass communication: a comparative introduction. Manchester: Manchester university press.
  6. Mitchell, W, 1995, “Representation”, in F Lentricchia & T McLaughlin (Eds), Critical Terms for Literary Study, (2nd Ed). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. O’Shaughnessy, M, and Stadler, J, 2005, Media and society: an introduction (3rd ed). South Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
  8. Schirato, T & Yell, S, 2000, Communication and Cultural Literacy: An Introduction. St Leonards NSW. Allen & Unwin.

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