Semiotics is an emerging buzz-word in the marketing research circles in India. I am fascinated by this mysterious colourful box (not a black box) of semiotics. While attending a semiotics workshop at IIML, Noida last week I was delighted to see that Indian researchers are open to embracing the semiotic mind-set. It was also heartening to see that Indian brand managers are also seeking semiotics as a strategic input in brand-building. However, not many of seem to have a clear idea about this discipline. Chris Arning beautifully compared semiotics with meditation. We all know that meditation (semiotics) is useful and fascinating, some of us practice it, but none of us fully understand how it works. This metaphor made me realize that I am a mere disciple on an eternal quest for semiotic enlightenment, with a goal to become a Semiotic Buddha – the one who understands the ultimate Semiotics. ;)
My first rendezvous with semiotics was during my master’s program in communications at MICA. The course at MICA was my first step towards understanding semiotics. The workshop this week was the second step. Now, my goal is 998 steps away. Being a first year PhD student, I feel that this is the best time for me to start walking on this path of academic exploration. In a series of blog posts on semiotics, I would be periodically sharing a beginner’s perspective on what I read over the next couple of years. I hope that this endeavour would help other beginners like me on their journey as well.
I begin this blog series by sharing my understanding of how semiotics differs from traditional qualitative research. These thoughts are based on the discussions we had at the workshop, supplemented by some preliminary reading on cognitive psychology.
How is Semiotics different from traditional Qualitative Research?
The subject matter of semiotics is ‘interpretation of meaning’ – to decipher how consumers create meaning in their minds when they witness any stimulus. Any individual, who uses his mind to interpret something, would be using certain habitual or routinized modes of thinking. These habitual modes of thinking are created through a learning process (conditioning) that the individual goes through in his entire life. There are many things in his environment that influence the way his mind is wired to think (develop schemas/ semantic networks in his mind).
Semiotics looks at the elements from the individual’s cultural environment deemed to have shaped the semantic structure of his mind. For example, being an Indian, I would have grown up watching a certain kind of movies and TV shows and I must be absorbing cultural content that is currently being shared around me. All these cultural ‘texts’ would be depicting the idea of ‘success’ in a certain way. These depictions or codes of success would have subconsciously entered into my mind and would have modified the wiring of my schema of ‘success’.
Suppose a researcher needs to understand the schema of success – what does ‘success’ mean to the consumer? A traditional qualitative researcher would conduct a focus group discussion or an in-depth interview with the consumer and elicit his verbal responses to the idea of success. Although this method has the potential to give rich content, the hard truth is that consumers would not be aware of their own subconscious schemas and it would be difficult for them to articulate the same. Furthermore, deliberative elicitation would lead to rationalization of thoughts and we would not be able to uncover the raw subconscious structure. Chris Arning used another beautiful metaphor of the surface of the ocean vs. the wave current underneath the surface. Traditional qualitative research would capture whatever appears on the surface, but may not be able to dive into the depths sufficiently.
But if the consumer is not able to tell me what is in his mind, who will?
We do not have a machine that can let a researcher travel into the subconscious mind of the consumer and to take photographs of the semantic networks in his mind ;). But semiotics shows us the way forward. The basic premise of cultural semiotics is that individuals consume cultural content and absorb the semiotic flow of these texts into their memory. These individuals then mimic the semantic structure reflected in these cultural texts. Hence, if we analyse the cultural content that surrounds the individual and decode the semantic structures within these texts, we can construct a replica of the semantic structure that exists within the consumer’s mind. This is the reverse engineering technique followed by a semiotician.
Traditional qualitative research is inside-out, whereas semiotics is outside-in. Hence, semiotics does not involve interviewing of consumers. The population/ sample to be studied consist of cultural texts like ads, movies, music, materials, packaging, blogs, etc. The sampling of content follows the general sampling principles of traditional research – aiming for a balance of parsimony and representativeness. These texts are deconstructed and analysed using semiotic analysis tools and theories. Semiotics uses a rich bag of techniques and theories for analysis. The colourful, enigmatic box of semiotic theories and techniques is what remains to be explored. I would be exploring these theories and techniques one by one and would share my thoughts on them in my future blog posts. I invite critical feedback on my posts from researchers (practitioners and academic) and students. Let’s all discuss, debate and learn together :)