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Review of  Social Semiotics

Reviewer: Weimin Toh
Book Title: Social Semiotics
Book Author: Thomas Hestbaek Andersen Morten Boeriis Eva Maagerø Elise Seip Tonnessen
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 26.4923

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This book is a collection of interviews conducted with five key figures in the field of social semiotics. The five scholars interviewed are Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen, Jim R. Martin, Gunther Kress, Theo van Leeuwen and Jay Lemke. These scholars have taken Halliday’s concept of social semiotics and developed it further in various directions. Based on their background, research purpose and research areas, they have created their own original contributions to theory and practice. The book consolidates the thoughts of the five scholars through their interviews and highlights the similarities and differences between their perspectives and M.A.K. Halliday’s original concept of social semiotics. The book is well structured into three main components. The first component, which includes the introduction, serves as a framing chapter for the book. The second component includes the interviews with the five scholars. And the final component consists of the concluding chapter, which serves as a cohesive link for the interviews through the discussion of the central themes common to each of the interviews.

The book focuses on the qualitative instead of quantitative analysis of the lived experiences of the interviewees and how their background informs their various perspectives in social semiotics. Each chapter focuses on in-depth interviews of one scholar. The chapters are presented using main headings such as “background” and “language teaching” with specific interview questions under each of the main headings. There are both common and distinctive interview questions for the scholars. Common interview questions include, for instance, asking the scholars for their definitions of key terms such as “mode”, “meaning”, “context”, “multimodality” and so on. These interview questions serve as a cohesive thread to not only bind the different interviews together but also highlight the different perspectives that the scholars take in social semiotics. There are also distinctive questions asked for each of the scholars which highlight their unique contributions. For instance, some of the interview questions for Jim R. Martin focus on appraisal whereas some unique questions for Jay Lemke focus on the concept of “meta-redundancy” which he brings from his science background.

In Chapter 1, “Introduction” provides the theoretical context for the interviews conducted in the later chapters. The authors provide a concise introduction to M.A.K. Halliday’s social semiotics. As the main aim of the book is to present and discuss how the five scholars redefined and reshaped several of Halliday’s original ideas, the theoretical introduction is no more than a brief outline of the fundamentals of Halliday’s social semiotics. The introduction also provides some biographical information for the scholars and a brief outline of their contributions to social semiotics. The chapter ends by providing an outline of the methodology, i.e. how the interviews were conducted, gathered and edited.

In Chapter 2, “Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen”, the interview starts by asking for the scholar’s background. The background of the scholar highlights how he was introduced to systemics or social semiotics. The chapter then moves to theoretical discussion with the scholar by asking for his views regarding the difference between the terms social semiotics and systemic functional linguistics (SFL). In the first main heading under “SFL and social semiotics”, the scholar was also asked about the cognitive component in the theory; and the first section concludes by highlighting the scholar’s emphasis on the social component of the cognitive component in the theory. The second section touches on a number of basic concepts such as communication, text and code. The scholar was asked to define “text”, and indicate the place of the concept of “code” in systemic functional linguistics. The third section proceeds to discuss the scholar’s main areas of interest, which is language description. One of the contributions language description made is the ability to do text/discourse analysis in more communities operating with different languages. The fourth section touches on the dialects of SFL, where the scholar discusses the benefits of the Sydney grammar over the Cardiff grammar and Chomsky’s generative linguistics. For instance, he indicates the great value of the holistic thinking of Halliday’s SFL. He also mentions that a key difference between the Cardiff grammar and the Sydney grammar is that the Cardiff grammar is modular oriented, whereas Halliday’s grammar is relational-dimensional. The fifth section discusses context and genre where the scholar discusses the main difference between Martin and Matthiessen/Halliday’s approach. For instance, he highlights that Martin was exploring context and genre in terms of one dimension: the hierarchy of stratification. In contrast, Matthiessen approaches context and genre in a two-dimensional way where context was extended from the context of culture at the potential pole of the cline to contexts of situation at the instance pole. The remaining sections of the chapter involve the scholar’s discussion of “meaning”, his definition of “mode” and his multi-semiotic work, SFL and language teaching, and looking towards the future of SFL.

In Chapter 3, “Jim R. Martin”, the interview starts by discussion of the scholar’s background to understand how he was introduced to social semiotics and his inspiration and motivation from practice. The second section discusses the basic theoretical concepts. It aims to understand how the scholar consider the relation between SFL and other social semiotic directions, his views on having a cognitive component in social semiotics and his definition of “communication”. The third section highlights the scholar’s distinctive concept, such as “stratification” and discusses his understanding of the concept. This section also draws links to other scholars such as Jay Lemke in relation to his concept of meta-redundancy and how the concept is a useful way to interpret further what stratification really means when there is a hierarchy of abstractions rising from the phonology. Martin next discusses his context model, where he highlights the differences between Halliday’s model and his. For instance, he mentions that his model has two strata which he terms “genre” and “register” whereas Halliday has one strata which he calls “context”. Martin also explains why he stratified context whereas Halliday did not. He was influenced by Mitchell’s (1957) and Hasan’s (1979) work on buying and selling encounters and he took the idea of staging (text structure) and reconceived it in terms of a system/structure cycle, so that he had an axial perspective on genre. He referred to text structure as schematic structure and attempted to make connection to van Dijk and Walter Kintsch’s work on schema or script theory. In the section on “semantics”, Martin highlights his emphasis on the text as the unit of analysis and not the clause. The following section “appraisal” discusses how Martin came to that concept, and also multimodal appraisal. The remaining sections discuss Martin’s definition of “mode”, his view on the differences between SFL dialects, SFL and education and the future of systemic functional linguistics (SFL).

Chapter 4, “Gunther Kress”, discusses his background and how he first came to engage in social semiotics. Next, he discusses how his form of semiotics relates to other forms of semiotics, such as that of Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Pierce or Roland Barthes. He also discusses his view of the relation between sign, semiotic resource and semiotic system and his emphasis on the functional more than the systemic in SFL. In the next section, he defines mode as a social category. In his discussion of “medium”, he indicates the importance of distinguishing between mode as a representational resource and medium as disseminated technology. Next, he explains the origin of the concept of “affordances” and how he uses it. Under the section on “literacy”, he indicates his avoidance of the term “literacy” because the term indicates that they have obtained an answer which they have not. Under “text and communication”, he uses the term text for any semiotic entity which is internally coherent and framed so that he sees it as distinct from other entities. Text is a material thing produced via communication which is semiotic work. He relates “design” to resources that young people need in order to function in relation to their own wishes in society. In “applications”, he explains how concepts were applied in learning and institutional contexts. In the final section “the future”, he highlights the expansion of SFL as tools to allow social semioticians to do descriptions of the semiotic beyond language.

Chapter 5, “Theo van Leeuwen”, starts by discussing how Leeuwen’s career began. The second section discusses his view in relation to the differences and connections he see between SFL and social semiotics and multimodality. It also discusses his background as a film semiotician and how it influenced his theory. This section concludes with van Leeuwen explaining his views on the difference between his and Kress’s work compared to O’Toole’s work. For instance, he mentions that O’Toole takes a slightly different approach, foregrounding the idea of rank, and linking the ranks to specific systems but without working on the systems in detail. In the next section, he mentions his view on social semiotics in relation to other semiotic traditions such as Roland Barthes’ (1973) Mythologies which is part of his overall framework. The major strengths and weaknesses of the social semiotics approach are also discussed where he indicates that the social in social semiotics is not always sufficiently kept in focus. He also mentions his stance on maintaining the “critical approach” to SFL in contrast to Gunther Kress who has moved in a direction with less emphasis on a critical approach, and maybe more on a strategic approach. In the section on “sign making”, he explains his view of the concept of “sign” and “ motivated sign”. He defines “communication” as a term for semiotic practices.” He also restricts “text” to actual “textual artefacts”. More theoretical discussion continues where he explains the difficulty in defining “multimodality” and “mode”. Then he provides the definition of “mode” as essentially an immaterial semiotic resource which is abstract enough to be applicable across different means of expression or medium. Next, he defines “grammar” as a system that prescribes how language is used and explains the relation of his notion of stratification to Halliday’s. The remaining sections of the chapter discuss technology and meaning making, theory building, linguistics in a multimodal world, his impact, and the future of SFL.

Chapter 6, “Jay Lemke”, starts with discussion of Lemke’s background by outlining how he started his academic life in the sciences and later moved to social semiotics. In the section on “the sign”, Lemke explains his acceptance of the Peircian concept of icon, index and symbol in contrast to Gunther Kress. Next, he explains his distinctive concept of “meta-redundancy” drawn from his science background. Under “metafunctions, communication, text and genre, Lemke explains how he modified Halliday’s three metafunctions and gave them new names: presentation, orientation and organisation. Under “stratification and text”, he explains his introduction of the concept of text scale, activity scale, and time scale where the fundamental model for his work came indirectly from developmental biology. More conceptual discussion follows in which he outlines his major theoretical contributions to the field of multimodality, gives a brief definition of the term mode, describes how he distinguishes between modes, and discusses affordances, literacy and multimodal literacy and the development of a general social semiotics of all modes. The latter half of this chapter discusses his SFL’s contribution to science, the relationship between cognition, emotions and aesthetics, his study of digital media such as computer games and social semiotics and SFL in the United States. The chapter concludes with his views on SFL today and in the future.

Chapter 7, “Central Themes”, starts off by providing an overview of the five scholars interviewed in the book, highlighting their similarities and differences from Halliday’s social semiotic. The remaining sections focus on theoretical discussion of systems and concepts. Common threads in the previous interview chapters are discussed using central themes such as “meaning”, “sign”, “semiotic system”, “text”, “text analysis”, “context”, “communication”, “Sydney grammar versus the Cardiff grammar”, “multimodality”, “mode”, “social critique and design”, “analysis in relation to design”, “functions and applications”, “education”, and “academia”. The final sections of the chapter touch on future challenges, hopes and aspirations in relation to refining theories and concepts and the idea of social semiotics as a grand theory.


An important merit of this book is that it enables the reader to see the multiple perspectives of social semiotics. Through the interviews, the book achieves its aim in showing how different scholars with different backgrounds build on or change Halliday’s SFL for their own research purposes and research areas. This consolidation of various scholar’s interviews is rare. In consolidating the five scholar’s views, the book enables the reader to understand their similarities and differences in approaching a theoretical field. It also allows readers or scholars to understand how a framework is modified, elaborated or expanded based on different understanding of an original framework, which in this case is Halliday’s SFL. The authors open the book with the chapter by providing the theoretical outline of SFL. This brief outline of SFL is sufficient for linguistic students but non-linguistic students may have to do more readings on their own to better understand the other theoretical concepts discussed during the interviews. The brief biographical background provided for the five scholars interviewed is useful as it consolidates the key scholars’ background in social semiotics.

In Chapter 2, there is a section which discusses the relationship between social semiotics and neuroscience. The interview highlights that Halliday and Matthiessen attempt to explain the functioning of the brain through language and they also tried to make contact with neuroscientists. Perhaps this part can be elaborated with more information provided about the outcome of the contact with the neuroscientists if it has been made. It would be interesting to have more interdisciplinary insights about how language is related to cognition.

In Chapter 3, Martin provides a brief overview of appraisal theory and how it came about. There was the use of terminologies such as “feelings”, “AFFECT”, “emotions”, “JUDGEMENT”, “ENGAGEMENT” and “APPRECIATION”. Perhaps the authors could indicate the difference between “feelings” and “emotions” as the distinction was not highlighted through the interview. Is “feeling” correlated to “AFFECT” and “emotions” correlated to “JUDGEMENT” since these terms are used in the same sentence? Or is “emotions” an overarching category that applies to all the appraisal categories? The interview could also have included discussion of the relationship between “aesthetic”, “evaluation” and “emotions”. “Aesthetic” is a term or concept that is frequently seen to occur with “evaluation” and including the term in the interview would have provided more insights into Martin and White’s (2005) appraisal framework.

Another limitation of the study is related to the selection of the participants for the interview. Five scholars were selected for the interview and they are assumed to be the key figures in the field of social semiotics. Perhaps more scholars, such as Peter White, could be included for the interview to diversify the insights provided even more. Since Kress and van Leeuwen were both included for the interview, it would be interesting to include the pairing of Martin and White (2005) to compare their views in social semiotics.

This book is generally an excellent piece of academic writing and suffers only from very infrequent spelling and formatting errors. For instance, I have only spotted one grammatical error (on page 168, “interviewed to this book” should be “interviewed in this book”). Each chapter links to the next chapter cohesively and complements each other very well. The framing introduction and concluding central themes also serve as cohesive links for the interview chapters. This book is meant for more advanced students and scholars of linguistics, specifically social semioticians, discourse analysts, and multimodal discourse analysts and presumes a certain level of familiarity with social semiotics and multimodal discourse analysis concepts. Overall, “Social Semiotics – Key Figures, New Directions” provides insightful and detailed interviews of key figures in social semiotic. The interviews are firmly grounded in the methodology set out in the introduction chapter. Additionally, Chapter 6 provides a good summary of the interviews conducted in the previous chapters by structuring the insights into central themes. This systematic structuring of the interview findings makes it a good and accessible source of information and inspiration for future work to be conducted by scholars in social semiotics.


Barthes, R. 1973. Mythologies. St albans: Paladin.

Hasan, Ruqaiya. 1979. On the notion of text. In: Sandor J. Petofi (ed.), Text vs Sentence: basic questions of textlinguistics (Papers in Textlinguistics 20.2) Hamburg: Helmet Buske, pp. 369 – 90.

Martin, Jim R. & Peter R.R. White. 2005. The Language of Evaluation: appraisal in English. London: Palgrave.

Mitchell, T.F. 1957. The language of buying and selling in Cyrenaica: a situational statement. Hespéris, Archives Berbères et Bulletin de l’Institut des Hautes-Études Marocaines. Pp. 31 – 71.
Toh Weimin is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature in the National University of Singapore (NUS). His research interests include social semiotics, multimodality and the study of new technologies like offline and online gaming worlds. Besides his interest in researching gaming worlds, he is also interested in anime and film analysis using a multimodal discourse analysis approach. His current PhD research work involves the creation of a ludonarrative model for video games to understand the different relationships between narrative and gameplay in video games. This theoretical model is supported by the empirical study of players.

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