Semiotic Inquiry or the Advent of Deep Methodologies

© Francois Victor Tochon (2009)

Semiotics plays a deciphering and hermeneutic role in highlighting the contradictions in discourse and may offer methodologies that respond to the challenges met by current educational research. In his ‘Theory of Signs’—which is a presentation of Peirce’s mature theory—Short (2007) reiterates that sign processing (semiosis) is infinite and happens whereby something comes to signify something else to somebody or any system that can be informed by a sign. Within the perspective of semiotic inquiry, researchers don’t partition sign meanings but conceive of their interactional nature within a fluid, social (groupal for cells and their biodynamics) and cultural flow of integrated meaning making processes. Research can be extended to what Tochon & Okten (2009) name trans-semiosis in practice, that is a transformational understanding of one’s own semiosis.

Research methods have much to learn from semiotics (Shank, 1995). I was teaching research methods çourses for the last 15 years and have become acutely aware that sound research is much more than respecting a method. I teach graduate students to be in the academic survival mode that is, respecting genres and methodological canons. However I feel that one of the current duties of experienced researchers is to break the genres and open the field of educational research to broader semiotics. Along this line of thought, the third Handbook of Qualitative Research (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) was a breakthrough. It rejected "the falsity of a supposed research-activism dualism with research seen as dispassionate, informed and rational, and with activism seen as passionate, intuitive, and weakly theorized" (p. 569). Indeed sustaining the myth of the researcher detached from social practices is risky. The exploration of social praxis and its environment from a methodological perspective may obscure the conceptual motives that underlie the choice of methods. For instance, contemplate the clash in perspective between conversation analysis (CA)—a research method with no epistemology—and critical discourse analysis (CDA), which manifests critical epistemologies with no methods. This is but a reminder of the debate between Feyerabend (1975), Lakatos & Musgrave (1980) on methods as a barrier to scientific inquiry. Latter (2008) reemphasized this aspect. Depending upon the epistemological and ontological choices, the description of method clashes with the conceptual framework, as a betrayal of the original intent. Teaching research through methods is a structuralist approach, with its inevitable reductionisms and a-contextual features. This aspect appears quite important for a better recognition of applied semiotics in Education. I am still not persuaded that the solution for our field could be found in a simple system view that could reconcile say, the Saussurians and the Peirceans with a somewhat reductive modeling, such as the one proposed by Sebeok and expanded by Danesi (2006). Notwithstanding applied semiotics certainly involves an understanding of complex system dynamics.

That being said, there is a dilemma for journal editors who receive critical, hot potatoes that cannot be easily included within the mainstream tone, genre and structures that are common in their volumes. Often space makes it impossible to describe why you cannot get along with a particular obedience and, more casually said, why ‘methods stink’. For example, methods may be one way to conform with a knowledge industry that is highly normative and maintains the status quo. Research on the referee process indicates that agreement is rare and doesn’t necessarily relate with scientific value. The Scientific Research Society made a survey and noted that less than 10% of scientists found that peer review works well. More recently it has been characterized as a set of non-validated processes that generate results little better than chance (Horrobin, 2001). An increasing number of journal editors and studies report that the referee process is flawed, ineffective as it is being implemented. For example distinguishing between facts and opinions is a positivistic debate. The semiotic reader knows about the debate around Peirce’s article on “The fixation of belief”. Habermas (1995) suggested that facts are social norms. The claim for research neutrality serves an ideological function that justifies the interests and status of the wealthy and the dominant.

First we need a better definition of semiotic inquiry. The search for meaning does not only elicit the cultural role of education but also transforms its process (Shank, 1995): skepticism helps discover potential truths “through successive stages of dissatisfaction”, which actually entails an endless postponement of the fixation of belief (Short, 2007, p.331). Semiotic inquiry integrates the revisions of its aims. The sense of possible truth gradually develops, from authority towards a sense of what naturally coheres that leads, eventually, to what experience compels us to believe. This last view only establishes a certain sense of truth, independent yet fluid and dynamic rather than fixed and naturalized. There is a human tendency to settle on established convictions (Deely, 1994): human meanings match perceptual patterns of perception (Burgin & Schumann, 2006). Affordances guide semiotic inquiry: perception is active at sensing information-rich environments and finding a variety of contrasted conceptual niches. Cunningham (2002, p.22) notes in this regard: “The extension of the notion of affordance to the social and cultural aspects of human semiosis remains to be worked out and will result (…) in some fundamental changes in its definition, away from its realist origin to an interactionist one.” The sphere of meaning-making poses boundary conditions that define semiotic niches within meaning environment systems (or Umwelten, reviewed by Agamben (2004). Semiotics provides a dynamic point of view rather than a simple method of fixing beliefs (W3: 248). It creates its methodological antidote as it deconstructs its own semiotic process. The aim of semiotic inquiry evolves. It involves a variety of approaches that confer richness and flexibility in the signifying stages of perception, feeling and reasoning. The discovery process creates new languages and changes existing languages in a transformative semiosis (Bopry, 2002). The evolving viewpoint becomes integrative.

In this demonstration lies another paradox. Since semiotic discussion is wide-ranging and so heterogeneous—with such fluidity in the discovery of anything deemed to be potentially permanent—it can’t possess basic concepts, opines Simpkins (2001). Despite a number of consensual semiotic constructs such as semiosis, denotation, firstness, context, signified, interpretant, shared among semioticians, the nature of the field would require—Simpkins claims—that no basic construct be posited as the ultimate semiotic truth and relevance principle. Nonetheless, as in the fluidization or ‘anti-fixation of belief’, conceptual tools don’t hinder the semiotician from re-conceptualizing their situated, local dynamics. The life sphere is permeated by semiosis and meaning. Semiosis or the sign meaning-making process is clearly described by Charles Sanders Peirce to be the fluid and moving interplay of signifiers, signified and interpretants whose iterative roles may be exchanged (Floyd, 2000; Bains, 2006). In biosemiotics for instance, Hoffmeyer (2008) suggests that autopoiesis and self-reference, code binarity, the use of receptors, and endosemiosis are inherent properties of living systems. Positing such basic concepts doesn’t entail that the components that induce semiosis be context-dependent. The ontological dilemma for semiotic theory is the limitation of the symbolic model if sign units are considered independent from their context. Most processes in nature, from the cell to the ecosystem, that can be conceptualized as sign-processes are context-dependent. Life-processes are part of semiotic dynamics. The sign-aspects of the processes of life define specific, local semiospheres, beams of situated meaning in pragmatic worlds of communication.

While Simpkins (2001) suggested that semiotics needs to be disentangled from structuralism, I would posit that structural analysis is but one interpretive and insufficient dimension that always needs to be complemented with the description of how the componential items that are being deciphered are recomposed, reshaped and challenged within the semiotic dynamics of social and possibly cross-cultural semiosis. Semioticians need to resolve the challenging contrast between the semiotic, structural attempt, and the post-semiotic, critical dynamics. These two views are paradigmatically opposed however they could be reconciled if one considered them as two faces of any attempt at deciphering reality: the static description of the ontological structure that relies upon molar, symbolic units is being moderated through the antagonistic description of their dynamics (or epistemic processes) in local semiotic encounters, which are paradoxically both unique and plural. As well the local dynamics can encompass the social factor and make semiosis a social enterprise. Meaning is embedded in a diversity of systems of meaning in constant exchange. Constance is in change. Interchange semiosis redirects semiotics towards considering the dynamics of local exchanges among different meaning systems. It entails that we can extend the perspective and consider local cultures, including those rejected by the elites, and re-conceptualize discourse decoding from the viewpoint of its coherence vis-à-vis ethical goals that would give discourse and action their real meaning in the long run.

We need to create a more complete account and fuller picture of the sign dynamics that include humane practice and the chaotic, interpersonal nature of meaning construction and exchange. Using atomic physics as an analogy, we could conceive of signs as either corpuscles of meaning or pragmatic waves depending the focus. Taxonomized categories provide one dimension of semiotic theorizing only, infinite semiosis prevails. Instead of viewing categories of meaning as produced by a static system, we should conceive how events dialogically reshape their organizing into a dynamic and continuous process of meaning creation. Thus, “ultimately the events are what the term language labels” (Stewart, 1995, p.112). In Steward’s post-semiotic theory—which adopts some Wittgensteinian stands—language is constitutive. This understanding places humans in face of their responsibilities. Indeed if human semiosis constructs and develops the world, then this precise understanding demands that we connect proactively discourse and action to their ethical and ontological consequences (Kristeva, 1991), shifting the semiotic endeavor toward a felt endeavor with a slow-motion analysis of the grounds for human discourse and action. Critiquing discourse and action leads to a broader understanding of how human situations acquire meaning vis-à-vis larger, ethical goals.

Such endeavor would always be tentative and in process. It would go along with conception of semiotics not being able to propose structurally-fixed and fundamental constituents of meaning as they are always dialogically re-constructed and are limited to be partial representations of possible world interpretations. Critical semiotics challenges its own interpretations, applying principles such as Kristeva’s (1991): reading of signs must be complemented by a skeptical awareness of the slipperiness of meaning uses. Accessing the semiotic dimensions—which are conveyed by the enunciation style of utterances, the situational events and pragmatic struggles and their context—kindles social critique. “According to Kristeva, what society systematically represses provides clues to what is oppressive about society and how society needs to be changed. Thus, she discerns a vital ethical potential in the semiotic” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

. . . we have no knowledge a priori of how to inquire -- there can never be a time when we will know, for sure, that we are proceeding in the right way or even that there is a right way to proceed. We can only go by the evidence we have so far acquired, in faith that there is an impersonal truth, that is, a final opinion toward which an ideal inquiry would tend. The evidence that supports that faith is extensive and compelling and yet conceivably erroneous. It is shot through with uncertainty, unanswered questions, unresolved problems, and vague formulations. (Short, 2007, p.347)

My take is that there are personal truths that are perfectible and can evolve toward becoming dialogical and inter-subjective. Such stabilization of evidential faith eventually and inevitably fossilizes and requires deconstruction.


Tochon, F. V. (2009). Semiotic Inquiry or the Advent of Deep Methodologies.International Applied Semiotics Journal, special issue on “Semiotics and Educational Inquiry”.


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