Communication Science vs. Semiotics

Communication Science vs. Semiotics

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Communication Science vs. Semiotics


Marcel Danesi says that "communication theorists generally focus more on the study of message-making as a process, whereas semioticians center their attention more on what a message means and on how it creates meaning" (Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics, 1994). He implies that both communication science and semiotics are systematic studies of signs. Interestingly, Danesi comments that semiotics studies signification first and communication second.

Danesi's definitions and distinctions about communication science and semiotics captured my interest because of the way he draws the line between to areas of study that are very closely related. In this paper I will try to elaborate on those differences. I have to admit that until now I am not completely convinced about the way to distinguish among semiotics and communication science. However, I believe that it is worth the effort. Reflection about these topics will help me and possibly the reader to understand them better.

We are in broad information age. The handling of information is definitely the main commercial activity of our days. We are all consumers of information at different levels. Most of us also have to either manage, process, market, deliver or sell information as a way of living. Information is wrapped in all kinds of packages, or better said it is delivered through all kinds of media. All kinds of messages are delivered to all kinds of audiences.

Information is the core element of communication science and probably of semiotics as well. I consider information to be the raw material for message construction and the creation of meaning. Signs are a collection of bits and pieces of information. Information is what we decipher from signs. Notice that decoding has to be performed because some sort of coding is always a part of the "creation" of a sign. Even iconic signs which are "a direct representation of a referent" as defined by Danesi, have to be encoded in order to make them deliverable through any given medium.

Let us take for example a flower as a referent. An iconic representation of a flower could be a hand drawing, a painting or a color picture. From the least iconic (the drawing) to the most iconic (the color picture) representation coding of information (i.e. shape, texture, color) is necessary to create a sign. A perfume that smells "like" a flower is also an iconic representation of the real object.

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Think about all the chemical processes required to “encode” the smell of a flower into another substance.

Nothing comes to our mind that has not been through our senses (J.A. Comenius, 1592-1670). This statement is representative of the importance of the other crucial element of communication, perception. For most human beings (aside from psychics) our five senses are our only connection with all real objects and signs inside and outside our bodies. What Comenius means by his statement is that there would be no communication or meaning creation if information was not perceived through our senses. I believe that as long as perception is such an important component of the communication process it has to be viewed as one of the variables that affect our own acquisition and further interpretation of information.

Communication is defined as the transfer of information from a source to a receiver. The goal of a communicator is to accomplish this process efficiently and effectively. Hence, communication theorists are committed to find and provide models by which communication can be enhanced. The challenge is to come up with the right combination of codes, media, and contexts in order to make the transfer of information fast, cost effective, and accurate. This process cannot be separated from the fact that humans are the ones that decode the information they receive through a particular medium in a specific context and make meaning out of it. This is where semiotics comes into play.

Semiotics as it is roughly defined by Danesi is the "science or doctrine that studies signs". As I previously mentioned Danesi states that semiotics studies signification first and communication second. I am inclined to believe that what he meant with that statement is that the main focus of semiotics is to study signification. Communication is a secondary topic to semioticians. As well as communication theorists have their own agenda, semioticians are more concerned about the essence of meaning making.

I see more a stitch than a line between communication science and semiotics. As an educator and instructional materials producer I consider myself a communicator as well (aren't we all?). Learning about semiotics has made me realize that there is a formal field of study from which I as a communicator can draw significant information useful for message design and creation.

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