Semiotics at (Social) Work

Roger Parent

The pressing challenges of cultural diversity offer fertile ground for applied research in semiotics and for exploration of its potential to bridge existing gaps between cultural theory and educational practice. For example, in its White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, the Council of Europe (2008) has pointed to the critical role of higher education and research in preparing individuals to effectively engage in intercultural dialogue and to further define “what intercultural dialogue meant in practice” (2008 5). Possible answers to this current emphasis on praxis-oriented education and research can be found in the concept of interculturality as an “emerging coherence” that attempts to “offer a theoretical framework which allows for thinking about diversity and plurality” (Abdallah-Pretceill 2006 482). Interculturality has been further defined as search for optimal learning environments by which to foster effective intercultural dialogue and exchange (Lasonen 2005).

However, with respect to semiotics, there has been stated criticism as to its value, both theoretical and methodological, for training learners to work with people of different cultures. In affirming that cultural meaning cannot be ascertained by a “mere recourse to a semiotic repertoire” (480), scholars such as Abdallah-Pretceille typify current reductionist and outdated views of this field of study and further indicate a pressing need to translate semiotics’ rich body of theoretical knowledge, especially with respect to the core concepts of culture and communication, into effective methods for intercultural learning. At first glance, semiotic-based initiatives of this nature find themselves faced with “a plethora of theories, research methodologies, and training and education models” (Milhouse 1996 69). Yet reviews of existing approaches to cross-cultural/intercultural training emphasize the continuing absence of reliable data for defining and measuring proposed learning objectives (Dinges 1983, Gibson, Zhong 2005, Welzel et al. 2003). This gap in the literature is especially prevalent regarding evaluation of “achieved learning outcomes” (Crandall et al. 2003: 588-89). Studies on modes of intercultural training and education have repeatedly attributed this shortcoming in their design and evaluation processes to the lack of an effective theoretical framework by which to work with culture (Bhawuk 1998, Black, Mendenhall 1990 115). This challenge is further complicated by changing definitions of culture as a social construction, as an ongoing and evolving process of negotiated signification and exchange.


  1. I. Applied Semiotics and Intercultural Training

Working from the assumption that semiotics might answer the current need for a theoretical model of culture and to further test its subsequent application to intercultural course design and evaluation, interdisciplinary research teams in Canada, France and Australia were set up to implement two exploratory case studies in 2007 and 2009. These studies tested a common semiotic-based training design and evaluation process that endeavoured to measure the effectiveness of semiotics for developing perceptive, cognitive and meta-cognitive faculties conducive to intercultural dialogue and exchange (Baur, Grzybeck 1989, Cunningham 1986).

Cultural semiotics and its approach to cultural analysis (Ivanov et al. 1974) provided the core objectives of the training design and targeted development of the learner’s capacity to relate cultural signs to functions within a particular cultural system. The concept of “text” (130) served as a basis for specifying the skills needed to develop projects conducive to exchange. Borrowing from Greimas’ theory on modalities and exchange, the semiotic-based design further defined the principle of exchange as “text” as a meta-narrative, thereby providing methodological principles by which learners could develop scenarios for social action and praxis. Peircean phenomenological semiotics framed the interpretive and dialogical stance taken with respect to intercultural communication and meta-communication.

In essence, the hybrid training model created by this bricolage of semiotic principles focused attention on the discipline’s creative potential and its potential for assisting learning in going beyond existing modes of signification and in renewing cultural meaning through text creation. These core principles of culture, communication, creativity and exchange formed the armature of the training design and evaluation processes. Using evaluation research methodology (Weiss 1998), these semiotic principles were then expressed in pragmatic terms, through twenty-six action-based observable outcomes and goals for a 36 hour training course. As the two case studies called for an 18 hour time frame, the piloting process targeted development and quantitative and qualitative evaluation of 11 or 12 intercultural skills.


  1. II. The Case Studies

Tools for Cultural Development was undertaken in collaboration with Queensland Health, the Center for Rural and Remote Mental Health Queensland, the University of Avignon and the American Business School in Paris between August and December, 2007.  In all, six eighteen hour training sessions were delivered, in French and English, to approximately seventy-five participants from a wide array of cultures and backgrounds. In Cairns, Australia, the three workshops facilitated through Queensland Health addressed specific clienteles. The first targeted professionals from the health sector as well as from business and media. The second workshop was given in the nearby community of Yarrabah and involved mainly Aboriginal health workers from its Suicide Prevention Team as well as community representatives and a non-Aboriginal television producer. The third workshop focused on the academic community and attracted university professors, researchers as well as senior health administrators and doctors.

The three training sessions given in France also involved participants from a wide spectrum of cultural backgrounds and languages, including French, English, Spanish and Arabic. Delivery of the course at the University of Avignon addressed two groups of graduate students, one in journalism and the other in cross-cultural education. Collaborative ties with the Institut de Gestion Sociale in Paris facilitated involvement of students in the masters program at the American Business School. The case study in Canada took place at the West Montreal Readaptation Center (WMRC) in March, 2009. Entitled Integrating Culture into Service Delivery for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities, the study aimed at contributing to the development of interdisciplinary materials and processes for evaluating the short and medium term outcomes of a semiotic-based approach to intercultural training in a professional as opposed to an academic context. The initiative involved approximately twenty human relations agents and residential managers from WMRC.


  1. III. Preliminary Findings: Quantitative Evaluation of the Case Study

The data obtained through the evaluation process aimed at measuring the short term outcomes of the workshops through the pre-course and post-course surveys. Administered on a voluntary basis, these surveys sought to obtain information as to the learners’ attitudes and opinions before and after delivery of the course. Such feedback could consequently become indicative of new avenues for improving course content and learning strategies. As the two case studies addressed a wide diversity of cultures and professional backgrounds, standards for comparison were established by using the pre-course survey as a baseline by which to measure the degree of perceived improvement.

In the French/Australian case study, analysis of data reveals that statistically significant improvement was achieved with respect to eleven of the twelve target skills. These results were obtained based on independent t-tests (p<.05) of the mean. The WMRC study showed similar results with t-test results indicating statistically significant perceived improvement by participants in relation to ten of the eleven skills evaluated.

Articles providing in-depth discussion of the theoretical and methodological foundations of the training and evaluative design used in the case studies are now under review by semiotic-journals. On-going analyses of the qualitative evaluation of the case studies through focus group interviews suggest the operational value of semiotics in fostering multi-dimensional learning at the cognitive, affective and meta-cognitive levels. It is perhaps in respect to the development of meta-cognition that semiotic theories on culture stand to make their strongest contribution to intercultural education and training in that they teach learners how “to learn how to learn about culture”. Further development of this hypothesis and of the potential, interdisciplinary value of semiotics for action-research within the wider qualitative research paradigm has been subsequently discussed in an essay on applied cultural semiotics: Résoudre des conflits de culture (Parent 2009).


For more information on these case studies, please contact:

PARENT, Roger, University of Alberta,

VARNHAGEN, Stanley, University of Alberta,

ROOT, Rhoda, West Montreal Readaptation Center & McGill University,


For more information on the semiotic design of the training, please refer to the following interview:


Abdallah-Pretceille, M. 2006. Interculturalism as a Paradigm for Thinking about

Diversity. Intercultural Education 17 (5): 475-483.

Baur, R. S.; Grzybek, P. 1989. Language teaching and semiotics. In: Koch, W. A. (ed.).

Semiotics in the Individual Sciences. Bochum: Brockmeyer, 178-213.

Bhawuk, D. P. S. 1998. The role of culture-theory in cross-cultural training: A

multi-method study of culture-specific, culture-general and culture theory-based assimilators. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 29 (5): 630-655.

Black, J. S; Mendenhall, M. 1990. Cross-Cultural Training Effectiveness:

A Review and a Theoretical Framework for Future Research. Academy of Management Review 15(1): 113-136.

Council of Europe 2008. White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue. Living Together as

Equals in Dignity.

Crandall, S. J.; Geeta, G.; Marion, G.; Davis, S. (2003). Applying Theory to

the Design of Cultural Competency Training for Medical Students. Academic Medicine 798(6): 588-594.

Cunningham, D. J. 1986. Semiotics and Education. In: Sebeok, Thomas A.; Umiker-

Sebeok, Jean (eds.). The Semiotic Web. Berlin: Mouton, 367-378.

Dinges, N. 2004. Intercultural Competence. In: Landis, D.; Brislin, R. W. (eds.)

Handbook of intercultural training, Vol. 1. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon, 176-202.

Gibson, D.; ZHONG, M. 2005. Intercultural communication competency in the

healthcare context. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 29 (5): 621-634

Ivanov, V. N.; Lotman, J. M.; Ouspenski, B. A.; Piatigorski, A. M.; Toporov, V. N. 1974.

Thèses pour  l’étude sémiotique des cultures. Sémiotique 81-84: 125-156.

Lasonen, J. 2005. Reflections on interculturality in relation to education and work.

Journal of Higher Learning Policy 18(4): 397-407.

Milhouse, V. H. 1996. Intercultural communication, education and training goals,

content and methods. Intercultural Journal of Intercultural Relations 20: 69-95.

Parent, R. 2009. Résoudre des conflits de culture. Québec : Presses de l’Université Laval.

Weiss,Carol H. 1998. Evaluation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Welzel, C.; Inglehart, R.; Klingemann, H.-D. (2003). The Theory of Human

Development: A Cross-Cultural Analysis.  European Journal of Political Research, 42 (2) 341-379.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.