Keynote Speakers – Theo van Leeuwen

Theo van Leeuwen is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Southern Denmark, Emeritus Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Honorary Professor at Lancaster University and the University of New South Wales. He has published widely in the areas of visual communication, multimodality, and critical discourse analysis and was a founding editor of the journals Social Semiotics and Visual Communication. Books include Speech, Music, Sound; Multimodal Discourse -The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication (with Gunter Kress); Introducing Social Semiotics; Discourse and Practice; The Language of Colour; Visual and Multimodal Research in Organization and Management Studies (with Markus Höllerer and others), The Materiality of Writing (with Christian Johannessen), the 3rd revised edition of Reading Images – The Grammar of Visual Design (with Gunther Kress) and Multimodality and Identity.

Some principles of social semiotics


The approach to social semiotics introduced by Halliday (e.g. 1978) traces its origins, not to Saussure or Peirce, but to Malinowski (1923, 1935) who introduced two concepts that became crucial in social semiotics, ‘context of situation’ and ‘context of culture.’ Malinowski saw language as inextricably intertwined with situational contexts, with practical activities as well as with narrative and ritual practices, and he broadened his definition of language to include “not only spoken words but also facial expression, gesture, bodily activities, the whole group of people present during an exchange of utterances and the environment in which these people are engaged” (1935: 22)

Social semiotics therefore foregrounds practices. While many linguists and semioticians have described language as a layered structure (‘stratification’), Kress and van Leeuwen (2001), inspired by Goffman (1981), focus not on ‘language’, but on embodied, material and multimodal semiotic practices, including speech and writing. Particularly important is Malinowski’s emphasis on recontextualization. He described how practices are recontextualized in stories about these practices enacted in the different context of storytelling, which introduces a different set of semiotic resources and a different social purpose, “justifying the social order” and “regulating conduct in relation to hunger, sex, economic values” (1935: 7). These stories, in turn, were recontextualized in what he called ‘the language of ritual and magic’, the verbal acts that express concepts and values that are foundational in the culture and therefore “exercise a powerful influence on social organizing” (1935: 9). Equally important, finally, is Malinowski’s concept of ‘context of culture’, “the whole cultural history behind the kind of practices [people] are engaging in, determining their significance for the culture, whether practical or ritual”, as Halliday has summarized it (Halliday and Hasan, 1985: 6).

The lecture will show how these principles can be applied to the analysis of the practices and products of the health promotion team of an organization working in the area of sexual and reproductive health promotion and health care, with particular emphasis on their use of visual communication.

Goffman, E. (1981) Forms of Talk. Oxford: Blackwell

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as social semiotic. London: Arnold

Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan, R. (1985) Language, context, and text. Geelong: Deakin University Press

Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T. (2001) Multimodal Discourse – The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold

Malinowski, B. (1923) Supplement 1. The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages.  In C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’ The Meaning of Meaning. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 296-336

Malinowski, B. (1935) Coral Gardens and their Magic. Vol II. London: Allen and Unwin

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