Semiotics Lab

Human beings employ forms of significant expression – or signs – in communicating with each other. They talk, write or gesture to each other. Through the medium of language they outline a world for themselves and others at every scale of social history. They locate others near and far in models of family, law, or polity; they find footings with each other through them. They raise and then raze monuments, institutions, norms; they prosper or perish nearby. They take part in complex multi-party activities that modify the world they encounter, or leave behind for others to encounter. These activities give transitory shape to communities, migrations, markets, nation-states, and other formulated objects that comprise the social world. When persons create, navigate, or modify these constructs, they rely on semiotic activities and artifacts that enable or disable their pursuits. A semiotic approach allows anthropologists to study a range of social phenomena – routines of interpersonal conduct, regimes of power and rank, patterns of belonging and exclusion, conceptions of nature and society, models of commerce and citizenship, and varied others – by studying the activities that make or remake them.

The Penn Semiotics Lab was founded in the year 2000 as a research unit in the Department of Anthropology. Its basic rationale is to facilitate faculty and student research, and to encourage collaborative projects among participants. The Lab’s participants include an active group of faculty and students from a variety of departments at Penn and other universities. Their interests span several fields and thematic areas in the study of language, culture and society, including spheres of education, law, sicence, medicine, business, media, religion, politics, and other aspects of human affairs. The accompanying pages illustrate a few recent projects. The Colloquia page lists themes explored in workshops, symposia and conferences. The books shown on the left are a few of the published results.