In the tradition of structuralist semiology, the sign, as an arbitrary combination of a signifier and a signified, has no grounding in reality but instead mediates reality—a fundamental axiom that underlies the late Jean Baudrillard's poststructuralist proposition that the modern era, which he refers to as a society of the Sign, has lost touch with reality and is instead situated in a hyperreality constituted by an endless "precession" of simulacra: signs without content. Given the prestige of poststructuralist semiology, I find it useful, from time to time, to explain how the practice of cultural semiotics (the distinction between "semiology"—the term Ferdinand de Saussure used for the science of the sign—and "semiotics"—the term C.S. Peirce used for his reality-grounded studies of signs—is deliberate here) differs from the poststructuralist view, especially in its position on the relationship between the sign and reality.
To put it succinctly, from the point of view of cultural semiotics, human behavior is not only a grounding reality for semiotic meaning; it is semiotic in itself. Every action, every behavior, every phenomenon, is a sign whose meaning becomes apparent when situated within a system of associations and differences. In this sense, cultural semiotics is profoundly empirical: it takes the concrete stuff of experience as its ground for interpretation. Unlike structural and poststructural semiology, cultural semiotics does not regard the realities of lived experience as mediated simulacra; instead, it begins with concrete experience and phenomena and abductively interprets their significance.
Thus, what people do can often be more reliable semiotically than what they say (though speech acts, too, are acts). This becomes especially apparent when considering the common gaps between public opinion polls and actual voting records. As pollsters know, to their cost, people often respond to surveys in the way that they think the surveyor wants them to respond, or in ways that they think make them look best. But their actions, in the privacy of a voting booth, can be dramatically at odds with their words. Thus, while there is nothing to exclude conducting surveys as part of a semiotic analysis, surveys are not a necessary part of the interpretation.
Over the years I have collected a number of examples of this discrepancy between what people say about their behavior and the more likely meanings of their actions. Many years ago, to take one example, I noticed that my students were pretty much all wearing athletic shoes (Nikes for preference) with the shoelaces untied. I asked them why, and they said, “because it is too much trouble to tie shoelaces.”
I knew, of course, what the real motivation was. This was in the era when urban street styles were being widely coopted by suburban youth, and my students were trying to look “cool” according to the fashion codes of the day. But I joked with them, saying that if the reason they gave was the real reason, they’d be better off wearing loafers. The fact that they were also wearing their baseball caps backwards at a time when this was also a highly visible component of the urban street code—a practice that actually had a very specific meaning that my students were completely unaware of—supported my interpretation that what was going on was really a part of a long history of white American youth adopting the cultural codes of black Americans in order to express their defiance of adult authority (“attitude” was the preferred descriptor at the time).
My very wealthy students (at that time) even went so far as to distribute specially made baseball caps in the school colors for the graduating senior class to wear at their commencement in order to express this defiance. At the moment of the announcement that the class had graduated, they all turned their caps backwards in a parody of the mortar board tassel shifting ritual of traditional commencements. Their class president had a particularly defiant look on his face at the time. In short, it wasn’t what they said about their behavior that explained it; it was the meaning of their behavior as interpreted within a concrete system of associations and differences. But the behavior was the grounding sign—a real world, not a hyperreal fantasia of mere simulacra.