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If you go into a bookshop and ask them where to find a book on semiotics you are likely to meet with a blank look.

Even worse, you might be asked to define what semiotics is - which would be a bit tricky if you were looking for a beginner's guide. The kinds of signs that are likely to spring immediately to mind are those which we routinely refer to as 'signs' in everyday life, such as road signs, pub signs and star signs.

We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeon, 'sign').

It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them.

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They study how meanings are made: as such, being concerned not only with communication but also with the construction and maintenance of reality.

It is difficult to disentangle European semiotics from structuralism in its origins; major structuralists include not only Saussure but also Claude Lvi-Strauss (b.

1908) in anthropology (who saw his subject as a branch of semiotics) and Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) in psychoanalysis.

The adoption of semiotics in Britain was influenced by its prominence in the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham whilst the centre was under the direction of the neo-Marxist sociologist Stuart Hall (director 1969-79).

Although semiotics may be less central now within cultural and media studies (at least in its earlier, more structuralist form), it remains essential for anyone in the field to understand it.

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