Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Educational Semiotics, Greimas, and Theory of Action

  • Eetu Pikkarainen
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_28



This entry addresses the action theoretical semiotics derived from A. J. Greimas’s theory and positions it in the context of edusemiotics. Greimas’s narratological theory is discussed and investigated in terms of its fruitfulness for education. The entry focuses on the major features of Greimas’s theory such as his famous actantial model as well as the anthropomorphic, or human- and subject-centered, approach in general. According to Greimas, at the core of the meaning of every significant discourse, there lies a typical human situation within which the actants – or entities that assume certain roles in a narrative story – function as Subject and Object, Sender and Receiver, and at times also as Helper and Opponent. Greimas’s central analytic tools, the semiotic square and the generative model, are interpreted in dynamic terms and applied to the analysis of education as a meaningful practice. These tools help us see education as a value-based action and shed a critical light on the presupposed dualism between nature and culture in the context of education. For the analysis of action, Greimas’s major concepts prove themselves to be especially useful. The conception of competences expressed, specifically, in modal verbs such as want, can, know, and must is significant for education. As such, education becomes an action that strives to develop students’ competences. In this action, the roles of teacher and student are dynamically differentiated. While a student acts as a Subject actant, a teacher acts as a Sender. The role of Sender is, however, shifting, thus defying the solely central position it assumed during the beginning and ending phases of the narrative, edusemiotic process.

Why Greimas?

A. J. Greimas (1917–1992) is one of the most important semioticians and the founder of the Paris school of semiotics (Perron and Collins 1989). Starting as a linguist specializing in semantics, he contributed to the Continental semiotics founded by Saussure and was also influenced by such important structuralists as Barthes, Levi-Straus, and Hjelmslev. He then turned to narratology by way of Propp and developed his theory in the direction of the anthropomorphic analysis of subjectivity. In Structural Semantics (Greimas 1976) he stated the famous actantial model: Subject, Object, Sender, Receiver, Helper, and Opponent. The most comprehensive, though quite a desultory, presentation of his theory is in Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary (Greimas and Courtés 1982). For Greimas, semiotics is not the study of discrete signs but rather of the continuous signification process: the articulation of meaning that takes place in the two macrosemiotic systems of natural languages and the natural world. Thus, Greimas’s theory is not restricted to the linguistic sphere. The concept of a sign as a Saussurean relatively fixed dyadic combination of content and expression is not as important to him as either the smallest signifying elements (semes) of which every sign is composed or the larger signifying wholes, meaningful expressions or discourses, which are the main research object of his semiotics. The two famous tools for semiotic analysis developed by Greimas are the semiotic square and the generative model.

Like Peirce, Greimas was striving for a theory of semiotics as empirical science using a hypothetical–deductive method with formal metalanguage. Yet he shunned metaphysical speculation and did not, in contrast to Peirce, appreciate any ontological interpretation of his theory (Greimas 1987). Gremas’s semiotics employs three levels of metalanguage. The signifying expression (the whole) is to be translated into a language of description which then must be “interpreted” in methodological language forming the second level. Thirdly, methodology must be explicated in epistemological language. This structure offers a way to keep research under conceptual control and normatively neutral.

The Semiotic Square

The semiotic square is a heuristic device suitable for analyzing both the smallest semes and the fundamental structure of discourse as a whole. Such analytic tool is based on the basic structuralist idea of binary opposition. For Saussure (1983), the meaning of a sign – a word – depends on its negative relation to other words in that it does not mean what other words mean. This relationship is not simple; one sign can differ in multiple ways from another. In Greimas’s semiotic square, there are three kinds of relations: contrary (horizontal, incremental, inclusive, permissive), contradictory (diagonal, absolute, exclusive, negation), and complementary (vertical, conditional, presupposing). The term under investigation is placed in the upper-left corner and, if some other terms can be placed in other corners, then its “meaning” is known! (Fig. 1). For example, if the sign being studied (S1) is masculinity, then the contrary term (S2) would be femininity and a contradictory one would be non-masculinity, which is the complementary term to femininity; respectively, non-masculinity is complementary to femininity. It is important to acknowledge that there is a dynamic model built into the semiotic square; a sign (or thing) can change to the contrary only via negation: from S1 you can get to S2 only via non-S1.
Educational Semiotics, Greimas, and Theory of Action, Fig. 1

The semiotic square

The Generative Model and Values

The generative model is a process–structure used to analyze a discourse as a whole by differentiating between its deep and surface structures. The deepest level represents the fundamental value structure analyzed with the semiotic square. At the semio-narrative level, the Subject interacts with other actants, eliciting action motivated by the fundamental value structure. This surface level is still abstract. All the concrete details, such as individual actors, their features, and time and space relations, appear at the third discursive level. As a heuristic device, Greimas’s model does not claim to be realistic; rather, it depicts metaphorically the creation of meaning from an abstract idea to the concrete story or expression: from surface to depth. The fundamental, or basic, values can be individual or social, depending on the type of discourse. If the discourse belongs to idiolects (i.e., its meaning is individually based), then the basic value structure is Life vs. Death. The basic values of sociolect (or collective) discourses are Culture vs. Nature. These values can be positioned in a semiotic square, and it can be seen that the value balance can be shaken if the other is negated to contradiction. For example, in the folkloric fairy tale as a traditional subject matter of research in narratology, when a dragon steals the Princess, this manifests a negation of Culture to Non-Culture, eliciting a strong axiological evaluation: Culture is good, Nature is bad. This imbalance of values is the motivation for the Sender actant, the King, to send the Subject actant, the Prince (usually a foreigner), to negate Nature by killing the dragon and to return Culture to its safe position by rescuing the Princess. The actants’ actions can be analyzed as narrative programs and schemas, for which Greimas developed the formal metalanguage of description.

Modality and Competence

Greimas’s crucial theoretical invention, from the point of view of edusemiotics, is the conception of modalities, specifically related to the concept of competence. The modality is something which modalizes or transforms one sign into another. The basic modalities are being and doing, which reciprocally modalize each other. The easier case is doing, which means causing something to be. Doing causes a change in the properties of an Object, so it causes this object to be other than it was before, and thus it modalizes its being. Reciprocally, the being of the Subject modalizes its doings. A particular kind of being – certain properties of the Subject which cause or make it possible for it to do something – is competence. Greimas discussed education, and specifically didactics, as an activity that edifies the competence of the student (Greimas 1979). Even more important for the study and practice of education are modal competences, which refer to the idea expressed in natural language by modal verbs: want, can, know, and must. These modalities also serve as the keys to the semiotics of passions (Greimas and Fontanille 1992).

The concept of competence can be compared to the ontological concept of disposition. The possible properties of any being are often divided in two categories: dispositions and qualities. The latter are regular features like size, color, height, weight, etc. Dispositions – such as fragility – are strange, however, because they are not at all perceivable and manifest only in certain situations. Fragility manifests only when the fragile being breaks. Often a disposition is then also gone. Dispositions are important because all the dynamics of being seems to be based on them. A helpful way to see the relation between dispositions and qualities is that they are just two sides of the same coin. The manifestation of any quality is based on a disposition of being, and any disposition can manifest in a certain situation. Just as the way that any being manifests qualitatively and quantitatively in its environment is based on its dispositions, the Subject’s action is based on its competences (Pikkarainen 2014).

The Structure of Education

How can the meaning of education as a practice be analyzed using Greimassian tools? Contemporary education has a sociolectal rather than idiolectal character, even though it includes idiolectal meanings (especially from the students’ viewpoint). The basic tension of modern pedagogy, known after Kant as the pedagogical paradox, is the tension between freedom as a goal of education and coercion as its means. Complementary to this is the tension between an individual and society as a whole. These two dimensions form a cross-table of four areas or principles. Two of these principles are rather traditional content and expression, stemming from the days of Fichte and Herbart. The first is a student’s ability for growth as a natural feature, referred to as perfectibility by Rousseau and plasticity by Dewey. The second is the demand by educators for autonomous action from their students. These are still individual principles. The social side encompasses the principle of contextuality or the effect of prevailing culture on education, hopefully eliciting a better future for society (Mollenhauer 2014).

An analysis of the basic values of education is beneficial at this point. The strongly one-sided axiological evaluation of the value structures of discourses typical to archaic folklore is problematic in the context of contemporary education. The paradoxical tensions in education suggest that one cannot choose either side – Nature vs. Culture – or even strive for harmony between them, because the essence of modern education is based precisely on the dynamic contradiction between them as informed (even if implicitly) by Cartesian dualism between body and mind. Therefore, positioning the abovementioned principles of the theory of pedagogical action in the corners of the semiotic square is appropriate (Fig. 2). The individual growth–ability (the presupposed competences) represents Nature, the demand for autonomous action (teaching) represents Non-Nature, contextuality represents the prevailing Culture, and a better future represents Non-Culture. According to this analysis, there is in education a double-dialectical process where the negation of Nature (e.g., discipline) makes cultural existence possible and the negation of Culture (e.g., critical education) makes natural existence possible. This dialectic assists in resolving the problem between dichotomized views of education as a tool to radically transform society and also as a tool to secure the cultural status quo.
Educational Semiotics, Greimas, and Theory of Action, Fig. 2

Semiotic square of education

The Role of the Teacher

In order to construct a semio-narrative actantial structure of pedagogical action, some classical Greimassian conceptions are to be revisited. One concerns the actantial roles: Who is the Hero in (as a Subject of) educational process? If teacher or educator is the Subject, then what is the role of the student, and vice versa? The canonical narrative schema of a Subject posits a sequence of acts or the Subject’s trajectory consisting of three trials or tests: qualifying, decisive, and glorifying. In the first test, or manipulation, the Sender evaluates the competence of the Subject and makes an initial contract. In the second test, called performance, the Subject, who acts according to their competence and the initial contract, tries to solve the problem. In the third test, called sanction, the Sender/Receiver evaluates the competence of the Subject according to their accomplishments and either accepts or rejects them. Hence, the student is the Subject, and the teacher is the Sender. However, from the edusemiotic perspective, the teacher is also subject to analysis in terms of teaching and evaluation, thus becoming both a Sender and a sent Subject trying to advance and protect the Culture (now attuned with Nature) by developing students’ competences.

Educators aim to affect the future actions of students by causing changes to their competences. Competence is a strange property: it is not directly perceivable but can only be inferred and assumed according to the perceivable action of the Subject. The evaluation of competence is thus complex. To affect someone’s competence is even more complex. Three ways to change a Subject’s competence can be posited: by pure chance, with no special or known reason; by means of biological maturation, or decay, or physical injury as causally effable properties; and by learning wherein competence changes along with the actions of Subjects. The only efficient way to affect students’ competence, therefore, is for teachers to make them do something by sending them to perform (Pikkarainen 2010).

Action, Learning, and Teaching

Greimas describes action as merely a sequence of narrative programs or individual acts where an actant causes something to be. Formally, a narrative program is expressed as A1 > (A2 and Ov); this can be read in terms of Actant 1 causing Actant 2 to get a value-object, i.e., some property. This sequence is in line with the classical analytic theory of action. In action theoretical semiotics, however, action is understood broadly as a continuous circular interaction between Subjects and their environment. Such a circle includes reciprocal effects: The deeds or narrative programs travel from the Subject to the environment. As a recursive feedback from the environment, perceptions travel to the Subject. Also, external and internal actions are differentiated, with the latter referring to the Subject’s thinking in terms of planning deeds and evaluating perceptions and the former as perceivable by an observer. The deeds affect the objects in the environment, but the internal action is not effable to an observer. Both spheres of action cause, or can cause, some changes to the competence of the Subject. If and when people act, they always learn something. There are no strict laws about what kind of learning follows from particular kinds of action, yet it can be assumed that doing X will develop the competence of something more or less similar to X.

Teaching thus becomes action when and where one is trying to make another person do something that would cause the latter to learn what needs to be learned. Even though the two actors can be one person (as in the case of self-education), the same questions arise: How can someone know which competences are possessed and which are still needed? Exactly what needs to be done to obtain the needed competence and how can this be achieved? While some of these problems can be partially solved by the curriculum, educators need to develop interpretive skills as a province of edusemiotics so that they can fully tackle their tasks.

Modal Dynamics and the Levels of Learning

Modal competences affect our actions and our learning in a certain structural way. Unlike Greimas’s semiotic square, the structure presented here can be drafted as a circle. The natural starting point for the analysis of the circular structure is the modality of want. Action is always elicited by some kind of wanting to do, or to get, something. The next modality is can, which may be realized or not. If it is realized, then the Subject gets what is desired, but often the trial remains unsuccessful. Both successful and unsuccessful trials in different environments will lead to some kind of knowledge, which would then increase the probability of success. The last modality is must, which directly affects wanting as a kind of second-order relation. Secondly, the various levels of learning can be differentiated. The lowest level is connected with the material striving for self-maintenance and survival: learning here is pragmatic. The nature of the must modality is peculiar to this level and can be expressed in the technical, “if…then,” terms: if you want X, then you must do Y. The second, and very broad, level is social learning, where complex collections of actants participate in different actions. Here, the Subject must take into account the other ways of wanting and acting expressed by all members of society, and the must modality can become a form of social norm. At this level, the language develops that creates a special area of shared and public knowledge. This, in turn, leads to the third and highest existential level of learning. This is the level at which human Subjects develop proper conscience, i.e., a sense of individual and universal moral responsibility. Edusemiotics not only reconceptualizes Greimas’s theory but also calls for the continual research into the modalities of competence that enhance learning and ensure ethical relations between teachers, students, and larger environments.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OuluOuluFinland