Urban Semiotics Methods – Part I

Many of us experience the city almost solely as a physical presence: even the people who live and work there tend to be perceived as bodies, part of that physical presence, and it is their speaking and communicating with one another that sustains the human life of the city and indeed the material city itself.

Yi-Fu Tuan, 1994, page 145


In 2008 while working on an archive project as a project assistant for the Center for 21st Century Studies at UW-Milwaukee, I came across a series of lectures which examined something called Semiotics, a term that I was unfamiliar with. For example, in 1975, Thierry Kuntzel gave a seminar on “Semiotics of Film.” When I read this title I thought this term was exclusive to theatre and just recorded the event and moved on.  But then I came across someone named Umberto Eco who gave a lecture titled “Towards a Semiotics of Performance” in the fall of 1976. In fact, 1976 seemed a watershed for discussions on semiotics at the Center as I noted that there was a workshop in the fall symposium centered on this concept. As serendipity would have it, I ran into the term around this same time once more in a book written by Dick Hebdige (1979) in which he too used and described the term.

While developing my research proposal for my dissertation, I struggled greatly to operationalize what was in my head regarding the role of culture in social space. I was interested in entering the discourse of social disorganization theory, and I perceived the main issue with the scholarly development was cultural.  That is, culture seemed to be a glaring omission or was merely reduced to some questionable variables that could not capture the complex role culture has in influencing the behavior of social groups.

The Broken Windows Thesis and Collective Efficacy (what I have come to define as the two contemporary theories of social disorganization) attempt to define behavior in terms of the impact of the environment. Broken Windows posits that environmental cues suggest to those with criminal intent that crime is tolerated in areas in which norms are not maintained. These cues are reduced to signals of disorder, such as the failure to maintain lawns, garbage, abandoned cars, etc. Collective Efficacy, on the other hand, suggests that the mutual trust and maintenance of norms reduced the likelihood of crime. In a sense, the two theories conflict over whether the issue is “top down” (broken windows which emphasizes the cues) or “bottom up” (collective efficacy which emphasizes the agency of the users of space). Which is it? Why are these interpretations so different?

I suggest that understanding the role of culture will ameliorate some of the tension between these competing hypotheses. A close examination of the role of culture in society leaves one with a sense that it really is an important component in our daily lives. We learn how to survive from culture. We learn our social rules from culture. And cultural cues impact the way we see and negotiate the world. If you lived your entire life in one region of the world and then travelled to another region you may seem lost or confused – you might encounter a condition known as culture shock. Interestingly, culture shock is something that can occur at various distances, from merely going into an unfamiliar neighborhood in the city, to entering an unfamiliar city, etc. Beginning at birth and through our lifecourse, we learn a kind of schemata, and when we encounter cues which conflict with this learned schemata, it can create a great deal of confusion, and it can lead to deleterious effects.

With this in mind, how does one examine the role of culture in space? How can I literally examine how cues can shape the behavior of social groups? And if I can develop this, how might it be reconciled in terms of social disorganization theory? These were the questions which truly haunted me after my proposal defense, because these were the real questions that I was bringing forth in my intellectual sojourn.

As I kept centering on these questions I came to the stark realization that I was ready to make a reorientation of my dissertation. I knew it would an enormous and risky undertaking, but it was really the only thing that made sense given that the center of my interest lay in understanding the role of environmental cues. After attempting to write a methods chapter for my dissertation I was finally convinced that I had to seriously return to the notional drawing board and understand a little more about what the role of environmental cues really was. Serendipity struck me once again as I was shifting some papers in my apartment; the page which addressed Dick Hebdige’s point about semiotics opened on a copy of my research proposal. I looked up the term semiotics in Google and initially thought this was what my undergrad advisor Darl Champion once warned me against: chasing rabbits in a hole. Just as I was ready to give up, I ran across a strain of semiotics called urban semiotics. As I read this literature, the world began to open up to me.

The purpose of this essay is to consider the role of urban semiotics in terms of urban studies.


About Scott Canevit

PHD student at UW-Milwaukee in Urban Studies. View all posts by Scott Canevit

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