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Cultural Anthropology

February, 2022


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BY Katyanna Horvath
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The ICA (Institute for Cultural Anthropology) is the semi-scientific journal of Itiwana, study association Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the Leiden University. The ICA appears twice a year.

External Authors

Oliver Balch, Mari-Liis Madisson, Andreas Ventsel, Jesamine Mello, Foteini Tsigoni, Anders Björkvall, Pamela Cummins, Laura Oswald

The editors reserve the right to shorten and edit articles or not to post them. Acquisition of (parts of) articles is only permitted after consultation with the editors.

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Text editors Bente Heydelberg, Jelmer Sijperda, Saika Nishikawa     

Media editors Marthe Baalbergen, Katyanna Horvath

Editor in Chief Marthe Baalbergen



Marthe Baalbergen

Marthe is a second year Anthropology Student and is the Communications Officer in the current Itiwana Board. She is the Editor in Chief for the ICA and loves to Paint and to Travel

Communication is often seen as having a conversation. We speak with each other, in other words; we convey our thoughts through words so the other person will understand what we try to say. But do we actually only use our ears to pick up the message? Do we not also look at the expression on the person's face; do we not look at what kind of clothes this person is wearing; do we not look at where we are standing at that moment? Everything makes us understand the conversation. So, we do not only speak through words, we also speak through signs.


Symbols are also using the language of signs. They can be the ADIDAS logo on our clothes; the alphabet of our language; and the vegan label on our food. All these symbols are used by people to communicate something to someone else. But this can only work when the meaning is understood by both the giver and the receiver. For example; when you walk through Leiden, you can see the keys everywhere. On the bridge; in shops; at the gate. The keys are what represent Leiden, and when people see it, they will immediately associate it with Leiden. But this will only work if you had been told that the keys are connected to Leiden.

Symbols are often connected with the concept of culture because it is a way to present culture. And when we study these symbols, it is called; semiotics. We, as anthropologists, are very familiar with this study. On the Wikipedia page, we are described as: “Anthropologists also use semiotics to study the significance of folktales and rituals in specific cultures”. In this issue of the ICA, we will dive deeper into the understanding of some of these symbols. I hope you are going to enjoy it!


Faceless Inc
Why it's time for corporations to step out of the shadows

By Oliver Balch

Corporations, as their lawyers are invariably anxious to prove, are constituted as legal fictions. This is a handy sleight of hand, enabling them to operate seamlessly across borders, extract the benefits of human labour, and pay tax if and where they please.

But being effectively excused from the responsibilities to which we, as citizens, as workers, as parents, as neighbours, are obliged to face comes at a cost. And that cost is facelessness.

‘Wall St.’, ‘The City’, ‘Big Business’, ‘Multinational’, ‘Ltd.’, ‘Inc.’, all are terms that evoke a grey, drab uniformity. In as much as they have personalities attached, they are invariably negative. The sub-title of Joel Bakan’s 2003 classic text The Corporation sums it up perfectly: “The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.”

For some companies, blandness works. If you’re flogging automotive parts to an Asian OEM (Google it: anonymity in a nutshell) or, worse, military equipment to an African petrostate, then blending into the background represents a positive.

But for consumer-facing brands, lacking a face spells disaster. The manufacturers of mass consumable products want us, their target audience, to connect with them. When we look at their spaghetti sauce on the shelf or their hatchback on the forecourt, sensations need to be triggered inside us. ‘Trustworthy’, ‘safe’, ‘caring’, ‘sexy’. The more positive and evocative the connotation, the better. 

Welcome to the multi-billion-dollar world of marketing and advertising. Way before Mad Men, companies have been embossing their products with symbols and images in the hope of catching our eye. Think of some of the world’s most famous icons – the Coke swirl, the McDonald’s arches, the Adidas stripes, the Nike tick, the Apple (well…) apple. All are instantly recognisable; memorable differentiators in a sea of sameness.

But do they have personality? That’s the key question in today’s age of fast-moving fashions, TikTok-like trends, and, most importantly, values-driven purchasing. Young people especially want their money to have a positive impact. They aren’t stupid. They know the corporation as a legal fiction is itself a lie. People work in their back offices, in their supply chains, in their delivery trucks. The shopper may never see them, but we know they are there.

Hence, the recent explosion of purpose-led advertising. Think of it as semiotics with a smile. Brands want to be one of the gang, to be ‘down with the kids’. They want to be our pal, our fellow citizen, even our yardstick for what’s right (or, pray no, what’s woke). Anything but a flat, friendless non-entity.

Imbuing a brand with purpose is notoriously difficult. The examples of big companies falling flat on their face (figuratively speaking, naturally) are legion. Famously, the British oil and gas major BP once tried re-pitching the origin of its acronymic name from British Petroleum to ‘Beyond Petroleum’. And this from one of the largest fossil-fuel firms on the planet. Really? 


But there are good examples out there too. A landmark example is the "Like a Girl'' campaign run by women's hygiene brand Always. The ad powerfully evokes the effect of gender stereotyping on adolescent girls. It ends with a call to show that "doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing." The ad racked up over 37m views on YouTube in its first month. Nike's 'Find Your Greatness' campaign and Dove's 'Real Beauty' series have met with similar success.

Advertisers prodding their audiences to emote is nothing new. Beer brands have become synonymous with making us laugh. Others, like Benetton, are masters in shocking us. What's different today is the explicit use of social causes to stir our hearts and activate our tear ducts.

Why the shift? In part, because social and environmental issues are increasingly important to us. We’re more ready to reward companies with good eco credentials or happy workers, just as we are to boycott the ‘baddies’. Competition also plays its part. Modern brands operate in an incredibly crowded market. Cool labels are two a penny, but how many can genuinely touch our hearts? Answer: precious few.

To repeat: consumers aren’t stupid. When we see an on-pack label or a billboard promise, we all know deep down that we’re being played. But, for the most part, we’re happy co-conspirators. It’s not just brands that want to connect with us; we want to connect with them. 

But, for the most part, we’re happy co-conspirators. It’s not just brands that want to connect with us; we want to connect with them

We drop €2o0 on a jacket and we like to think that some of that till receipt is finding its way back to a seamstress in Bangladesh. We buy a pack of free-range eggs and we relist the image of a chicken hopping across an open field.

If such images link back to real life, then great. All is well with the world and consumer capitalism can continue on its merry way, with us its loyal accomplices. If they are not, then we have a problem. We can’t greenwash our way to a sustainable planet or advertise our way to a fair society.

Images matter. Companies are too powerful to operate in the shadows. They need to step out and show their face. Not some manufactured avatar, pimped up for our values-hungry age. We want to see their real face. So, the farmers who make their carrots or cotton; the suppliers who make their microchips; and the waste disposal teams who clear their trash.

It's a whacky idea, but not an impossible one. If Coke can track every can in its logistics chain, it can introduce us to some of the folk behind its brand. In an age of real-time digital communications, radical transparency is easier than ever. If companies want to connect, then it’s time to take off the mask.




Oliver Balch

Oliver Balch is a British independent journalist specialising in business and society. He writes for a range of UK and international publications, including The Guardian, The Times, and the Financial Times

Social Semiotics and the Motivated Sign
The destruction of election posters

by Anders Björkvall

Theories of meaning-making


One of the key aspects of classic, structuralist semiotics is the assumption of arbitrariness of the semiotic sign. Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of modern linguistics, calls arbitrariness the “first principle” of signs (de Saussure, 2013, p. 78). This principle rests on the assumption that the sign has two parts: the signifier and the signified. The former is the expression of the latter: /shop/, in English, is the signifier that expresses the meaning (that is, the signified) ‘a place in which goods are sold’. It is the relation between these two that is arbitrary; the meaning of ‘a place in which goods are sold’ could have been expressed by any other combination of sounds or letters than /shop/, as long the community in which the meaning-making takes place agrees upon the choice of signifiers.


Still highly valid for many semiotic systems, and perhaps for language in particular, this view of absolute arbitrariness of semiotic signs has been challenged. Even before Saussure presented his theory, Charles Sanders Peirce suggested a typology consisting of three types of signs that are arbitrary only to various degrees: symbolic, indexical and iconic signs (Peirce, 1998, pp. 13–18). Even though not further discussed here, Pierce’s approach is definitely worth looking into for any researcher interested in the relation between signs, culture and society. 

The present article introduces another semiotic theory that takes the rejection of arbitrariness even further. Social semiotic theory was originally developed by the British-Australian linguist M.A.K. Halliday (1978). Halliday himself was primarily interested in language and grammar, and he was inspired by the functional anthropology of Malinowski. Halliday described how language, just as any other semiotic system, is driven by and develops through its social functions in various contexts. From the 1980s onwards, social semiotics has developed concepts and methods for interpreting and analyzing a wide range of texts, artifacts and meaning-making practices (Hodge and Kress, 1988; Kress and van Leeuwen, 2021; van Leeuwen, 2005). In particular, social semiotics has explored how communicative systems – semiotic modes – such as writing, color, music and image are combined. Multimodality has become a field of research in its own right, which also includes many other approaches than social semiotics (cf. Bateman et al. 2017; Jewitt, 2015; Kress, 2010, and the new academic journal Multimodality & Society).

The motivated sign


In a social semiotic approach, meaning-making is viewed less as an instance of someone picking signs with more or less fixed meanings from a given system of signs, but more as a process in which a sign-maker uses resources for meaning-making (called semiotic resources) that they find most appropriate for making the meanings they want to make at a specific time, place, and in a specific context. This way, the semiotic sign is continuously re-created and always motivated in relation to the interest of sign-makers (Kress, 2010). In contrast to a Saussurean view of the sign, signs are always fragmented and subject to re-negotiations in social semiotics. And they are motivated rather than arbitrary. 


Still, the signs and resources for meaning-making are not indefinite but depend on what is available to a specific sign-maker through their specific (sub)culture, previous experiences and knowledge. A 45-year-old political activist deeply engaged in issues of immigration and human rights might have access to different semiotic resources than a 9-year-old tennis player, even if they live in the same neighborhood.

The destruction of election posters on a local billboard


Social semiotic analysis can be illustrated by an example of complex sign-making, in which the distinction between the creation of a message (which is usually the focus of semiotics) and its destruction (or re-design) is in focus, and in which several layers of meaning-making materials are involved. Figure 1 shows a billboard with a number of election posters from the Swedish right-wing party the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna). Put briefly, the Sweden Democrats want to reduce immigration to Sweden and they are a nationalist political party ( The billboard in Figure 1 was located on the Swedish island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea, and includes a number of election posters showing the face of the party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, to the lower right, and probably a number of local politicians. It is difficult to tell what the exact messages are on the original election posters since somebody has covered them with black and white paint.

he semiotic action that has taken place in Figure 1 can be described as destruction of election posters, something that has increased during recent years in Scandinavia, and which is sometimes described as a threat to the democratic dialogue: political parties whose election posters are systematically destroyed during election campaigns do not have the same opportunity to get their message through in public spaces. Another view, of course, is that the image in Figure 1 shows the result of a democratic dialogue: messages of political opponents are responded to, or re-designed, by those who do not agree.


A brief social semiotic analysis of the meaning-making in Figure 1 focuses on the following aspects:

  • the interests of the sign-makers

  • the semiotic modes and resources that they have found most adequate for making the meanings they want to make in this particular context.


To start with, the Sweden Democrats’ interest is probably to make their political messages as salient and visible as possible for the voters of Gotland. In this endeavor, they make use of traditional semiotic modes such as writing with condensed, slogan-like messages (‘the whole of Gotland should live’/”hela Gotland ska leva”) and photos of persons that meet the eyes of the viewers passing by. In other words, they are using the signifiers from the field of political communication that they found most apt for making the meanings that they want to make. 


But there is also semiotic counteraction: the destruction of the messages of the Sweden Democrats. One of the obvious interests of the counteractive sign-maker is to remove the political messages of the Sweden Democrats from the public space in which the billboard is placed. Thus, the choice of semiotic modes and resources is not that of a linguistic message, a logo, or an image, but that of predominantly black paint. This, of course, is a motivated semiotic choice serving the interest of the sign-maker: black paint can cover any previous messages quite well. The meaning being produced here is that the messages of the Sweden Democrats are so repulsive or threatening that they need to be covered and made unreadable.

However, if ‘covering’ were the sole purpose of this semiotic act it would have been more apt to cover the entire billboard with black paint. But the meaning-maker seems to have a more sublime interest than just covering; the black paint is complemented by the use of other semiotic resources, or other signifying materials: shapes and white paint. There are rounded, soft corners of the black paint, enforced by using contrastive white paint. In terms of cultural connections, these shapes relate the covering up of the election posters to graffiti, with associations of, among many other things, disorderly behavior – a message quite opposite to that of the highly conservative ideology of the Sweden Democrats. 

This, of course, is a motivated semiotic choice serving the interest of the sign-maker: black paint can cover any previous messages quite well.



Figure 1. Sweden Democrats, election posters on billboard (, published with permission from the Sweden Democrats, Gotland)

Further, there may be other motivations for the choice of white paint and rounded shapes here. Possibly, the two rightmost circles of paint in Figure 1 can be interpreted as representations of Mickey Mouse. From the perspective of the ‘destructive’ sign-maker, are the ideology and politics of the Sweden Democrats Disney-like?


It can also be noted that the semiotic struggle between sign-makers does not end with the black and white paint. The ladder is up; new election posters are presumably soon covering the paint, which was also confirmed on the webpage of the Sweden Democrats (author’s translation from original Swedish): ‘SD’s election posters were damaged on a daily basis, but as soon as they were destroyed we posted new ones.’ (


To sum up, the billboard in Figure 1 contains traces of semiotic acts of various kinds, very few of which rely on fixed and uniform meanings. Instead, the billboard can be viewed as a collection of traces of meaning-making as part of social practices and interests of social groups in society at a specific time and place. Social semiotics offers tools and perspectives for researchers interested in above all meaning-making as social and cultural practice. The focus on situated, concrete meaning making practices also makes the theory somewhat compatible with ethnographic and anthropological research interests. At least, the structure of signs, texts and other communicative artefacts is never allowed to overshadow what persons actually do with them in situated acts of meaning-making. This allows for dialogues between social semiotics, the broader field of multimodality, ethnography (Flewitt, 2011) and anthropology (Moretti, 2021). It also encourages the semiotic study of complex social phenomena such as destruction of texts and artefacts in political contexts, because “the social” is always at the core of social semiotic inquiry.


Anders Björkvall

Anders Björkvall is professor of Swedish at Örebro University, Sweden. He has a PhD in Scandinavian languages from Stockholm University. Anders’s research revolves around meaning-making in different contexts, and he has published books, articles, and book chapters on topics as diverse as gender and advertising; young children’s meaning-making with technology; ‘upcycling’ as value adding in South Africa and Sweden; ‘value texts’ at public authorities; affective potential of airports; and ‘flight shame’ in relation to the climate crisis. He is also one of the founding editors of the journal Multimodality & Society (Sage), in which a special issue on “Multimodal Anthropology” was recently published.



by Laura R. Oswald, President of Marketing Semiotics


Laura R. Oswald

I founded Marketing Semiotics in 2000 as a consumer research and consulting firm serving blue-chip brands including Ford, American Express, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Pfizer, and Dominos. We help CEO's and senior executives anticipate cultural change and manage its effects on brands, consumer behavior and innovation strategy. We manage a range of projects including communication research, design development, and large multi-market consumer studies for brand positioning, new product development, and market expansion

Brand Literacy: Why Western Brands Fall Flat in Emerging Markets 

The Case of China

The term "literacy" is rooted in cultural assumptions about the “correct way” of decoding a sign system, a norm defined by the dominant culture. An American is considered language literate if they have mastered the codes structuring meaning production in English grammar and vocabulary. In contrast, immigrants may be stigmatized as “illiterate” because they lack fluency in the dominant language. This principle also applies to semiotic systems other than language. The ability to read images, navigate public spaces, and make sense of fashion is also culturally coded. In the article below I report findings from an advertising research ethnography I conduced in Shanghai several years ago, where I discovered that Chinese affluents routinely made very different interpretations of advertising for Western luxury brands and, unlike their Western counterparts, did not invest brands with personal meanings or symbolic associations, the stuff of brand value in the West. The findings had dire implications for the Western luxury market, because they revealed that cultural barriers interfered with Chinese consumers’ ability to differentiate one brand from another – they all “displayed status,” identify with the brand world (i.e. the West) or remain loyal to any given brand. In other words, the massive growth in Chinese luxury market in the mid-2000s would probably be short-lived, because it was based upon vague perceptions of social status and wealth rather than cultural identification and brand loyalty.

Brands are sign systems that form the identity of specific products or services and distinguish them from other brands in a product category


Brand Literacy

Brands are sign systems that form the identity of specific products or services and distinguish them from other brands in a product category. This, the semiotic function of brands, thereby defines the strategic management process. Managers develop the brand positioning by laying claim to a distinctive semantic territory carved out of the broad field of meanings consumers associate with a product category. They reinforce these associations in consumers’  minds by representing them consistently in specific words, stories, and images in advertising.  For example, Coke and Pepsi both belong to the carbonated cola beverage category, but they each claim different semantic territories. Coke’s positioning as “the real thing” speaks to the brand’s authenticity, consistency, and tradition. By contrast, Pepsi, “for the new generation,”  is positioned as a trendy, young, and evolving brand. Brands succeed or fail in direct proportion to the strength and clarity of these positionings in consumers’ minds.


Consumer Needs and Wants

Consumers draw upon the semiotic resources of brands when they use name brands to build self-confidence, extend their personal identity (Belk 1988), or use brands to enhance their self-presentation (Goffman 1956). Consider the amateur athlete who is motivated to train by wearing Nike sportswear, inspired by the brand message - “Just Do It!”  Consumers may also use brands to mark their identification with social groups and subcultures. Consumers immigrating to the United States, for instance, may choose iconic American brands to blend into their new culture, though they may resort to familiar ethnic traditions to feel the comfort of the homelands they left behind (Peñaloza 1994; Oswald 1999). 


 The Challenge of Global Branding


      At each stage of the brand hierarchy, brand meaning relies increasingly on matching the brand heritage to the social and cultural contexts of the marketing event and communicating the brand message in signs and symbols that consumers can relate to. In order to move consumers up the hierarchy, from logo recognition toward personal engagement, brand strategy must be focused on calibrating brand meanings to the evolving culture of the target market and the changing needs, wants, and identity projects of consumers. This process is particularly important for global branding strategies in developing markets.


      As sign systems, brands face the same tensions in foreign markets as tourists who do not speak the local language. For example, in non-Christian cultures, how do consumers interpret Santa Claus? Do Arab consumers compare the Mr. Clean genie to the jinns from  Arabic folklore? Such cultural differences are likely to create ambiguity and even barriers to brand acceptance abroad, particularly in developing consumer societies where brand culture may be an emerging phenomenon. To succeed in the global marketplace, managers must adapt the brand message, not just the language, to the local culture - without losing the core brand identity in the process. Translating brands from one culture to the next may be as simple as changing the cultural references in a print ad or as complex as creating a new communications strategy built upon new media, special events, and/or educational forums. 


The Culture Factor


      Luxury manufacturers in the West rely on the double-digit growth in emerging  markets such as China, but have rushed into this market without adapting the brand message  to the culture of local consumers. The first generation new rich in China may have been content to show off famous, expensive brand names even if they did not engage with the brand on a visceral level. However, the current research suggests that the second and third generation of affluent Chinese consumers will not be satisfied with the current, somewhat  generic association of luxury brands with money and success seeking brands that satisfy their  needs for personal expression and relationships. In order to develop a more personal relationship to Western luxury brands, marketers in the West must relate brand meanings to unique culture and identity projects of consumers in emerging markets.



The Role of Advertising


      Management itself is responsible for creating barriers to consumer engagement with luxury brands, if not to the luxury category as a whole, by assuming that Chinese consumers  already know the ‘rules of the road’ relating to luxury goods, rituals, and culture in the West.  The Western images used in advertising are structured by cultural as well as linguistic and

esthetic codes, and these cultural codes interfere with the brand recognition and identification  process. In similar fashion, reading Chinese would present problems for the untrained  American tourist. 


      The challenge for advertisers is to adapt brand communication to the culture of local  consumers without losing the essence and meaning of the brand across markets (Sherry 1987  and Cayla and Eckhardt 2008). Ogilvy and Mather took steps in this direction in the  “Journey” campaign for Louis Vuitton luggage. They embedded the product in scenes,  sometimes two pages across, that highlighted substantial, highly achieving personalities that  included Mikhail Gorbachev, Madonna, and David Beckham. They replaced the single page  ad featuring anonymous bodies on a black backdrop with texture, history, and high values.  Whether the campaign was targeted specifically to the Chinese market or not, it in fact  responded to Chinese consumers’ need for context, notable characters and noble actions.


      However, marketers may have to go a step further and replace the traditional  magazine ad with a new creative strategy altogether, one that would include different forms  of consumer contact and non-traditional media. In addition to celebrity endorsers (see Wicks  et al. 2007), luxury marketers may have to abandon the assumption that luxury transcends  time and culture (Wetlaufer 2001) and find ways of weaving their brands into the lifestyles and values of Chinese consumers. They need to move beyond the single image print ad and  the iconic fashion model in order to initiate Chinese consumers into the luxury brand culture.  They may also have to follow the lead of marketers in other categories, such as household  appliances, where brand recognition has been built upon personal selling, shopping mall  tutorials, trade shows, and other non-traditional media to educate consumers about a new  category or brand. The French luxury house Hermès made the correction in recent years by developing a new brand, Shang Xia, a lifestyle brand that embodies cultural cues and rituals rooted in Chinese culture. In other words, the European brand acquired "literacy" in Chinese culture.


Mari-Liis Madisson

Andreas Ventsel

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Conspiracy theories can amplify society’s fears, confusion and polarization


Mari-Liis Madisson

Andreas Ventsel

is researcher of semiotics at Tartu University. Her research interests lie primarily in cultural semiotics, media semiotics and political semiotics. Since 2014 she has taught multiple courses on online culture and critical media literacy. She is the author of The Semiotic Construction of Identities in Hypermedia Environments: The Analysis of Online Communication of the Estonian Extreme Right (Tartu University Press, 2016) and Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach (Routledge, 2020) (co-author Andreas Ventsel). 

is an associate professor of semiotics at Tartu University and a lecturer in Pallas University of Applied Sciences in Tartu.  His  research is interdisciplinary which includes semiotics, discourse theory, visual communication, rhetoric and political analysis.  He has presented the results of the research on these topics in around 100 academic articles and been the initiator and editor of several international scientific journals. Ventsel is the author the books Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach. Routledge 2020 (co-author Mari-Liis Madisson) and Introducing Relational Political Analysis - Political Semiotics as a Theory and Method Palgrave Macmillan 2020 (with Peeter Selg). 

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Semiotics of fear and conspiracy theories

Academic discourse usually defines “conspiracy theory” as a form of narrative explanation that insists that a group of people, acting in secret with malicious intent, are the orchestrating force behind events. These days, conspiracy theories are most often discussed in the context of growing populist and extremist movements, increases in informational influence activities, and fake news. These phenomena have become more common as a result of the 3Cs, i.e. periods of conflict, catastrophe and crisis. In the following paper we will discuss some of the semiotic mechanisms that underlie conspiracy theories and societal fears. [js1]

Collective fear often finds its expression in conspiracy theories and according to Juri Lotman, leading figure of our [js2] Tartu-Moscow school of Cultural Semiotics, we may witness an increase of both motivated and unmotivated fears during periods of 3Cs (Lotman 2007). In the case of motivated fear, the cause of the fear is obvious for all who experience it (e.g. a fear that COVID-19 may harm one's family). Such fear has a “real” point of reference that is recognizable for the people involved and historians who study them. Conversely, with unmotivated fears (e.g. a fear that a secret cabal[1] is spreading lies about non-existent COVID-19 in order to infect people with harmful vaccines and gain more control over the masses), fear does not result from an actual horrifying origin, but from the fact that some elements of reality are merely interpreted to be fearful omens and warning signs, the origins of which often elude both the people involved as well as the historians studying them. As such, the object of fear is indeed constructed through semiotic imagery, adopted by a society to make sense of themselves and the world.  

As such, the object of fear is indeed constructed through semiotic imagery, adopted by a society to make sense of themselves and the world.  

Hermeneutics of Fear

Conspiracy theories have gained a lot of attention in explanations that try to make sense of the Coronavirus infodemic, but it is important to acknowledge that conspiracy theories are rooted in deep layers of cultural memory. According to Lotman, ambiguous tales told by the anonymous voice of the masses have a crucial role in establishing an atmosphere of fear. These vague stories are shaped by fear, and in turn those tales reinforce the collective feeling of fear, playing a significant role in further fueling the atmosphere of fear and its hermeneutics of meaning-making. This meaning-making creates new associations between things and signs, as well as signs among themselves, significantly altering the previous understanding of reality.

  Umberto Eco has pointed out that the semiotic process that explains the emergence of fear and conspiracy theories is that of communion. This type of meaning-making, which is based on analogies unintelligible to outsiders, is developed through the concepts of paranoid interpretation and hermetic associations (Eco 1990). In this type of meaning-making, every time that a new analogy is discovered it brings about a new analogy, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. For example, contemporary conspiracy theorists that speak of harmful 5G waves often support their claims with the following “evidence”: the symbol of the Satan, the pentagram, is recognizable in the term “5G” (they read 5 as “penta” and G as “gram”) and as such they must be related.                                The loose criteria of similarity established in hermetic meaning-making gives rise to the assumption that a sign consists in signifying a hidden meaning (Eco 1990: 163-166). Hence one important principle of hermetic meaning-making is that when two things are similar, the former is a sign of the latter and vice versa (Eco 1990: 164). For example, conspiracy theorists tend to disagree with the media-coverage of various shocking events because they believe that journalists are using such events as a smoke screen to distract public attention and keep it occupied with “pseudo-topics” while conspirators perform their evil deeds undisturbed. Nevertheless, that does not mean that conspiracy theorists are not interested in the media; on the contrary, they often work through numerous visual and verbal narratives enabling them to “prove” that there are paradoxes and contradictions in the official versions of events. (Leone, Madisson, Ventsel 2020).

Strategic use of conspiracy theories

Communities that are overwhelmed by fear tend to circulate stories that see a small but extremely dangerous sect (a Cabal) as the main reasons for their troubles. These “sects” usually feature minority groups such as the Jewish people, as showcased by Madisson and Ventsel’s study on Estonian extreme rightwing blogs (2018). These blogs expressed the notion that the “real” cause of the European migrant crisis were the Jews, who were plotting to weaken the white race and used secret signs which these bloggers usually derived from either physical appearance or performative acts. In order to depict their own behavior as moral conspirators tend to level stereotypical accusations against the members of these “cabala”, such as accusing them of being Satanic. Such an immoral, malignant and influential enemy, acting undercover, makes it possible to present one’s own views as something ethical, transparent and justified.

It is especially after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the Infodemic related with the Corona virus that the power of viral conspiracy theories has become undeniable. In strategic communication, conspiracy theories have proven themselves an effective means of creating distrust towards political opponents, dramatizing statements being made, and constructing a positive self-image of moral superiority (Madisson, Ventsel 2021: 1). As we know, fear is an effective tool for mobilizing attention and a powerful force for undermining people’s capacity to think critically. The myth that most clearly emerges when we discuss the strategic use of conspiracy theories is based on the idea that strategic actors or teams of their PR-specialists and spin doctors create such theories from scratch and successfully plant them in their information ecosystem. The fallibility of the myth lies in the fact that, in their essence, conspiracy theories are a folklore or vernacular phenomenon. They are based on the repetition of similar cultural universal motifs of fear: society has become rotten, infested with selfish and amoral malignant forces! Important information is being hidden from the public! The conspirators are using a secret code! These motifs are continuously being supplied with new context, new villains, and new buzzwords, and as such the disseminators of strategic conspiracy theories undoubtedly engage in monitoring the social media, tracking ideas that make their messages more intriguing and enticing. For example, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has blamed Hungarian billionaire George Soros for bringing into Hungary more than a million Muslim immigrants in order to destabilize the traditional Western way of life. Donald Trump leveled similar accusations wherein he blamed Soros for Central American migrant caravans. Anti-Vaxxers also often blame Soros for manipulating people into taking harmful vaccines that diminish their agency. However, it would be wrong to credit Trump, Orban, or the anti-vaxxers with creating the boogeyman “George Soros'' considering they hijacked these conspiracy theories from the KGB. The roots of the conspiracy about Soros lead back to the mid-1980s, that is, the period when he started his philanthropic activities in Easter Europe. Then, the KGB began to disseminate conspiracy theories accusing Soros of being a US spy and engaging in subversive activities targeting the USSR. Orbán’s theories, however, saw Soros and the foundations he supported as a means of enforcing Americanization, globalism and brainwashing (Kaufman 2002: 12). The Soviet Union has long disappeared from the world’s map, but Soros’s popularity as a scapegoat figuring in conspiracy theories is higher than ever.

To Conclude

Conspiracy theories can amplify society’s fears, confusion and polarization. In this sense, they mirror collective fears and amplify them. However, we do not want to say that all conspiracy theories should be treated in the light of cultural fears. Conspiracy theories are also used for entertainment, for they pique many interpreters’ curiosity and provide pleasure in the detection and discovery of hidden patterns… 



The cloudy water has always been a symbol for a troubled or unsure mind. I wanted to do something with that idea because it can be relatable for a lot of people. The trees are unclear and out of focus, just like someone's thoughts. I also just really liked the trees in the water with the sunset, I thought that it would be a nice thing to photograph


Vera in 't Hout

Hi I'm Vera, an 18 year old photography student from Rotterdam. I like to photograph people and tell story's with my photos. A topic I'm interested in for example is the lgbtq community, because it's close to me personally and I want to bring more representation for the community. I also like to do street photography. 

In the Picture

Symbolism in Dreams

Dream symbolism has fascinated and baffled us since the dawn of humankind. People would go to their shaman, medicine man, or oracle for an interpretation of their dream. Then along came Freud and Jung who helped bring dream analysis into the mainstream. Now, there are plenty of apps and books on dream symbols. But do they work?

A long time ago… back in the year 1990… I bought a dream dictionary book and quickly learned that none of the symbols’ definitions helped me interpret my dreams. Instead, books on symbols were a better fit for me, my favorite was The Secret Language of Signs by Denise Linn which still sits on my bookshelf. Does this mean that dream dictionary apps/books would be useless for you?

Not necessarily. In fact, I consider symbolism the foundation of dream interpretation. This is why a dream interpretation app can be useful when you begin interpreting your dreams. A great analogy is to compare symbols to the ABCs of the English alphabet. We need to know our ABCs to formulate words and sentences. However, knowing how to put together words and sentences doesn’t mean that you’re ready to write poetry, essays, or a book. Both writing and dream interpretation takes time, practice, and experience.

Snake Symbol

Let’s use the common snake symbol as an example of the complications of symbolism. If you tap on your app to find the snake meaning, most likely you will find the following:

  • Transformation

  • Medicine 

  • Temptation

  • Warning

  • Sexuality

  • Kundalini

Every one of those definitions of the snake symbol makes sense, yet are they accurate for your dream? Dream dictionaries don’t take into account your personal life: upbringing, present situation, ongoing obstacles, different emotions, premonitions, and more…  It would be impossible for a dream app to have all that information in it; in fact, it would probably blow up your phone if it did!

To enforce this point across, here’s a short dream example:

You’re ready to go to sleep, pulled down your blanket and sheet, only to discover a huge snake slithering on your bed. 

Many people would consider this dream a nightmare! Although it could also mean different things to different people. For instance:

  1. Tommy is ten years old, loves this dream, and wants to find a snake to put in his little sister’s bed.

  2. Laura awakens traumatized because this reminds her of when she was a little girl and the school’s bully put a snake down her pants.

  3. Simon is angry about this dream and knows it is about his boss who is trying to get him to have sex with her.

  4. Nora fears that this dream might be about her husband, Richard? Since Richard has been working late almost every night and hasn’t touched her in months.

  5. Nick wakes up to next his boa constrictor, Charlie, and allows his snake to wrap around his arm.

Those above five examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Add in a multitude of emotions, different people, and/or symbols to create hundreds upon hundreds of different dream meanings.

The next time you have a baffling symbol in your dream, don’t look it up in an app. Instead, you need to ponder a moment on what a symbol means to you. Does it trigger a memory? Is there a situation in your life that the snake could symbolize? Could it refer to your future? How did you feel about the symbol or in the dream? What were the actions occurring in the dreams? Where there any other symbols or people in the dream? Was there more than one dream scene?

Interpreting a symbol in a dream can be complicated. Yet, it’s worthwhile. Why? Your symbol is about you, when you discover its meaning and along with the dream’s message this assists you in knowing who you are. In other words, your dream symbolism and meaning are the key to help you answer life’s most important question – who am I?

by Pamela Cummins


You’re ready to go to sleep, pulled down your blanket and sheet, only to discover a huge snake slithering on your bed.


Pamela Cummins Dream.jpg

Pamela Cummins

Pamela Cummins is an expert dream interpreter who loves analyzing her clients’ dreams and teaching them how to interpret their own dreams. Her goal is to show her clients how to take the wisdom of their dreams’ messages to enhance their life and accelerate their personal and spiritual growth. She is also an author, oracle card creator, and spiritual growth coach. You’re invited to learn more about Pamela at her website


Water in Dreams

by Jesamine Mello


dreams are emissaries of that disturbed unconscious


My fearful attitude drove me into that stagnant water


 "Can this be my feelings flowing?”


Jesamine Mello

Jesamine is perpetual student of comparative mythology and religion, symbolism, and folklore and fairytales. She is also a former yoga teacher and bodyworker who transformed her life at 45 years old, and with the encouragement of a dream, took a leap of faith.  With a deep love and dedication to the work of C.G. Jung, she sacrificed everything she had in the U.S. and followed her bliss to do an immersive training program in Zurich, Switzerland, where she now permanently resides and works as a Jungian dream analyst and psychodynamic counselor.

You can read more from Jesamine at

Our unconscious hides living water, spirit that has become nature, and that is why it is disturbed … [it is] a secret unrest that gnaws at the root of our being.


The secret unrest gnawing at the root of our being is experienced as suffering.  In the psychology of C.G. Jung, dreams are emissaries of that disturbed unconscious, bearing messages of healing and guidance.  Dreams express something unknown to the conscious mind, lending insight into the unconscious disturbances which influence our lives.  

We can distill the essence of water in dreams to some elemental motifs, but the fundamental connotation of water is its healing quality.  However, the meaning of water in dreams depends entirely on the context of your dream and whatever is happening in your life at the time of the dream.


Bodies of Water in Dreams

Various bodies of water have different psychological meanings. For example, if we dream of stagnant water, we have to feel our way into the qualities of that water and translate that into psychological language.  Stagnation.  The word alone says something in our lives is not flowing properly.  

Surely everyone knows the condition of being stuck, but not always the unconscious why or where of the stuckness.  Perhaps your creative flow has stagnated, and you feel dreadfully fearful.  Sometimes this happens when I write, especially under the pressure of a deadline.  I get stuck and the words don’t flow.  Hours go by and once I realize how much time I have lost, it often feels terrifying.  I cannot move.

During one of these phases, I once dreamed of driving my car into a foul-smelling, stagnant pond.  It was a pond in town where I had grown up, a dreadful place where many people stay their whole lives in stagnation.  Psychologically speaking, I was back in that place, and I needed to get out.

The dream says, “You have driven yourself into this place.”  My fearful attitude drove me into that stagnant water.  To escape my creative block, I needed to move - to trust the process and do something else – anything other than sit there day after day.  

In a stagnant situation, surrendering to the process is often unsettling, but at least the unsettledness is itself a kind of movement.  Sometimes we must psychologically move away from a stagnant condition until the waters of life become clear again and something begins to flow.  

Crossing the Great Water

The I-Ching speaks of “crossing the Great Water,” which is symbolic of those times in our lives when we encounter dangerous or decisive undertakings – moments when we must make a life-changing decision.

In dreams, the Great Water often appears as a river we need to cross.  A woman in crisis had reached a dangerously decisive moment in her life.  She dreamed that she narrowly avoided a plane crash by deplaning just before takeoff.  Afterward, she came to a river where a woman washing clothes said, “Don’t worry.  I will get your information to the right people,” she then pointed the dreamer to someone who would help her cross the river.

It was not the plane, but rather its destination which was the problem.  She was headed to yet another business training, a business which had long since ceased to serve her life plan.  However, she was desperately afraid to let it go.

The dream said if she got off the plane, she would come to a river, and someone would help her to cross the threshold.  Translated psychologically, she must surrender the old way of being in the world in order for something new to emerge.  After she surrenders, two magical helpers appear at the critical moment to usher her across the “dangerous passing” and into the next phase of her life.  

The Sea of Life

Large bodies of water symbolize the mother matrix out of which all life emerges and to which all life returns for reabsorption.  In Jungian psychology, the amniotic mother matrix is the watery unconscious, the dimension of the human psyche from which emerges the possibility for a new, more developed conscious life.

The context of your water dream is always significant. Are you swimming or drowning?  Going down into the sea or rising out of it?  

For example, if you are in an overwhelming life situation and you dream of drowning in the sea, then it is a warning from the unconscious that you are engulfed by archetypal energies.  This kind of experience is an existential crisis, and it takes a specialized conscious effort to withstand that kind of inundation.  Conversely, to dream of swimming in a sea often shows that you are okay, even if the problem feels so overwhelming that you cannot see your way out.  

When you dream of swimming down into the waters of the sea, then you know that you must descend into the depths of your being. That descent is the night-sea journey, which Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s quest,” whereby we might bring forth something eternally new into our lives.

The bringing forth of something eternally new is our resurrection from those watery depths, hence, to dream of rising out of the waters has the same meaning as baptism and rebirth.  Such a dream in a time of crisis would be a good prognosis, for soon we will be born again.

Transformations in the Soul

Sometimes, it is not our conscious ego that is transformed in the waters, but rather a deeper part of ourselves which undergoes the transformation.  For instance, I knew a woman who had projected virtually all of her creative potential into a local artist whose work she had admired.  When she met him, the artist had nothing of the symbolic depth which she had imagined he would have. 

She had the following dream about the artist, whom we will call Henry:

Henry left a suicide note for me. He was going to commit suicide by walking into the Pacific Ocean. The note said, “you know girl, I never knew that much anyway”.  I ran to the beach, thinking I could save him.  From a distance, he said, “It was you all along and now it’s time for me to go,” then he walked into the ocean and disappeared.

Henry was actually a personification of the dreamer’s own vital creative energy.  As long as that energy was tied up in the projection, she could not recognize it as her own psychological value. Henry’s return to the waters meant the dissolution of her projections, thus his symbolic death. This was a turning point for the dreamer because Henry’s death meant the birth of her own creative life.

Another woman dreamed that a former friend died.  At the funeral, she saw his body floating in a clear pool of water which had been filled with flowers. It turned out that the dreamer had formally ended the friendship with this man because of his overwhelmingly negative effect on her life. 

Now the dream brings her friend’s symbolic death into her consciousness, which means that some negative aspect of her own personality has also died.  His death was emphasized with a sort of religious water burial, again reflecting the mythological motif of a return to water as the source of life and thus the possibility of a rebirth.

Swimming Pools in Dreams

Swimming pools are common dream images, but different from a sea because they are human constructs and therefore related to the individual.  A swimming pool in a dream shows us something about our personal unconscious, something related to a personalistic causality or an immediate condition, as opposed to an archetypal situation.  

For example, a client dreamed that an auditor-like woman told him, "There's too much chlorine in your pool."   Chlorine is a harsh disinfecting agent and too much of it is hazardous.  No real life can exist in such a sterilized environment.   Translated psychologically, this would mean something about the dreamer’s personal life is too sterile.  

In fact, this man was unconsciously tormented by a pathological perfectionism, a perfect purity in which no real life could exist.  Everything had to be perfect - fatherhood, work, children, his martial arts – and this puritanical attitude had caused him deep suffering.  The dream made him aware of what he was doing to himself.


Dreaming of Freezing Water

Water is also symbolic of our emotional or feeling life and its temperature in dreams lends insight into problems we have in those two dimensions. A woman disconnected from her emotions once dreamed of being in freezing water.  Nonchalantly she said, "If I stay in this freezing water I could die, but at least it won’t be painful."

We can infer a connection between her feeling no pain and having no emotional response to her impending death.  The dreamer was admittedly afraid of emotional pain, so she simply froze it out.  The dream clearly states that her cold emotional life will kill her soul if she does not address it.  

Again analysis of the dream gave her the shock she needed to address the soul killing factor of her cold detachment from her emotional life.


Bathing in Dreams

Let’s look at bathing in a dream and its association with bathing rituals in cultures worldwide.  An isolated woman suffering from anxiety and depression had a dream where she stepped into a hot bath and submerged herself.  An unknown man sat behind her in the bathtub.  He felt like a reassuring presence.  Reassurance is an important feeling to work with because it was the last impression the dream left on her.   

Similar to baptism, immersion in the bathwater is symbolic of a dissolution of an old form.  In this dreamer’s case, the form to be dissolved was the isolating attitude.  Again, we have the concept of surrendering to a process.  She had to allow that attitude to dissolve in the bath, which can sometimes only be accomplished when we submit ourselves to the waters of transformation.  

As an archetypal process, after the bath comes a rebirth, which in psychological terms is a resolution to a problem.  If you are in a bad state and have a dream of being in a bath, you can be reassured that something in your depths is changing and soon you will feel the effects of that transformation.

When my client and I spoke about her dream in this archetypal way, she was indeed reassured because she finally could see the possibility for the transformation of her dark and fearful states.  

The Regenerative Significance of Water

Almost two years into his analysis, a man dreamed:

I am digging a hole to get water from some source.  Finally, I succeed, and water starts to come out of the hole.  Next, we (my family) are sitting at a table nearby, in the vineyard.  I show my container of the water to everybody.  I am proud of myself.

The man was a dry, thinking type who had not yet tapped the living waters of his feeling function and that emotional defect had caused problems in his relationships.  The dreamer digs for water from some Source, and he quite proudly strikes it.  As Jung says, 

"… flowing water symbolizes released, psychic energy … it comes from nothing outside, but from an unknown place with which we are eternally in contact."

The man, delighted by this dream, said, “Somehow, after this dream, I feel lighter.  I tap the Source, which I know is within me.  Can this be my feelings flowing?”  

After this dream, his primary relationships changed, and it just happened naturally.  In his case, it was not that he consciously changed himself, but that his consciousness was changed by contact with the Living Water within.  My client had lived a life of rigidity, rules, and obligations, all of which had been superficially imposed upon him by a life of convention.  He is an example of what happens when we really tap that Source of living water within and align ourselves with an inner something which is beyond the ego.   


On National Flags and the Issue of ‘Internationality’

by Saika Nishikawa

A range of different flags waving in the air, each of them unique in colour and shape, together embodying diversity and inclusion

A range of different flags waving in the air, each of them unique in colour and shape, together embodying diversity and inclusion. This is a popular image that would appear in any searching engine when looking for the words internationality or multiculturalism. Before the start of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology (CADS), I did not take a critical look at this popular image, and instead viewed it in a positive light, as symbolising cooperation and diversity. However, after recognising how the concepts of ‘internationality’ or ‘multiculturalism’ are much more complex than they appear to be, this stance also greatly changed. I realised that, although national flags in international settings are intended to represent the coming together, they are, at the same time, an objectification of the boundaries between the communities. The Olympic Games held earlier this year give a unique example where the issue of employing national flags to signify inclusion can further be analysed.


In their famous work ‘The Invention of Tradition’, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1992: 11) argue that, together with the national anthem and emblem, the national flag composes the essential representations of nations’ sovereignty; it reflects ‘the entire background, thought and culture of a nation’. As such, a national flag greatly contributes to the process of essentializing the continuity of nations. In the Olympic Games, individuals are not just competing against each other, but they represent a larger imagined community, the nation. As an essential symbol of national identity, the national flag fuels individuals’ national identification (Schatz, Lavine 2007: 332). Toby Rider and Llewellyn Matthew (2015: 22-23) describe the ‘paradox of the Olympics’, where the Olympic Games, an international event for the coming together, often turns into a place of outburst hostility. Its basic structure which is ‘based on national representation’, inevitably conflicts with the founder Pierre Courbertin’s initial aim of creating a platform for dialogue between nations (Ibid.). In fact, the Olympics is also infamous for being highly politicised, although this would be another issue to be discussed. 


If one closely looks at the use of national flags as a symbol of inclusion and diversity during international events such as the Olympic Games, it is not hard to point out the contradictions it contains. First of all, a national flag does not represent the variety existent within a nation and reduces all different groups of people to a single entity. The controversy on Team Great Britain (GB) illustrates this, as here, the different states of Great Britain compete under the same banner. England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have traditionally competed as separate teams in other major sports competitions and the match results have had great political meanings at home (Rider and Llewellyn 2015: 24). An attempt to create a football Team GB for the 2012 Olympic Games caused uproar in the public and all national supporters groups (Ibid.). Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to see flags solely as static symbols of a nation, as they are also subject to change. We should not fall into the same trap of essentialism by attaching them to a single meaning (Becker et al: 337). Each Flag has its historical background and what they stand for vary greatly depending on the community, individual, or time. 

olympic games.jpg

Saika Nishikawa

Saika Nishikawa is a first year CADS student at Leiden University. She is a member of the ICA committee, interested in intercultural communication, “internationality”, and ethnic identity.

national flags.jpg

Furthermore, Schatz and Lavine (2007: 351) argue that flags can also visualise the out-group and in-group boundaries. In the case of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the controversy over the tennis player Naomi Osaka, a member of the Japanese team and the last torchbearer in the opening ceremony, sheds light on the issue (Rich 2021). Osaka was born in Japan as a daughter of a Haitian American father and a Japanese mother. Despite her huge popularity, she has also constantly been facing criticism, some questioning her identity as a Japanese. When she left the Olympics without a medal after losing in straight sets, she faced harsh harassment on social media, including a comment on Twitter that said that she ‘should not hide her Star-Spangled Banner under the fake Japanese flag.’ Stories as such are not uncommon. In the Netherlands, football players of a “migrant background” often face severe racism depending on their results, which van Sterkenburg (2013: 396) calls the ‘conditional belonging’. Rather than the fact that flags visualise boundaries, the main problem with their use is the false assumption of continuity and unchangeability attached to them. In fact, according to Joost Jansen and Godfried Engbersen (2017: 12) migration in the context of the Olympic Games is not new. ‘Migrant athletes’, in terms of foreign-born athletes, have always represented large parts of the Western teams since the founding of the modern Olympic Games. Jansen and Engbersen (2017: 4) argue that this is closely related to the history of colonialism and other forms of migration. Flags, as concrete materials with clear colour and shape differences often create a false perception of the nation as a static entity. 


Finally, the controversy of “migrant” athletes leads us to the issue surrounding intersectionality and individuals’ identity. I will elaborate on the issue by describing another example from my own experience during my studies in an international secondary school. As a graduation gift, a group of students came up with the idea of producing hooded sweatshirts with the students’ preferred national flag on the right arm. This became the centre of a dispute in different fractions of the school, including the parents’ association, the main point of criticism coming from the fact that it could only contain one national flag due to its design. For many students, this was equivalent to the reduction of their identities into one single flag, as many could identify with multiple flags and felt “belongingness” to more than one nation. Furthermore, this example does not only show how flags often reject “multiple nationalities” but also deny other identities such as ethnicity, gender, and age. Employing national flags as a symbol of “multiculturalism” can lead to the denial of individuals’ identities. 


The colourful row of different flags may give a bright impression of world peace and the coming together like during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, as CADS students, we should also be careful not to take things at face value. Flags are an objective representation of the ‘nation’, but their colours and shapes to which people have attached historical or mythological meanings, do not represent all of what composes it. Flags often enforce the idea that boundaries are static and unchangeable by suggesting that a community such as a ‘nation’ can be objectified. The image of national flags waving in the air suggests their immortality and denial of temporality (Leone 2021: 57). Although a far more careful research is needed to support all these claims, the examples above would be sufficient to indicate that using national flags light-heartedly as a symbol of ‘internationality’ or ‘multiculturalism’ can be problematic. Contrary to the initial purpose of presenting inclusion and diversity, this may result in identity denial and hurtful consequences that follow. 


The communication of criminal organisations through symbols

by Bente Heydelberg

Semiotics, refers to the study of symbolism, and reflects upon the use of symbols, primarily focusing on the effects of symbols on individuals and entire societies. Symbolism is reflected in everyday use, as for example in everyday communication and marketing. Symbolism is a technique often used by authors to represent a certain idea, character, or foreshadow an upcoming event ( acc. 20th jan). However, it also allows for secretive information to only be passed to and understood by those it was intended for (Gambetta 2011: I). This article will explore the use of symbolism within criminal organisations, allowing them to communicate with each other without being discovered by law enforcement. Because a failure in communication between criminals can have enormous consequences for everyone involved (Gambetta 2011: x). 


Why is it important to keep secrets?

As can be expected, criminals would rather communicate with one another without being noticed by anyone from law enforcement to rival organisations. 


Firstly, criminal endeavours are, similar to everyday endeavours, managed through cooperation. Contrary to everyday cooperation, for example between friends, the information regarding criminal conduct has to remain secret (Gambetta 2011: 4). Those planning to conduct illegal activity have to correctly identify others willing to cooperate. 


For example, in 2003 George Fallows attempted to hire a hitman to assassinate his wife. However, the ‘hitman’ he hired turned out to be a police officer, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment (BBC news acc. 20 jan). 


Criminals (that have been discovered, or even convicted) should therefore be aware that their every move is being noticed by law enforcement. For example, Sammy “The Bull'' Gravano had been imprisoned for his participation in the Gambino crime family (one of the five rival New York maffia families prominent during the 20th century). During a visit by his wife, Debra, Sammy rubbed her hand because he had missed her. A fellow inmate signed to him, telling him to stop as the prison ward had been watching Sammy and his wife. (valuetianment acc. 20 jan). 


Meaning of the symbols 

Law enforcement and criminologists attempt to interpret the symbols associated with criminals. However, in order to do so they often ‘over-interpret’ in order to spot every possible instance of criminal communication. Law enforcement often looks for signature symbols to link the illegal conduct to the individual(s). Former FBI agent Bob Levison stated that ‘every group has a signature’. The type of weapon is often seen to be linked to a specific group. For example, the car bomb was the signature of Russian mobster Mr. Mogilevichs car bomb (Gambetta 2011: 174). 


Another distinguishable signature for criminal organisations is tattoos. Especially in prisons, where the tattoo represents a criminal organisation to which the individual belongs, or crimes the individual has allegedly committed. However, it should be mentioned that these symbols could also be a false copy of another crime or criminal organisation to be associated with them (Gambetta 2011: 174- 175). 



Although the need for secretive forms of communication within criminal organisations seems self-evident, the lack of current evidence makes it next to impossible to prove such utilisation. Much of the gathered information is provided either by ‘snitches’ or remains unknown to the public, making it nearly impossible to analyse symbolism within criminal organisations. 


Bente Heydelberg

Bente is a first year CADS student at Leiden University. She is a member of the ICA committee.


Perceptions of Nudity: Nature – nurture debate

by Foteini Tsigoni


In the picture on the left, we see a representation of an older peasant woman, something rarely seen in ancient sculpture. The specific piece is dated to the first century CE and was found in 1907 during excavations in Rome. It is a copy of a Greek work from the second century BCE. This piece came to be known as ‘The Old Market Woman’, but after many academic debates, professionals agree that it depicts an old courtesan on her way to attend the festival of Dionysus (MetMuseum; Vout 2020). The woman is wearing an ivy wreath, showing her dedication to the god, and her clothing consists of a sheer, wet-style, elaborately draped chiton and delicate sandals. In her left hand, she carries a basket of fruit or vegetables and two chickens, perhaps meant as her offering or provision for the festival. The statue is a good example of a new kind of sculptural genre, introduced in the Hellenistic period, which portrayed normal people instead of  political leaders, heroes and deities. Crucially, this opened up the possibility to sculpt a much wider variety of body types, including bodies that diverged from the classical beauty standards; suddenly statues could for instance be old, ‘ugly’, suffering, poor and assymetrical. Artists of the Hellenistic period were concerned that art was focused on beautifully symmetrical individuals, even though they were portrayals of gods or of representations of political leaders, and forgetting the common, dedicated followers of these gods and political leaders. So this new range of sculpture was added in sanctuaries of gods, and in park-like settings (MetMuseum; Vout 2020). 


Figure 1: old market woman, copy of a Greek work of second century BCE, Metropolitan museum of art, New York, available here

The early and mid-20th century academic community was debating about the nature of this sculpture as it was thought to be a depiction of a prostitute and not a follower of the god of wine as revealed by her elaborately draped clothing. Robinson (1909) argued that her old gaze, sunken cheeks, deep wrinkles and open chest actually go together with the type of costume that a goddess or a young woman would wear to gracefully show her image. He does not describe the clothing in the sculpture as ‘unfitting for an older woman to wear’ or, even worse, as a ‘prostitute’s garments’, but instead makes us aware that the specific combination of old age and juvenile, divine clothing had a specific purpose, a message that was understood in its socio-cultural context.  His ideas of who should wear a specific kind of clothing, makes us understand that he had an underlying argument.

The picture on the right is a portrait of family Schwab included in the ‘Amsterdam Nude Calendar 2019’, created by Lara Verheijden and Mark Stafman. Although separated in time circa 2000 years from the ‘Old Market Woman’, we could say that similar themes recur in both works of art, especially with regards to issues of nudity, femininity, and old age.  The picture shows a mother being with her daughters, bare and brave to show their ideals about nudity. 

The reason I am bringing forth these images is to confront the issue at hand and to understand why nudity is often immediately sexualized in the contemporary world, and later on, to comprehend how sexuality is generally portrayed. For this reason, this analysis is going to give some examples of nudity in our society and later it will try to argue why these examples are not accepted by societal standards. This piece will also explore why nudity is sexualized by bringing forth ideas about beautification. Lastly, this analysis expands on how our ideas about public nudity can be changed through means of education, by teaching sex education and gender norms.

Nudity and perception

To understand what the ‘Old market woman’ sculpture represents, art historians and archaeologists have investigated how nudity was perceived in its historical socio-cultural contexts. We could do the same for the calendar picture of Verheijden. In our modern society, nudity is often strongly perceived through the lens of the act of beautification and sexualization. Naturism, or also known as nudism, tries to combat this beautification and sexualisation of the body by establishing a lifestyle that allows nudity to exist in a non-sexual environment and expressed in a non-sexual way (British Naturism). In this paragraph, we will look at examples where nudism is seen in art and in social movements, and analyse why these instances of nudity are so controversial. It is widely known that cultural biases are a big reason why people consider nudity uncomfortable, shameful and ‘weird’ to show in public (Foucault 1978).

The work of Lara Verheijden is important to look at for this piece, her work will serve as the first example. Lara Verheijden is a young photographer from the Netherlands who wants to break the boundaries of society’s perception of nudity. She created the annual Amsterdam and Berlin Nude Calendar and a movement of attractive nude art in the city of Amsterdam ( Lara Verheijden). This movement of Lara and Mark Stadman has built up traction in the open-minded city of Amsterdam. Last year, Lara had her first solo photography exhibition named ‘Niet voor iedereen’, ‘Not for everyone’, in the living room of art dealer, Paul van Esch (Fraanje 2020). The exhibition was successful and at the same time she was selling her calendar to different book stores and museum shops, along with showing her art in her own apartment. This movement had some backlash as people were not comfortable displaying this calendar at their shops or Lara could not display one of her photographs from her window because she got anonymous complaints from neighbours over the nudity (Ramdjam 2020).

A similar movement, with a clear feminist character, is the ‘Free the nipple’ movement from New York city. This movement is about displaying the female chest with the same freedom as males can. The goal of this is to decriminalise female toplessness, and give the option to women to be shirtless, without harassment and judgement (Petersen 2018). Specifically, in New York state, female toplessness has been legal since 1990, but the nipple needs to be covered. Since 2012, this movement has been very popular in New York, especially after the fines three women faced over walking topless without covering their nipples. Even though the three women appealed against the fines, as they argued that banning female and not male toplessness violates their freedom, the U.S. Supreme court disagreed (Hurley 2020). The women and the campaign still argue that this decision promotes the ‘sexualized objectification of women’.

A next example of activist nudism is found in the World Naked Bike Ride, or WNBR, which is a clothing-optional bike ride that started in London in 2003, with the slogan ‘bare as you dare’. The naked bike ride has been in other cities through the years but mostly in western countries. The message in this bike ride is different from the other two movements, as in 2003, there was a form of protest against fossil fuels and liberty over individual rights, but in 2008 it changed to cycling advocacy (World naked bike ride). In later years, the reason for the bike ride became mixed with their new slogan ‘deliver a vision of a cleaner, safer, body positive world’. This movement again had quite a bit of backlash as people got arrested and the movement needed to create its own Legal defence fund (Internet archive – Way back machine).

With the examples given above, the question rises why nakedness in public is sometimes considered so displeasing or controversial. In essence, everyone is born without clothes, and we are an animal species like all the others. Of course, it is everyone’s liberty and freedom to do as they want, without hurting anyone. So, why can’t we not ‘bare what we dare’?

Beautification and sexualization – Biological explanation

As mentioned before, society has the tendency of beautifying and sexualizing. What we find beautiful and, in this case, sexual has a biological component. Conditioned sexual urge can be a reason why nudity is not accepted in public. Evolutionary biologists have explained sexual urge by analyzing specific physical features.

The sexual selection theory that was introduced by Darwin (1871) as ‘the advantages that certain individuals have over others of the same sex and species, in exclusive relation to reproduction’. With this explanation of the sexual selection theory, it is understood that the more biologically ‘attractive’ features an individual has, the better chances that that individual has to be chosen for reproduction. On humans, it is seen that these biologically ‘attractive’ features are, for instance, particular proportions of waists and hips on women. On the males, it could be their proportions or how strong and muscular they are. In the end, these preferences left more healthy offspring than the individuals with different proportions (Grammer et al 2003, 387). Thus, biological symmetry is ‘selected’ as it can be understood as ‘sexual signalling’, that an attractive appearance is related with good health, such as immune function, oxidative stress, and semen quality (Foo et al 2017, 2; Grammer et al 2003, 387).

Aside from the biological theories though, there is plenty of evidence of people attempting to appear more attractive. There are sociological-centred biological studies that have shown that people of an ethnic group share common attractiveness standards (Iliffe 1960). In this standard, it seems that attractiveness and sexual attraction are one and the same and cultural or arbitrary denominators are not absolute in the consensus of attractiveness (Grammer et al 2003, 388). For example, the sculpture of Venus of Willendorf that dates 25.000 years ago (cf. Kuiper 2018), found near the village of Willendorf in north eastern Austria, could represent the beauty standards of the time; robust and exaggerated sexual female features with plaited or braided hair, similar to hair styles that we now find in different regions of Africa (Adovasio et al 2007). This sculpture can show what was considered beautiful and sexualized on women at the time in the region.


Physical symmetry and beautification in relation to cultural understanding

Along with the Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Milos was a subject of sexualization. The goddess of sexuality and beauty has been perceived as a sexual icon, although it is not suggestive in any way in her posture specifically. However, her physicality has a great role to do with this. The art work by Salvador Dali of his version of Venus of Milos, Venus de Milo with Drawers, speaks for itself (cf. Art institute Chicago 2018).

Facial and bodily symmetry is a characteristic that is often understood as attractive (Grammer et al 2003, 387). The ancient Greeks and Egyptians used anthropometry, for measurement purposes, mostly for the construction of structures and later to create art with the measurements of the body (Foat 1915). Most of their sculptures, structures and artistic depictions were made after this understanding of proportional anthropometry. In the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci created the Vitruvian man and the Golden ration to depict a symmetrical face, reasoning from the idea that this symmetry equaled beauty. The measurements of Leonardo were used a lot in art and architecture. However, the main purpose of creating the Vitruvian man and understanding the physicality of the body was because Leonardo believed that it could be understood as an analogy for the workings of the universe. His fascination over the anatomy of all beings could also be connected to his thirst for understanding how the universe works (Heydenreich 2017).

The psychology of nakedness

Cultural and societal standards are the ones that push us to think that nudity is shameful and ‘weird’ to show in public. According to psychologists Paul Bindrim (1968, 1969) and Leonard Blank (1969), sexual feelings are likely a learned behavioural response to social nudity, as the naked body is associated with love making. They added that exposure to nudity in different social contexts, such as in beaches or shared changing rooms, could have allowed the practice of social nudity without the feeling of arousal. Smith and King (2008) expressed that our set feelings about social nudity seen in demonstrations or in art, are established by the mainstream cultural context. The practice of allowing social nudity in these specific areas of our society can help change these set feelings. For example, the sauna culture in Scandinavia has helped accept social nudity in public places (North 2020).

         According to West (2018), annual exposure to social nudity and correct sex education can help with body image, self-esteem and overall life satisfaction. In his paper, he conducted three different surveys investigating the kind of naturistic activities people were participating in and their frequency. With this, the surveys tried to establish who among the participants could be regarded as nudist. Two of the surveys were seeking to understand the overall feelings of the individuals after their naturist activities. Most of the participants noted that they felt better about their body image and had more self-confidence.

Sex education

The articles mentioned above note that sex education is important for the public to understand safe sex, what is sexuality and how it can be expressed. In a way, sex education desensitizes the public taboo-thinking about sex. Sex education needs to be expanded to what is sexuality and how it should be approached. In this way, young adults are aware of the social construct of gender and that they are free to express themselves however they want to.

         UNESCO (2009) created the ‘International guidelines on sexuality education: an evidence informed approach to effective sex, relationships and HIV/STI education’. As it is mentioned in its title, it is a guideline for the governments could use for why and what to include in sex education and this kind of education increases the usage of contraception and decreases on teenage birth rates (UNESCO 2009, 12). Due to the very vague guidelines, it is good to take into account that recent survey studies have come up to show more results. Specifically, the state of Washington released a data survey ‘Comprehensive sexual health education data survey’ in 2019 (Taylor 2019). This report was part of a US legislation in regards to public funding and it was accounting for the relationship between sex education taught from secondary schools onwards and mental health. The sex education in this report, that was conducted between 2013 and 2018, takes into account, that anti LGBTQ+ ideas play a role in decreased mental health in early ages of adolescence, youth harassment, bullying, and suicide rates due to a lack of uniformed and comprehensive sex education in the state of Washington. We then see a connection between the incorrect teaching about sexuality and decreased mental health.


The goal of this piece was to analyse the sometimes, negative perception of nudity in our modern society. Beautification is something that is innocent and can romanticise what we have all around us such as Leonardo did with the Vitruvian man or Dali with Venus de Milo. Sexualization however, is something that we should limit. It is an act and a condition pushed by society’s standards and ideologies. Sexualization pushes us to think that all nudity needs to be and is sexual, but it does not have to be. From the studies mentioned above, the more social nudity people experience and take part in, the more self-confident and happier they feel about their lives. Maybe we should look at nudity more with the fascinating eye of Lara and the Greek and Roman sculptures to understand that it is just part of our humanity and it can be beautiful and expressed in innocent ways. Sex education can help with making the society more accepting and open-minded about social nudity and sexuality.


Foteini Tsigoni

Foteini Tsigoni is in her final year of Archaeology and Anthropology BA studies at the university of Leiden. She has worked on fieldwork projects in Greece, Italy and the Netherlands. At the moment she is researching about the reception of Late Roman/Late Antique heritage in Greece and Turkey and how archaeological sites connect with national identity.




Thank you so much for reading the first edition of the ICA this year about Semiotics!

In case you have any questions concerning the articles, authors, or copyright, do not hesitate to contact us through email, Instagram, or Study Association Itiwana. We look forward to future editions of the ICA from next year’s ICA committee.

Stay Tuned for the second edition of the ICA coming later this year!









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