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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 impli