From the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement Vol. 26, Issue 2.
Semasiology: A Theory for the Precision of Meaning

It was Drid Williams’s intellectual ambition to pursue a “precision of meaning” within a social anthropological framework. Her goal was to provide researchers interested in the dance and other human-movement systems with rigorous theoretical resources, grounded in a new metaphysics of person and equipped with ethnographic methods capable of illuminating the all-pervasive realms of human-movement practices now viewed as “action.” She wanted to show anthropology and the social sciences generally that a rigorous science of human beings was possible, not via a natural science model of “matter in motion,” but instead as “human beings in action” with signifying movement the epitome of human agency.

That she achieved this is clear (see Varela, this issue), although the scientific ambition of her project was often viewed with skepticism by those who tended to conflate scientific rigor with positivism rather than the new realism. Looking back, we can suggest that the unconventional grounding of her theory in the philosophy of science was not understood, and her formalism may have discouraged other anthropologists from taking up semasiological ideas, despite the fact that the formal structures of the theory were not deterministic, but resources ‘to think with’ at different analytic levels. In addition, and in retrospect, we can see how the postmodern turn toward humanism and experimental approaches to writing led many anthropological investigators away from analytic rigor of the structuralist variety and toward new interdisciplinary sources of inspiration and theorizing.

Drid Williams’s 1982 paper about “semasiology” was the first professional presentation of her theory to the social anthropology community in the United Kingdom. It was published in the twenty-second volume of the annual monograph series of the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) following an ASA conference on “Semantic Anthropology” held at Durham, March 30-April 2, 1982. In his preface to that volume, editor David Parkin notes a connection to an earlier ASA conference at Sussex University in 1969 and subsequent annual monograph, edited by Edwin Ardener (1971) entitled Social Anthropology and Language. Prior to 1969, Parkin reminds us, British social anthropology regarded the study of language and study of societies as separate endeavors: language was considered merely “a tool either of field work or for understanding the apparent exotica of the ‘other’” (Parkin 1982: v). Since Ardener was Williams’s academic supervisor at Oxford University from 1971 to 1975, it is no surprise to learn that she was deeply influenced by the significant new interest in language, which, according to Parkin, shaped much of the most interesting developments in British social anthropology in the 1970s.

This paradigm shift entailed an entirely different concept of the relationship of language to social life, one largely inspired by the Saussurian roots of Levi-Strauss’s structuralism. This entailed a definition of human beings as fundamentally meaning-making creatures––hence, the title “semantic anthropology.” Unfortunately, although inspired by Sauusurian ideas, Levi-Strauss’s “structures of the mind,” in fact, presented a psychological determinism of a Freudian kind, and, at the same time, he applied a linguistic model that was influential as an anthropological approach to scientific rigor. It is probable that Williams’s use of a linguistic analogy was read through a Levi-Straussian lens rather than a Saussurian one, and hence misunderstood.

It was the Saussurian concept of signification, however, that inspired Williams to explore its possible relevance to understanding and analyzing human movement, thus, the concept of the “signifying body.” Williams employed a linguistic analogy (not a linguistic model) by utilizing several Saussurian concepts to explore how they might (or might not) be applicable to understanding human movement systems. She not only developed the basic semasiological concept of the “action sign” (signifier and signified) but also employed the concepts of la langue/la parole, as ways of talking about the systemic features of distinct movement systems in contrast to performance features; and (following Ardener’s adaptation of these Saussurian terms within a cybernetic frame) paradigmatic and syntagmatic structures, as they applied to different layers of meaning in movement systems across different cultural contexts.

In the opening paragraphs of the 1982 article, Williams identifies three pillars of a semasiological approach to an anthropology of human movement: action, translation, and movement literacy. In brief, “action” was to replace ‘behavior’ as a means to foreground the agency of moving persons. Her attention to translation addressed a pervasive problem of universalist assumptions about human movement (as ‘body language’) at the time, which she succinctly corrected by insisting that “what looks the same does not mean the same.” In addition, Williams was a champion of movement literacy––the ability to read and write the movement itself using the writing system Labanotation (or Laban Script). She viewed movement literacy as an invaluable resource that could institute not only new methods of ethnographic documentation and analysis but also facilitate new conceptualizations of movement and movement practices, just as spoken language literacy had enabled new ways of thinking about spoken language systems.

Williams argued that movement is a medium available for unlimited human expression that, like spoken language, is an open system when it comes to meaning-making potential. However, she also considered it possible to consider “all possible human movement” as finite, given the anatomical structure of homo sapiens sapiens that we all share.

As a doctoral student at Oxford, Williams attended Rom Harré’s lectures in the philosophy of science as these were being worked out for a philosophy of "Personal Being" (Harré 1984). This convinced her that human agency was indeed real—which could only mean that human action as signifying movement was the incarnation of the free agency of human beings.

It was Rom Harré’s lectures in the philosophy of science, which Williams attended as a doctoral student at Oxford, as these were worked out for a philosophy of “Personal Being” (Harré 1984), that convinced her that human agency was indeed real––which could only mean that human action as signifying movement was the incarnation of the free agency of human beings.

The aforementioned linguistic/semantic turn in social anthropology also included an embrace of ‘reflexivity’ as an increased critical self-awareness on the part of investigators. Parkin notes that “‘reflexive anthropology’ or ‘critical anthropology’ could have been equally relevant titles” for the 1982 conference (1982: v). Williams early response to the reflexive turn was encapsulated in a stringent critique of her own preanthropological writings in an essay titled “An Exercise in Applied Personal Anthropology” (Williams 1976). In her anthropology teaching at New York University, she always began her training of graduate students with David Pocock’s concept of “a personal anthropology” as a necessary precondition to the study of social anthropology (Pocock 1961, [1973]1994).

It is interesting to observe that semasiology preceded the explosion of interdisciplinary literature on “the body” that dominated the social sciences and humanities in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Investigators interested in ‘the body’ and processes of embodiment did not embrace semasiology, however, as investigations focused on topics such as the sexual body, the political body, the decorated body, the gendered body, and so forth: the body as social and cultural certainly, but not, for the most part, as a feature of dynamic personhood. Investigators perhaps found it hard to imagine how the moving body might ‘mean’ at all beyond a kind of emotional incontinence, far less contribute to our understanding of social structure and cultural practices.

It is arguable, but not unreasonable, to take the position that the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular have not yet caught up to Williams’s vision of semasiology as a way to engage in a genuine semantic science of human movement. For anyone interested in the signifying body, Williams’s work provides an original formulation of a way to do that which remains promising.

References Cited:

Ardener, Edwin
1971. Social Anthropology and Language. ASA Monograph 10. London: Tavistock.

Bhaskar, Roy
1979. The Possibility of Naturalism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Harré, Rom
1984. Personal Being. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Parkin, David. (ed.)
1982. Semantic Anthropology. ASA Monograph 22. London: Academic Press.

Pocock, David
1961. Social Anthropology. London: Sheed & Ward.
[1973]1994. The Idea of a Personal Anthropology. Paper presented to the decennial meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists. Published in the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement 8: 11-42.

Varela, Charles R.
2009. Science for Humanism: The Recovery of Human Agency. London: Routledge.

Williams, Drid
1976. An Exercise in Applied Personal Anthropology. Dance Research Journal 9(1): 16-30. Congress on Research in Dance (CORD), New York University. Reprinted as Appendix 1, in Ten Lectures on Theories of the Dance, 1991. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press: 287-321.
1982. Semasiology: A Semantic Anthropologist’s View of Human Movements and Actions. In Semantic Anthropology (ed. D. Parkin). London: Academic Prss: 161-182.