Levi-Straussian Semiotic Analysis

[Please note that included in this description of the levi-straussian method, are many examples of application that are my own, and which I hope to publish someday. Please do not utilize without proper attribution!]

Levi-Strauss says that people think via semiotic processes such as analogy. For example, they use relationships among animals to understand relationships among kin groups, or among types of cooking. 

More generally, the idea is that well-understood relationships are used as metaphors for less understood relationships. I believe that two fundamental relationships used for thinking are based on sex and age, as these are the fundamental bases for social differentiation (and the only ones universal to all human societies). Consequently, I would expect these two basic ideas to show up in our thinking about many things, albeit in transformed ways. More on that later. Levi-strauss didn't talk about age and sex, but he did use elaboration (transformation or developedness) and nature/culture. Elaboration is basically like age. It is about developmental processes. Nature/culture is a more qualitative distinction. Levi-Strauss, in his famous analysis of the raw, the cooked and the rotten, saw this triangle, in native thought, as being formed by the elaboration and nature/culture distinctions. Food starts as Raw, and then is transformed by either natural or cultural processes. Cultural processes yield Cooked food. Natural processes yield Rotten food.

Two meta-relationships (relations of relations) are employed: metonymy, and metaphor.

Metaphor is signification via similarity or analogy: the relationship between supervisor and subordinate is like the relationship between father and son or mother and daughter. "The ship plowed the sea".

Metonymy is where the part stands in for the whole. It is fundamentally signification via juxtaposition and contiguity. Examples of metonymy: "the suits" (executives), the brains (smart people), hands (laborers), HQ (the people in the main office, the governing group), Wall Street (financial sector), skirts (women), "All I have to offer is blood, sweat, and tears." (Technically, some of these are synecdoche (e.g., hands). Synecdoche occurs when we use a part to stand for the whole. Metonymy is when something closely associated is used to stand in for something else, like using "skirts" to refer to women.).

A crown signifies a royalty because of metonymy. But a margarine that uses a crown for a logo uses metonymy to get to royalty and then signifies quality by metaphor: this margarine is to other margarines what royalty are to other persons. Smoke signifies fire by metonymy, but the "smoking gun" of lawyers is (usually) a metaphor.

See Barley's semiotics pieces ("the codes of the dead", 1983, Urban Life; "Semiotics and culture", 1983, ASQ) for more information.

Binary Oppositions

Humans readily see opposites. Given the color "white", people recognize "black" as its opposite. When we label skin color as white and black (even though the skin colors of whites and of African Americans are not white or black), we set ourselves up to contrast the races. It seems "natural" that if the colors are opposites, so are the races. White and Brown would not have that sense of opposition, and, by this theory, might have led to very different racial cognitions and relations.

Given night, we recognize day as the opposite. Given east, there is west. Up - down. In - out. Us -- Them. Nature -- Culture (nurture). This does not mean that we see everything in binary. For example, we may contrast land with sea and with air: a trichotomy. But dichotomies are far more common in people's minds. And of course any trichotomy can be constructed from a pair of dichotomies. Think about the three colors of traffic lights. Suppose there are two distinctions: First, red light (stop) vs other lights (go), second, Green light (safe) vs other lights (danger). Therefore, the meaning of yellow is "not stop" and "not safe", which leaves go+danger = caution. 

Via analogies, people use dichotomies to think with. For example, if they associate black with evil, then they will tend to associate the opposite of black (white) with the opposite of evil (good). This creates a kind of calculus:

:: Evil

This is similar to how we navigate streets when we think a city is laid out as a grid. For example, we think: "Comm ave crosses Gloucester st., so they are perpendicular. Gloucester is parallel to berkeley, and boylston is parallel to comm ave, so Gloucester crosses boylston". (Of course, Boston streets are laid out specifically to thwart this kind of thinking.)


We can also construct chains of binary oppositions:


Such chains act as a form of mental "derivation" of meaning. A distinction in one realm (research methods) is transformed via a chain of analogical reasoning into a distinction in another realm. Persuasive speeches often have this essential structure. A politician for example, compares herself to her opponent. She says of herself that she is for "compassion for the disadvantaged", leaving the opposite to be associated with the opponent.

Organizational Theory

The culture of organizational theorists is particularly susceptible to levi-straussian analysis. Here is a summary and some excerpts from a paper given at a recent conference by Tom Hench. He starts by comparing the Newtonian view of the physical world with the nonlinear systems view:

World View Nature Math Principles
newtonian dominate calculus continuous determinate reductionistic independent universal
non-linear partner with geometry discontinuous indeterminate holistic interdependent situated


Management People Structure Principles  
newtonian done to them hierarchical plan lead organize control top-down
non-linear done with them heterarchical experiment serve self-organize learn bottom-up


newtonian mechanical action pregiven world extrinsic forces world of matter independent atoms
non-linear biological growth enacted world self-referencing world of information interdependent networks


  Evolution   Principles
newtonian natural selection engineer competition centralized sequential
non-linear self-organization bricoleur coopetition decentralized parallel


Kin-based view of the firm

Formal organizations are relatively new in human history (say, 10,000 years). To think about them, people probably transferred concepts from other domains, such as the family or the tribe.

Hierarchical relationships founded on parent/child relation?

Manager father
employee son

If you examine old texts, you see that a paternalistic relationship between manager and employee is not unusual. In fact, the practice of promoting based on seniority almost guarantees the age differences that contribute to this.  It is not unusual for a supervisor to think of subordinates as children.

In terms of the two fundamental bases of social differentiation (age and sex), we can see father/son or supervisor/subordinate as basically encoding the age dimension. It is what Levi-Strauss would associate with elaboration or transformation.  Cooked vs raw.

cooked clean brains mind core developed
raw dirty hands body periphery undeveloped

The Chairman/President relation is quite similar:

Chairman older vision past passive GrFa kindly wisdom  
President younger operations present active father busy authority  

Age is like promotion, stages.

Hypothesis: A company that taps into these basic beliefs feels right to employees. No need for worry. Doesn't cause any special interest/alarm.

GrFa Chairman
son employee

Hypothesis: Line/staff distinction founded on traditional spousal relations? (GENDER)

line up/down (orgchart) action active husband
staff left/right support passive wife


Human resource (personnel department) professionals tend to be women. Line managers tend to be men. Both take care of help "bring-up" employees. But in general, the HR dept is more gentle, and is charged with protecting the employee from management abuses -- unfairness, harassment, etc.

Mentoring relationships. Senior, but can be honest and free with. Fun. Helpful. An uncle, not like your dad.

Mentor powerful ally uncle      
mentee ego nephew      


Changing organizational forms:

kinship hierarchy
friendship network


Other Analogies


The notion of value-added:

raw inputs
cooked outputs


Socialization processes:


Types of Association

homeopathic magic functional org paradigm metaphor harmony equivalence grid
contagious magic product org syntagm metonymy melody cohesion group


Traditional Sex differences in US:

men active smart focused serious technical things science outer quantitative
women passive dumb ditzy trivial social people humanities inner qualitatitive


men outside rough barbaric hard war mars kill dangerous
women inside smooth civilized soft love venus nurture safe


men competitive hierarchical status
women cooperative relational equality


men line technical core scientific management task outer
women staff people jobs human relations needs inner


Like hemlines: there is a cognitive dimension here with two poles, so over time the latest thinking moves us slowly from one pole to the other, and back again.

One common and important objective in qualitative data analysis is discovering (or "exposing", for more ideologically driven people) the folk theories underlying behavior. That is, cultural schemas.

Of course, when the culture is our own, we often have difficulty distinguishing theories from "facts". Here is a quotation from Charles Cooley, who is reflecting a classic bit of folk theorizing:

"What you know about a man consists in part of flashes of vision as to what he would do in particular situations, how he would look, speak, move; it is by such flashes that you judge whether he is brave or a coward, hasty or deliberate, honest or false, kind or cruel..."

Personalities and personality traits are theories that we use to make sense of (explain) behavior, especially verbal behavior.

One thing that is interesting to look at is how much of academic thinking is based on ancient elements of folk culture. Often what is thought to be a discovery about something out there (e.g. organizations, or leadership), is actually a discovery (really, an articulation) of something in the macro-culture within which researchers are embedded. Possible examples:

When your Intro to OB textbook discusses schools of thought, you will find theories oriented towards the tasks/technical aspects of organizations and theories oriented toward the human/relational aspects, and theories trying to bridge the gap. (Barley says we are in the middle of a relational-dominated wave right now: 15 years from now it will be task dominated. Although in every age there are contrarians). When you get to the textbook chapter on leadership, it says that there are two kinds of leaders, social (aka expressive) and task (aka instrumental). When you read about motivation, you find Hertzberg's distinguishing between hygiene factors (pay, security, working conditions, benefits, policies and practices, etc.) and motivators (feelings). When you read about teams, you hear that group development proceeds on two dimensions: task activity (the job) and group process (interpersonal). When you study conflict, you learn there is task and relational conflict. Roles within teams are either task-oriented (brainstorming) or maintenance roles (managing cohesion, warmth) In decision making, there are rational perspectives versus garbage can and bounded perspectives, as well as cognitive decision making styles which are either left hemisphere (logical) or right hemisphere (relational). In the power chapter you find there are formal (authority, position) and informal (charisma, network) sources of power. Even within organizational structures, we understand there are mechanistic structures and there are organic structures.

And in the world at large, did you know that men build systems while women build relationships? Men are hierarchical while women are ...

My question is: do all these phenomena just happen to break down along similar lines, or is it that we can't help but apply the same lens to everything we see?

Here's an idea. All human societies have a division of labor/behavior based on sex and age. there are hunter-gatherer groups that make no other distinctions. Suppose there are real and enduring differences between people based on sex and age (or, they are culturally determined but they have been in place since homo erectus times so they are totally ingrained). These differences are then applied to everything. This kind of metaphorical, analogical thinking seems fundamental to people. It is how totemism works. The differences between the fundamental things (ages and sexes) become tools to think with. When we think about something new, like organizations, we apply our cultural tools and "see" that there are two kinds of managers, task and social. When we look at our lives, we see that there is both work and family, professional/personal, etc.

So what effect does age have? The age tools provide us with developmental and stage theories. Group development moves from forming to storming to norming to performing. Products and organizations and careers all have life cycles. etc etc.

Transformation is like getting older.



Analysis of the MDS picture of traits (from Burton):