Experiments in semiotic analysis: Dig for Victory

An important part of my research project is to understand the potential meanings that people can draw from Ministry of Information propaganda posters of the Second World War. By investigating how people interpret these images and what thoughts and memories come to mind when they look at them, I should be able to understand what power the images hold today and what role they play in modern British culture.

So, to uncover the potential meanings in the images, I want to conduct semiotic analyses to identify the signs in the images and the different connotations they could hold. I can then use this analysis in conjunction with survey and interview data to see which of the connotations are really present when real people look at the images. I have never worked with semiotics and visual images before so I’m going to detail my process so far with one particular image – the Dig for Victory spade image.

My first step was to pick out all of the different visual signs in the image that could hold some meaning. I wanted to cover everything, so as well as the individual objects, I also identified colours, words and separated out the ‘whole image’ and the ‘whole photograph’. The descriptions of the signs are shown in relation to the image below.

For each of the signs I identified, I listed as many denotations and connotations as I could think of. The denotation is the literal meaning, the word or words we use to describe that object. So, for example, the denotation of the background colour is ‘red’ and the denotation of the background of the photograph (the sky) is ‘good weather/sunshine’. The connotation is then the broader interpretation of that sign, which is based on the cultural context of the person doing the interpretation. So, the sky in the background of the photograph could have a connotation of ‘hope’.

Since defining the connotation is so subjective, I am attempting to define as many potential connotations as possible, so that the interpretation of others may be covered in the list. I can then see how survey respondents interpret the image compared to the lists I have identified.

Visual Signifier (code) Visual Signifier (description) Denotation Connotation
A Whole image Poster Wartime
A Whole image Poster Propaganda
B Background colour Red Command
B Background colour Red Danger
B Background colour Red Stop
B Background colour Red Britain
B Background colour Red Patriotism
C Slogan: Dig for Victory Sans serif font Command
C Slogan: Dig for Victory Sans serif font Official/Government
C Slogan: Dig for Victory White
C Slogan: Dig for Victory Imperative mood Command
C Slogan: Dig for Victory Imperative mood Official/Government
C Slogan: Dig for Victory Imperative mood Urgency
C Slogan: Dig for Victory Imperative mood Importance
D “Dig” Dig Physical exertion
D “Dig” Dig Farming
D “Dig” Dig Gardening
D “Dig” Dig Effort (‘dig deep’)
E “Victory” Victory Wartime
E “Victory” Victory Celebration
E “Victory” Victory Excitement
E “Victory” Victory Patriotism
E “Victory” Victory Nationalism
F Whole photograph Digging in soil Farming
F Whole photograph Digging in soil Gardening
F Whole photograph Digging in soil Physical exertion
F Whole photograph Digging in soil Masculinity
F Whole photograph Digging in soil Strength
F Whole photograph Digging in soil Effort (‘dig deep’)
F Whole photograph Upward camera angle Status
F Whole photograph Upward camera angle Admiration/respect
F Whole photograph Upward camera angle Emulation
F Whole photograph Upward camera angle Powerful
F Whole photograph Upward camera angle Heavenly
G Sky Good weather/sunshine Positivity
G Sky Good weather/sunshine Future
G Sky Good weather/sunshine Hope
H Ground Loose soil Fertility
H Ground Loose soil Growth
H Ground Loose soil Food
H Ground Dirt Dirtiness
H Ground Dirt Ordinariness
H Ground Dirt Humbleness
I Spade Digging tool Ordinariness
I Spade Digging tool Strength
I Spade Digging tool Hard work
I Spade Digging tool Farming
I Spade Digging tool Gardening
I Spade Digging tool Growth
I Spade Dirt Dirtiness
I Spade Dirt Ordinariness
I Spade Dirt Humbleness
J Boot and leg Boot Ordinariness
J Boot and leg Boot Masculinity
J Boot and leg Boot Hard work
J Boot and leg Digging/pushing action Strength
J Boot and leg Digging/pushing action Masculinity

Using the data from this semiotic analysis, I have used Google Fusion Tables to create a network graph to show the links between the signs and the denotations. So I can more easily see which denotations are shared by different signs and which are more central. For example, ‘strength’, ‘command’ and ‘patriotism’ each have several links with different signs, so perhaps these are more likely to form part of people’s overall interpretation of the image

Clearly this is a process which I need to consider carefully, in order that it is consistent and all interpretations are covered in the analysis. I’d appreciate any suggestions and pointers from anyone who has done similar analysis of visual images – please drop me an email with your thoughts!

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1 thought on “Experiments in semiotic analysis: Dig for Victory”

  1. Why was a spade used and not a fork?
    Does the spade represent a solid face, unified and strong, whereas the fork could be seen a divisive and split?

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