Representation 2: Representation Concepts

How are things represented (in English language and culture)?

Why does it matter how things are represented?

How can we think and talk about representation (what language tools can we draw on)?

This part of the course introduces students to some basic English language cultural studies concepts, drawing on post-structuralist theory, including semiotics, discourse and ideology.

These theories will help us talk about how different kinds of things are represented, and how those representations help to constitute a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and are thus linked to aspects of identity/non-identity and belonging/not belonging.

We will consider different kinds of representations including women and men, migrants and locals, rural and urban people, and poor people and wealthy people. To consider these and other forms of representation we will draw on a variety of English language texts.

Reflective; intentional; constructionist (approaches to understanding how language works)

  • Do language and other forms of language-like representation simply reflect a meaning which already exists out there in the world of objects, people and events (the reflective approach, language reflects things/essences)?
  • Does language express only what the speaker or writer or painter wants to say; her personally intended meaning (the intentional approach)?
  • Or is meaning constructed in and through language (the constructionist approach)?

Let’s begin to address this by thinking about what it means to represent something.

To represent something is to describe or depict it, to call it up in the mind
by description or portrayal or imagination.

It is to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in the senses; as, for example. in the sentence, This picture represents the murder of Abel by Cain.


To represent also means to symbolize, stand for, to be a specimen of, or to
substitute for; as in the sentence, In Christianity, the cross represents the
suffering and crucifixion of Christ.

The figures in the painting stand in the place of, and at the same time, stand
for the story of Cain and Abel.

man-cross-necklace-400Likewise, the cross simply consists of two wooden planks nailed together.

But in the context of Christian belief and teaching it takes on a wider set of meanings about the crucifixion of the Son of God.


Representation Exercise

Here is a simple exercise about representation.

Look at any familiar object in the room. You will immediately recognize what it is. But how do you know what the object is’? What does ‘recognize’ mean?

Now try to make yourself conscious of what you are doing- observe what
is going on as you do it.

You recognize what it is because your thought processes decode your visual perception of the object in terms of a concept of it which you have in your head.

This must be so because, if you look away from the object, you can still think about it by conjuring it up ‘in your mind’s eye.’

Try to follow the process as it happens: There is the object and there is the concept in your head which tells you what your visual image of it means.

Now, tell me what it is (if your mind’s image is in Chinese, that’s fine, but translate it for me).

The concept of the object has passed through your mental representation of it to me via the word for it which you have just used.

So words are a kind of representation. They stand for or represent the concept, and can be used to reference or designate either a ·real’ object in the world or even some imaginary object.

Let’s think about another example to show how word representations work.

If you put down a pen you are holding and walk out of the room,
you can still think about the pen, even though it is no longer physically

Actually, you can’t think with a pen. You can only think with the
concept of the pen.

As the linguists are fond of saying, ‘Dogs bark. But the concept of “dog” cannot hark or bite.’

You can’t speak with the actual pen, either. You can only speak with the word for a pen – PEN – which refers to objects which you write with.

Refining the concept: representation, systems of representation

So let’s refine our concept of what representation is:

Representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language.

It is the link between concepts and language which enables us to refer to either the ‘real’ world of objects, people or events, or to imaginary worlds, objects, people and events.

So there are two processes, two systems of representation, involved.

First system of representation: conceptual maps

First, there is the ‘system’ by which all sorts of objects, people and events are
correlated with a set of concepts or mental representations which we carry
around in our heads.

Meaning depends on the system of concepts and images formed in our thoughts which can represent’ the world of objects, people and events, enabling us to refer to things both inside and outside our heads.

This a ‘system of representation

  • it consists not of individual concepts,
  • but of different ways of organizing. clustering. arranging and classifying concepts, and of establishing complex relations between them.

For example, we use the principles of similarity and difference to establish relationships between concepts or to distinguish them from one another.

For example,  we could have the idea that birds are like planes in the sky, based on the fact that they are similar because they both fly.

But we can also have an idea that they are different, because one is part of nature whilst the other is man-made.

This mixing and matching of relations between concepts to form complex ideas and thoughts is possible because our concepts are arranged into different classifying systems.

In this example, the first is based on a distinction between flying/not flying and the second is based on the distinction between natural/man-made. So the idea of a bird begins to become complex idea, based on its relationship to other concepts when these are organized in terms of similarity (planes) and difference (man-made).

There are other principles of organization like this at work in all conceptual systems.

For example, classifying according to sequence – which concept follows which.

Or classifying according to causality – what causes what – and so on.

The conceptual system

Conceptual systems of representation involve concepts organized, arranged and classified into complex relations with one another.

This process operates as mental representations of things in the world (objects, events, people).

Meaning depends on the relationship between things in the world – people, objects and events, real or fictional – and the conceptual system. It is sometimes referred to as a conceptual map, a conceptual map of the world.

Second system of representation: language

Our shared conceptual map must be translated into a common language so that we can correlate our concepts and ideas with certain spoken sounds, written words, or visual images.

The general term we use for words, sounds or images which carry meaning is signs. These signs stand for or represent the concepts and the conceptual relations between them which we carry around in our heads and together they make up the meaning-systems of our culture.

Signs are organized into languages and it is the existence of common languages which enable us to translate our thoughts [concepts) into words, sounds or images, and then to use these operating as a language, to express meanings and communicate thoughts to other people.

Conceptual maps + Language = meaning process

At the heart of the meaning process in culture, then, are two related ‘systems
of representation’

The first enables us to give meaning to the world by constructing a set of correspondences or a chain of equivalences between things -people, objects, events, abstract ideas, etc. – and our system of concepts, our conceptual maps.

The second depends on constructing a set of correspondences between our conceptual map and a set of signs, arranged or organized into various languages which stand for or represent those concepts.

The relation between ‘things’, concepts and signs lies at the heart of the production of meaning in language. The process which links these three elements together is what we call ‘representation’

Reflective, intentional, constructionist approaches

Where do meanings come from?
How can we tell the “true” meaning of a word?

The reflective, intentional and constructionist approaches are three different ways of explaining how representation of meaning works through language.

In the reflective approach, meaning is thought to lie in the object, person, idea
or event in the real world. and language functions like a mirror, to reflect the
true meaning as it already exists in the world.

As the poet Gertrude Stein once said. “A rose is a rose is a rose”.

In the fourth century BC. the Greeks used the
notion of mimesis to explain how language. even drawing and painting,The-Iliad-by-Homer-
mirrored or imitated Nature.

They thought of Homer’s great poem, The Iliad as
‘mutating’ a heroic series of events.

So the theory which says that language works by simply reflecting or imitating the truth that is already there and fixed in the world, is sometimes called ‘mimetic’


The intentional approach to meaning in representation argues that the speaker imposes his or her unique meaning on the world through language. Words mean what the author intends they should mean.

This approach to meaning in representation often feels true, in a common sense way.


For example, the man in this image is using a hand signal to tell his dog to sit, and it is likely that he feels that his gesture expresses his intention (that the dog should sit).

There is also a particular point to this argument since we all, as individuals, use language to convey or communicate things which are special or unique to us, to our way of seeing the world.


The constructionist approach argues that we construct meaning, we make it, using representational systems – concepts + signs.

The language system represents our concepts and conveys meaning.

Social actors use the conceptual systems of their culture and the linguistic representational systems to make the world meaningful and to communicate about that world meaningfully to others.


Colours as representation: the traffic lights example.

A traffic light is a machine which produces different coloured lights in sequence. The effect of light of different wavelengths on the eye – which is a natural and material phenomenon –- produces the sensation of different colours.


These things exist in the material world.

But it is our culture which breaks the spectrum of light into different colours, distinguishes them from one another and attaches names – Red, Green, Yellow, Blue – to them.

We use a way of classifying the colour spectrum to create colours which are different from one another. We represent or symbolize the different colours and classify them according to different colour-concepts.

Different cultures may divide the colour spectrum differently.

Even when cultures classifying in the same or very similar ways, they certainly use different actual words or letters to identify different colours: what the Anglophone calls ‘red’, the French call ‘rouge’, the Italians call ‘rosso’, and so on.

Comparing language systems for colours

Let’s just do a quick comparative (English/Chinese) classifying system for the following colours:

Red, green, yellow, purple, black, white, brown, grey.

What meanings are associated with the concepts of the colours in each language. When or how might the Chinese and English words for the colours be used?

The exercise tell us that the representations for the colours are coded differently.

A linguistic code correlates certain words (signs) with certain colours (concepts), and enables us to communicate about colours to other people, using ‘the language of colours.’

But how do we use this representational or symbolic system to regulate the

traffic-light-png-389Colours do not have any ‘true’ or fixed meaning. Red does not mean ‘Stop’ in nature. Green does not mean ‘Go’ in nature. In other settings, Red may stand for, symbolize or represent ‘Blood’ or ‘Danger’ or ‘Communism’: and Green may represent ‘Ireland’ or ‘The Countryside’ or ‘Environmentalism.’

Red and Green work in the language of traffic lights because ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ are the meanings which have been assigned to them in our culture by the code or conventions governing this language.

This code is widely known
and almost universally obeyed in our culture and cultures like ours- thoughwe can well imagine other cultures which did not possess the code, in which
this language would be a complete mystery.

According to the constructionist approach to representation, colours and the
‘language of traffic lights’ work as a signifying or representational system.

Recall the two representational systems we spoke of earlier.

  • First, there is the conceptual map of colours in a culture – the way colours are distinguished from one another, classified and arranged in our mental universe.
  • Secondly, there are the ways words are correlated with colours in our language – our linguistic colour-codes.

A language of colours consists of how the different words for colours function in relation to one another.

Question: Does it matter which colours we use for traffic lights?

No, because what signifies is not the colours themselves but:

(a) the fact that they are different and can be distinguished from one another;

(b) the fact that they are organized into a particular sequence – Red followed by Green, with sometimes a warning Amber in between which says, in effect, ‘Get ready! Lights about to change!

Any combination of colours would do, provided they are sufficiently different not to be confused.

Constructionists might express this idea by saying that all the colours are ‘arbitrary’ ‘Arbitrary’ means that there is no natural relationship between the colur and its meaning or concept.

Since Red only means ‘Stop’ because that is how the colour code works. in principle any colour could represent the concept of “stop”, including Green.

We might say that the following is a traffic management code:

amber = wait/get ready

green = go

red = stop

It is the code that fixes the meaning, not the colour itself.

Representation exercise: An arbitrary code

a. have a quick think about the traffic management code. How else might we represent the concepts of stop, wait, go?


b.i. Look at the colour chart for dining table napkins on the screen and see if you recognize all of the colours named. What can you say about the code that has been used?

b.ii. Now design a different set of names for the colours, based on your own code.

Language, representation, codes.

Let’s recap.

So far we have seen that, In the constructionist approach, symbols themselves cannot fix meaning. Instead, meaning depends on the relation between a symbol and a concept which is fixed by a code. Meaning is ‘relational’.

Languages work through representation, they are ‘systems of representation’.

Different ways of producing and communicating meaning ‘work like languages’.

  • traffic lights use red, green and amber- to ‘say something’
  • Spoken language uses sounds,
  • written language uses words,
  • musical language uses notes on a scale,
  • the language of facial expression uses ways of arranging one’s features,
  • the ‘language of the body’ uses physical gesture.
  • the fashion industry uses items of clothing,
  • television/shouji/laptops uses digitally or electronically produced dots on a screen,

These elements – sounds, words, notes, gestures, expressions, clothes – don’t have any clear meaning in themselves.

They are the vehicles or media which stand for or represent (i.e. symbolize) the meanings we wish to communicate.

Language, representation, meaning, culture

Language constructs meaning and sustains dialogue based on shared understanding. It does so by working as a representational system.

In language, we use symbols – whether they are coloured lights, sounds, written
words, electronically produced images, musical notes. even objects – to
stand for or represent to other people our concepts, ideas and feelings.

Language is one of the ‘media’ through which thoughts, ideas and feelings
are represented in a culture.  ‘Representation means using language to say something meaningful about, or to represent, the world meaningfully, to other people.’ Representation through language is therefore central to the processes by which meaning is produced in and between cultures.

Defining Culture

‘Culture’ is one of the most difficult concepts in the human and social sciences
and there are many different ways of defining it.

In more traditional definitions of the term, culture is said to embody the ‘best that has been thought and said’ in a society. It is the sum of the great ideas, as represented in the classic works of literature, painting, music and philosophy- the ‘high culture· of an age.

Belonging to the same frame of reference, but more ‘modern’ in its associations, is the use of ‘culture’ to refer to the widely distributed forms of popular music, publishing, art, design and literature, or the activities of leisure-time and entertainment. which make up the everyday lives of the majority of ‘ordinary people’- what is called the ‘mass culture’ or the ‘popular culture’ of an age.

High culture versus popular culture was, for many years, the classic way of framing the debate about culture- the terms carrying a powerfully evaluative charge (roughly, high= good: popular= debased).

In a more ·social science’ context, the word ‘culture’ is used
to refer to whatever is distinctive about the ‘way of life’ of a people,
community, nation or social group ) – the ‘anthropological’ definition.

Alternatively. the word can be used to describe the ‘shared values’ of a group or of society (like the anthropological definition. only with a more sociological emphasis).

We can think of Culture as a set of things – novels and paintings or
TV programmes and comics. But we can also speak of culture as as a process. a set of practices. In this sense, culture is concerned with the production and the exchange of meanings – the ‘giving and taking of meaning’- between the members of a society or group.

Things ‘in themselves’ rarely have any one, single, fixed and unchanging meaning. Even something as obvious as a stone can be a stone, a boundary marker or a piece of sculpture, depending on what it means within a certain context of use.

It is participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects and events. It is
by our use of things, and what we say, think and feel about them – how we represent them – that we give them a meaning. In part, we give objects, people and events meaning by the frameworks of interpretation which we bring to them.

Members of the same culture must share sets of concepts, images and ideas which enable them to think and feel about the world, and thus to interpret the world, in roughly similar ways. They must share, broadly speaking, the same ‘cultural codes.’

In this sense, thinking and feeling are ‘systems of representation’, in which our concepts, images and emotions ‘stand for’ or represent, in our mental life, things which are or may be ‘out there’ in the world.


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