Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 130-135
Published Online May 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Constructionist Theory of Representation in Language and
Communication: A Philosophical Analysis
Bonachrist us Umeogu1, Ojiakor Ifeoma2
1Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria
2Department of Mass Communication, Faculty of Social Sciences, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria
Email: ojiakor99@y
Received February 25th, 2012; rev ised March 27th, 2012; accepted April 11th, 2012
There is nothing as an innocent word because every word no matter how simple it sounds is loaded with
meaning. For communication to have taken place, the meaning of a word or symbol is grasped and under-
stood by the receiver. This paper maintains that there are variables which influence the construction and
decoding of meaning with the resultant effect that no two individuals construct meanings in uniform way.
Keywords: Language; Representation; Communication; Meanings
When you hear or see the word construction, what comes to
mind? The picture is that of “carefully” building, putting up or
arranging something to make a meaning or has a desired image.
This tells me that construction is a personal thing, done by an
individual to suit his desires, fantasies and needs at a particular
point in time.
With regards to language and communication, what role does
construction play? What is language? What does constructionist
theory posits? Language and communication go hand in hand.
In fact, suffice me to say that language is the vehicle of com-
munication. You cannot communicate without language despite
the form it takes. A sign, a gesture, a touch or a look, and even
a smile are all forms of language used to communicate to an-
other. Understanding the language hitherto need some form of
decoding and that is where construction comes in. Using a
photograph for instance, it cannot mean the same thing to eve-
rybody. If it is in a classroom, a picture has a different meaning
to everyone depending on what they constitute it to mean. In
other words, everyone sees things differently.
If you are in a communication situation for instance, being
exposed to advertising images in the forms of pictures as the
language of communication, how are you able to understand
what the advertiser is trying to say? How is one able to say and
conclude that this advert or image is what is obtainable in my
society? How are readers able to question the “reality” of ad-
vertising images and other communication processes? This is
what this paper sets out to unravel: how meaning is generated
from something that looks simple like a photograph. At this
point, signifying practices come into play. What is meant by
signifying and its practices?
“Representation according to is the use
of signs that stand in for and take the place of something else.
Signs are arranged in order to form semantic constructions and
express relations”. Representation also suggest a process whereby
a pre-existing given, whether it be a physical object or philoso-
phical abstraction, is translated so that it can be comprehended
and experienced by a recipient, an observer, an audience (Ger-
agh ty, 2005).
However we choose to look at it, it involves something that
has a resemblance to and can be used to stand in for something
or someone. Therefore, what distinguishes human from other
ani ma l s is their a bility to create and manipulate signs. According
to Wikipedia, “Aristotle deemed mimesis as natural to man,
therefore considered representations necessary for peoples’
living and being in the wild”.
Representation as listed by Aristotle in wikipedia has three
forms namely:
1) The object: The symbol being. This looks at the “who”
that is being represented. This might either be males or females
or both.
2) Manner: The way the symbol is represented. This answer
the “how” question in representation. To understand the manner
of representation involves construction of meanings as por-
trayed by the “means” of representation.
3) Means: The material that is used to represent it. Here, the
means of literary representation is language. For this paper, the
language will be advertisements.
Social Constructionist Theory of Representation
For a clearer understanding of how this theory can be related
to language and communication, there has to be an explana-
tion of this theory so that all and sundry can relate it to their
individual communication situations. What then does the social
constructionist theory of representation posits? According to
Hall (1997),
meaning is constructed by the individual users of lan-
guage. Things do not mean; we construct meaning using
representational signs. The translatability is not given by
nature or fixed by the gods. It is the result of a set of so-
cial conventions.
It is fixed socially; fixed in culture. That is what social con-
structionist theory of representation is all about. The bottom
line in this definition is that meaning does not inhere in things
rather it is constructed, produced and understood in relation to
oneself. When you do not understand a sign in whatever form it
takes, it makes no meaning to you whatsoever, which means
that communication cannot be said to have taken place. For
instance, if you have not been to a driving school or familiar
with traffic signs, traffic signs on the road will make little or no
meaning to you because you would not know how to relate to
Another instance was given by Geraghty, (2005) who explained
social constructionist theory of representation at play using a
photograph. According to her,
the meaning of the photograph is not hidden or imam-
nent in the picture but is constructed through a range of
signifying practices. During the process of recognition
and understanding, we relate what we see to a wider set of
That is, if you see a picture of a bent arrow on a road, you
will recognize and relate it to one of the traffic signs and will
therefore understand it to mean that there is a bend ahead. This
in turn will make you to apply the brakes to avoid skidding off
the road. Here, the power of selective recall comes into the
picture. This is because you were able to recall where and what
that sign means and to give your feedback to the communica-
tion message by applying speed control. Is the above example
an instance of a communication process? Well, to answer the
question, we have to define communication and the communi-
cation process.
There are many definitions of communication as there are
writers. That notwithstanding, let us look at one definition since
the writers all say the same thing in different ways. Shrimp
(2000) defines “communication a s the process whereby thoughts
are conveyed and meaning is shared between individuals or
between organizations and individuals”. He went on to throw
more light on the word by writing that the word communication
is derived from the Latin word communis, which means “com-
mon”. Communication can then be thought of as the process of
establishing a commonness, or oneness, of thought between a
sender and a receiver. The key point in this definition according
to Shimp is that there must be a commonness of thought de-
veloped between sender and receiver if communication is to
This is because communication is something we do with an-
other person, and not something we do to another person. It is
more or less like a give and takes situation where there is an
active sender and receiver. This means that it is not a solo thing
but there must be somebody or people at the receiving end to
decode whatever is coming out from the communicator. This
will be clearer with the communication model of source- mes-
Source is the originator of the message and is willing to share
with others. Message is the content of the expression of one’s
thoughts, ideas, beliefs and opinion. Channels are the paths or
media through which the message moves from the source to the
receivers. It can be said to be how the message gets to the target
audience. The receiver or the decoder is the recipient of the
message. Here, he/she tries to interpret or deduce meanings
from the message. Noise is anything that interrupts the commu-
nication process. It does not have to be a loud noise to be con-
sidered noise in communication. Noise can take any of the fol-
lowing forms; use of big words unknown to the audience; a
static TV channel; a blurred picture on a newspaper or maga-
zine page etc, (Okunna, 1999). Whichever way you look at
communication, it embodies sharing or transmitting a desired
message to have an intentional or desired influence.
Now to answer the question whether decoding a sign is
communication, my answer is yes and this is the reason. Here,
the source of the message is the public safety department; the
message is that there is a bend ahead; the channel is in the form
of a sign which is the arrow; the receiver is that driver plying
the road at the moment; and the feedback is in the driver
breaking the speed limit so as to navigate the bend safely. Noise
will be introduced if the sign is faint or not big enough so as not
to catch the attention of the driver or if the driver is not familiar
with traffic signs.
Explaining further on signs as a language in representation,
Hall (2000) explains that:
cultural meanings are not in the “head”. It is produced by
the practice for representation whereby the meaning de-
pend not on the sign, but on its symbolic function.
He went further to state that it is because a particular sound
or word stands for, symbolizes or represents a concept that it
can function as a language for a particular culture. For instance,
writing a sign in Chinese or Swahili will not function as a lan-
guage to Nigerians because they do not understand the sign in
order to understand what meaning it is supposed to convey.
While waving at someone is a way of calling them forward,
others see it as a permission sign to leave or go back. If you are
a Nigerian being waved at, you will understand it to mean you
are being greeted or wanted to come closer. In another culture,
a receiver of a wave will interpret it to mean “discharge”. What
I am trying to explain in essence is that culture plays an active
role in constructing meanings.
Be that as it may, I see social constructionist theory as a the-
ory with a human face; a theory that understands the uniqueness
of human beings and accords man the respect of a higher ani-
mal capable of deconstructing forms of communication to
achieve meaning. The uniqueness comes in as a result of the
fact reiterated in the introductory part that no word or sign is
innocent; and everyone sees things differently. Yes! It has a
human face because you can relate it to every social activity.
Man has been said to be a social being which means that con-
sciously or unconsciously, he communicates with his environ-
ment. Despite the communication situation be it formal or in-
formal, some form of message decoding is involved for effect-
tive message understanding.
Advertisements as a Form of Language and
The use of pictures or images in advertising has led to a situ-
ation where images of males, females or both are used to rep-
resent the concept of a product or services. However, on several
occasion as a fleeting glance at some advertisements whether
on print, outdoors or electronically reveals, there seems to be an
arbitrary use of the images whereby there is no defined rela-
tionship between the product and the model. Pierce sees it as
the relationship between the sign, the signifier and the signi-
Using advertisement as a language, how does it communicate
to us and with what resultant effect? Well, it does communicate
with us because “the construction of masculinity and femininity
is through the placement of roles of the males and females in
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 131
advertisements (O’Barr, 2006). Social practices which include
advertising take place within representation and are saturated
with meanings and values which contributes to our sense of
who we are—our culturally constructed identities”. (Gledhill,
1997 in Ojiakor, 2010).
Ways of Reading Advertisements
Katherine Frith (1998) in Lukas (2002) discusses three ap-
proaches to reading ads. Firstly, there is the surface meaning
which consists of the overall impression that a reader might get
from quickly going through an advert or picture. For instance, if
you get a picture, the surface meaning is the first image that
you will have of the picture; appreciating the aesthetic value of
the picture without necessarily being concerned with the mes-
sage. According to Frith (1998), “You can describe the surface
meaning by simply listing all the people and objects in the ad-
vertisements”. Secondly, there is the advertisers’ intended mea n-
ing which is the meaning that the advertisers are paying huge
amounts of money for the advertisers to take home with them.
It is the “sales message that the advertiser is trying to get
across or the preferred or expected meaning that a reader
might get from an advertisement”. An example of the advertis-
ers intended meaning is like the caption of peak milk that reads
“it’s in you”. Here the message is that if you want to exploit
your hidden potentials, all you need is to drink peak milk. Fi-
nally there is cultural/ideological meaning which relies on the
background of the reader. Here, we all make sense of ads by
relating them to our culture and the shared belief systems held
in common by most people. In all, construction of any message
or meaning is directly or indirectly influenced by sex, cultural
orientation and level of exposure. In fact, this is where the con-
structionist theory comes into play and the factors of sex, cul-
tural orientation and level of exposure now acts as intervening
variables that ensure that there is little or no room for uniform
Factors That Affect Construction
Sex: The biology of an individual to a large extent deter-
mines their perception which in turn affects their construction
of meaning. In a society like ours where men are thriving on
their patriarchal dividend, their ways of seeing and reading
advertisements are quite different from a woman’s view. Situa-
tions where a woman will criticize the immodest dressing of a
female model, the man will not; rather he might focus on the
aesthetic value of the overall picture.
The problem with this factor is that the term man or woman
is faulty in that being a man or woman is experienced differ-
ently. A woman who is an illiterate or a housewife will have
different experience at being a woman as experienced by a
working class lady. “Being a man or woman” is experienced
differently according to one’s age, class, ethnicity, sexual ori-
entation and what have you. The way our fore parents experi-
enced living is radically different from what is obtained in this
present dispensation. This however leads to the next factor
which is cultural orientation.
Cultural orientation: Nothing is constant except change
which means that even the so called way of life of the people
(culture) is subject to change. I believe that culture is a closely
guarded jewel yet is directly or indirectly made to change. Look
around you and you will notice the change in our culture. In
Nigeria for instance, the dressing, housing and even eating
habits have changed overtime; orientation updated to fit the
twenty-first century. There was a time when women were seen
and not heard. Well, gone are those days because women are
now trying to make their voices heard over those of men. Ex-
plaining that culture plays a role in construction of meaning,
Hall (1997) opines that:
The translatability is not given by the gods. Rather, it is
fixed socially, fixed in culture”. This shows that what is
obtainable in a particular society in form of culture, influ-
ence the meaning given to things.
Another researcher also has this to add:
Objects and people do not have a constant meaning, but
their meanings are fashioned by humans in the context of
their culture, as they have the ability to make things mean
or signify something (
Saussure concurs by opining that “the representation of a
signifier depends upon a persons cultural, linguistics and so-
cial background. In explaining this, the word sister in Austra-
lia may mean blood relation while an Aboriginal Australian
may associate the term sister to represent a close friend that
they have a bond with ” (
The point I am trying to make is that culture of the people at
any point in time affects the meanings that is given to life and
its issues.
Level of Exposure: “Semiotics is an analytical tool which
helps to understand how signs and symbols are manipulated to
form structures of meaning”, Williamson (1990). In the same
vein, Adum (2006) has this to say;
Semiotics helps us to understand how advertisements ma-
nipulate powerful symbols to persuade the receiver, view-
er or listener.
What has all these got to do with level of exposure? How
well one is versed in the knowledge of semiotics determines
how efficient one is in constructing or deconstructing pictures
in advertisements. A person who was taught semiotics analysis
cannot be expected to literally read the picture same as an illit-
erate or even a literate who was not exposed to semiotics and its
antics. Well, I had the opportunity of taking semiotics class and
the way I see and understand meanings will not be uniform. I
go beyond the aesthetic to the hidden meaning while another
will look at the models dressing and their placements in the
Application of Social Constructionist Theory of
Representation in Reading Advertisements
Can there be any mention of the word representation without
its channel, language. Language is one of the “media” through
which thoughts, ideas and feelings are represented in a culture
(Hall, 1997).
Advertising is a very powerful form of communication in
modern society because it offers the most concentrated and
sustained set of Images in our media system. Using an advert
for Dior, a writer at listed
some questions that in attempting to answer them, one is ac-
tively involved in applying this theory to representation.
“What is the dominant colour in the palette? What are the
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
connotations of this colour?
What is at the top of the visual hierarchy? The woman or
the perfume? Is this what you would expect?
Which of the woman’s physical features have been empha-
sized? Why? How?
Who is this advert supposed to appeal to? Women, men or
both? Could this type of representation have any harm? Can
adverts establish unrealistic expectations in the audience”? representation
Attempting to answer these questions will form our applica-
tion of the theory in reading advertisements or pictures. Firstly,
let me describe the pictures that were used for this application:
Picture Mimee: Mimee noodles advert had the picture of a
lady with her braids scattered like the noodles, her eyes were
closed as if lost in ecstasy. Below her image was a picture of
noodles on a plate and the bold caption “have mee”.
Picture Jadore: A fragrance ad for Christian Dior has a slim
and gorgeous woman in a strapless dress looking at the camera
with a bottle of the perfume in front of her. The image, the
product and the background was golden yellow, and the design
on her body was the same on the bottle.
Picture Honeywell: The advert for a baking flour called
Honeywell flour. The image was a male chef holding a wad of
notes with a big smile on his face. Beside him were loaves of
bread and a bag of the flour.
Picture Grand: The advert was for a hotel called “Grand
hotel”. It have snapshot of various parts of the hotel alongside
the picture of a light skinned female in a black bikini with her
hair let down.
Picture Tura: Tura soap has the image of a slim and light
skinned woman putting on a short black gown and crossed her
legs leaving so little for imagination. She was also looking at
the camera. In the bottom left side of the space were also pass-
port sized pictures of other women.
Picture Citico: A dark well muscled bare chested man with
a black tyre imprint on his arms was used as the image for this
plastic chair advert.
What is at the top of the visual hierarchy? The woman
or the perfume? Is this what you would expect?
In all the sampled pictures with exception of pictures Grand,
Citico and Honeywell that evenly shared the advertising space,
others had images that were more dominant than the advertised
products. Dominance here means that the images are larger and
thereby took up almost all the space that one may not be wrong
to assume that the models are the advertised products. If you
mentally look closely at picture Mimee for an example coupled
with the caption that read “have mee”, you may erroneously
conclude that it is the exotic looking lady that is specially
meant to be ‘had’ at that point in time. In addition, she had her
eyes closed as a prey waiting to be eaten by a predator.
In picture Hi-malt, there was not even a tiny picture of the
bottled drink. Rather, what we saw was the face of the lady
imprinted on a supposed bottle shape so that what we see as the
drink is the face of a woman meant to give “high satisfaction”
(advertising message). In this case, there is no room for domi-
nance struggle to arise since the models image was the only one
on the advertising space.
What is the dominant colour in the palette? What are
the connotations of this colour?
This paper will answer using the Jadore fragrance by Chris-
tian Dior. The reason why Nigerian adverts are excluded in this
category is that, Nigerians from a look at the billboard adver-
tisements have not yet mastered the art of using coloring and
lighting to create meaning.
You must have heard of terms like soft colors, warm colors,
harsh color and what have you. The color of the image, the
product and the background was a perfect blend of golden and
yellow rolled into one such that there is no telling them apart.
The color “golden” like the rays of the fading sun in Africa is
always seen as soft, alluring, inviting and pleasing to the eyes.
Looking at that advert is like watching the sun set and having
that warm and rare feeling that comes with appreciating the
beauty of nature at first hand.
This paper do not want to say that the coloring is suggestive
at the risk of looking as an anti feminist, but connotatively,
will say that the color suggest sexiness or allure which the
product is all about. Well the underlying message is that the use
of that fragrance will make you feel “sexy” and pleasing to the
eyes. Whose eyes? Is that what perfume or fragrances really
Which of the woman’s physical features has been em-
phasized? Why? How?
The researchers do not want to focus on female since the
sample also had male images. For pictures Tura, Mimee, Grand
and Jadore that had female images, the features highlighted
were the fine legs, smooth bodies and charming faces respec-
tively. In particular, pictures Hi-malt and Mimee had the focus
on their faces. Why? Well, maybe for the erotic and giddy feel-
ing to be heightened by a close up shot. Also, to portray how
lost the models are in the world of the products. That look and
that feeling cannot be deduced from a distance.
In Tura and Grand pictures, the emphasis was on their
smooth, velvety looking skin. If a girl is wearing a bikini or
mini gown, what else than to look at the body which is open to
be surveyed? Another answer to the why can be seen in the
words of Dyler (1982) who wrote
that advertisers use images of beautiful women as men
and women like looking at beautiful women. While the
men admire them, women admire what makes the men
admire them.
Beauty images of women in the media are unattainable for all
but a very small number of women. The logic is that women
who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy
beauty products because of the model im-
age in the media). “Images of female bodies are everywhere.
Women and their body parts sell everything from food to cars”. image in the media). This can explain why
those features were highlighted to get the viewer hooked. At
this point, the question is if sex and the highlights of body parts
Arens (2006:390) writes that “sex appeal is one of the uses of
sex in advertising in recent times”. An example he used to back
his claim was an advert for auto parts that had the image of a
young lady holding a grease gun cartridge in each hand and
leaning over to exhibit an ample amount of cleavage. What
about the message on the advert? It read “this is Debbie; she
wants you to have this pair in your car”. Which pair are we
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 133
supposed to have; the tools in her hands or the pair on her
On the other hand where we have the pictures that had males
as their images, it was only the picture Citico that emphasized
the man’s firm, well muscled body. There was no sexual con-
notation as can be found in the women’s corner, but rather by
association, one can relate the strength and build of the man to
those of the plastic chairs.
Could this type of representation have any harmful ef-
fects? Can adverts establish unrealistic expectations in
the audience?
Representation leads to stereotypes that often lead to misrep-
resentation and misconstruction. Advertising images teach how
and what men and women should be. It also teaches us how to
see and respond to each other. If the present society feels that it
is not harmful or does not have any harmful effects, what hap-
pens to the next generation? Representation always locates
women in the kitchen, what about those women who hate to
cook? There are men who love to cook but to the society, that is
In some homes, there are problems because the man expects
the woman to perform her womanly duties—cooking and tak-
ing care of the home. The woman on the other hand sees men as
half men if they do not live up to the image of being successful
at their chosen careers. In fact, many women have questioned
manliness if the man fail to adequately provide for the family
(men also question women).
Presently, one of the harmful effects of unrealistic expecta-
tions is that of pressure under which men and women are
cracking; marriages are folding and dreams are being shattered.
Goffman (1979 in Ojiakor, 2010)
“advertisers do not create the images they depict out of
nothing. They draw upon the same corpus of display that
we all use to make sense of social life”. If the society con-
structs women as an object of vision, advertisers tap into
that. If men are seen as all powerful, embodiments of
strength and success, advertisers clinch it and portray
same images to reflect in their advertising themes.
Well, we all are directly or indirectly feeling the brunt. If this
is the way we imagine things to be, then we are pressured into
the state of “oughtness” to fit the current theme.
Who is this advert supposed to appeal to? Women, me n
or both?
In all the sampled adverts, it is meant to appeal to both men
and women alike. Contrary to popular belief, there are many
men who use creams and soaps on a daily basis; there are men
who are chefs and actually make a living from cooking. Again,
even if the product is for females, it might appeal to a man who
would like his partner, mother or sister to have the same look or
get the benefits deri ve d from using a particular product.
Most times, models appeal to the audience outside the con-
text of the advertised products. For example, the advert might
be for a fragrance but the mere use of Hugh Jackman (an actor)
or Batista and Randy Orthon (wrestlers) is enough to push a
man into working out to have abs like theirs.
The point we are trying to make is that all adverts appeal to
every human being sex notwithstanding. The only difference
might be in the degree of the appeal.
It has been agreed that it is through representation that man
comes close to reality. Also, there can be no room for represent-
tation without language. Language is the means of representa-
tion; one apprehends reality only through representation of reality,
through texts, images etc.
This paper has tried to show how constructionist theory of
representation is actively involved in making meanings out of
different language forms in our differ e nt societies.
Since everyone sees things differently coupled with the na-
ture of semiotics, there can never be a uniform reading in ad-
vertisement as previous research have shown. However, what
we see in advertisement and other forms of communication all
reflects the cultural life of any society at that point in time. On
this note, this paper reiterate that man despites age and orienta-
tion is actively involved in making meaning out of signs that
confront man on a daily basis. Objects and people do not have a
constant meaning, but their meanings are fashioned by humans
in the context of their culture, as they have the ability to make
things mean or signify something.
Also, when we fail to understand the language or sign, the
communication process of source-message-channel-receiver has
been disrupted and effective communication cannot be said to
have taken place .
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