Racist Encounters: A Pragmatist Semiotic Analysis of Interaction

Stefan Timmermans, Iddo Tavory

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Complementing discourse-analytic approaches, we develop C. S. Peirce’s semiotic theory to analyze how racism is enacted and countered in everyday interactions. We examine how the semiotic structure of racist encounters depends on acts of signification that can be deflected and that take shape in the ways actors negotiate interactions in situ. After outlining the semiotic apparatus Peirce pioneered, we trace the dynamic processes of generalization and specification in recorded racist encounters as specific forms of semiotic upshifting and downshifting. We demonstrate how attending to racist encounters and engaging the sociology of race sharpen key assumptions that pragmatist semiotics makes about the structure of signification, as it forces one to examine the interplay of marked and unmarked categories and identities in interaction, and to take the differential power to signify into account in shaping the potential effects of semiotic strategies.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)295-317
    Number of pages23
    JournalSociological Theory
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Dec 2020


    • interaction
    • pragmatism
    • racism
    • semiotics

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science


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