Theo van Leeuwen

Networks – A Social Semiotic Approach 

Departing from the theory presented in Reading Images (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2006), this lecture will outline and exemplify the basic ‘narrative’ and ‘conceptual’ models that underlie contemporary visualization – linear processes, cycles, flowcharts, analytical models, classification models (including lists and trees), tables and networks. 

It will then present a social semiotic history of the network model, showing how it evolved from a 1920s American approach to the quantitative analysis of social relations which replaced the ‘social’ with the ’interpersonal’ and saw society as a community of equals in which status derived from popularity, to an all-encompassing approach to visualizing the relation between items of information on the basis of the frequency of otherwise meaningless associations, rather than on the basis of semantic relations. 

The lecture will illustrate how this model underlies contemporary visualizations such as mind maps and word clouds, and evaluate the way visualization is used in linguistics and its multimodal offshoots, including the onion diagrams and networks of systemic-functional linguistics and discourse analysis. 

The lecture will end with a plea for a critical and historically grounded approach to the study of contemporary visualization.  


Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T. (2006) Reading Images – The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd edition. London: Routledge