The semiotic square is a tool used for the structural analysis of relationships, developed by linguist Algirdas Greimas. We’re going to relate four different concepts in three different ways.
First we want to rule out the incompatibilities. The diagonal lines represent a contradictory relationship. Easy and hard live on opposite ends of one spectrum, so you can’t use them both in one sitting. Likewise, for something to be both complex and simple is a contradiction.
Next, the squiggly horizontal lines represent a contrary relationship. These are kind of like cousins. They might have similar properties, but they’re on different spectra, so they can coexist. When the stars align, something can be both easy and simple.
Lastly, the vertical connections represent a complementary relationship. This is a sort of double-negative. Complex is the anti-anti-easy. Simple is the anti-anti-hard.
If you want to go even further, you can add examples to your connections. My favorite way to do this is to embed the semiotic square in a rhombus, and label the points of the rhombus with examples that correspond to the connection. I think about pedagogy when I look at mine. The ideal activities are complex but easy, like building elaborate structures out of prefabricated LEGO blocks. Conversely, drilling long division in bulk is hard but simple.
I first came across the concept in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. The diagram above is the very same one that appears in the book. Red Mars chronicles the history of the first one hundred colonists of the red planet, and their successors. One of the characters, a psychologist and an aspiring philosopher Michel Duval, is responsible for choosing the first hundred, and later for their well-being when he joins their ranks. Michel uses the semiotic square to classify the other Mars colonists, as an attempt to extrapolate from the traditional introvert-extrovert spectrum.
I loved it immediately for how human it is. Once you figure out the semiotic square, you’ll start seeing applications everywhere. If you make your own, share them in the comments. I’d love to see.