Semiotic Square: Easy-Complex-Simple-Hard

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Semiotic Square Easy Complex
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.

semiotic_red_mars(Click image to enlarge)

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.

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Posted in Make
9 comments on “Semiotic Square: Easy-Complex-Simple-Hard
  1. (Hmm, my first comment might work better in picture form.)

    • MariaD says:

      Were you trying to post a picture?

      • @MariaD: No, not in the sense that I uploaded a photo, but I hit the space bar several times between each pair of concepts on the same line of text. Apparently they automatically get cut to one space, so the visual effect didn’t quite work as intended. I can draw them out and snap a few photos (or use something like MS Paint), if that works.

  2. Dawid says:

    Hi, I think you should change the first diagram so that simple is in the -s2 position and complex is in the s2 position.

    • MariaD says:

      Interesting. Can you explain the reasoning behind your idea?

      • Dawid says:

        Well, it seems that the -s2 position must be a term that stands in contradiction to the s2 position AND somehow implies the s1 term. One way to achieve it is to reverse the terms for s2 and -s2.
        Of course I could be totally wrong about it (I’m no expert).

        • MariaD says:

          At the moment:

          Do you want to have Easy and Simple as complementary (S1 and -S2)? This essay makes the claim that in mathematics, they are not. For example, the long multiplication algorithm is comparatively simple. However, it’s not easy (because it overwhelms human working memory and ability to pay attention). Increasing the number of digits you need to multiply, you can produce harder and harder exercises, but you will never achieve more mathematical complexity that way.

          In contrast, Game of Life is easy. Young people understand its rules and have no trouble following. And yet it leads to much emergent complexity.

          I am rephrasing the reasoning from this essay. I’d like to hear an example that goes with your reasoning, because you CAN read this different ways! What do you have in mind?

  3. Frank says:

    Your implications seem incorrect. Simple does not imply hard; easy does not imply complex.

    • MariaD says:

      Thank you for your comment. I agree that simple doesn’t imply hard. These vertical lines are NOT implications, they are complements. We can think of them as “the enemy of my enemy” relationships. In some situations, “simple” and “hard” can work together: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. In other situations, not so much. Does that make sense?

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