Meet the Crew: in conversation with Dr Alin Olteanu, Semiotician


“Right now, I’m interested in the blossoming world of emerging and creative industries”

Our brilliant band of associates, provocateurs and collaborators – otherwise known as the Fire Crew – are a key part of what makes Firehaus special. Drawn from a wide range of specialisms, they help us bring fresh perspectives beyond what you’d expect from a standard creative set-up. We thought it was about time we introduced some of them to you.

Ian Bates: Hi Alin!

Alin Olteanu: Hi Ian! 

IB: We’ve known each other for several years now, but for the benefit of anyone reading, do you want to say a little bit about yourself?

AO: Sure. My name’s Alin Olteanu, and I’m a Postdoctoral Researcher in Semiotics at the University of Tartu in Estonia, and a Senior Researcher at Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania. 

IB: Semiotics. Tell us about that.

AO: Semiotics is about how words and other signs create meaning. A sign is a way of representing and communicating information. Besides merely conveying information, they give us insight into how the people who create them think: their attitudes, their beliefs, their ideas.  What they consciously or subconsciously convey. Semiotics is vital to understanding how we communicate, and how we’re understood. 

IB: Like any researcher, you must have a particular focus of study.  What’s yours?

AO: I research a broad range of applications of semiotic theory. Environmental and digital literacy. Communication and modelling. Right now, I’m interested in the blooming world of emerging and creative industries. 

IB: And you’ve just written a book?

AO: Yes. ‘Multiculturalism as multimodal communication’. 

IB: Wow. I’m not sure where to even start with that! Help me understand what it’s about.

AO: Well… For instance, in this book, I explain why Theresa May resigned from being the PM of the UK without delivering Brexit. 

IB: I’m intrigued! I’m pretty sure we’ve all got a theory about that! 

AO: The angle I take is not political but semiotic. The book looks at multiculturalism and how people make sense of their environments. Theresa May claimed that those who think of themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ do not understand what citizenship is. She tried to appeal to a broad spectrum of media channels that know that the topic of cultural identity sells well. However, human communities and identities are much more complex and nuanced than such a blunt generalisation.

IB: So Theresa May was oversimplifying by focussing on the literal definition of citizen – someone who is a legally recognised national of a State – in order to emphasise that this cultural similarity between us should be our primary source of identity? Because that’s at the heart of the notion of one-nation Conservatism? 

AO: Exactly! I develop the argument that identitarian politics, which justify the differentiation of political organisation according to assumptions about cultural identity, do not have a philosophical and scientific endorsement. Citizenship can only be practiced properly in awareness of our interconnectedness and of universal human rights, particularly in times of globalisation accelerated by digital and social media. The fallacy that our world view is entirely determined by our cultural identity is contrary to how human beings shape their cultural environment and how they communicate. 

IB: How might that change our view of multiculturalism?

AO: In the book, I argue that most multiculturalism theories and policies are often more segregating than unifying. They suppose that a multicultural society should consist of a multitude of otherwise well-defined and distinct communities, co-existing side by side. Rather, because of how humans communicate culture is intrinsically heterogeneous. No human community can be monocultural or monolingual, factually. No one person belongs to one identifiable culture at a time. For this reason, exaggerated policies of cultural preservation, let alone isolation, are not compatible with and do not bring a benefit to human social organization. This realisation should be integrated into the social responsibility and sustainability policy of any player on social, economic and political stages.

IB: There’s a lesson there too, surely, for brands looking at how they best connect, and the semiotics of their own cultural assumptions. 

AO: Indeed. the argument supports that companies and brands must have a research-informed and up-to-date understanding of culture. Like in politics, in marketing one should not play the card of cultural peculiarism, both because it does not work (anymore) and also, as a matter of social responsibility. Human rights and social responsibility sell better than ever. This is where the value of humanities research is evidently relevant, alongside market research and engineering.

IB: Thanks Alin. And welcome to our Crew!

Alin’s book, Multiculturalism as multimodal communication (2019).  Cham: Springer, is available here. Described by Professor Paul Cobley as “a superbly committed, polemical volume which demonstrates the courage to consider the global crisis and to point the finger at its perpetrators: not the usual suspects, such as the media, the power elite or an undifferentiated other, but something closer to home – human conceptions.” 

Beth Pope