Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Signs, Roadmaps and Language

Written by: on October 29, 2015



In the late eighties, I was a student at Oklahoma State University.   I remember vividly my Tuesday and Thursday afternoon sociology class. It was a shocking experience for me, a pastor’s kid that had not strayed into the world. Our teacher was a self-declared leather chaps wearing biker. She actually came to class dressed that way more than once.   She also informed us that she was a swinger. We didn’t understand her language but don’t worry, she was more than happy to explain to us graphically about her “normal.” Back in the eighties she tried to convince us that this was the “new” normal.   Swinger and biker were way out there on the extreme fringe of the “norm” at that time. She was speaking politically correct language long before it was politically correct. In class, she embraced all of Freud’s ideas on sexuality and even went so far to tell us that homosexuality would be accepted as normal one day.   On that day and at that time at OSU, there was more than one “redneck” in the class that had very explicit and graphic language back to that suggestion. It might have included some “slang” words that were descriptive at that time for the subject.   But now just a few years down the road, thirty years to be exact, this teacher would be completely in her element and those “rednecks” would be totally out of place.
Interesting that the language has changed and those “slang” words would get you into serious trouble today. Specifically in our politically correct society if you used them on social media you would come under attack. Interesting that the subject has continued to evolve and the language has definitely changed. Even words, that back in that time had a clear definition, have become loaded with double meanings and new definitions that sociologists have come up with.


Language is the one theme that I found so compelling in this book by Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory. I have followed the thread of this word, language, throughout the whole book and find it interesting how focusing on this one simple thing could be the hitching post of all social theory. “How we pick up on the signs around us -using language along the way to communicate with others- has become a core preoccupation of contemporary social theory. |” (55) Words are how we communicate but they have so many different layers to them, that it can be very confusing. The movement and progression of this whole social theory science hinges on language and what meanings are assigned to pivotal words. “Language is taken as the central model of analysis in structuralism on the grounds that individual speech- as a universal element of all societies and cultures- would not be possible without an enabling structure to give words meaning. “ (55) Words make up language but words have so many meanings that assigning them what you want it to mean in the language can be possible. Search long enough in all the different sources of definition and you can find what you mean. Is it a literal definition or is it one shaped by science, or by sociology or psychology? Things that shape our society are based upon words and their usage in language.

The author clarifies what I am seeing: “there is no such things as a “fixed language,” one fully locked down and unchangeable. Rather the world is internally structured along the lines of languages, by which individuals come to know the social things around them and operate within society.” (57) One of the things I find interesting is that some words only work against other words, so there is a frame of reference. Take the word “hot” for instance. “Hot” only takes on the force of signifying to other by means of its difference to “cold” (59) “Language is not a transparent medium but an opaque domain of traces or inscriptions whose content and rhetoric must be questioned and thus resituated in a new register.” (112) Language is thus a structure and a movement, which can only be grasped in relation to the opposition of present/absent. Language defines the social landscape. I believe words have a meaning and when they lose meaning and start to be defined by their opposite word then what is being said can really truly be whatever you want to interpret it to be. I see that in this whole book that each person has the ability to say whatever they want and it becomes truth. Even if the definition of what they are saying is not accurate!


To see language as encoding powerful emotional semiotic forces is a critical advance on viewing it as simply the “neutral” expression of rational intentions. (215) Words are neutral and have meaning assigned to them by their definition. Intentions are contained within the language! Are you confused yet? How about this take: Thus for example, identity in not immediately present in a sign, it is by learning to use language situationally – which is itself a matter of linguistic differences and cultural conventions- that subjects project themselves into gender roles a women or men. (217) So gender, which we have seen take a direct hit this past year with Bruce Jenner is now optional and we can manipulate it to fit our situation.   I do see this coming true just like it was spoken about here and it has been a constant barrage of language that has brought us to this moment. Society has taken liberties with everything and I do see that recorded in this contemporary social theory book.

Now how about the critics? I found it quite interesting that there never was a definition of who these critics happened to be.   Who is a critic against this use and abuse of language? So here is what the critics point out about this language issue: “According to critics, Lyotar fails to appreciate that all language games – no matter how provisional and tentative in formulation- implicate assumptions about the shape of society. (241) “For many critics, the rise of global communication systems has gone hand in hand with the erosion of national culture.” (335) Now we are getting somewhere. Erosion of national culture is what has happened as this sociological free for all that has been lived out and taught and expressed in our college campuses across this nation. No wonder we are in the shape that we are in. Once again, where is the concept of religion or Christianity in a book that talks about life? It is not present, instead people and their language has overtaken and usurped any higher being or power.


I will conclude with these three quotes from the book that I think really sum up the day and time that we live in.   It is what my sociology teacher was saying was going to be so freeing and so full of life in the future. Doing what ever you want and it being acceptable is the thought that she presented so strong. So here is the conclusion that Anthony Elliott came to: In conditions of advanced globalization, our language for expressing individualism is more and more fixed into the syntax of possessions, ownership, control and market value” (338) “In smashing apart traditional national boundaries, globalization, ironically, offers people a kind of “absolute freedom” to do whatever they like. The irony is that the world of “everything goes” has become crippling, as the anxiety of choice floats unhinged from both practical and ethical considerations as to what is worth pursuing.” (339)

So as I see it, individualism makes social theory just about you. Forget everyone else. It really is just about you! What you want to do is normal and you get to live with absolute freedom in a society where everything goes. I believe instead of becoming freeing that the word “crippling” that the author used is a much better definition of these three words “contemporary social theory.”   Those words make up language.   The definition of the word crippling is one that is disabled or deficient in a specified manner (a social cripple) but that is not the only definition. Let me give you more. Crippling: to disable; impair; weaken. Crippling: anything that is impaired or flawed. I think the author hit it right on the head.

His final quote that ended the book, I believe really sums up this whole thing: It is the search that every one of the people studied in this book pontificated about in great detail. Finding something that matters.   So here are his words: “Instead of finding ourselves, we lose ourselves.” (339)   It is all about the language.

Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction, second ed. (New York: Routledge, 2014).

Merriam Webster Online. Accessed October 29, 2015. http:// www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/citation.

Kevin Norwood


About the Author


Kevin Norwood

My name is Kevin Norwood and I have been in youth ministry for the past 34 years. On February 14th, 1994, 27 years ago, we moved to Owasso OK and wow what a ride. My wife, Ann, is an RN and specializes in Clinical Documentation working from home. Maci is a my 21 year old daughter and she loves and shows horses. Her horse's name is Charlie. She is currently working with animals and loves to go on trail rides with her horse. London is my 10 year old son and he keeps me young. He absolutely loves life!! Golfing, baseball and Hawaii is his latest adventures. He skied for the first time in Colorado this year. I have started a coaching business for pastors at www.kevinnorwood.com and it is exciting the doors that God is opening. I earned my Doctorate in Leadership and Global Perspectives from George Fox on Feb 10, 2018.

9 responses to “Signs, Roadmaps and Language”

  1. Rose Anding says:

    Thank Kevin,
    It was interesting to me that you pulled from the reading how the author used “contemporary social theory, “to the word “ crippling” and you gave us a definition of the word crippling, which is one that is disabled or deficient in a specified manner (a social cripple). Why do you think the author used that word, for lack of a better one? Yes I agree with you that the author hit it on the head; but what do you think he really meant? How to you really see a “social cripple”? I like to know your thoughts on the matter.
    A very good blog thanks. Rose Maria

    • Rose
      I chose the word crippling because it was the author’s own word. I used it really tongue in cheek because it has even more definitions than the ones I used. What I see is that through all of this reading, language is given such a powerful position to change society. Then the author concludes with all the advancements in the age of social and global context all of their historical language goes out the window. All the freedom in the world can be crippling when everyone can do anything. You lose yourself in being able be free. Really ironic isn’t it. If the author had just referenced the Bible which is an incredibly reliable resource, this principle had been established years ago: 1 Corinthians 10: 23- 24, 23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

      Just my thoughts.


  2. Aaron Cole says:


    Great blog! I really liked you opening experience at OSU. I agree with your perspective on the power of language and the absence of a Christian perspective. Do you think that possibly the reason for absence of Christian perspective is its unifying language?


    • Aaron

      Yes, I would agree that the unifying message of the Gospel would go against the grain and thought process presented. The funny thing is that you can’t separate or erase religion or Christianity from life because it is there. No matter how much language you affect there still is the fact of religion. I believe part of it is that they see it as the enemy and they must struggle against truth. So instead of declaring the enemy they pursue freedom instead.


  3. Hi Kevin.
    How has what you experienced and what you read in the book effected your leadership of youth?
    I like the quote you used at the end that we lose ourselves. Have you found that to be true for teens as well?

    • Aaron,

      The profession of change over the last five years in communication and global connections for teenagers to really experience the world, real time is making the change. I thought it was interesting that the ending of the book kind of lost traction as the world came in to view instead of just a small portion of it. How has it affected my teens? I take students overseas every year the they maintain those relationship now instead of the finish being “see you in heaven.” It has been a pleasant and fantastic advancement. Now I have had students from around the world come to Owasso Oklahoma to hang out with their now lifelong friends. Cultures can really be reduced to basic things and for our students to see cultures that look now how America did before we embraced so much social change is a good thing.

      I think this generation is finding themselves in purpose instead of in freedom. If they are given a cause that they can physically, mentally, socially and spiritually “touch,” they are all in. Not a concept or a project that requires money, but something that requires them!!



  4. Claire Appiah says:

    I like reading your blogs so much! No matter what we are reading, and especially the secular material, I can always count on you to inquire about its significance in terms of religion or Christian theology. I ask the same questions in my readings and make notations to that effect in the margins. Sometimes I share the things we are learning with my Christian friends, and invariably the question they ask is, “But, what has that got to do with Christ?”
    But, theology is all about people and their concept of, relationship to or knowledge of God and their quest for answers to the ultimate issues of life related to God. Their conceptions about God inform how they think, move, and act as individuals and interact with one another in social entities. That is the reason we are reading books from other disciplines like anthropology, geography, and sociology; we are becoming well-rounded Christian theologians.
    I like your response to the book in your critique, “Once again, where is the concept of religion or Christianity in a book that talks about life? It is not present, instead people and their language have overtaken and usurped any higher being or power.”
    Good post Kevin; very good insights.

  5. Claire
    Thank you so much. I find it incredible that the absence of religion or Christianity makes each of these subject seem so powerful in their own right. Each of these subjects when subjected to a belief system become much more complicated and convoluted. Some of the content of social change goes completely against the grain of belief systems that have existed centuries before the “freedom” that has been presented in language. Interesting that our last two theology books cover centuries instead of a short time span. Just trying to balance out what we are reading.


  6. Marc Andresen says:


    I found your approach of picking up the thread of language to be a very interesting and appropriate way to look at this book. And you have appropriately critiqued the book theologically: seeing the bankruptcy of social theory that lacks a good theological core.

    It reminds me of “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

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