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1. In linguistics and semiotics, the phenomenon, noted by Jakobson, in which one term and/or concept is highlighted as (markedly) different from another, as in the words male/female, where the former is literally unmarked and the latter is linguistically marked by the addition of an initial fe-. The unmarked form is typically dominant (e.g. statistically within a text or corpus) and is often used as a generic term while the marked form is used in a more specific sense.

2. (semiotics) The semantic weighting of concepts as well as terms within binary oppositions (such as masculinity/femininity). Where terms are conventionally paired, the usual sequence implies a priority: mind/body, public/private, active/passive (see also alignment). The unmarked term is primary, being given precedence, but at the same time its unmarked transparency makes it seem to be neutral, normal, and natural (see also exnomination). Unmarked/marked may thus be read as norm/deviation. When we refer to nonverbal communication, the very label defines such a mode of communication as secondary. Markedness can thus generate ideological connotations.

3. In deconstruction, the association of a marked term in an opposition with absence and lack. Derrida demonstrated that within the oppositional logic of binarism neither of the terms (or concepts) makes sense without the other. This is what he calls ‘the logic of supplementarity’: the ‘secondary’ term which is represented as ‘marginal’ and external is in fact constitutive of the ‘primary’ term and essential to it. The unmarked term is defined by what it seeks to suppress. See also absent signifier.

4. (marketing) The explicit labelling of certain products as ‘for women’ or ‘for men’, while a very similar product of the same brand (associated with a cultural stereotype with that target group) is left unmarked. For example, many skincare products targeted at women are left unmarked, while other versions are explicitly marked ‘for men’; Nike has a primary website that is unmarked, and another called nikewomen.com.

5. More broadly in cultural theory, the choice of an unconventional form in textual or social practices, which thus ‘make a statement’. Conventional, or ‘over-coded’ texts or practices (which follow a fairly predictable formula) are unmarked whereas those which are unconventional or ‘under-coded’ are marked. Unmarked forms reflect the naturalization of dominant cultural values.

6. In socialization, the production of difference based on the distinction between norm and deviation (see also labelling theory). Social differentiation is constructed and maintained through the marking of differences. To be marked is to be ‘one of them’ rather than ‘one of us’.

7. In the history of ideas, the relative weighting given to particular concepts in a particular period. Jakobson observed in 1930 that ‘such historico-cultural correlations as life–death, liberty–non-liberty, sin–virtue, holidays–working days, and so on are always confined to relations a–non-a, and…it is important to find out for any epoch, group, nation etc. what the marked element is’.

Subjects: Media studies

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