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Words as Symbols (We’ve got Symbols, Cause We’ve Got a Band)

Symbols. They surround us, follow us, help us make meaning. Symbols are the essence of communication and create our realities. Take a second to try to remember how you came to know what you know. Now think about how you were influenced. You were probably influenced by parents, friends, relatives. You may also have been influenced by teachers, authors and filmmakers. But were you influenced by words themselves. Ever think about words as symbols?

Try this exercise:
Part One:
Think about these innocuous words and their endings in Spanish and French, two of the Romance Languages that have influenced a millenia. The words in English are book, kitchen, and house.
Book: Spanish – el libro; French – le livre
Kitchen: Spanish – la cocina; French – la cuisine
House: Spanish- la casa; French – la maison.

Part Two:
Now I’d like you to think of what Barthes would call the second-order signification of language. In other words, the meaning behind the meaning. A book is a symbol of intellectualism, of knowledge. For most of civilization (at least what is taught in American educational systems) the only type of person allowed to know how to read a book was a man. A rich, white, land owning, male. Notice the masculine ending coupled with a masculine article.
Of course, kitchen and house have feminine endings with feminine articles. Once again, throughout history, women controlled the kitchen and the house. Over time, the more we use these words, the more these symbols take on a definition of their own. Just as a short thought exercise, imagine your kitchen table growing up. Did Mom sit closest to the kitchen? Dad closest to the garage or front door?

Without symbols, we could not communicate, and without communication, well, we couldn’t have meaning. And without meaning, we have no society. But how do we a) develop symbols and then consequently, b) understand them.

You could take the symbolic interactionist approach, created by George Herbert Mead, which is based on how people create meanings for objects, situations, themselves, experiences, and so on and so forth. The most basic principle is that we create meaning through the interaction of symbols and is broken down into 5 key concepts. Mind, Self, Role Taking and I and Me.

Mead claims that at birth we have no mind. It is a blank slate. We acquire a mind through the process of interaction by external and internal stimuli. We interact with our parents, we interact with others, we interact with technology, and we interact with ourselves. Since a baby does not have a vocabulary and can’t speak, they have to communicate in a most basic way….crying, pointing, making some kind of noise. However, once the acquisition of a language, a child can now say food, or hungee instead of crying. A child will also learn the rules of a society through the language of others. They will start to understand the concept of cause and effect, although very minutely. They will learn that they cannot throw food, that they cannot do certain things. This may be why a child’s first word is often no. So the mind, in Mead’s concept, is that abstract idea of learning through interaction. He says that social life and communication are only possible when we understand and can use a common language, a common symbol. And this is “mind”.

The self, according to Mead, is like the mind in that we do not have one in birth. On a side note, for you psychology buffs, this is along the same lines of Freud’s primordial mirror. Freud says that as an infant, we associate ourselves as a part of our mother. We see ourselves attached to the breast, or next to our mother in an abstract mirror. Once we separate, and can see ourselves independently from our mother, we then create a self. But back to Mead. He says that we learn the self from interactions of others. as a child, we are told, “you’re so cute”, “you’re so smart”, “you’re an idiot”, etc. The views that are expressed to us by others will affect our initial meaning of ourselves. Along the lines of Freud, Mead created “the looking glass self”. This is like Freud, but instead of dealing with the mother, he is dealing with society. He says that symbolic interaction explains that we learn to see ourselves mirrored in others’ eyes. Basically, we perceive ourselves through the lens of others. this leads to the self fulfilling prophecy, as Mead would say. He claims that by living up to the labels that we receive from others, that that is how we truly are. In other words, our self esteem is guided and can be dictated by how others see us.

The third and fourth concept of symbolic interactionism are mutually exclusive: the I and the Me.

I and Me:
One of the interesting things, not only about this concept, but humans in general, is that we can simultaneously and independently be the subject and object of our experiences. We can see ourselves as we are seeing the experience, but talk of the experience with us in it, as the object. Mead refers to the part of the self that is an acting subject as the I. The I is rash, spontaneous, creative, and usually doesn’t care about the rules of society. The I focuses on individuality.

The Me is the part of the self that is socially conscious. You know when you watch the cartoons and you get the angel and the devil on each shoulder? The devil tells you what you should do, no matter the consequence. Whereas the angel tells you that not only is it wrong (in many senses of the word) but that society frowns upon that action. Well, the I is the ‘devil’ and the Me is the ‘angel’.

The me is analytical, dissecting each situation and experience and becomes aware of each subsequent consequence. Once again, we can see correlations between this theory and Freud. Freud dealt with the ego, superego, and the id, which essentially says the same thing about the self, except that where Freud says that it is impossible for the ego, the super ego, and the id to keep each other in check, Mead says that the I and the Me are actually complementary to each other. Kind of like a checks and balances type of thing. If the I is control, we have a society that lacks rules, a sort of anarchy if you will. Very chaotic. We wouldn’t be able to function as a society. However, the Me helps us keep order, while the I creates. The I influences revolution, whether it is social, cultural, political, technological, and the Me allows these revolutions to exist, yet still be able to function as a society or civilization.

Because the I and the Me work together to create the Self, we must understand that through a symbolic interactionist lens, the Me really consists of the perspective of others. Like we discussed earlier, since we interact with people, and we understand the attached meanings of situations and behaviors, we create meaning of ourselves, of our Self. However, we come to realize that the meanings we have actually reflect the perspectives of two groups of Others. Particular others and Generalized others.

Particular others are individuals who are important to us. Our family, friends, relatives, bosses, lovers, all are particular others. Because we gain a sense of understanding of what things mean to them, we can understand the world through their perspective and we can act accordingly. In other words, a “what would so and so do, think…?” Here it is not much of a guilt issue, but an example of role playing, or role taking. Which is the process of internalizing others’ perspectives and viewing experience from their perspectives.

Besides particular others, we also use the perspective of the generalized other. Your social group, community, society, the rules, values, norms of your culture, are the generalized other.

So, according to social interactionists, we create meaning through three different ways. One, we act and behave on
the basis of what things mean to us. Basically, meanings are the basis of behavior. Two, meanings are formed through interacting symbolically with others, either particular or generalized. And this has two implications; one, that symbols are the foundation of meaning, and two, that the meanings we have aren’t only personal (meaning that we create them), but that they have a lot of social overtones. The third way that we create meaning, according to the social interactionists, is through the eyes and perspectives of others, reflecting the internal perspectives, the meanings through experiences, feelings, and activities of others to create meaning.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


3 thoughts on “Words as Symbols (We’ve got Symbols, Cause We’ve Got a Band)

  1. I and me are subject and object, different cases. English has lost its use of cases except with pronouns (we/us, she/her). Most languages used to have them (Latin, <A HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_English_declension“ REL=”nofollow”>Old English) and have lost them. Some still use them a little (Russian, German, Arabic). Did ancient peoples identify this difference between subject and object more inherently than we do?

    Posted by Zach | December 11, 2008, 8:25 am
  2. The concept is more about cognitive understanding as opposed to grammatical understanding. Yes, I and Me are subject/object in grammar, but this is more of a philosophy of how we behave, react, think. Then again, I guess one could argue that since I/Me are different cases in grammar, they would be different cases in cognitive processes. But I won’t make that argument.

    Posted by Josh Sternberg | January 1, 2009, 4:50 pm
  3. The concept is more about cognitive understanding as opposed to grammatical understanding. Yes, I and Me are subject/object in grammar, but this is more of a philosophy of how we behave, react, think. Then again, I guess one could argue that since I/Me are different cases in grammar, they would be different cases in cognitive processes. But I won’t make that argument.

    Posted by Josh Sternberg | January 1, 2009, 4:50 pm

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