Friday, January 22, 2010

Symbols: Meaning and Interpretation

There is something intriguing to me about the use and message of signs, symbols and physical representation of ideas. I have a tendency to notice bumper stickers, crosses on the sides of the road, messages on signs that go against the norm. I suppose it appeals to me in a “symbolic interactionist” kind of way. What!? Don’t you remember the definition of symbolic interactionism as a major theory in the field of Sociology? Ok ok, I’ll remind you: “a framework for building theory that sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals”.

Certainly a big component of our interactions is the play and interplay of our use of symbols. Symbols say something about the type of music we like, the type of clothing we “support”, our favorite race car driver, sports team, and brand of religion we practice. But symbols are not only significant in a material kind of way. They say something deeper about what we think, how we feel, our emotional state. Personal use of symbols allow us to say something without saying anything.

On a fundamental level, symbols are used in simple communication.


Think about it. For example, I have a wonderful time watching my five year old daughter learn the alphabet.

Without learning what the squiggly lines mean she will not be able to read nor write, and will obviously struggle in a 21st century society that relies on reading and writing for communication. After all, we are not hunters and gatherers.

Sometimes messages and ideas stick out to me in what I deem to be places where you do not expect to see such messages. I see these around my community in Kentucky all the time. For example, I was quite shocked when I read this message on a local church sign.

Our class discussed this message early in the Fall of 2009 and I learned that the reference may be to a book that is popular in self-help and Christian circles. I certainly didn’t read it that way, leaving me astonished that a church would approve a message that uses flatulence as metaphor.

How about pizza and politics? This particular restaurant owner is taking advantage of the public space of his restaurant sign. But socialism and pizza? I never knew that pizza could taste…political?

I’m also glad to know that the person driving this vehicle is married to a coal miner…I guess.

Then there are those that strive to achieve that shock value. Yes, there are homophobic people in my community, but they usually don’t wear it on their sleeve, or on the bumpers of their cars.

What symbols or signs do you notice in your neighborhood or community? What are people trying to communicate? Do they cross the line? How do symbols contribute to how we understand everyday life? How do they influence your local culture? What do they say about the community in which you live?

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