This article provides an overview of the meaning of symbols in U.S. culture, as well as in other social systems. It discusses how culture is learned through the process of socialization and the importance of symbols, including language, within a culture to identify and communicate the values and expectations of its members. From the various sociological perspectives - symbolic interactionist, functionalist, and conflict - culture and its symbols are reviewed as part of both non-material and material culture. Cultural relativism, or the understanding that the basis by which one measures the behaviors and customs of another culture are done so through the lens of one’s own cultural standards, is also discussed, as well as notions of the accumulation of cultural capital by those members of a culture who may experience enhanced opportunities for themselves because of the body of cultural capital to which they may lay claim. Finally, the article's focus turns to how cultural symbols and the values, beliefs and attitudes connected to the symbols can be used in many and varied ways.
Keywords Culture; Cultural Capital; Cultural Relativism; Cultural Symbol; Language; Non Material Culture; Material Culture; Socialization
Culture: Cultural Symbols
What things are important to a group of people? A flag of specific colors and shapes, a coat of arms, a lapel pin, a specific word, two fingers held in a V-shape, a place, an identity, a type of behavior, such as drinking alcohol? In and of themselves, these things have no meaning. But meaning can be assigned to them by a group of people who share the ability to communicate those meanings to one another. Through a process called socialization, we teach one another the symbols that have significance to the group. This process begins at birth and continues throughout our lives. Those who are not yet part of a culture may sense a different view about the same objects. Or they may see no meaning at all in something that is very significant to a culture. Creating and understanding cultural symbols helps us to communicate not only the embedded meaning within the symbols, but also our feelings of belonging to the group, to our culture. We use the same symbols to identify with one another and to keep outsiders away, or to demonstrate our position within a society by our possession of cultural capital: the more knowledge of a culture and ability to communicate using the symbols and language of that culture, the more cultural capital we possess. Cultural capital can be used for social and cultural exclusion as well as for a sense of "habitus," or belonging (Wise, Watts & Harris, 2005).
Culture is Learned
Culture is everything that we learn and do. We can define culture as the knowledge, language, values, customs (also known as non-material culture) and material objects, or material culture, such as computers, books, cars, houses, appliances, toys, cell phones that remain a part of the society through generations. By its very nature, culture is central and essential to the survival of the individual and of the society to which that individual belongs. Culture then, can be thought of as a complete set of understandings - assumptions, values, procedures, ideas, etc. - associated with a particular group of people (Howe, 2004).
The concept of culture began sometime in the 19th century when scholars tried to identify how people thought and behaved, often as a way to distinguish or even distance themselves from the "others," sometimes to merely understand them. Prior to notions of culture, people were categorized by what is known as "environmental determinism." For example, people from the northern climes were believed to be hardy and brave. Or, some believed northerners talked less and used a predominance of consonants in their language because they didn't want to open their mouths too much to let cold air in! On the other hand, people from the southern areas were considered inferior, slow to think, slow to act (Howe, 2004).
Another early concept about behavior was the notion of "human nature." Why do people behave a certain way? Some would say, because of some innate, biological trait, or reason. If one blames human nature, how humans behave is believed to be somehow established by genes. Through biology, a group of people can be expected to "be" a certain way and there is nothing that can be done about changing those expectations. A contemporary example might be the explanations of male and female behavior in books like, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus .
By the 19th century, anthropologists began to notice in their research on groups, that there were behaviors common across diverse boundaries such as race, ethnicity, and religion, where people otherwise had nothing in common biologically except their humanness. For example, in the U.S., people from these various backgrounds knew, understood and contributed to a uniquely American culture and its symbols. Despite the boundaries between them, people shared customs, ways of life, ideas, even though they were different physically. The term "culture" was adopted to refer to the things that people passed on for the most part, through an intellectual process, rather than through a biological one (Howe, 2004). In other words, culture is learned, not predetermined.
Components of Culture
The tangible products of a culture, or those objects with some dimension used by a culture, such as computers, cell phones, clothing and much more, make up what sociologists call material culture. Within these objects, which by the frequency of their use indicates their importance to a culture, one can also find symbolism
The non-material components of culture, those things that are intangible, or cannot be touched, including values, norms, folkways, language, symbols and mores.
Values are a society's beliefs about things that are important such as achievement and success, equality, or individualism. Norms are rules. Some rules are informal such as folkways. Folkways are everyday customs such as wearing a raincoat when it is raining, or using deodorant. If one violates a folkway, the sanctions are mild. There are no serious consequences. Mores, on the other hand, are more important norms that have serious consequences.
The process by which culture is passed from person to person and generation to generation is called socialization. There are a number of socialization agents, beginning foremost with the family. Other social institutions that carry on the job of socialization include the educational system, religion, the workplace, politics, sports, and the military. Each of these social institutions takes on the task of teaching the important things of a culture, including its symbols, to other members. The group, then, collectively participates in and cares about the social teachings. Something is not cultural unless it is shared.
The Importance of Symbols
The two main ways of expressing, understanding and communicating all the other non-material components of culture are through symbol and language. Symbols, however, have no meaning in and of themselves, until humans do two things: first, attach meaning to the symbol and second, communicate that meaning to someone else. Other information transmitted between humans is biological or instinctual, rather than social, or cultural (Bartle, 2008). A symbol is anything that represents a particular meaning. Language is a set of symbols that people use to express their ideas (and those of the culture) and to communicate with other members of the same society. Having knowledge of more than one language allows people to be able to communicate ideas with people from other cultures and societies, thus enhancing understanding and perhaps tolerance among people of differing societies.
Besides being vehicles for communication within a frame of reference, symbols convey powerful meanings based on a set of shared values, expectations and philosophies. They can cause us to think and behave in certain ways. Symbols can also draw us together via encoded information, or they can create barriers separating us. Our emotions, cognitions, and behaviors are influenced by these shared codes.
It makes sense that language, therefore, is a most common and basic set of symbols available to a culture so that it can pass on the non-material portions of culture: its values, beliefs, and rules. But because language influences and sways our thoughts, people who speak different languages may conceptualize differently, as well. This is what helps constitute notions of culture and what makes cultural symbolism relative to a particular culture and its language. One of the best known and referenced theories about language among sociologists is the Sapir-Whorf theory. This theory states that our thinking is determined by language and that people who speak different languages, view the world and think it about it relative to their own language. As one speaks a different language, one experiences a different world map. This simple theory has strong implications for notions of culture, cultural relativism and cultural symbolism. As Sapir (1958) noted,
Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation (Sapir, 1958, p. 69).
Humankind can communicate with one another because they have the ability to symbolize, or to represent an idea with something else. This is probably because a symbol is a relationship between two things (Howe, 2004). Language associates and connects ideas. The mental link made between the symbol and the idea (meaning) is culturally determined. When we touch a hot element on the stove, we feel the burn. In the U.S. culture, the American flag is a symbol of patriotism. But in other parts of the world, that same piece of colored cloth might be a symbol of oppression. Cultural symbols are couched within a particular frame of reference.
How Cultural Symbols are Used
Cultural symbols are used not only to define a particular cultural group, they also can be used in a variety of ways to preserve, alter, reinforce, and negate culture. The following discussion includes some examples of cultural symbols as they determine cultural place; as they preserve cultures that might otherwise disappear; as they create heroes and the beliefs and expectations that surround them; as they create boundaries or inclusionary codes to keep people in, or out of a culture; as they stratify and discriminate. Keep in mind that symbols can do none of this on their own. It is only by instilling the symbols with human notions, beliefs, ideas, emotions, that symbols have any value.
Monuments, recreational areas, and public structures form part of the cultural landscapes of regions ranging in size from small local regions to large world regions. Such cultural symbols provide valuable information about a peoples’ values, activities and resources.
Consider Disney World in Florida, the Empire State Building in New York, the Alamo in Texas, and the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Now consider some international icons such as the pyramids of Egypt, or the Taj Mahal in India. What do these monuments and places represent, or symbolize to their respective cultures? How did such symbolic meaning become attached to them?
Cultural symbols exist around the world because people attach meaning to structures, making them icons to represent a place, a region, or a historical period. People's perceptions of the same symbol depend on their individual or collective mental and emotional associations. For example, people interested in U.S. history may place great importance on the fight for American independence. Yet Mexicans and Texans may have quite different views of the Alamo ("Cultural Symbols," 2008). Those who passionately opposed the war in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s may experience the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., very differently from those who served in the military with deep beliefs in their mission.
Cultural Symbols as Preservation of Culture
Preserving vestiges of a culture, particularly one that is on the...
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