The Importance of Symbols
Merging Intellect with Intuition to Solve Problems through Story-telling, Myths, Game Theory, and Personal Growth
Helping people to create better lives through efficiency, effectiveness, precision, self-awareness, Eastern Wisdom and game-based strategies
Q. I read a lot about the role of symbols in our lives. Most of what I read is purely esoteric or references back to Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. I am a sociologist. Can you explain symbols in terms of human relations?
A. I shared your question with a friend of mine who is both a professor of sociology and a big fan of Joseph Campbell (sorry.) This is what she has to say.
Today a major framework of sociological theory is known as Symbolic interactionism – Also known as the symbolic interaction perspective, this perspective relies on the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely upon in the process of social interaction. Although symbolic interactionism traces its origins to Max Weber’s assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world, the American philosopher George Herbert Mead introduced this perspective to American sociology in the 1920s.
Symbolic interaction theory analyzes society by addressing the subjective meanings that people impose on objects, events, and behaviors. Subjective meanings are given primacy because it is believed that people behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively true. Thus, society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation.
People interpret one another’s behavior and it is these interpretations that form the social bond. These interpretations are called the “definition of the situation.” For example, why would young people smoke cigarettes even when all objective medical evidence points to the dangers of doing so? The answer is in the definition of the situation that people create. Studies find that teenagers are well informed about the risks of tobacco, but they also think that smoking is cool, that they themselves will be safe from harm, and that smoking projects a positive image to their peers. So, the symbolic meaning of smoking overrides that actual facts regarding smoking and risk.
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Lewis Harrison is a practical philosopher, mentor, and peak performance coach.
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