Jan 25, 2016
Every society - be it pre-literate, literate, or post-literate - uses symbols and signs as a complement to spoken language. Symbols have evolved to the point of universal acceptance in such areas as music, mathematics, computers, travel, and many branches of science. It now appears that in some important areas there is an increasing need for an adjunct to sophisticated speech, and the use of new (and in some cases, the revamping of old) symbols and icons to ease communication and facilitate international understanding.
Symbols provide the means whereby human beings can interact meaningfully with their natural and social environment. Symbols are socially constructed, and they refer not to the intrinsic nature of objects and events but to the ways in which human beings perceive them. Ott (1989, p. 21) says the following about symbols:
Symbols are signs that connote meanings greater than themselves and express much more than their intrinsic content. They are invested with specific subjective meanings. Symbols embody and represent wider patterns of meaning and cause people to associate conscious or unconscious ideas that in turn endow them with their deeper, fuller, and often emotion-evoking meaning.
Symbols are important as they create, change, maintain, and transmit socially constructed realities. Charon (1985) and Ritzer (1992) identify several functions of symbols. Symbols allow people to deal with the material and social world by allowing them to name, categorize, and remember the objects that they encounter. Symbols also improve a people’s ability to perceive the environment. They improve a people’s ability to think. Symbols greatly increase human beings’ ability to solve problems. While lower animals depend primarily on instinct and trial and error, human beings can think through symbolically a variety of alternative actions before actually taking one. The use of symbols allows people to transcend time, space, and even their own persons, that is, symbols allow people to imagine alternative realities (Charon, 1985; Ritzer, 1992). These functions of symbols imply that symbols can be manipulated (symbolism) and, thereby, can be used to create or impede social change.
In politics, for example, a number of scholars have written about how political symbols are utilized to maintain established power, status, and resource differentials (Edelman, 1964, 1971, 1988; Evans-Pritchard and Fortes, 1967; Elder and Cobb, 1983; and Hayward and Dumbuya, 1984). It is not so much the symbols themselves that are significant in politics, but the meanings that people attribute to them. A national or party flag is more than a piece of cloth; it is used to evoke feelings of great loyalty, hostility, support or resentment.
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