Everywhere we look in society we see forms of symbolic representation which identify and illustrate our cultural ethos. Symbols that we use, as distinct from signs, carry multiple meanings depending on the context and culture in which they appear. A symbol can be a gesture, an object or a ritual that informs, solidifies and influences our social interactions. They are an important and integral element in understanding culture. They reinforce our norms, values and provide an operative in which we can manifest our meanings. Symbols can also evoke emotional responses from us.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz explained that our symbolic world is used as a vehicle for our concepts; they represent how we conceive of our world. The conception of the symbol is its meaning. Another interpretive anthropologist, Victor Turner, believed that symbols are not just vehicles for meaning, but by their very use, create meaning, understanding and solidarity in relationships. This is why he saw ritualistic symbolism as harboring core symbols which carried extra weight. The symbols function not only to represent a value or belief, but their use also affects the individual more substantially. This is because, as Turner believed, core symbols found in ritual had the ability or utility of connecting the known with the unknown. In essence, ritual acts and ritual symbolism often involve ethereal ideas which became tangible during the ritual process. Geertz also echoed the importance of ritual symbolism, and in particular, religious symbolism. He claimed that religious symbolic behavior or acts were specific creators of mood for the individual but also, because of their religious purpose, provided motivation.
However, everyday symbols and symbolic behavior do not always represent something transcendental. They may simply signify an aspect of our cultural norms and through their use, becoming effective in reinforcing these. When agents utilize and interact with these symbols, the values and meanings which they represent are codified. It is for this reason that they are an integral part of cultural life. Some widely recognized symbols or ritual behaviors are thousands of years old, like those which are a distinct part of religious heritage. They have been utilized to embody and affirm the sacred ideologies which they represent and also provide utility in ritual and practice during religious worship. More mundane symbolism may be the hand shake which we may recognize as a common custom, but which may also represent many meanings like agreement, understanding or a formal but socially polite greeting. This seems like a very insignificant form of symbolism and such a mundane example. However, we can recognize the power behind the symbolic gesture when such a custom is violated. For example, there may be an occasion where etiquette dictates that a shake shake is appropriate but one's hand may be refused. It is then that the true meaning behind the gesture becomes much more apparent.
All symbolic representation has its genesis in the social, ideological and political concepts which define our culture. They are formed from these, but also inform these. Symbols do not always remain the same, but can transform through the ages and through various processes of cultural adaptation.
Let us look at a national flag as a symbol. Every nation has one and we can assume that each country regards their flag as a symbol of the unity of their people. It represents a specific identification with 'nationhood' or even 'ethnicity'. Above all, it represents a collective – a common affiliation. A great example of the symbolism entrenched in national flags and their effect can be drawn from the revolution in Libya. Freedom fighters, along with the new government, reinstated the old flag of Libya, the symbol of an independent Libya used prior to Col. Gaddafi's rule between 1951 and 1969. At the same time, people took to a type of ceremonial and celebratory burning of the old green flag, which was in place during Gaddafi's rule. The flag became part of a ritual, with its burning as a sign of celebrating freedom from tyranny. We can see from this behavior how loaded with symbolic meaning the flag is. The action was not just cathartic to the participants, but as a symbolic act, spoke volumes for outsiders too. So, we can see how something as seemingly simple as a national flag can not only represent many meanings, but can have the power to evoke high emotional responses because of the values it represents. Because of this, across cultures, how a flag is utilized and treated by citizens is of utmost importance since it represents a national consciousness which may include pride, patriotism, identity and in this case, freedom.
What is clear about the power of symbolic representation in society is that although symbols serve the function of representing a concept or idea, they also have the propensity to evoke an emotional and psychological response. In fact, the importance or the emotional significance of the concept is what formulates the symbol in the first place.
Let's take another mundane symbol, the white dove. This symbol is widely recognizable across cultures. Sometimes, it is used alone, and sometimes, it is used in conjunction with other symbols. Most of us would say that it represents or is a symbol of peace. Why do we think it represents peace? We have to look at the origins and history of the symbol to understand why.
The symbol of the white dove and the olive branch has its genesis in the biblical story of Noah's Arch. After the flood, the dove returns to the Arch with an olive branch indicating that the flood was over and a new beginning was at hand. So, the symbol of the white dove along with an olive branch has its origins in Christian story telling. However, the use of the symbol of the olive branch within that story already had prior importance in history, since it was the early Roman symbol for peace. From this, we can understand why it was transported by the dove and its reason for incorporation into the story. After all this time, the symbols of the white dove and olive branch have become integrated into our cultural system so that they automatically become one of the most widely recognized symbols for peace. The reasonable reason for this is most likely due, to a large degree, to the spread of Christian based education across the globe over the centuries. However, the symbol has varied over time. We often see, despite to promote a more secular tone, the white dove without the olive branch in logos of various organizations. Its popularity of use rests largely on the fact that it is has an immediate recognizable meaning, making it an effective and powerful symbol.
Whether symbols are sacred or mundane, they make up a significant part of any cultural fabric. They have the power to transform a concept into a reality, to speak without words and to effect emotional responses from us. Understanding the meaning behind symbolic behavior and symbols themselves allows us great insight into our world and what we deem important and valuable.