Symbols: meaning and interpretation

January 22, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser

Email: chad.gesser@kctcs.edu

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?


  1. I too notice bumper stickers and marquis signs at business. Usually they are straight to the point and pretty dull. People often try to broadcast their ideas and beliefs through sybolism. Yes, they do some times cross the line. When a person places a sticker on their car that says “aids cures fags”, they probably wouldn’t say that to an actual homosexual and have not been around someone who is fighting against aids. However when they broadcast their ideas for all to see, even the children, it shows their level of ignorence. Some symbols however, may be uplifing for a community, such as at churches. They often reming us that there are people who are in need more than we would ever know.

  2. The thing that bothers me the most in my city of Evansville are all the anti-abortion signs and bumperstickers. Without getting to far into the controversy, all I have to say is how is it any of your business? Why do you have to go around and say “Well… You can’t be both Catholic AND pro-choice.” What these people don’t seem to understand is that when you say you are “pro-life” you better be pro-life about everything! That includes, but is not limited to, the death penalty. With that view you have to say “We aren’t God. Who are we to say that that serial child rapist/murderer should be executed?” I get that they are trying to tell me they want a bunch of homeless babies in the world, but please stop shoving it down everyones throat. And I do believe it’s crossing the line to tell me that I can’t be a Catholic and apathetic to the situation.
    Without symbols in our society, I truely believe we wouldn’t be able to function. Let’s look at the business world. Everyone recognizes the Nike symbol, you know, the little checkmark “Just Do It” thing. If we see that little checkmark thing on a billboard we know they are trying to advertise Nike shoes or gear. The same goes with the the bright yellow happy smiley face. We see that and we think Wal-Mart! This is how businesses advertise, and to be honest I believe it’s pretty ingenious. We have been conditioned to know that when we see a red bullseye that it’s something for Target. Every commmunity has these symbols all over the town, it’s to help out the businesses get their names cheaply out. Without symbols I honestly don’t know how well society would function.

    Jessica Caplan

    • I agree with Jessica on the part of being Catholic and pro choice. I personally am Catholic and pro-life. But Jessica your right who makes the rules? If you are pro-life or pro-choice and be Catholic. Your not God. You will have to answer to the God of your choice.

  3. It’s kind of intresting how we tend to notice the smallest of things, like a bumber sticker or a sign hanging on a church or restraunt. But, I too notice these out puts of a persons view and expression. I’ve seen a bumper sticker with a stick figure of a man and a + sign then a stick figure of a woman and an = sign and the words MARRIAGE. To me this bumper sticker was representing the “traditional” marriage of a man and a woman. Being that we are going through a time where gay relationships are becoming more common and accepted in our times. But, I guess not to this individule. So, I to an extent no people are not crossing the line. It is America and we do have the economical right to an opinion but then again are we right morally to be so judgemental? I am very much in favor of “Freedom of Speech” but there is a right an wrong way of doing things and ther is also an apporiate and an innopporiate time of speaking things. With these signs, bumper stickers, and ways of verbalizing I believe they help us to see, not only to hear peoples views and opinions on everyday life and society. I belive that these symbols and signs
    could influence our culture but in a way our culture today is such a mess and our children our going twards a more “independent” view of living I really think more people will smile and possible laugh at alot of thing rather than being optomistic and look at both if not all sides of view. When it comes to our community as a hole I believe that using signs and symbols it say that we are a cluster of people that are not afraid to have our own opinions and views and we are nit afraid to expres them.

  4. Symbols. There are symbols and sign all over the place, some of them are absolutely pointless and say things that mean nothing at all. It is my opinion that some marque messages are put up just because people are bored. Bumper stickers are the same way. people want to express their opinions when really they make their selves look uneducated and ignorant. There is one in particular bumper sticker that I saw the other day that really caught my attention it read; Jesus loves you…Everyone else thinks you are and asshole. I personally thought that it was mildly humorous. I am curious what people think about this. Is this truly how people feel in our society? Do we really hate each other?

  5. I kind of agree with all of you. Signs and symbols these days proclaim the word sex. Some way, shape, or form they have the word or gives the impression. But in todays society it doesn’t matter what sex you are. Just like Mass. allowing the same sex marriage. I disagree with that . And the reason I do is because my husband left me for another man. Not that I a against gays cause I have a few gay friends. It is the thought of it that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I read alot of the church bullentins and think about they say and believe me there are alot of them out there. It is not like it used to be going to church and sitting with a couple you know and having dinner or lunch together like you used too. Sign and symbols have become away of life .

  6. I always read bumberstickers, billboards, and marquis around town, I often find myself looking for misspellings or underlying meanings to the messages. I have done this my entire life and I am glad I am not the only one. People are sometimes advertising for their child’s school or academic acheivements, but more often than not it is a deragatory or religious meaning behind most all of them. Yes, some of them cross the line the anti-abortion ones often cross the line, the one above that says Aids cures fags definately crosses the line. These symbols contribute to our understanding of everyday life by letting us know what some people believe, how some businesses operate, what some businesses are selling or need, and what some peoples prejudices are, but they can only be taken at face value. They are often a display of what people would not say vocally. They influence the community because children see these “symbols” they read them and form opinions based on what they see and read. This prematurely influences them to have prejudices unnecessarily towards ideas or people. These “symbols” tell me that the community in which I live is very ethnocentric and they need to be more diversified in there way of thinking. Words are symbols that should be used wisely especially when they are put on display. Nothing you would be ashamed to say should ever be displayed on your car and definately not in front of your business.

  7. The most symbol i see in my neighboorhood is the breast cancer awareness sign, theres alot of people that have the bumbersticker. Well they are trying to say check yourself for breast cancer, exam yourself once a month. at least thats what this one says. no i dont think they cross the line. Well signs tell us stuff everyday. for example driving, there are alot of signs that help you, stop sign tells you to stop, a sign with a stop light tells ya that a stop light was coming up so watch up. Well they tell us all sorts of things, weither it be church a bumber sticker or anything

  8. “Symbols: Meaning and Interpretation”

    I live about 30 minutes from where I travel to go to school and work daily. While driving I always pass the county jail. They have a sign beside the road that says messages on it. Majority of the time they are something clever, but nothing that I remember after a long period of time. Recently, there was a message that thanked their workers for working all hours of the night because if they didn’t do that job then us as civilians would have to stay up all night because these “criminals” would be loose. I thought that this message was completely rude, especially considering I sometimes see the inmates outside playing basketball and such. They, clearly, could see the sign out front. I think the sign should have read something more positive, in my opinion.

    We see signs every day. They influence our thoughts and opinions. Normally, I will drive past a sign and if it was catchy or thoughtful I will think about it for a few minutes. I believe that where I am from signs are written to down grade people who don’t follow the same thoughts/religions as others. I’m not going to go into huge detail about my religious thoughts, but I am a very open minded person. I think saying someone who isn’t the same is in for “eternal damnation” is wrong, and not someone from a church’s place to say.

  9. In my everyday life, I notice everything from billboards to bumper stickers. Most of these tend to be either political, religious, or promotional for a product. For the most part, I don’t think they cross the line, however, some of the religious and political ads are a bit radical.
    Signs and symbols are everywhere and they influence your opinion and your community’s opinion on issues. Even if you have never considered a specific topic or idea before, when you see it, you address the it and you will form your own opinion about it.

  10. I think I wrote about this before…It just bewilders me. What other hobbies do people think of?I guess the turtleman comes from I suppose Eastern Ky. in the big mining fields and probably don’t have alot to eat. So someone like the turtleman goes out and catches turtles for their personal delicaties.From what I hear it is very good eating. But for myself I will stick with what I know I’m eating.In society most people would think this man is crazy. (Not all rungs on his ladder. But it takes all kinds to make this world go round.

  11. One bumper sticker that I have seen on a neighborhood car is “Abortion is murder.” People are trying to say that abortion takes the life of an innocent unborn child, which is equivalent to murder. The bumper sticker does not cross the line because it is trying to make people understand that they are killing a person, not just a group of cells. This is shown by the movie “The Silent Scream”, in which you see the baby try to defend itself from being killed. This message tries to show people the gravity of the situation and what they are getting themselves into. Symbols give people reflection for thought that they may not have considered before, or not pondered very long. Symbols are ideas that are not always found in the mainstream media, and show what the everyday people in our community are thinking. This influences people on a local level to accept or reject the ideas. It shows the concern of people for what is happening in the community, and this shows that some people in our community have strong convictions.

    John Forsee

  12. It’s almost habitual to read church signs. I’ve noticed phrases which could be taken offensively if one doesn’t affiliate with that religion. You can usually draw a conclusion about the kind of car wearing particular bumper stickers. People are trying to communicate their individuality, and when doing so often times that fine line is crossed. Of course, as with the church sign in this blog, the reader is the interpreter. Symbols help us establish an understanding of certain relationships. I see many raosaries in Owensboro, and Owensboro has a dense population of Roman Catholics. Some symbols we over look in our community, but can be informative to an outsider. Symbols can be informative of political stance, religion, economical postion and more.

  13. I usually notice bumer stickers and signs as well. I remember driving to school one day and seeing a billboard outside a church that said “Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet Him.” To be honest, I thought the billboard was quite humorous. I don’t quite understand though if the motivation behind the sign was church related, or eternally related, or both.
    As for bumper stickers, some people just don’t think about another’s feelings toward what they might be saying. Like the example above “AIDS cures fags.” That is completely inappropriate. AIDS isn’t acquired through homosexuality alone. AIDS can be acquired through blood transfusions and through sharing needles as well. What does that say to someone who may not be homosexual, but has the AIDS virus? It might be very offensive to them, and I, for one, would not want to offend anyone who is fighting that terrible disease.
    Symbols and signs most definitely can define who people are and what they believe. The way that we use symbols and signs, however, should be thought about more carefully.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: