Symbols and Symbolic Learning

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fig. A Vietnamese elder man teaching a child the written language. This is an example of symbolic learning.
fig. A Vietnamese elder man teaching a child the written language. This is an example of symbolic learning.

Humans do not engage in social learning only through direct observation. Instead, humans can learn about things that are not immediately observable by using symbols. Symbolic learning is based on our linguistic capacity and ability to use and understand symbols, arbitrary meaningful units or models we use to represent reality. An example of the arbitrary aspects of symbolism would be the colors red, yellow, and green for traffic lights symbols in the United States (Sahlins 1976).

Traffic lights could be other colors in different societies, but in the United States, they take this arbitrary form. Sounds such as “cat,” “dog,” “tree,” “one,” “two,” and “three” in English are symbolic and arbitrary because, as we know, the sounds that symbolize those words in languages such as Chinese, Navajo, or Russian can be completely different. However, linguistic anthropologists know that symbols do not just refer to items such as animals or numbers. Symbol communication and language can be used to represent abstract ideas and values.

Symbols are the conceptual devices that we use to communicate abstract ideas to one another. We communicate these symbols through language. For example, children can learning to distinguish and name coins such as pennies, nickels, and quarters, and to use this money as a symbolic medium of exchange. The symbols of money in the United States or other societies are embedded within a host of many other symbols. Symbols do not stand in isolation from one another; instead, they are interconnected within linguistic symbol systems that enable us to provide rules and meanings for objects, actions, and abstract thought processes.

The linguistic capacity that we are born with gives us the unique ability to make and use symbolic distinctions. Humans learn most of their behaviors and concepts through symbolic learning. We do not have to depend upon situational learning or observations of others to perceive and understand the world and one another. We have the uniquely human ability to abstract the essence of complex events and patterns, creating images through symbols, and bestowing meaning and making inferences about these meanings.

fig. A chimp with a crumpled leaf made to drink water. Chimps learn much through social learning by observing one another.
fig. A chimp with a crumpled leaf made to drink water. Chimps learn much through social learning by observing one another.

 

fig. A Vietnamese elder man teaching a child the written language. This is an example of symbolic learning.
fig. A Vietnamese elder man teaching a child the written language. This is an example of symbolic learning.

Through the ability to symbolize, humans can learning, create meanings, and infer from those meanings in order to transmit culture. Parents do not have to depend on demonstrations to teach children. As children mature, they can learning abstract rules and concepts involving symbolic communication. Through oral traditions and text, humans can transmit this information across vast distances and through time. Symbolic learning has almost infinite possibilities in terms of absorbing and using information in creative ways. Most of our learning as humans is based on this symbolic learning process.

Symbols and Signs

Symbols are arbitrary units of meaning, in contrast to signs, which are directly associated with concrete physical items or activities. Many nonhuman animals can learn signs. For example, a dog can learn to associate the ringing of a bell (a physical activity) with drinking water. You can teach the dog to drink when you ring the bell.

Hence, both humans and other animals can learn signs and apply them to different sorts of activities or to concrete items. Symbols are different from signs in that they are not directly associated with any concrete item or physical activity; they are much more abstract. A symbol’s meaning is not always obvious. However, many symbols are powerful and often trigger behaviors or emotional states.

For example, the designs and colors of the flags of different countries represent symbolic associations with abstract ideas and concepts (see “Critical Perspectives: Key National Symbols”). In some flags, the color red may symbolize blood; in others, it may symbolize revolution. In many countries, the desecration of the national flag, itself a symbol, is considered a crime. When the symbols associated with particular abstract ideas and concepts that are related to the national destiny of a society are violated, powerful emotions may be aroused.

The ability to symbolize, to create symbols and bestow meaning on them, enhances our learning capacities as humans in comparison with other types of animals. Anthropologist Leslie White maintained that the most distinctive feature of being human is the ability to create symbols:

It is impossible for a dog, horse, or even an ape, to have any understanding of the meaning of the sign of the cross to a Christian, or of the fact that black (white among the Chinese) is the color of mourning. No chimpanzee or laboratory rat can appreciate the difference between Holy water and distilled water, or grasp the meaning of Tuesday, 3, or sin. (1971:23–24).

Symbols and Culture

The human capacity for culture is based on our linguistic and cognitive ability to symbolize. Culture is transmitted from generation to generation through symbolic learning and the ability to make inferences regarding our symbols and language (Bloch 2012). (In Chapter 5, we discuss the relationship between language and culture.) Through the transmission of culture, we learn how to subsist, how to socialize, how to govern our society, and what gods to worship. Culture is the historical accumulation of symbolic knowledge that is shared by a society. This symbolic knowledge is transmitted through learning, and it can change rapidly from parents to children and from one generation to the next.

Generally, however, people in societies go to great lengths to conserve their cultural and symbolic traditions. The persistence of cultural and symbolic traditions is as widespread as cultural change.