Human beings exist and interact in a reality which they define themselves. Inside of this
reality they make use of social objects, that is, anything used between to actors in social
situations that have meaning and function in that social environment (Charon 46). Many social
objects are used to represent something else and are interpreted to convey more meaning. These
social objects are known as symbols and it is the core of the symbolic interactionist perspective.
Simply defined, a symbol is something that stands for something else. In Sociology, a symbol
is classified as a social object that the members of a society have agreed represents a concept, an
object, or an ideal that is not present. They are used to communicate, express intentions,
represent objects and groups and define the reality that surrounds us (Charon 46-48). They can be
separated into the categories of referential, expressive, and mixed symbols which can be
interrupted as both of the previous mentioned types.
Referential symbols are used to define and classify parts of reality. They can be used to
represent an object in its absence. The word pencil is immediately interpreted a shaft of wood
with a graphite core used for writing or a mechanical device with the same purpose. Now while
the pencil itself is just a social object with a simple function, the word pencil acts as a symbol
in that it represents the physical object. On a larger scale referential symbols are used to represent
entire groups. A red star can be used to represent a political party or philosophy (Charon 50).
Referential symbols can also be used to classify groups such as gender. Diana Kendall gives the
example of dressing infants in certain colours, blue and red for males and pink and yellow for
females, to convey immediately communicate the sex of the child (Kendall 70). These symbols
are used as labels and divisions in society.
Expressive symbols are used to communicate and invoke responses. They are used substitutes
and expressions of emotions. A good example of this is simple body language, gestures are a
symbolic form of communication (Kendal 50). Looking into someone s eyes as he or she speaks
is a symbol of your intention to listen and that you have interest in what the person has to say,
just as looking at a watch or a clock while the person is speaking conveys boredom or disinterest
(Charon 50). If a one nation or group of nations places a trade embargo onto another, it is
symbolic of their disapproval of that nation s actions, if a country boycotts the Olympic games it
communicates its dissatisfaction with some or all of the other countries involved. Symbols such
as these represent and communicate intentions and emotions.
The third classification rests largely on interpretation. Mixed symbols arise from that fact that
some symbols can both represent something and convey emotion. For example a flag can
represent a nation as well as patriotism (Kendall 70). The previous example of using the colour
of an infant s clothing can also be used to express a message as to how the child should be
treated, as Kendal puts it a pink dress on a girl conveys I m a girl. Say that I am pretty, not that
I m handsome (Kendal 70).
The symbol is an important, if not key, concept to the symbolic interactionist perspective
because it is how we communicate and interact, how we define our very nature. We do not
passively react to our reality but create and recreate it with the use of symbols in our social life,
they are our reality and are central to what makes us human (Charon 69). Symbols are the basis
of our communication within our own social groups and with others. It is through our
understanding of how we use them that we understand ourselves.
Charon, Joel M. Symbolic Interactionism; An Introduction, An Interpretation, An Integration.
6th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall,1998.
Kendall, Diana Elizabeth. Sociology in our times. 2nd ed. Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson, 2000