In this essay, John Kincaid uses symbolic interaction and cigarette advertisements from the early 1900s to illustrate how symbols are used to shape and reshape society.
One of the things that we work hard on in introduction to sociology classes is to get students to understand how larger level social forces shape the world around us. One of those forces that can be hard to grasp is the power of language, images and interaction to shape our experiences of reality. Social scientist call the study of the way we use shared symbols to help us shape a shared reality symbolic interactionism. The basic insight is that all of our perception is based in the shared sets of social meaning that we use to order the world around us. For example, what’s wrong with the black-and-white picture on the right?
When we see the children performing this particular symbolic action, the meanings that come to us are immediately negative, but why? One obvious reason is because we associate this hand gesture with the Nazi’s and their horrific crimes. But before World War 2 and the Nazis, this was known as the Bellamy salute, and was the official way to honor the flag and nation when reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance. The act was adopted by Nazi Party and Italian fascists in the 1920’s, and the act became so socially distasteful that Congress officially replaced it with the hand-over-the-heart salute in 1942.
How Symbols Can Shape (and Reshape) Our World
What this example shows us, is that in powerful ways, the way we experience reality is shaped by shared sets of meanings that we learn from our society, and attach to the world around us (if you doubt it, would you be willing to perform the Bellamy salute in public? Why not?). What the salute also shows, is that these shared meanings can also change, and sometimes change very quickly. The meanings that we use and share to help order the world are not set in stone, they are subject to change driven by history, current events and politics.
This is where cigarettes come in….
In this piece John Kincaid explores how our profane capitalist economic values have seeped into aspects of our life we hold sacred. Specifically, he asks us to think about how modern capitalism in the U.S. encourages us to view babies as expensive luxury items. If the question in this piece’s title offends you, then read on, that’s precisely what this piece is about.
Sociologists love to write, think, talk and argue about capitalism. In part this is because the large-scale shifts from a feudal economy to a capitalist economy were what made social systems so apparent and so interesting to early sociologists. Early sociologists from Durkheim to Weber were fascinated with the links between economy and society in this era of change. So, as sociologists, we may have capitalism itself to thank for our discipline.
Few writers described capitalism as poetically as Karl Marx, who in the Communist Manifesto argued that in a capitalist system, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” In an earlier post, I talked about the role of the sacred and profane in modern society. For Marx and others witnessing the transition between two enormous social systems, the economy was reshaping the fundamental relationships of our society, and the distinctions we often placed between those relationships.
Economic Values & Our Families
One example of this in Marx’s time, of the economy rewriting social relations were the conditions of child workers and the necessity of families to sell their children’s labor to survive. This is such a striking example because as a society we often think of things like the value of children (sacred) and the value of business profit (profane) as being parts of two very different systems of values. But we also have examples of the profaning of the sacred in pursuit of profits in our current society. It’s not quite on the same level as child labor, but I can think of multiple other examples from my own family….
In this essay, John Kincaid examines Durkheim’s concepts of the sacred and the profane in relation to the recent election, protest and art.
In the immediate aftermath of the election earlier this month, there were many protests that took place across the nation. Many of the protests opposed the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, but there were several rallies in support.
One of the immediate conversations in the wake of these protests has been over whether or not it is “appropriate” to protest the results of a presidential election. Many commenters have argued that the protests are “un-American,” and that the protestors are not respecting democracy. In sociology, we often look at these types of debates through the lens of the concepts of the “sacred” and the “profane.” Emile Durkheim argued that the sacred and the profane are essential components of social life. Those things a society holds sacred are objects, actions, symbols etc.. that we set aside from, and elevate above, everyday life. The profane is the ordinary, the everyday, the dingy aspects of life that surround us constantly. Observing and maintaining the boundaries between the sacred and the profane can create solidarity (another Durkheimian concept) between members of a society. They provide touchstones of shared values that can help unite members of a society that may be separated by distance or even cultural difference.
In the U.S. we tend to hold the ideal of “democracy as a sacred value, and part of the reason that the anti-Trump protests have drawn attention has been because they violate our idea of democracy as a sacred ideal. We as citizens are supposed to respect, honor and cherish the democratic process, not dirty those ideals by protesting the results of an election.