Significant Symbol Essay

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A significant symbol is anything with a shared meaning to a group of people or collectivity. It may be an object, gesture, sound, color, person, event, or any other thing; its distinctiveness lies in the fact that it means the same thing to members of a group or collectivity.

For most citizens of the USA, for example, the American Flag is a significant symbol signifying country; it has a shared meaning of people-hood. Among the People of the Gambia, West Africa, ”kola nut” is a significant symbol denoting union: the union of a husband and a wife; the union of a newly born child and a couple; etc. Experts similarly employ significant symbols when they use language that is unique to their areas of expertise (i.e., attorneys arguing the legal merits of a “class action suit”; sociologists debating the “Marxian” versus “Weberian” approach to the study of society). The uniqueness of a significant symbol, therefore, is that it arouses the same reaction in one member of a group as it does in all other members. Hence, it allows users to anticipate each others’ reaction, thus coordinating their activities.

Consider, for example, a person that throws a ball to another. The person throwing the ball does so because he/she anticipates that the other will do exactly what he/she would have done had the ball been directed at him/herself (catch the ball). The throwing of the ball, therefore, is a significant symbol in that it evokes the same meaning in the sender of the ball as it does to the one to whom the ball is directed: it implies the catching of the ball, which, in turn, reveals the intentionality (meaning) of the initiating act (the throwing of the ball).


  • Mead, G.H.(1934) Mind, Self, and Society, ed C. W. Morris. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

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