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Symbols The Basic Element of Culture

A basic part of being human is creating "culture" through symbols.

     Here’s a paper I wrote for a sociology class some years ago.  It’s based on an article titled “Symbol: The Basic Element of Culture,” by Leslie A. White. 

        The main objective of this article is made very clear and is repeated my times and that is, we are human because we use symbols. 

            Animals live and react in the “now,” and for the most part only to fulfill certain basic requirements of life mainly for: food, shelter, defense, and reproduction.

            Only humans through the use of symbolic behavior can attach meaning and value to objects and events.  This in turn allows us to be “creative,” to imagine things and events “beyond our basic needs,” as Ms. White explains.  Once this happens we create societies, and then it becomes our use of particular symbols in a society that determines its culture. 

            So, just as symbol usage defines us a human, which symbols we use and how determines culture.   Ms. White calls this “symbolic communication.”  Meaning that without “articulate” communication the use of symbols would be impossible.  White uses the example of Helen Keller to illustrate this point.   Until Helen Keller could attach a name and a meaning to everything around her, she could not really live as a human being.  Mr. White called this process, “becoming humanized.”  Simply put then as Ms. White says in her conclusion, “Human behavior is symbolic behavior.”


1.      Because the reality we experience is based on a particular system of symbols, how do we tend to view members of other cultures?  What special efforts are needed to overcome the tendency to treat people of different cultures as less worthy than we are?

            We tend to treat other cultures symbols with less importance and significance than our own and often call      

them “strange” or “unrealistic.”  We need to realize that while symbols make us human, they also make us equally human, despite the level of sophistication between different societies.


2.      How did gaining the capacity to use symbols transform Helen Keller?  How did this ability alter her capacity for further learning?

            Once Helen knew that everything had a name she could begin to attach “value” to each object, and with value comes meaning and significance.  This sparked an interest in her to know more about her surroundings giving life a “human” purpose and opening the door to also be creative.    

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User Comments
  1. ashtonsailor

    On March 9, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    i have a book about helen keller and she’s really amazing…

  2. ladym33

    On March 10, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Very interesting article. Nice work!

  3. Freethinking

    On March 13, 2011 at 7:34 am

    First of all, let me just say, “Welcome my new Triond friend.” Secondly, in reference to your article, you raised some thought provoking and compelling points. This was a well researched and certainly an informative piece.

  4. thedaddym

    On March 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Very good points.

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