Monday, May 7, 2007

Symbolic Interactionism for Dummies

For all my disagreements with JP Rangaswami over at confused of calcutta, I share his distaste for the way in which the world the Internet has made has abused the noun "content," particularly through hollow assertions like "Content is king." However, while, in the spirit of the name of his blog, JP opts for the rhetorical device of advertising his perplexity as a conversation starter, in a corresponding spirit, I prefer to "rehearse" resolutions of problems with the same goal in mind. In this particular case I feel the best "cure" for abuse is to try to restore dignity to the noun "content;" and I shall try to do that by invoking the spirit of George Herbert Mead.

The basic story behind Mead's pioneering work in social theory is that the social world we inhabit is a world of symbols and most (if not all) of how we behave in that world comes down to how we interpret those symbols. Now in an objective world (like the world of mathematics) every symbol has a “context-free” interpretation; but, in the social world, as the cliché goes, context is everything. This means that, more often than not, we cannot interpret symbols without exchanging other symbols with other inhabitants of the social world. That is called “conversation;” and Mead’s fundamental thesis (often called the thesis of “symbolic interactionism”) is that we cannot understand the world without it.

“Content” is nothing more than a noun that names the class of all those symbols we are trying to interpret. With that usage it need not grate on either our ears or our consciousness. Is it “king?” Well, in a default sense I suppose it is: In other words it is the only thing we have through which we come to understand the world. Can it be owned? Hell, no! No more than the air we breathe can be owned, because, if air is what sustains our physical existence, the class of all symbols is what sustains our social existence. (Of course, given what we are doing to the environment, ownership of air may seem less absurd within my own lifetime; but that is another story!)

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