Political symbols are entities that stand for things other than themselves, elicit responses, and assume meaning in relation to the objects, beliefs, values, or attitudes to which they refer. In the field of political science, symbols have been studied from two key approaches. Behavioralist scholars have examined the functions of symbols, tracked their appearance across political messages and situations, and made connections between symbol use and attitudinal or behavioral effects. This perspective often regards symbols as separate from the world of politics, or as entities that mask the realities of political life. Interpretivist scholars, in contrast, have studied how symbols are open to interpretation, how individuals use – and are used by – them, and how symbols may not reflect empirical realities (and yet their constructed meanings are powerful, nonetheless). This perspective contends that because citizens rarely have the opportunity to experience political phenomena (e.g., campaign speeches, governmental meetings, policy debates, and other elite activities), they come to know their worlds through symbols and language.
Symbols have also been studied from processual, structuralist, and postmodern approaches in neighboring disciplines such as communication, anthropology, and sociology. Most contemporary research on political symbols comes from the interpretivist perspective.
Political scientist Murray Edelman authored the seminal works on political symbols. Four of his books are particularly influential, and his own scholarship can be viewed as moving from the functional to the interpretivist perspective. Indeed, Edelman’s Symbolic uses of politics (1964) and Politics as symbolic action (1971) bear markers of the functional approach, while Political language: Words that succeed and policies that fail (1977) and Constructing the political spectacle (1988) are clearly driven by an interpretivist view. Edelman was not the first to theorize about symbolism and constructed meanings in politics. His theorizing was inspired by scholars including Harold Lasswell, Walter Lippmann, George Herbert Mead, Kenneth Burke, and Jacques Derrida. The breadth and richness of Edelman’s work inspired a set of understandings, and research trajectories, about the roles of symbols in political life.
A key point for Edelman is that citizens come to know their roles, political leaders, governmental structures, and issue options through symbols and language. Symbols, then, demand scholarly inquiry, as individuals cannot understand their political lives outside of them. Perhaps responding to the functionalist perspective, Edelman and others claim that symbols do not need to be accurate to be influential. Instead, the symbols that leaders and societies use often tell a more powerful story about what those leaders and societies want to believe rather than that which can be empirically verified. Symbols are not regarded as meaningful in and of themselves. They become powerful only when individuals and groups grant them meaning, and they become most influential in constructing political realities when they (1) are supported by many smaller symbols (so that they are difficult to question), (2) shape public thought and dialog (so much so that people forget they are constructions), and (3) displace alternative constructions (so that other ways of thinking about political situations are left unimagined).
Political symbols can feature cognitive and emotional components. Edelman advanced two types of symbols that are widely cited in subsequent research. Referential symbols are abbreviations for the objective aspects of objects or situations. These symbols can be identified similarly by different types of people and refer to a situation as statistics might summarize an event. Condensation symbols are abbreviations of emotions connected to an object or situation. Condensation symbols may feature singular or multiple emotions and need not be based on accurate information. Edelman observed that no object could be purely a referential or a condensation symbol. Nevertheless, most controversial topics emerge to serve as condensation symbols, for the threats surrounding the controversy become meaningful through the emotions, not the objective consequences, of the situation.
Political symbols are also connected to political power. In Edelman’s work, he explains how elites use symbols, myths, rituals, and political language to (1) shape the wants and preferences of citizens and (2) make certain solutions appear to be sensible responses to the symbolic framing of problems. Emotional symbols are particularly influential in creating incentives for individuals to accept the dominant constructions of problems and solutions. Media reports amplify these symbolic constructions, and, by doing so, conserve and preserve the power of political elites. Sociologist and theorist Pierre Bourdieu, too, examined the connection between symbols and power. His construct of symbolic capital offers an economic metaphor to assess the value of having prestige or being recognized.
Rhetorician Kenneth Burke defined symbols as a verbal parallel to a pattern of experience. In a way akin to political scientists working in the interpretivist approach, Burke regarded humans as symbol using, making, and misusing animals and argued that people’s largest problems result from symbols using humans rather than humans using symbols. Burke’s notion of secular prayer has been influential in the research of Edelman and others. There, Burke noted that political communicators often add dramatic properties to common matters and soften the impact of controversial ones to create influential political symbols.
Common critiques of research on political symbols include concerns with imprecise conceptualization and measurement and a lack of systematic and empirical methods. Interpretivist scholars respond to such critiques by noting that their aim is to offer a multidimensional approach and richer understandings of symbols in social, cultural, and historical contexts. Research on political symbols is most commonly praised for attending to the constructions of meanings of political and policy debates and for questioning and explaining puzzles in public opinion research.
- Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice (trans. R. Nice). Cambridge: Polity.
- Burke, K. (1962). A grammar of motives. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing.
- Edelman, M. E. (1964). Symbolic uses of politics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Edelman, M. E. (1971). Politics as symbolic action. Chicago: Markham.
- Edelman, M. E. (1977). Political language: Words that succeed and policies that fail. New York: Academic Press.
- Edelman, M. E. (1988). Constructing the political spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.