Exploring Socialmeaning

Herbert Blumer’s symbolic interactionist approach to social enquiry proposes that social arrangements and meaning are linked. Blumer recognised that social arrangements and social meanings are relative and relational concepts which are defined in corresponding process-based relationships. For simplification I have started to call this ‘Socialmeaining,’ as an homage to Einstein and his understanding that space and time are best appreciated as linked in one process, or phenomenon, known as spacetime. Though we tend to view space and time discreetly, Einstein’s genius was that he recognised, explained and was able to demonstrate that space and time are not separate categories of experience, as they may appear on a day-to-day, cause-and-effect, or common-sense basis, but that they are linked in an integrated and combined relationship which he called spacetime. As Einstein’s theory of General Relativity illustrates, our proximity to the mass of an object changes how time is experienced, and vice-versa. As we speed-up and move towards the speed of light, the mass of an object changes (photons have no mass), and as we increase the mass of an object, such as a planet, a star or a black hole, then the way in which time is experienced changes. There is a relative relationship, therefore, between both time and geometry.

Aniela Jaffe recounts how Carl Jung saw in the newly established models of quantum physics (or micro-physics as it was then sometimes called), a parallel way of thinking about the human psyche, and that what amounts to a relational interaction between the symbolic and our collective understanding of the world. Jaffe notes that as “corresponding relativities and paradoxes were discovered in the domain of the psyche,” another world was being discovered “on the margin of the world of consciousness, governed by new and hitherto unknown laws that are strangely akin to the laws of nuclear physics.” Jaffe notes that the “parallelism between nuclear physics and the psychology of the collective unconscious was often a subject of discussion between Jung and Wolfgang Pauli, the Nobel prize-winner in physics” (Jaffe, 1978, p. 303).

Marie-Louise von Franz notes that there was a “parallel development in micro-physics and psychology” which is analogous to that which was being explored and developed by Carl Jung, and particularly in his conceptualisation of meaning. As von Franz notes,

“Where before men looked for causal (i.e., rational) explanations of phenomena, Jung introduced the idea of looking for the meaning (or, perhaps we could say, the ‘purpose’). That is, rather than ask why something happened (i.e., what caused it), Jung asked: What did it happen for? The same tendency happens in physics: Many modern physicists are now looking more for ‘connections’ in nature than for causal laws (determinism)” (Franz, 1978, p. 384).

The implication, then, is that if time changes then the structure of our geometry changes; and likewise, if the geometry changes then there is a corresponding change in the structure of time. Neither factor is the product of the other, nor are they the sole factors from which the other results, but they are the setting and the processes by which things in the universe are arranged and interact. Moreover, what we think of as gravitational forces are actually distortions in the shape and texture of spacetime. In the Jungian model of the psyche, then, both for individuals and collectively, meanings are held in a relationship between the symbolic, as determined in the collective unconscious, and the social, as determined in the relationships and roles formed between people. So if the symbolic framework changes, i.e. the meanings, then the social arrangements change. Likewise, If the social arrangements change, then the meanings also change. Carl Jung was preoccupied with demonstrating how this process operated in relation to the psyche, while Herbert Blumer was preoccupied with demonstrating how this worked in relation to the social.

The correspondence, perhaps even synchronicity, between the Jungian psychoanalytical model and the symbolic interactionist model of Blumer, is clearly alluded to when Blumer describes the emergence and development of industrial forms of production in the Western world. Blumer noted in relation to the emergence of industrial models of economic and productive capability, that an analysis of what takes place at the “points of contact between the industrialising process and the social setting” will reveal a different picture of what is happening than one might initially assume using a cause-and-effect mindset. For Blumer,

“The picture is different in important respects. The initial factors, the x and the y, undergo alteration in interacting with each other, and furthermore, are subject to appreciable change by the entrance of new factors into the process of interaction. One cannot account for the z, the determinate social change, by a combination of x and the y; the determinate social change is the result of a process of development in which the x and the y themselves undergo change and in which other factors than the x and y may enter. What is important is the process of development and not the x and y factors that are presumed to set it off” (Blumer, 1990, p. 141).

The consequence of Blumer’s claim, therefore, is that when we pay attention to the characteristic indicators of the social environment, for example the texts, signs and images that are circulated in our cultures; along with the practices that are ritualised in our daily lives; and in combination with an account of the roles which are played-out that facilitates them, then we will not understand why those indicators are important simply by examining them in isolation. We will not understand why they are important if we only seek to comprehend them as discreate and designated categories of experiences. We will not be able to understand them simply by amassing and aggregating an increased accumulation of these samples. The more points of information in a process of data accumulation will not bring clarity to their meanings. Put simply, in gathering evidence of the object of any social enquiry, and the social markers that indicates that something is in play, we have to keep asking the question, as Jung points out, ‘what does this mean?’ ‘What is this for?’ For Jung this is about addressing questions of the symbolic role of images and patterns of expression and behaviour. It means seeking to understand how objects and artefacts are arranged, not in a cause and effect relationship, but by their archetypal resonance. As Jung notes

“In my experience the conscience mind can claim only a relatively central position and must accept the fact that the unconscious psyche transcends and as it were surrounds it on all sides. Unconscious contents connect it backwards with physiological states on the one hand and archetypal data on the other. But it is extended forwards by intuitions which are determined partly by archetypes and partly by subliminal perceptions depending on the relativity of time and space in the unconscious” (Jung, 1968b, p. 110).

As Horst Helle summarises,

“To put it briefly, therefore, meaning is action through space and time. The meaning of objects is identical to their potential for action. This applies both to actually existing objects and to those, which are imagined, objects of physical reality and products of human fantasy alike” (Helle, 2005, p. 25).

What this implies, then, for the study of any social situation, and what I would hope to use as a guide in the future study of community media, is that when we start to consider how the process of participation and engagement is practiced in community media setting, as an interplay and negotiation between many different agents, ideas, symbols, signs and technologies  – which is what we see in the forms of media and operational systems that shape them – then we may be able to adapt Blumer’s approach, to see how “people respond to the demands and opportunities that are set in the situation” (Blumer, 1990, p. 157). The caveat, however, is that each situation varies, and the motivations for any responses will not always be clear. There are many social factors that are in play which have to be understood and actively incorporated if we are to make sense of the driving process. Therefore, adding the additional dimension of Jungian psychoanalytic thinking gives us a rout into understanding what our motivations are, and what they might be grounded in. The advantage of this approach is that it allows us to combine empirical observation with symbolic comprehension, and it allows us to understand social behaviours in relation to the archetypal patterns and structures of the collective unconscious.

Ssymbolic interactionists argue that meanings must be found in the experiences of the individuals first, while the Jungian approach argues that those meanings are shaped and structured by collective experiences that exist prior to any single individual who navigates the terrain of the social world, in other wiords as archetypal forms in the collective unconscious. As Murray Stein notes, “archetypes are not derived from culture; rather cultural forms (in Jung’s theory) are derived from archetypes” (Stein, 1998, p. 127). The challenge, therefore, is to identify what the archetypal forms are that give shape to the experience of individuals who are acting in the social world, and who are creating, replicating, generating and contributing to the development of its shared culture.

For symbolic interactionists, then, social relationships are an interplay between the production and the interpretation of meanings. Any action that individuals undertake, or seeks to achieve, has to be intelligible to those individuals. They have to fit within a social framework or perspectives that those individuals have inherited, and which they carry with them as participants within the culture. Individuals, or ‘embeduals’ as Robert Kegan calls social actors (Kegan, 1982), operate within the wider collective and social and psychological milieu. As Helle describes,

“The social perspective exists in the experience of the individual insofar as it is intelligible, and it is its intelligibility that is the condition of the individual entering into the perspectives of others, especially of the group” (Helle, 2005, p. 29).

To illustrate this with an analogy, when a fish is swimming in water it will be unaware that it is swimming in water, as fish lack the capacity to question the objectivity of its own perspective. The dominant or archetypal position, therefore, is that fish can only exist satisfactorily in the water that encapsulates them. However, any fish that proposes that it is possible to exists outside of this environment or paradigm is a challenge to the collective psyche. Hence Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin drew considerable scorn from the established church by challenging the precepts of existence. They challenged the symbolic order that had been in place for millennia. What happens, then is that the fish stops being a fish, and becomes, instead, something else. It is transformed into something else. From one perspective they become a heretic, but from another they become a prophet, depending on the strength of your adherence to the prevailing viewpoint. What happens when we raise question like this, as Jung argues, is that our sense of self is called into question.

In challenging the perspective and framework by which we are defined, we become a new kind of person operating in a new age. We shift from being primitive, or medieval, to being modern. As this general change permeates through society, we gain a new set of social meanings, and our understanding of our self in relation to others in this new social world changes. The problem, however, and according to Jung, is that we also loose something in this process. We lose our appreciation for the numinous, and our ability to creatively and actively live by, and be guided thorough symbols and myth.

While our consciousness is individually located, it is socially experienced. This experience can’t be understood if it is not accounted for within the symbolic and social milieu with others. It can’t be understood if it is not accounted for in relation to the negotiated perspectives of others. As Helle summarises, the social perspective underlying our actions exists as an experience in our consciousness, in which the “individual defines the social perspective as objective and valid and extracts from it the interpretative ideas to interpret both its own self and the objects around him.” In doing so, therefore, the social individual sees themselves “from the same perspective as others and the other,” and is better able to “understand” what is being enacted (Helle, 2005, p. 31). Meaning is generated and established in the course of social interaction. Meaning is formed on the basis of the symbolic interactions that we have with others, in which the actual or expected reactions have to be accounted for.

The consequence of shifting to this way of thinking, is that it enables us to move beyond instrumental and transactional models of social engagement, and instead allows us to develop models of communication that are based on the premise that “human beings are neither victims of their impulses nor unconsciously exposed to external stimuli.” Instead, we are recognised as operating on the basis that we active organisms who are able to plan and control our actions by attributing meaning to the constantly changing world around us, and thereby interpreting it (Helle, 2005, p. 69). This is why we have shared perspectives and shared cultures. They come about because we have to participate in the shared processes of social communication. As Helle further describes,

“Social participation enables individuals to internalise the perspective shared by the members of a group. This opens up a processual view: Depending on how frequently  and with what intensity one participates in certain groups, one will or will not acquire those groups’ perspectives” (Helle, 2005, p. 112).

The socialmeaning process, then, is one that is based on the search and practice of negotiation between the concepts that we want to introduce, or which we are calling on from our past in order to establish common ground and a shared premise that might meet the terms of our future actions. To paraphrase Richard Rorty, language is only useful as long as it continues to bake our bread. If it stops being useful, then we either stop using it, or we shift and change the meanings that are associated with it. As Anselm Strauss argues,

“Clearly the formal criteria are not sufficient. In a more subtle sense, you may and you may not actually belong but participate much, and you may not actually belong but participate a good deal. To ticket a man as formally holding membership in such and such groups barely suggests the nature and quality for his allegiances” (Strauss, 2017, p. 152).

For Jung this is an empirically observable phenomenon that ties humanity together through a common set of rooted experiences and psychological mechanisms, as archetypal patterns, roles and meanings, that have evolved with our social practices. According to Jung,

“The conscience mind can claim only a relatively central position and must accept the fact that the unconscious psyche transcends and as it were surrounds it on all sides. Unconscious contents connect it backwards with physiological states on the one hand and archetypal data on the other. But it is extended forwards by intuitions which are determined partly by archetypes and partly by subliminal perceptions depending on the relativity of time and space in the unconscious” (Jung, 1968b, p. 110).





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