is an inevitable part of everyday life. We use it to express our emotions,
develop relationships, and interact with other people. When we say something it
cannot be undone, which is why personal communication can positively or
negatively affect those around us. Others will often believe something
communicated to them repeatedly. They eventually begin to believe it is true or
will come true and their behavior becomes consistent with the expectations. The
theory of symbolic interaction or self-fulfilling prophecy comes up when
someone accepts labels or judgments that have been communicated by others. Even
if these labels are inaccurate, the person can ultimately internalize these
messages and thus the self-fulfilling prophecy becomes true in the end.
Racism or racist remarks are one example how
society perpetuates a belief that can lead to negative or criminal behavior.
Expressions and beliefs not only affect others, but also those close to them.
Children learn from their parents and families how to communication with
others. If the communication they hear is always negative about other groups of
people, the children will communicate the same messages when they are with
their peers. This interaction leads to negative thoughts and judgments that
cause them to say negative remarks to certain groups of people. Racism doesn’t
just involve black and white anymore. It has spread to many groups that
continue to share their feelings and beliefs. The recipients on the other end
of this negative feedback could possibly begin to feel that way about
themselves. This may lead to low self-esteem, criminal behavior, or suicide. It
is quite possible that symbolic interaction with positive words and beliefs
could change this vicious circle, or at least spark a debate to help negative
self-fulfilling prophecies change for the good.
The concept of
self-fulfilling prophecy was used by sociologist Robert Merton to demonstrate
certain outcomes based on other expectations (Merton, 1968). He believed most
outcomes were negative behavior because of negative labels, stereotypes, and stigma.
However, other research has found that self-fulfilling prophecies are a
phenomenon that can produce a positive or negative outcome. There are many
examples in society today. If a coach sees a young athlete as uncoordinated and
slow, after a while the athlete will possibly begin to do everything slow and
never work hard on skills. On the other hand, if a teacher believes a student
is capable of better work and spends extra time helping them on an assignment,
research shows the grade tends to be much higher (Brophy, 1983). So, you can
see how it is possible for the self-fulfilling prophecy to go both ways. Symbolic
interactionism has been studied by many sociologist and applied to other
theories and research. The impact of symbols in society have evolved over the
years (Kotarba, 2014). George Mead theory demonstrated the evolution of
communication. He saw communication as developing from birth throughout life.
It starts basic and evolves into more advanced. He thought communication was
only trough symbols that people gradually learn the meaning of through
interaction with one another. He described “the communicational process as a
social act” (Crunk, 2017). Environment and influence from others is what gives
the symbols relevance.
Unfortunately, the negative
effect tends to be the norm. Howard Becker studied symbolic interaction and
self-fulfilling prophecy and developed what he called the labeling theory (Adler,
2014). He believed that society focused more on people’s shortcomings and
failures, than they did on positive feedback. Things like: that person will
never make it, that one is too short, that one will be an alcoholic like his
Dad, that black guy will end up in jail, or she will never be pretty. These are
things we hear every day that have an effect on the people who are on the
receiving end. These perceptions can “alter reality and shape behavior” (Madon,
2013). A 2015 study demonstrated that symbolic interaction stigma can lead to
withdraw, low self-esteem and isolation. People with mental illness are at the
greatest risk because they already feel discriminated against. It showed that
the anticipation of a negative response was experienced even if they did not
apply the stigma to themselves (Link, 2015). Those that have low and high self-esteem
are both vulnerable to this negative criticism.
A study done in the late
1970’s showed symbolic interaction and its effect on different races in
integrated neighborhoods. The study revealed that contact and encounters with
black people even in these integrated neighborhoods was rare. A survey done by
Bradburn, Sudman, and Gockel in 1971 showed just 1% of whites living in
substantially integrated neighborhoods reported going out for dinner or to a
movie with blacks; and less than a third (32%) said that anyone in their family
had ever stopped to talk with black neighbors when they met them on the street.
Of course, some of this has changed since the early 1970’s but this symbolic
thinking may be because “there is simply no personal experience with blacks
that might offset outdated racial and moral socialization.” (McConahay et al).
This lack of direct contact has led to racial isolation, which McConahay felt
was the norm for contemporary American society. He also believed his data was
not in depth enough to show whether more contact would lessen these prejudices.
interactionism is a sociological theory about communication and interpretation.
George Mead felt that symbols were the foundation of communication. The theory
demonstrates how we interact with others is a result of symbols we interpret
about ourselves, other people, and the roles each play in society. These
symbols are not usually an actual symbol, but more of a “meaning for objects,
situations, experiences, others, and themselves” (Wood, 89-90). Two concepts of
symbolic interactionism are mind and self. The mind interprets the social
meaning that is associated with a symbol. We see people in society as teachers,
dads, firemen, and policemen. These symbols dictate the way we interact with
one another. We are taught these symbols through our socialization with our
parents and peers from a very early age. When we see a policeman, the norm is
to show respect and listen. However, these symbols can also be selective
towards certain groups and lead to stereotypes. Depending on the environment,
these stereotypes can spread quickly. Another concept of Meads theory is self,
which is the way people learn how others view them. Mead believed “views of us
that others communicate are the basis of our initial meanings for ourselves-our
understanding of who we are” (Wood, 91).
According to the
book Communication Theories in Action an
Introduction, Symbolic Interactionism is “the point of view that claims
society predates individuals, who acquire minds and selves in the process of
interacting symbolically with other members of a culture. Symbols are also
necessary to the functioning and continuation of collective life” (pg. 335).
Society allows others to place them into categories telling them how they
should live. As our self develops we begin to see ourselves not only how others
see us, but also by labels that others have given us. The labels that we
associate with ourselves “shape our self-concepts and behaviors” (Wood, 91). When people live up to these labels it is
known as self-fulfilling prophecy (Wood, 91). “How others see us may be so
powerful that it dictates how we see ourselves and how we live our lives,
regardless of whether others’ perceptions are reasonable” (Wood, 91). There are
many times when the symbols or labels we have learned lead to hatred, discrimination,
and even racism.
study of symbolic interaction eventually led to the labeling theory by Howard
Becker. His theory demonstrates and explains the correlation between labels or
stereotypes and criminal behavior. Becker believed once a person’s behavior is
labeled as criminal or deviant it tends to develop into that type of behavior.
Society interaction or refusal to interact with the people that are considered
criminal or deviant can ultimately lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy theory.
This perception can push them further into the criminal world searching for
acceptance (Adler, 2014). The movie American
History X is a prime example of society’s ability to affect perceptions of
others and their self-esteem.
American History X came out in 1998 and
was a crime drama film that was directed by Tony Kaye, and written by David
McKenna. The movie is about two brothers from Venice, Los Angeles who were
involved in a neo-Nazi organization. The younger brother is a high school
student named Danny Vinyard, and he received an assignment to write a paper on
a book that related to the struggle of human rights. He knew that his teacher
was Jewish so he chose to write his paper about Adolf Hitler. The teacher
wanted to get Danny expelled for this paper, but the Principal refused this.
Instead he decided to teach Danny himself, and they would call the class
American History X. His final assignment would be to write a paper on his older
brother Derek Vinyard, who was a former neo-Nazi leader (Morrissey & Kaye).
before Derek and Danny’s father Dennis was killed by a black drug dealers after
going to fight a fire at a drug house. Shortly after that Derek and his friend
Cameron Alexander started a white supremacy group called the Disciples of
Christ. They decide to get the basketball courts they use to control back, so
they challenged members of the Crips to a basketball game. The winner would
control the courts, and Derek and his friends won the game. After winning the
game in a celebration their group went to attack a supermarket owned by a
Korean. This supermarket included African American and Latino workers and they
wanted to get the supermarket back under white control like the basketball
control. That night he was at his home sleeping when he heard people trying to
steal his father’s truck. He went out and shot one of them, and then curb
stomped the other. He was then arrested and sentenced to three years in prison
for voluntary manslaughter. While he was in prison he was put on laundry duty
with a black prisoner who assaulted a police officer and was serving a sentence
of six years. He joined the Aryan Brotherhood, but after a year he became
disillusioned with some of the members who had ties with other prison gangs
with different ethnicities. He was beaten and sodomized in the shower by
members of the Aryan Brotherhood as his punishment. Danny’s Principal Dr.
Swinney comes to visit him and tells him that his brother Danny is on the same
path as Derek. After that Derek decides to go through prison alone without any
affiliation with white supremacy, and finally began to realize the problems
with his choices (Morrissey & Kaye).
He leaves prison
an entirely different person only to come home to his old life. Finding his
brother with a D.O.C tattoo. They go to a neo-Nazi party that night and Derek
tells Cameron that him and Danny will no longer be involved with the movement.
This caused all the gang members to turn on him. He gets away only to be
confronted by his brother. Derek tells Danny what happened in prison in hope
that it would change his outlook on white supremacy. Danny finished the paper
and the next morning he was supposed to turn it in to the Principal. The paper
showed that he had changed his thoughts about white supremacy and wrote about
how the values of Nazi’s were flawed. Derek and Danny walked to school together
and were stopped at a diner and told that his friend Seth and Cameron were
attacked last night. The Principal and the police want Derek to talk to the Disciples
of Christ so they do not retaliate. When Danny gets to school he is met in the
bathroom by a black student named Little Henry who he had a confrontation with
the day before. Little Henry’s older brother told him that he needed to take
care of Danny. Danny was killed in the bathroom by Little Henry that morning.
Derek came to the school to find his younger brother dead in the bathroom
(Morrissey & Kaye).
in American History X substantiate the theory of symbolic interaction
and self- fulfilling prophecy. Deviant
behavior is learned through interaction with those closest to us and
“Crime…is learned in much the same way as all ordinary behaviors” (Adler,87).
This is clear in Derek’s breakfast table chat with his father. Derek is
praising his high school teacher, Bob Sweeney, until his dad tells him not to
get caught up in the “nigger bullshit” (Morrissey
& Kaye). It also appears that, “closer friends and relatives will
have greater sway” (Adler,69). Their expressions and beliefs can become your
identity. Derek learns from white supremacist leader, Cameron, how to recruit
others and rally against the races he finds vile and disgusting. Associations
with certain groups teach you the skills necessary to commit deviant behaviors,
because “…crime is rooted in the social organization and is an expression of
that social organization” (Adler,87). Just as the theory suggests, Derek begins
to see himself as others see him and his associations shift to those with
deviant behaviors. Through Cameron’s guidance, Derek comes to believe
committing a crime for his cause is more important than abiding by the law. He
thinks his behavior is acceptable because, “every problem in this country is
race related” (Morrissey & Kaye).
They see it as a war against other races, where they are the soldiers, and they
must win. When Derek kills the two black men, it is evident he has embraced the
deviant behavior he has learned. Danny, who has been watching from a distance,
soon follows in his footsteps. It is a badge of honor when he says, “people
look at me and see my brother” (Morrissey
& Kaye). He has ultimately seen his brother fulfill his prophecy and
has now learned the same behavior that may lead to another self- fulfilling
As a child, you
rely on parents to impart their wisdom to help you learn. You have no reason to
believe they are biased, so their opinions influence your beliefs. Society
needs to start eliminating labels that we attach to people to create better
communication. Labels can be known as a misuse of communication. It is evident
that people act a certain way based on the symbols they receive in the early
stages of life. Ultimately it is supposed to help you make since of the world
around you, but if the symbols you receive are bias or incorrect then your view
of someone or something could be wrong. Since different people, culture, and
societies have different meaning for certain symbols it can lead to communication
problems. The film thoroughly depicts the most disturbing and flagrant aspects
of racism facing America today and how society perpetuates the problem. Society
constructs an atmosphere that influences behavior and the way we see others.
Symbolic interactionism supports why Derek focuses on hatred and demonstrates
how extreme racism is bred.
Mead’s theory that
leads into self-fulfilling prophecy is accurately portrayed in that film. The reality
that communication in society develops the way we see ourselves and others
explains why Derek’s life is the way it is in the film. It is possible for the
symbols and their meanings to change based on one interpretation. This can be due
to emotions or something that we see that gives us another view about our
learned symbols. Since it various so much from culture to culture or class to
class it is easy to understand why everyone is not on the same page. Which
ultimately leads to a breakdown in communication.
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