Cultural Stereotypes and the Symbolic Creation of Reality


Open, Closed, and Locked Images
Cultural Stereotypes and the Symbolic Creation of Reality

Ruth Lillhannus

In psychology, symbols are often seen as unconscious, mental constructs that surpass cultural differences. For linguists, a symbol might be a linguistic form embedded in the speech act and for anthropologists again a material object with a collectively created meaning structure held alive by a cultural group (Leppäkari & Lillhannus 2001). In the perspective chosen for this analysis, with its roots in comparative religion, the symbol is seen as including all of these different qualities, united in one single form with both a function and a content. The external form of the symbol might be e.g. a geographical location (Leppäkari 1999); a special situation (an encounter, a ritual), a person or the role this person is seen to fill: the priest or the mother, but also e.g. the role of the stranger, or the other, can be interpreted in symbolical terms (Illman 2000; 2001), which is of interest in this particular article.
These symbolic components of our reality creation have two sides: an external and an internal – a commonly shared and a personal (Holm 1997). On one hand, we create our image of reality with the help of external, culturally shared material embraced directly through learning or indirectly through the society we live in. In the religious traditions and culture as such, for instance, the structured experiences of generations have formed patterns including norms and habits, linguistic and behavioural forms. This reality made tangible by material symbols, such as texts, pictures, behavioural structures, Holm (1995) calls the external existence space (yttre existensrum). But our interpretations are also influenced by inner, personal factors and treatment of this material from the outside world: the experience has an inside characterised by traits of the unique experiencing individual. This important inner world is the inner existence space (inre existensrum). Here, the symbols from the outside are worked through.
In the process of bringing together the inner and the outer worlds symbols play a crucial role. Through this treatment, the new impressions are joined to previous remodelled memories, emotions and experiences. Thus, the external culturally shared norms and attitudes get personal interpretations characterised by the complicated composition of the innermost being of every individual. With this view, Holm connects the dynamic inner world with the frames and contents provided by an external socio-cultural context and describes the importance of contents and functions of symbols in the vital interaction between the two.

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