Symbolic Perspective in Realation to the Culture of Poverty

When you think of poverty what does come to mind? As you walk through your towns imagine seeing the homeless rummaging through garbage trying to get their next meal clothed in rags with nothing on their feet. All because of poverty and sadly many people are affected by poverty all over the world. What causes poverty you may ask lack of education, poor health, bad economy etc. and poverty can have diverse effect on countries. The interactionist perspective theory is an explanation used by sociologist to explain how everyday interactions contribute to someone’s identity.

It’s not only limited to personal interactions but also includes how symbols play into it.

The interactionist perspective focuses more on a micro or small-scale aspects of social life.

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One may ask how is social interaction possible Charles Horton Cooley (1902-1964), George Herbert Mead (1934/1962) Manford Kuhn (964) and Herbert Blumer (969) Answers to these questions focus on individuals subjective experiences and understanding , and especially on how shared understanding of the world emerge from social interaction and from basis of social life. Interactionist looks at symbols there are three types of perspective used by Sociologist I am going to look at one of them which is the Symbolic interactionist it will explain how society influences people and how people interact when faced with poverty. Cultures of poverty propose that poverty is the result of people’s values or cultural norms. It suggests that people who are poor have different cultural values than mainstream society. It is said that you learn certain norms when you grow up in a poor household, and this shapes the choices made in life.

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Poor people’s lifestyles differ to that on the rich or middle class in society.

Oscar Lewis an American anthropologist developed the culture of poverty concept out of this field work in Mexico and Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. According to Lewis the culture of poverty has three levels, individual level, family level, Community level. According to the culture of poverty, the poor in class-stratified capitalist societies lack effective participation and integration with the larger society (Lewis, 1966). Living in a poor community or ghetto the poor feels marginalized helpless and dependent when allows for a feeling of weakness and lack of control. The culture of poverty constitutes a “design for living” that is passed on from generation to the next. People who adopt this culture do not participate in community life. According to Lewis the culture of poverty perpetuates poverty. Children from poor communities by the time they reach the age of seven, eight have already picked up the basic values and attitudes of their subculture they are no longer interested in taking advantage of any opportunities which may happen in their lifetime. Example growing up in my area I knew of a family who was poor and the kids couldn’t afford to go to school regularly they resorted to stealing.

One of the kids got an opportunity to go to school and his books were paid for, uniforms the latest shoes. This child was even given a weekly allowance he had a driver pick him up from his home to take him school and back. I thought that was the best thing that could happened to this child he would use this opportunity to change his life around but instead he stopped going to school lied about going and continue stealing. This proves that psychologically he was already lost. The symbolic interactionist perspective also known as symbolic interactionism directs sociologist to consider the symbols of everyday life, what these symbols mean, how people interact with each other. Interactionism traces its origins to Max Weber’s assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world the American philosopher George H. Mead (1863-931) introduced this perspective to American sociology in the 1920s. He believed that individuals and societies function in a way that is reflective of interactions with other symbols. Symbolic interact people attach meaning to various things that they see as symbols in our society. Different groups have symbols, for instance, poor people have different interpretations of these symbols and access to different symbols than rich people. I chose Symbolic Interaction because it’s important to understand how people act in a way that accord with the meaning of these symbols.

Symbols interaction tries to understand poverty by looking into people’s everyday lives, not with trying to understand why there is poverty but rather how does that affect their lifestyle in interacting with other people. The three core elements of Symbolic interactions are The Symbol, The Self and Language I am going to discuss and explain how each of these relates in some way to the culture of poverty. The Symbol/Meaning-What is symbol? Symbols are social objects that successfully communicate or stimulate common meanings assigned by society members created by their interactions over time. Human being attached meaning to symbols and used these symbols to identify them as members of a group or not. Poor people have different interpretations of these symbols such as mode of dress, language, etc. While such things as race and gender are generally understood social class is considered to be an ascribed status and as such it is more fluid in performance and interpretation. Symbols given off can cause an atmosphere of uneasiness when one encounters someone who is not a member of their group. They may not feel right or for much reason dislike this person maybe because of how they are dressed or speaks or looks.

These things maybe individuals’ traits, they are by some understanding, symbols of meaning used to distinguish between groups of persons. Where such distinction exists hierarchy soon follows causing humans to believe that they are better than those other people who are not in the same group as them. Poverty exists because people who are born into poverty never tried to remove themselves or expand through networking. Hence the need for symbols to belong to something they can relate to. Example a group of boys hanging out on the street corner smoking they can relate to each interact with each cause they know how to communicate with each other in slang and they can relate on the kind of music they would listen to. The Self-Interaction with Self According to mead the notion of self isn’t inborn but it is learned through interaction with others, children playing roles which are not their own e.g. pretending to be or movie star, a prime minister or a cop etc.

The role identities start early in life and remain throughout our lifetime. Individuals take on roles of people that they think are important to them maybe people who are role models. Mead refers to people in society as ‘actors’ people see themselves as they think other people perceive them. Interaction with self as explain by Mead is a social act is one that involves the cooperation of more than one individual, and whose object as defined by the act is a social object. In order for an individual to participate in social interaction, they must be able to interpret the assign meaning and tones. The image we have of ourselves starts from childhood, if you are told you ugly or stupid from a child you would grow up thinking you are unless told something else then you are likely to believe that you are not ugly. Language-Symbolic interaction is the way in which we learn to interpret and give meaning to the world through our interactions. One of the ways in which we interact is through language Human beings have the ability to associated objects or things with names. From childhood as individuals interact with family, friends, etc. they are able to learn language how to communicate and attached meaning to certain things. This shows that language is the source of meaning.

Individuals understand meaning by interaction with one another and language is the way in which they communicate in Mead’s view, social life and communication between individuals are possible only when we understand and can use a common language, (Wood, 1997) Can we as individuals see a world where poverty would not exist in society? Where everyone would have a job where wealth would be in abundance, only in a perfect world. The culture of poverty refers to a learned attitude that can develop among poor communities and lead the poor to accept their fate. Symbolic interactionism does not explain why there is poverty by it tries to understand the stratification and thus poverty by looking at people’s interaction and understanding their daily lives. It examines the differences stratification makes for people’s lifestyles and their interaction with other people. The different symbols individuals create and send out are used to identify them as of a certain group. Symbolic interactionism prevails in a large scale especially between classes, for example, the way people live, the clothes they wear, their home, their food, and habits which all are related to poverty.

Updated: Jan 10, 2022
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Symbolic Perspective in Realation to the Culture of Poverty. (2022, Jan 10). Retrieved from

Symbolic Perspective in Realation to the Culture of Poverty essay
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