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Chapter Five: Symbolic Strategies

With Larry Gross

The world does not present itself to us directly (Note 1). In the process of becoming human, we learn to recognize the existence of the objects, persons, and events that we encounter and to determine the strategies by which we may interpret and assign meaning to them.

Our encounters with the world can be thought of as being both natural and symbolic, since we often make distinctions between events that we consider natural and events that we will interpret symbolically. What, then, are the conditions governing that assessment? What strategies do we use in order to assign meaning to natural and symbolic events?

The interpretation of the meaning of a natural event, or the assignment of it to a place in a scheme of things, is embodied in our recognition of that event's existence. The interpretation of the meaning of a symbolic event, on the other hand, is embodied in our recognition of its structure that is, in our recognition of its possible communicational significance. In order to recognize the structure which defines a communication event, as distinguished from a natural event, we must bring to that act of recognition an assumption of intention. We must assume that the structure that we recognize is, in a sense, "made," performed, or produced for the purpose of "symbolizing," or communicating.

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The assessment of events as natural or symbolic determines whether we use an interpretive strategy which we shall call attribution or an interpretive strategy which we shall call communicational inference.

Let us give an example. You are walking along a street, and from a distance you notice a man lying on the sidewalk. As you draw closer, you notice that he appears to be injured. In assessing this situation, if you assume it to be a natural event, you will most likely ask yourself, "What happened?" and "What should I (or can I) do?" However, if you notice a sign pinned to his shirt which reads, "sic semper tyrannis," you might make a further and more complex assessment. Suppose you remember, at that point, either that a guerrilla theater group has been performing in your neighborhood or that you read about guerrilla theater in a book. Your assessment of the situation might now be quite different. As the possibility of assuming communicative intent enters the assessment, you might then bring to bear a different set of rules by which you will interpret the meaning of that event--the conventions of guerrilla theater. Under these rules, you might ask yourself, "What does it mean, and how can I tell?"

Now let us take the same situation in a social and formal context which most clearly labels it as symbolic. You go to the movies and see a film that you call a "fiction" or "feature" film, which begins with a shot of a street in which the camera moves toward a man lying on the sidewalk, as we have described above. The film cuts to a close-up of the man's head and then to a shot of the note pinned to his shirt. There is no question that in our culture, a moviegoer, assuming communicative intent, would not ask, "Is it real?" or "What should I do?" but rather, "What does it mean?" And what's more, in our culture that viewer expects to learn the answer to that, and many other questions in the course of the film.

This rather bizarre example can help us differentiate three basic types of situation and the interpretive strategies they evoke. The first group are what we call existential meaning situations. These occur when persons, objects, and events which come to our attention are quickly assessed as having no symbolic meaning beyond the fact of their existence. Problems of communication and the interpretation of meaning will not be particularly relevant in these situations.

The second group are ambiguous meaning situations. In these, something in the event or in the context of the event makes us pause and assess it in terms of possible significance or signification as a symbolic event. We then seek additional signs on which to base our choice of an appropriate interpretive strategy.

The third group includes situations we clearly "know" to be

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symbolic and communicative. We call these communicational meaning situations. We read books, go to the movies, talk to our friends, and interact in ways in which particular strategies for the interpretation of symbolic codes are invoked. These are situations in which there is no ambiguity as to the communicative nature of the event. Being a member of a culture "tells" one that certain events are communicative. Interpretive problems which arise in clearly marked communication situations will concern the assignment of a specific meaning, or meanings, to be inferred from some specific event.

Persons, objects, and events that we encounter may also be classified as "sign-events" or "nonsign-events." Nonsign-events are those activities of everyday life which do not evoke the use of any strategy to determine their meaning.

Figure 5-1 describes the larger context in which human beings interact with their environment and with the persons, objects, and events that they perceive and recognize. In certain contexts, people learn to treat some of these situations as signs to which they may assign existential or symbolic meaning.

It is important to note that the distinction between sign- and nonsign-events must not be taken as a categorical classification of any particular persons, objects, or events. Any event, depending upon its context and the context of the observer, may be assigned sign value. By the same token, any event may be disregarded and not treated as a sign.

Sign-events may be natural or symbolic but always have the property of being used in the interpretation of meaning. If we assess them to be natural, we may do no more than tacitly note their existence and

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interact with them in a variety of adaptive ways (requiring little conscious or even tacit interpretation of meaning). We may further attribute to them stable, transient, or situational characteristics. If, on the other hand, we assess them as symbolic we consciously or tacitly assume implicative intent and call into play those interpretive strategies by which we infer meaning from communicative events.

One further term that we will be using in our discussion is articulation. An articulated event is produced by a person's own musculature, or by his use of tools, or by both. The articulated event must be thought of as mediated through the use of a communicative mode --words, pictures, music, and so on. An articulated event is a symbolic event. (A natural event may be produced by either human or nonhuman agencies, and may be treated as symbolic. However, the signness of a natural event exists only and solely because, within some context, human beings treat the event as a sign. An example of a natural event would be a tree bending in the wind, which may be treated as a sign of a coming storm. An example of the same event treated as articulated and symbolic would, in a film, be a close-up of a tree bending in the wind interpreted as an implication on the part of the director that a storm is coming up.)

An event, then, may be produced by human entities as well as by natural forces, but its "signness" is always assigned by an observer who can tell the difference within his own cultural context between those events which are articulated, and thus treated as intentional and communicationally symbolic, and those events which are existential and natural. Knowing and assessing that difference is often difficult and problematic. We are concerned with the strategies people use for solving that problem: are they natural or communicational?

Communication shall therefore be defined as a social process, within a context, in which signs are produced and transmitted, perceived, and treated as messages from which meaning can be inferred.

Let us review briefly some of the terms we have introduced earlier and place them within the context of this definition of communication. The concept of articulation and interpretation must be seen as relevant to both the production and transmission of signs, as well as to their perception and subsequent treatment. While the perception and treatment of symbolic events might be thought of as acts of interpretation, and production and transmission seen as acts of articulation, they can most fruitfully be seen as parts of a process. We articulate in terms of the subsequent interpretations we expect, just as we imply only in those terms which we expect others to use when they infer.

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In such a situation one shifts, mentally, back and forth between articulation and interpretation, asking oneself, "If I say it (or paint it, or sequence it in a film) this way, would I (as well as others) make sense of it--given the conventions, rules, style in which I am working?"

Going back to our definition, it should be clear now that meaning is not inherent within the sign itself, but rather in the social context, whose conventions and rules dictate the articulatory and interpretive strategies to be invoked by producers and interpreters of symbolic forms. It is our view that only when an interpretive strategy assumes that production and transmission are articulatory and intentional can communicational meaning be inferred. In a communicational sense, therefore, articulation is symbolic and implicational, and interpretive strategies are designed within social contexts in order to make inferences from implications.

A critical distinction in terms of social accountability must now be made between behavior that is viewed as intentionally communicative and behavior that is not. We are all held accountable for certain aspects of our behavior. In the simplest sense, we are most accountable for our intentionally communicative behavior. A tic of the eye cannot be taken as a social offense; a wink may be so taken in certain circumstances, even though the physical event may be exactly the same in both interpretive contexts. It is our knowledge of the conventions which govern social behavior in general, and communicative behavior in particular, that allows us to determine the intentionality of behavior, and hence the nature and extent of accountability that may be appropriate in a specific situation.

Let us now turn to the question of how people develop the competence to assess and interpret symbolic intent. The distinctions in Figure 5-2 are meant to explain, not an ideal state of knowledge or competence, but the actual use of certain abilities in the articulation and interpretation of meaning in communication situations.

We learn to articulate in a variety of symbolic modes and codes, as we similarly learn to interpret in an appropriate set of ways. As Gross has shown, the competence to perform (either as creator or interpreter) is dependent upon the acquisition of at least minimal articulatory ability in that mode (1974).Figure 5-2 diagrams what we are hypothesizing as a model of the levels of articulatory and interpretive abilities and indicates a series of recognition stages that people apply to sign-events. These stages or levels are seen as both developmental and hierarchical. They are developmental in that we believe they are acquired according to a

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specific order over a period of time, depending on age, cultural context, and particular communicational or attributional training. We are not asserting, however, that these articulatory and interpretive abilities are acquired by all people for all modes, nor at specific chronological ages. These abilities are hierarchical in that we see this order as one of increasing articulatory and interpretive complexity in which each succeeding stage contains within it the preceding stages. While we are implying, therefore, that the development of competence to perform on the earlier levels is necessary for its emergence in the later complex levels, we are not implying that the earlier levels will disappear or wither away. The process we envisage is one of elaboration rather than replacement, much like the progression from crawling to walking. Once we learn to walk, we do not lose the ability to crawl. Once we have learned to recognize at all levels, we can choose our strategies depending upon our assessment of the sign-event situation.

The first stage in the recognition of a sign-event as shown inFigure 5-2, occurs at the level of its person-ness, object-ness, or event-ness. This occurs at the simple perceptual level of iconic representation or symbolic reference. The symbolic sign-event (word, picture, sound) has as its paired partner a person, object, or event we have learned to juxtapose with it in a simple recognition process. This stage of recognition discrimination is required of a child before the simple sign-reference relationship can develop. The child must learn this recognition technique before he or she actually can articulate or use the concept of sign in any deliberate intentional way. Before any strategy for interpretation is developed, a symbolic consciousness a must come into play which allows a child to recognize the

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relationship between a sign and some referent person, object, or event in the real world.

InFigure 5-2, note that the arrow moves from person, object, and event recognition, through personal and psychosocial stereotype, to attribution. Thus, if the child sees a picture of a man whom he recognizes as "father," his interpretation of the picture will not be based on the meaning within the picture so much as the meaning within the child (viewer) based on what the child knows about "fathers," "his father," and so on.

The next level of development is the recognition of relationships among a number of sign-events. The recognition of these relationships is the second major stage in the development of a competence to perform. Relationships, however, can be recognized, and their status assessed (as we show in Figure 5-2, at two qualitatively distinct levels. We would like to distinguish, therefore, between the recognition of simple existential contiguity and the recognition of intentional order (sequence or pattern). It is with the recognition of order that the observer will be able to deal with a sign-event as communicational rather than as existential.

Contiguity consists of a juxtaposition of units or events over time, space, or position. The alphabet, in this context, can be seen as an example of contiguity. Recognizing its contiguity requires that the person grasp that A goes before B, which goes before C, and so on. The recognition that shapes repeat themselves in a certain way in a design or that objects in a room have their places is a recognition of contiguity. The same shapes in the same design can, in another context discussed below, be seen in different ways. The concept of recognition is one which places emphasis upon the person's cognitive manipulation of signs and their perceptions, rather than upon some intrinsic quality of events.

Order, on the other hand, is a more complex quality of symbolic arrangement. An order is a deliberately employed series used for the purpose of implying meaning, rather than contiguity, to more than one sign-event and basing the property of conveying meaning through the order itself, as well as through elements in that order.

The recognition of order results from an awareness that an arrangement of elements has been produced intentionally and purposely, whereas the recognition of contiguity simply involves the awareness that certain elements exist together. Our use of the term order is meant to include spatial as well as temporal configurations. In painting and the graphic arts, for example, order occurs in space rather than in time and is most closely akin to what is often called "design" or "composition." We shall employ the word pattern for

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such spatial arrangement on the level of order. Temporal orderings, such as occur in movies, music, or literature, we shall call sequence.

The recognition of pattern or sequence is the bridge to the level of structural recognition. While the earlier levels of recognition deal with single elements or with multiple elements in contiguity, structural recognition calls for an awareness of the relations between elements, and their implicational/inferential possibilities. Structural recognition enables one to deal with the relations between noncontiguous elements: the beginning and end of a story, variations on a theme, differing perspectives on one canvas, and so on. Structure may be thought of as starting with order and being the level of formal organization that links the elements of a communicative event.

We have argued that the articulation and interpretation of symbolic events can be characterized in terms of a hierarchy of levels and that these represent increasing degrees of complexity as well as different stages of development. They also require, for a person's competence to perform communicatively, the possession of increasingly sophisticated articulatory and performatory skills. The simplest sign events consist of single or unrelated elements; complex sign-events are those wherein the elements are placed in relationships, and in which these relationships are governed according to the organizational principles of a symbolic code. We have also suggested that this hierarchy represents a developmental sequence, in that the competence required to perform on the higher levels of articulation and interpretation will emerge on the basis of prior competence on the lower levels. This analysis parallels that of the development of specific symbolic skills, such as drawing and painting, in which children acquire a repertoire of elements, rational formulae, and, finally, the ability to combine these, intentionally, for the purpose of creating visually meaningful, structurally organized images (Lindstrom 1962).

We will now deal with the interpretive strategies linked to these levels of recognition as they are applied to mediated representations of behavior. Sign-events which are recognized as natural events are taken as informative rather than communicative, and interpretations are made of them in terms of what we know, think, or feel about the persons, objects, and events they represent or refer to. That is, we attribute characteristics to the recognized sign-elements on the basis of our knowledge of the world in which we "know" they are found. For example, if we view a film of a psychiatric interview taken with a hidden camera, we will feel justified in making attributions about the patient, the therapist, or the nature of their relationship. We will feel constrained in our interpretations (having assessed the situation

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as natural because of our knowledge of the hidden camera) because we may not know to what extent the behavior we see is a function of stable characteristics of the patient or therapist (personality, role), or of transient characteristics (mood, physical state), or of the situation itself (a psychiatric interview, the first interview, and so on).

Most adults in our society are aware of the fact that the appropriateness of such attributional strategies for the interpretation of the film described above derives from the film's status as a record of a natural event that did actually occur in the real world. Were the camera crew to have been in the room during the interview, moving around and filming the event from various positions, or were the film to be clearly edited and rearranged by the filmmaker, most of us would realize that we were seeing a symbolic event which had been intentionally put together for the purpose of implying something the filmmaker wished to communicate. We would recognize that the events we observed had been selected and organized into a "whole," and that the appropriate interpretive strategy was one which analyzed the structure of the film and the relationships of its elements, in addition to incorporating any attributional interpretations which we might make about the people in the film on the basis of our general social knowledge.

If we are correct in our assumption that the levels of recognition and interpretive performance that we have described represent a developmental sequence, and not merely one of increasing complexity, it would follow that the distinction we have just detailed would not be made by children until they achieve the higher levels of the hierarchy. This assumption has been investigated in a series of studies that we and our students have conducted on the nature and development of interpretive strategies (Harlan 1972; Messaris 1972; Murphy 1973; Pallenik 1973; Wick 1973; Messaris and Pallenik 1977).

In much of this research, we have been concerned with the development of the child's ability to tell, in words, what he has seen in a series of pictures and what he thinks they "mean." The basic study used photographs that show a sequence beginning with a man (easily recognized as a doctor, because of his white coat and stethoscope) doing various tasks in a hospital. He then takes off his white coat, puts on an overcoat, leaves the hospital, and walks down the street. The following picture shows the "doctor" in the background, and in the foreground an obviously damaged automobile from which a man's head and one arm are visible hanging partway out of the door. It is quite clear that the man may be (or is) injured. The next picture shows the "doctor" in the foreground looking at the car and

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the injured person in the background. The "doctor" crosses the street, continues walking, enters an apartment house, opens a door, and is finally shown relaxed, holding a drink, and smiling at a woman sitting next to him (see Messaris and Gross 1977).

Murphy (1973) showed these pictures to children in the second, fifth, and eighth grades, who were then interviewed individually in order to elicit their versions of the "story in the pictures." Murphy investigated the evidence the children used in justifying their interpretations. We have also used the same design and procedure with college students aged seventeen to twenty-three (Messaris and Gross 1977).

In the responses of the children and the college students, we have distinguished several classes of behavior that appear to parallel our conceptualization of the development of interpretive performance. In the earlier grades, children were able to recognize the persons depicted in terms of conventional attributes (doctor, nurse) and report the events contiguously ("The doctor was talking to the nurse . . . then he left the hospital"). However, when asked about the meaning of the sequence in terms of what is implied about the persons and events depicted, these children gave answers that were completely consistent with, and dependent upon, the general social knowledge they had about the persons in terms of role attributes, even when these stereotyped images had been directly contradicted by the information they were given in the pictures. For example, all of the second grade children said that they liked the doctor, and, when asked why that was so, said they liked him because he was a doctor:

Q: "How do you know that he is a good man?"
A: "Because doctors are good men."
Q: "How could you tell this one was a good man?"
A: "'Cause he was a doctor."

Similarly, most of the younger children thought that the doctor must have helped the accident victim, not because they saw him do so, but because "that's what doctors do." In fact, most of these children said that the "meaning" of the story was that doctors are good and that they help people:

Q: "What was the most important thing in the story?"
A: "He was a doctor, and he helped people a lot."
Q: "How do you know?"
A: "Well, I think he helped that person in the car wreck."
Q: "How do you know?"
A: "Well, I don't know. But I think he helped him, because that's what doctors are for, isn't it, helping people?"

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Many of these younger children were aware of the accident, were aware that the doctor didn't help, but still said that the man was a "good doctor," because "doctors are good--because they help people." What they attributed to the "doctor" on the basis of prior learning about doctors as a class was more powerful than any other interpretive strategy which they were able to apply.

We would say that, at this stage, children are using attributional strategies of interpretation. It is not so much the interpretations they give as the reasons they advance for these answers that determine our classification: they are calling into play knowledge that they have from outside, which is relatively unrelated to the set of pictures they are being shown (Donaldson 1971). The children's use of attributional strategies is grounded in their assessment that the events they see in the pictures are real, natural events and must, therefore, have the same meaning that they have learned to assign to such events that they have experienced directly:

Q: "Why do you think [the pictures] are real?"
A: "Because doctors walk home."
Q: "How do you know that?"
A: "'Cause my uncle's a doctor, and he does it himself."

At an older age, the children begin to realize that the pictures do not, in fact, represent a simple record of a natural event. They recognize that it is highly improbable that such a complex sequence could be captured in pictures unless it had been staged: "A guy's going to think something's wrong when every minute a guy pops up in front of him and takes a picture." The younger children took the "realness" of each part of the sequence as evidence for the naturalness of the entire sequence; the older children realized that their assessment must be made in terms of the entire set of elements.

We shall, for illustrative and space-saving purposes, construct a composite interview which will allow us to point out the different kinds of responses that are involved in structural recognition, assumptions of intention, and implicational/inferential interpretations. The following would be an example of an interview from which we would judge the child to be displaying a knowledge of structure and of implication/inference.

Interviewer: "Could you tell me something about the pictures you saw?"
Child: "You mean about the story?"
Interviewer: "Uh-huh."
Child: "Well, he didn't help that guy in the accident."
Interviewer: "How do you know?"
Child: "If they had wanted me to think he helped him, they

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would have had a shot of him with a stethoscope or something, bending over the guy in the car. They would have shown him helping somehow."

Notice the concepts involved in this child's interpretation. First, he refers to the set of pictures as a "story"--he recognizes story structure. Then he says, "If they had wanted me to think. . ., " clearly indicating (1) that the "story" was "given" to him by the experimenter, (2) that the "storyteller" may want him (the viewer) to think along certain lines, and (3) that information comes from "a shot" that is purposely inserted or omitted.

But most important, his interpretation of the doctor is based on a process that is clearly inferential: he knows that for his interpretation he may use only, or mainly, the information given to him in the communication event. Communicational implication/inference demands just this kind of behavior. The child must subordinate what he already knows about doctors to what he knows about the rules and conventions of communication, and must use the information given in the structure he has recognized (Donaldson 1971).

When a child (or an adult for that matter) fails to recognize structure, he will make interpretations through attribution. When he recognizes structure, he knows that implicational/inferential strategies of interpretation are called for. The reasons for this knowledge are imbedded in recognition of structure, for basic to that recognition is what we are calling the assumption of intention.

Intention is not an empirical datum, nor is it verifiable by the result of an interpretation. The verifying process is the fact that the interpreter gives reasons for his inferred meaning, based upon the implications he derives from the messages. It is the kind of reasons given for the interpretations that distinguish between attribution of meaning and inferences of meaning. It is important to recognize that an isomorphic relationship between signs and their interpretation does not constitute either sufficient or necessary cause for describing an interpretation either as an act of interaction with the environment or as a communicative event.

Intention is an assumption which is made about an event, allowing us to treat the elements of that event as sign elements in a structure which imply, and from which we may infer, meaning. In Figure 5-2, the assumption of intention is contrasted with the assumption of existence. We are reserving the use of the word communication for those situations where an assumption of intention is made.

It should be clear by now that when we use the term assumption of intention, we want it understood as an "assumption of intention to mean." Interpretation consists, in a communicational sense, of a

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process by which X (the interpreter) treats Y (the utterance, sign, or message) in such a way that the assumed intention is for X a reason (Grice 1957) for, rather than a mere cause of, his interpretation. This is why empirical evidence of the assumption of intention is not the "correctness" of the interpreted intent, but rather the reason and reasoning given by respondents.

The assumption of intention is felt to be within the control of the interpreter, as well as the articulator. The interpreter, further, can distinguish, and finds it important to distinguish, between what signs "suggest," what he "attributes" to signs, and what he "infers" from signs.

This conceptualization of intention and meaning differs from many referential, behavioral, and semiotic theories of meaning which are not concerned with implication, inference, and intention. We are arguing, for example, that a stimulus-response theory or a simple learning (conditioning) theory which defines meaning as the tendency to behave in certain ways upon the presentation of signs or conditioned stimuli is totally inadequate for the interpretation of human symbolic behavior.

We have presented a brief description of a new way to examine the concept of interpretation. First, we are suggesting that interpretation is best seen within a comprehensive framework of communication which distinguishes between "natural" interaction and communication. We have also suggested that the process of interpretation occurs whenever signs are used and that interpretations can be made in situations that are not communicative. When such interpretations are made, we have described them as attributions.

Second, we have presented both a hierarchical and a developmental concept by which the process of interpretation and articulation can be described. We have then described a series of recognition stages culminating in a process of implication and inference within which communication--a social event--takes place.

Third, we have presented, as two basic theoretical constructs, the concept that the assumption of existence leads to attributional strategies of interpretation and the concept that the assumption of intention leads to implicational/inferential strategies of both articulation and interpretation. We have further said that the assumption of intention is very closely allied to the concept of the intention to mean, and that therefore implication and inference, as we are using the terms, suggest implication of meaning and the inference of meaning.

We have argued that intentionality (when used in relation to

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communication) is always an assumption. The articulator means to imply; the interpreter means to infer. Intention, therefore, is not verified by an isomorphism between implication and inference, nor by an isomorphism between individuals who happen to be articulators or interpreters. Intention is verified by conventions of social accountability, conventions of legitimacy, and rules, genres, and styles of articulation and performance. These are the bases which make our assumptions of intentionality reasonable, justifiable, social, and communicational.


1. This paper originally appeared in the Journal of Communication 24 (1974): 27-39--Ed. Return.

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©1996 Tobia Worth. All Rights Reserved.