Symbol: meaning, Conceptual and Operational Definition Differences

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* Sense of the word symbol

* Definitions from anthropology and semiotics

* The symbol: an operational definition




In this article we realize the complexity of the word polysemous symbol, the point of view of anthropologists and most representative semiologists define and operationalize this category and, finally, I postulate a definition of the symbol as a mental representation of analog and iconic nature, with some degree of conventionality and, as a stable element in a cultural continuum, is revealing, recalling, replacing, classifying and conveying.



In this article I Give polysemical bill of the Complexity of the word symbol, of the point of view of the anthropologists and The Most Representative semiologist in defining and to make operative this category and, finally, it postulated a definition of the symbol like a psychic Analogical representation of nature and iconical, with conventionalism Un certain degree you give and That, as soon as stable element in a cultural continuum, Revealing Represents, evoking, Replacing, typifying or Transporting.

1. Meanings of the word symbol

Word is polysemic symbol therefore has an amazing variety of meanings depending on whether linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, philosophy or psychology, becoming more complex, according to the sense given either disciplinary trend and times and contexts in which their use is located. I extend the assertions:

Charles S. Peirce (1986) states that the word symbol has so many meanings that it would hurt to add a new language. Etymologically mean “something thrown together ‘thrown into something (a pin), thrown to the side (a collateral), yielded lower (pre-nuptial gift). The Greeks used “throw together” to describe the performance of a contract or agreement. Noun Aristotle calls the “symbol” (a conventional sign.) In Greek, the light of surveillance is “symbol” (a given signal). Among others, were called “symbols” a flag or banner, a shibboleth, a distinctive religious creed, a ticket to a theater, a ticket stub or the rights to receive something, any expression of feeling. These were the most important meanings of the word in the language that gave it birth. Peirce The meaning ascribed to the symbol is that of a conventional sign or a habit (innate or acquired), and that does not distort much the word when used as proposed.

Later, other scholars (such as Trevi, Lotman, Guiraud and others) have also highlighted the many meanings of the term character symbol in the semiotic system of sciences. Mario Trevi symbol states that the elements of an algorithm, functions of the psyche, the physical object (when replacing an abstract idea), the graphic sign, and the linguistic dimension. Hence for Fountain “and the symbol is the dimension that takes any object (natural or artificial) when it can evoke a reality that is not immediately inherent ‘(1996: 2), however, the concept of command paradigm can also be of mutual antagonisms.

Often the expression “symbolic meaning” is widely used as a simple synonym for signical. In cases where there is a correlation between expression and content and, what is emphasized particularly in this context, the conventionality of this relationship, researchers often speak of symbols and symbolic function “(Lotman, 1993: 47) .

P. Guiraud laments that “unfortunately, has not yet been possible to agree on the value of this term, the various authors use the word” symbol “with the most diverse meanings’ (1991: 18). I do not think about it, nor desirable, which is arrived at monosemic construction of the word symbol, lose all their richness and semantic complexity.

Carl G. Jung, when is the symbol seems to want to ignore the multiple meanings of the term. Any assignment of a particular historically determined meaning to a word so many meanings, is an arbitrary transaction semantics (Fountain, 1996). The term can not be excluded from their meanings historically circumscribed except by taking a semantic position. Accordingly, an object of particular study need to be matched by the construction of a workable definition instrumental to guide the research and presentation of results.

2. Definitions from anthropology and semiotics

I will first refer to the definitions of four anthropologists, then make reference to the definitions of four semiologists:

2.1. Point of view of anthropologists

Referrals are anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Edmund Leach and Victor Turner.

2.1.1. Levi-Strauss

In the “Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss’ (Anthropology and Sociology), Levi-Strauss writes:” Culture can be considered as a set of symbolic systems that are located in the first language, marriage rules, economic relations, art, science and religion. These systems are designed to express certain aspects of social reality, and even the relationships of these two types of reality together, and that these symbolic systems stored in relation to each other “(1979: 20).

Levi-Strauss, influenced by the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, the anthropology conceived as a semiology, which involves consideration of symbolic systems and semiotic systems. The symbolic is considered an unconscious dimension of logical-rational character, and as a communicative dimension, because “the unconscious would therefore he writes,” the mediating element between the self and others “(1979, 28), also postulated that society and culture have a symbolic origin; approves the symbolic and the semiotic, and argues that between the symbolic and the fact there is a causal determination: the symbolic determines the order of the world (Haidar, 1990, 1995, 1997).

2.1.2. Geertz

On the Interpretation of Cultures, in the “thick description: toward an interpretive theory of culture, Geertz writes that the semiotic concept of culture is understood as” … interacting systems of signs interpretable (which ignore the provincial meanings, I would call symbols) “(1987: 27).

In the same text, when it “Ideology as a cultural system,” in a footnote on page states: “In my presentation, use” symbol “in a broad sense includes any act or physical object, social or cultural serve as a vehicle for a conception “(1987: 182).

2.1.3. Turner

Turner endorsed the description of Concise Oxford Dictionary, and describes the “” symbol “is a thing which, by general consensus, thinks that makes it naturally, or is, or remember something, either by possession of analogous qualities , and by association in fact or in thought “(1999: 21). The symbols were between Ndembu Turner were empirically objects, activities, relationships, events, gestures, and spatial units in a ritual context.

Later, Turner sets the symbol for its specific function “is therefore a mark, a milestone, something that connects the unknown with the known ‘(1999: 53). Hence, Ricardo Melgar specifies that “the symbol is a force in a field of social action, is also a boost of excitement. The symbol through its properties makes tilting their meanings between the open and hidden, manifest and latent “(1998: 12).

2.1.4. Leach

Leach (1978) opposes the symbols / signs as subcategories of signum. “A signum a sign when there is an intrinsic relationship between A and B after they belong to the same cultural context.” Alone do not express anything, associated with other signs or symbols, yes. Metonymy describes this kind of relationship. “A signum is a symbol when A represents B and there is no intrinsic relationship between A and B before, ie, A and B belong to different cultural contexts.” The metaphor expresses this kind of relationship. Which implies contiguity metonymy, metaphor depends on a similarity affirmed.

The use of metonymy / metaphor is due to Jakobson, the use of syntagmatic / paradigmatic opposition comes from linguistic phrase / partnership proposed by Saussure and it was picked up by Levi-Strauss, melody / harmony expressed the same opposition (Leach writes), also may add to the above opposition phrase / Barthes1 system.A comparison of the defining elements of these anthropologists projects the following scheme:

Table 1: Definitions of symbol by some anthropologists.

2.2. Viewpoint semiologists

Semioticians referred to are Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles S. Peirce, Iuri M. Lotman and Roland Barthes.

2.2.1. Saussure

Saussure distinguishes the symbol of the sign by the degree of arbitrariness, but the former is distinguished by a certain continuity association between the signifier (acoustic image) and signified (concept), ie the presence of a natural bond of an embryo interrelational visible or imaginable, reasoned that characterizes it as iconic.

“He has used the word” symbol “writes Saussure, to designate the linguistic sign, or more accurately what we call the signifier. There are drawbacks to admit it, precisely because our first principle [the arbitrariness of the sign]. The characteristic of the symbol is never to be completely arbitrary, it is not empty, there is a rudiment of natural bond between signifier and signified. The symbol of justice, balance, could be replaced by any other, by a car, for example “(1985: 105), in contrast, the sign is completely arbitrary or unmotivated (it has no natural link with reality) although both sign and symbol, and this share conventionality is located in a different gradation.

Guiraud (1997) and other semiologists Saussure also joined in conceiving the symbol “represents” something under an analogical correspondence for the recognition of its iconic nature.

2.2.2. Peirce

Peirce makes a complex classification of signs, raised three divisions within each one of them: first: qualisign, legisign sinsign and, second: icon, index and symbol, and third, row, sign deponent and argument. The symbol is a living entity and belongs to the latter. He writes that “the (division sign) is fundamental that classifies Icons, Indexes and Symbols’ (1986: 46).

The symbol is a representamen ie, a sign, “… referred to the Object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas that operate in ways that are the cause of the symbol is interpreted as referring to that object. Consequently, the symbol is in itself a general type or law, that is, a Legisign [law which is a sign] “(Peirce, 1986: 30-31).

The representative character of the symbol is that it is a rule that determines its interpretant. All words, sentences and other conventional signs are symbols. “A Symbol is a law, or regularity of the indefinite future. Its interpretant must be capable of the same description, and so must be the immediate object in its entirety, or meaning. But a law necessarily applies to individuals, or is “included” in them, and prescribes some of their qualities. It may therefore be an index constituent is a symbol, and it is also an Icon “(Peirce, 1986: 55). “A symbol is a sign naturally fit to declare that all the objects denoted by any set of indexes that may be in some way linked to it is represented by an icon associated with it” (Peirce, 1986: 56).

2.2.3. Lotman

In Lotman “the most common idea of the symbol is linked to the idea of some content that, in turn, serves as a level of expression for other content, usually more valuable culturally. The symbol must be distinguished from the reminiscence or appointment, as in the past the level “external” content-expression is not independent, but a sui generis sign-index indicates a larger text, with which he is in a metonymic relation. In contrast, the symbol, both in terms of the expression as in the content, always represents a text, ie has a unique meaning in itself and closed a border clearly states that allows clearly separated from surrounding semiotic context. This last fact seems particularly essential for the ability to “be a symbol” “(1993: 48-49).

For Lotman “the symbol differs from the conventional sign for the presence of an iconic, by a certain similarity between the level of expression and content ‘(1993: 59). At the command there is always something archaic is the ability to keep in condensed form extremely extensive and important texts. The symbol may not join any set phrase, and if it is incorporated, retained its independence of meaning and structure. But you can enter another text based environment. Never owned by a single cut synchronous culture, providing that cut through vertically, coming from the past and projecting into the future. In this sense, the symbol represents one of the most stable elements of the cultural continuum. Carries text, diagrams and other formations sujet semiotics of a layer of culture to another.

Moreover, the symbol has a dual nature: it is both invariant, hence acting as something that has no consistency with the textual space that surrounds it, a messenger of other cultural epochs, as a reminder of the old foundations culture, but at the same time variation is correlated with its active cultural context, is transformed under its influence, and in turn, transforms (Lotman, 1993).

2.2.4. Barthes

Barthes (1993) determined that the signal, sign, icon, allegory and symbol, even though they are the main rivals of the sign, all of them, including this one, refer to a relation between two relata (stimulus / response); therefore, this being a common feature can not separate from each other.

Hence, to distinguish them, set the variation Barthes sense alternative to the feature using the presence / absence. The signal (immediate and existential) and the sign (which is only a trace) form a group devoid of psychic representation relates, in contrast, the symbol and sign form a group with such representation. The difference between symbol and sign is that in the first representation is analog and inadequate, while the second relationship is unmotivated and accurate.

A comparison of the defining elements of these semiologists projects the following scheme:

Table 2: Definitions of some semiologists symbol.

2.3. The symbol in the broad sense and narrow sense

One of the features of Levi-Strauss, Geertz, and Turner is that the symbol defined in a broad sense (culture as a set of symbolic systems, every sign is interpretable symbol, or thing that typifies, represents or remember something, a mark a landmark, something that connects the unknown with the known), ie, “the symbolic is the semiotic, as production of meaning systems (codes) and communication processes” (Haidar, 1994: 13). In Leach’s definition is somewhat narrower (symbol and sign as subcategories of signum). However, the symbolic function of cultural practices is performed (in case of Geertz) and explained (in the case of Levi-Strauss, Turner and Leach) in a narrow sense to designate the drill, too, in the narrow sense (Haidar, 1994) 2.

It is said that the sign evokes the semiotic (or semiotic) while the symbol evokes the symbolic, this is a way of juxtaposing the symbol sign. However, in semiotics the sign is a general category while the symbol is a type, in this sense, Fountain (1996) say that the symbol is a sign the region of the continent.

The prospect of Julieta Haidar (1994) is to preserve the semiotic as simulated in the narrow sense that not only represents reality, but also plays a special way. In the symbolic functioning, in general, the semiotic operates as a particular operation, which is the drill, which defines the author of a particular feature strongly defended by many as a general semiologists.

A common feature that runs vertically through the definitions of all the authors mentioned is that the symbol “represents” a physical reality or spiritual, bodily or mental. Around this common axis arise other attributes: the symbol ‘defines’, ‘remember’, ‘connect’ (Turner, 1999), “substitute” (Martinet, 1980) or “substitute” (Fountain, 1996), “denotes” (Peirce, 1986, Martinet 1980), “evoked” and “indicates” (Fountain, 1996), “carrier” (Lotman, 1993, Geertz, 1987), “expresses” (Levi-Strauss, 1979; Lotman, 1993) ‘reveals’ (Freud and Jung, see Fountain, 1996 -).

If approving release, connect, denote, indicate and express due to “highlight” of both the unknown and the known, recall and remember due to “bring anything to mind ‘, replace and replace due to” put one thing for another ‘, then the symbol is revealing, recalling, replacing, classifying and conveying.

3. The symbol: an operational definition

Iuri M. Lotman (1993) argues that although it is not known what the symbol, each system knows what is the “symbol” and requires him to work his semiotic structure. To make an attempt to determine the nature of some essential functions of the symbol, it is best not to give any universal definition, but to take as its starting point the ideas are given to us intuitively cultural experience and then try to generalize.

In contrast, I have decided to propose an operational definition of the symbol that behaves as a theoretical tool for research to guide the analysis, explanation and presentation of research. Consequently I define the symbol as a mental representation of analog and iconic nature with some degree of conventionality and, as a stable element in a cultural continuum, is revealing, recalling, replacing, typifying or transporting.

The features that complement my operational definition of a symbol are:

a) The symbol representation is not totally arbitrary, so is analog (motivated), inadequate, but that has some degree of conventionality and is iconic, that differentiates the sign because this is an arbitrary representation a priori and a posteriori conventional , so is unmotivated and accurate. This position approaching me Saussure and Barthes.

b) The symbol (along with the sign) is a story (stimulus / response) with psychic representation that distinguishes it from the signal and the indication that no such representation (Barthes position).

c) Between reality and the symbol there is a dialectical relationship. The command produces reality but at the same time is produced by it, so this assumption differs from the position that determines the symbolic reality (Levi-Strauss) or vice versa, that it determines. However it is worth noting that the semiologists, as postulated by Haidar, variously stated that between reality and symbolic functioning may be a parallel relationship, a causal relationship, a relationship speculate covariance relationship, a dialectical relationship and a constructive relationship of reality (Haidar, 1994: 137).

d) propose to represent revealing is the main function of the symbol, but also evokes replaces criminalizes transporting. Consequently, besides the main function, the symbol can represent recalling, replacing, classifying and conveying.

e) The symbols are stable elements in a cultural continuum, never belong to a single cut synchronous culture, always go through that cut vertically, coming from the past and projecting into the future. Unlike the earlier sense of Freud that I projected the symbol of the past, also of ahistoricism Levi-Strauss, and Jung approaches me and Lotman.

f) As a living entity (Peirce), the symbol has a dual nature: it is invariant and variant (is influenced by their cultural context but also transforms it) (Lotman).

g) Finally, the symbol is thus the dimension that takes any object (in Peirce’s sense) when it assumes some of the functions of the point ‘d’, being common in the property that they say about one another, with similar, or , as proposed by Fountain (1996), says one thing saying something else not directly demonstrate it.


Barthes, Roland

“Introduction to structural analysis of the stories” in the semiotic adventure, Polity Press, Barcelona, 1993, pp. 163-201.

Geertz, Clifford

The Interpretation of Cultures, Gedisa, Mexico, 1987.

Guiraud, Pierre

(1) The semantics, Fondo de Cultura Economica, Breviaries No. 153, Mexico, 1991.

(2) semiology, Twenty First Century Publishers, Mexico, 1997.

Haidar, Julieta

(1) Structuralism, Juan Pablos Editor, Mexico, 1990.

(2) “Cultural practices such as semiotic-discursive practices’ in methodology and culture, Jorge A. Galindo Gonzalez and Jesus (coords.) CONACULTA, Mexico, 1994, pp. 119-160.

(3) “The field of visual semiotics” in Semiotics, Adrian Gimat-Welsh and John M. Lopez Austin (coords.), UAM-A, Mexico, 1995, pp. 213-224.

(4) “Lotman’s proposals for cultural analysis and its relation with other approaches to current trends” in the semiotic sphere lotmaniana. Studies in honor of Yury Mikhailovich Lotman, Manuel Caceres (ed.), Episteme, Valencia, 1997, pp. 194-207.

LEACH, Edmund

Culture and communication: The logic of the connection of the symbols, Twenty First Century Publishers, Madrid, 1978.

Levi-Strauss, Claude

“Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss’ in sociology and anthropology of Marcel Mauss, Tecnos, Madrid, 1979, pp. 13-42.

Lotman, Iuri M.

“The symbol in the system of culture” in Writings, Journal of the Centre for Language Sciences No. 9, January-December, UBAP, Mexico, 1993, pp. 47-60.

Martinet, Jeanne

Keys to the semiology, Gredos, Madrid, 1980.

MELGAR, Ricardo

“The symbolic universe ritual in the thinking of Victor Turner,” unpublished CCyDEL UNAM, Mexico, 1998.

PEIRCE, Charles Sanders

The science of semiotics, Nueva Vision, Buenos Aires, 1986.

Saussure, Ferdinand (de)

Course in General Linguistics, Nuevomar, Mexico, 1985.

Trevi, Mario

Metaphors of the symbol, presentation and translation of Ricardo Carretero, Anthropos, Barcelona, 1996.

TURNER, Victor

The forest of symbols, Twenty First Century Publishers, Mexico, 1999.


Linguistic language, proposed by the opposition Hjelmslev relationship / correlation, Jakobson contiguity / similarity and Martinet contrast / opposition (Barthes, 1993).

2The can “accept the existence of two senses of simulation. In the broad sense, the simulation would mean that all semiotic function (the sign) represents or replaces something or something, the simulation would correspond to the process of representing the rational thing. In the narrow sense, the simulation is the thing, like herself, is a particular representation of the semiotic function “(Haidar, 1994: 131). “In other words, in the broad sense, all semiotic representations would be drills, in the narrow sense, only symbolic representations (also in the narrow sense)” (Haidar, op. Cit.: 131).


Nestor Campos Taipe Godfrey

a Ph.D. in anthropology from the National School of History and Anthropology, ENAH, Mexico.

He is the author of several books, essays and scientific papers.