The meaning is in the context

Discussing what he terms the ‘World Risk Society’, Beck describes an ‘experiment’ of sorts that was done with small children to see what meaning they inferred from a skull and cross bones. The results are perfect evidence for how context influences the meaning of a symbol or text… Beck explains:

“…in the USA just a few years ago (Benford, 2000)[, t]he US Congress appointed a commission with the assignment of developing a system of symbols that could properly express the dangers posed by American nuclear waste-disposal sites. The problem to be solved was: how can we communicate with the future about the dangers we have created? What concepts can we form, and what symbols can we invent to convey a message to people living 10,000 years from now?
The commission was composed of nuclear physicists, anthropologists, linguists, brain researchers, psychologists, molecular biologists, sociologists, artists and others. […] The commission looked for precedents in the most ancient symbols of humankind. They studied Stonehenge and the pyramids; they studied the history of the diffusion of Homer’s epics and the Bible. They had specialists explain to them the life-cycle of documents. But at most these only went back 2000 or 3000 years, never 10,000.

Anthropologists recommended using the symbol of the skull and crossbones. But then a historian remembered that, for alchemists, the skull and bones stood for resurrection. So a psychologist conducted experiments with 3-year-olds to study their reactions. It turns out that if you stick a skull and crossbones on a bottle, children see it and immediately say ‘Poison’ in a fearful voice. But if you put it on a poster on a wall, they scream ‘Pirates!’ And they want to go exploring.” (p.40)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Ulrich Beck (2002) The Terrorist Threat : World Risk Society Revisited Theory, Culture & Society 19: 39-55

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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