December 08, 2011

Symbolic Interactionism on the Road

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

For those of us who live in car-centered communities, driving is both an individual and a social process.

The individual part is most obvious: we have to concentrate on where we are going, on the other cars, and the road conditions. We might prefer to listen to music, wear sunglasses, and decide which route we would like to take.

Sometimes the social processes overlap with individual ones. We drive a particular make and model car not only because of personal preference, but also because of social ones, like what we can afford based on our economic situation, and also the meanings we associate with any given car. Does it reflect our rebellious side? A sense of personal power? Environmental beliefs? A favorite color?

Sometimes consciously, and sometimes not, these meanings are related to what we might think a car tells others about who we are. Will others think we are successful based on the car we drive? Think we are environmentally conscious? Associate us with a particular subculture?

One of the primary founders of the symbolic interactionist perspective, George Herbert Mead, discussed how we create a sense of self in part via the reactions of others. His concept of the "I" and the "me" focuses on how we learn about who we are through our interactions with others. Without incorporating the reactions of others, and meanings created within our society, the self as we know it wouldn’t exist.

This can be a tough concept for some students learning about it for the first time. After all, aren’t we individually special and unique? To suggest that who we are is partly shaped by the reactions of others might seem like a sign of weakness or deception, but in fact it is an important element within any social setting. Being able to gauge the reactions of others to us—and sometimes regulate our behavior accordingly—can be the difference between keeping a job and losing a job, for instance.

Getting back to driving, being able to anticipate the actions and reactions of other drivers makes us safer on the road. It’s the driver who breaks many of the expectations of others who might find themselves more likely to get a ticket or have an accident.

We interact with others on the road in other ways as well. As Todd Schoepflin recently blogged about, personalized license plates are one way drivers might directly create a sense of self through driving. IMG_1192

Bumper stickers do this too; while a personalized license plate is typically one way of forging an identity for the self, bumper stickers often go a step further by making an identity claim and encouraging other drivers to share a particular belief.

We start seeing bumper stickers crop up a lot around elections—presumably so we will vote for the driver’s preferred candidate or issue. And sometimes our perception of a driver might change based on the candidate on their bumper sticker. Have you ever held back from honking at someone who cuts you off because they support some of the same causes as you do? Are fans of the same team? IMG_1189

Some stickers let other drivers know about some of the owner’s favorite places they have visited. As you can see in the photo at left, one driver has plastered his or her car with many stickers from around the country, much like old suitcases would showcase stickers from the travelers’ destinations.

While walking in my neighborhood, I came across a parked car with a particularly interesting bumper sticker. As you can see below, it announces “I clip_image002Myself.”

Having never seen such a bumper sticker, I looked online and found that there is a website with a whole catalogue of items proclaiming one’s feelings for one’s IMG_1194self: t-shirts, bags, mugs, buttons, hats, onesies, and even underwear.

This is an interesting public statement to make, and one that reinforces the idea of the social self. Presumably, this pronouncement wouldn’t be completely necessary if we weren’t social beings. It is the sharing of private information that ironically helps create the public self. (This helps us understand reality television too).

I admit, when I saw the bumper sticker, I found it hard to understand why they placed it on their car. If I could have interviewed the owner, I would have liked to hear more about their motivation and the meaning the sticker has for them. Not being a bumper sticker person myself, I could not otherwise be able to understand why they chose to adorn their car with it.

Driving is a lot more social than we may think; what other seemingly individual behaviors take on social meanings?


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Driving is a lot more social than we may think; what other seemingly individual behaviors take on social meanings?

I can relate this social behavor with people who have "Talegating Picknicks" were people drive to a football game for example and open there trunks and have food, alcohol and entertain themselves.

Their social behavor is focused on the group that is included in the picknick and on entertainment that they bring. However they would not allow people outside the group to join, and will tend to keep to them selves. The act of carivaning allows the group to astablish social norm for the people that gather, and those that do not conform to the norm are alienated and even kicked out.

Another example of a socail activity is when people go to the hair dresser. Wile the activity is solly to get a haircut, the experience turns into a socail engagement were the entire salon (or part) will begin to cary on in conversation and begin to share experiences and gossip. This is a social example of how a singular activity becomes a socail event.

I really can relate to this blog. I get so much flack for the car that I drive compared to my personality. I have purple hair, I like a lot of alternative type things, very liberal and I drive a 2006 Cadillac CTS. When I get out of my car almost everywhere I go, I get the oddest looks because people assume an older, wealthier, sophisticated person to get out of a cadillac, not a purple hair, young girl. I bought the car because it was a great deal and I love the luxury features of having my butt warm in the winter and cold in the summer!

I never really payed attention before to how individuals can use their cars as a way for them to represent their own true self. Along with a way for an individual to socialize without having direct contact with other people.

One can also learn things about the person by the way they drive. For example if they are in a hurry or angry. I do agree with everything that is said because my car represents myself from the exterior to the interior. Other individual behaviors that take on social meanings are a simple trip to the grocery store and when one goes to a restaurant.

I agree with this article 100%. As bad as it may sound I base peoples personality, or the kind of person they are sometimes by the car that they drive. I always look at kids in my school and see the kind of cars they drive and just sort of think about the person they might be. Like the kids who drive the really nice cars I think they must be spoiled to be driving some $30,000 dollar car around, but that's not always the case. I also feel like driving my car around I'm judged by what I drive since it's not in the best conditions. At our school big trucks are the big thing. If you don't drive a big truck you're not really considered cool I guess.

This article is kind of ridiculous. I never thought about it, until now. People that usually drive big cars like Hummers think they rule the road. They think this because they have a gigantic car. Rich people tend to have Hummers, but I am not saying all rich people are snobby. Besides that, good post!

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