Communication is an inevitable part of everyday life. We use
it to express our emotions, develop relationships, and interact with other
people. When we say something it cannot be undone, which is why personal
communication can positively or negatively affect those around us. Others will
often believe something communicated to them repeatedly. They eventually begin
to believe it is true or will come true and their behavior becomes consistent
with the expectations. The theory of symbolic interaction or self-fulfilling
prophecy comes up when someone accepts labels or judgments that have been
communicated by others. Even if these labels are inaccurate, the person can
ultimately internalize these messages and thus the self-fulfilling prophecy
becomes true in the end.
Racism or racist remarks are one example how
society perpetuates a belief that can lead to negative or criminal behavior.
Expressions and beliefs not only affect others, but also those close to you.
Children learn from their parents and families how to communication with
others. If the communication they hear is always negative about other groups of
people, the children will communicate the same messages when they are with
their peers. This interaction leads to negative thoughts and judgments that
cause them to say negative remarks to certain groups of people. Racism doesn’t
just involve black and white anymore. It has spread to many groups that
continue to share their feelings and beliefs. The recipients on the other end
of this negative feedback could eventually begin to feel that way about
themselves. This may lead to low self-esteem, criminal behavior, or suicide. It
is quite possible that symbolic interaction with positive words and beliefs
could change this vicious circle, or at least spark a debate to help negative self-fulfilling
prophecies change for the good.
The concept of self-fulfilling prophecy
was used by sociologist Robert Merton to demonstrate certain outcomes based on other
expectations (Merton, 1968). He believed most outcomes were negative behavior because
of negative labels, stereotypes, and stigma. However, other research has found
that self-fulfilling prophecies are a phenomenon that can produce a positive or
negative outcome. There are many examples in society today. If a coach sees a
young athlete as uncoordinated and slow, after a while the athlete will
possibly begin to do everything slow and never work hard on skills. On the
other hand, if a teacher believes a student is capable of better work and
spends extra time helping them on an assignment research shows the grade tends
to be much higher (Brophy, 1983). So, you can see how it is possible for the
self-fulfilling prophecy to go both ways.
Unfortunately, the negative effect tends
to be the norm. Howard Becker studied symbolic interaction and self-fulfilling
prophecy and developed what he called the labeling theory (Adler). He believed
that society focused more on people’s shortcomings and failures, than they did
on positive feedback. Things like: that person will never make it, that one is
too short, that one will be an alcoholic like his Dad, that black guy will end
up in jail, or she will never be pretty. These are things we hear every day
that have an affect on the people who are on the receiving end. These
perceptions can “alter reality and shape behavior” (Madon, 2013). Those that
have low and high self-esteem are both susceptible to this negative criticism.
A study done in the late 1970’s showed symbolic
interaction and its effect on different races in integrated neighborhoods. The
study revealed that contact and encounters with black people even in these
integrated neighborhoods was rare. A survey done by Bradburn, Sudman, and
Gockel in 1971 showed just 1% of whites living in substantially integrated
neighborhoods reported going out for dinner or to a movie with blacks; and less
than a third (32%) said that anyone in their family had ever stopped to talk
with black neighbors when they met them on the street. Of course, some of this
has changed since the early 1970’s but this symbolic thinking may be because “there
is simply no personal experience with blacks that might offset outdated racial
and moral socialization.” (McConahay et al). This lack of direct contact has
led to racial isolation, which McConahay felt was the norm for contemporary
American society. He also believed his data was not in depth enough to show
whether more contact would lessen these prejudices.
American History X came out in 1998 and was a crime drama
film that was directed by Tony Kaye, and written by David McKenna. The movie is
about two brothers from Venice, Los Angeles who were involved in a neo-Nazi
organization. The younger brother is a high school student named Danny Vinyard,
and he received an assignment to write a paper on a book that related to the
struggle of human rights. He knew that his teacher was Jewish so he chose to
write his paper about Adolf Hitler. The teacher wanted to get Danny expelled for
this paper, but the Principal refused this. Instead he decided to teach Danny
himself, and they would call the class American History X. His final assignment
would be to write a paper on his older brother Derek Vinyard, who was a former
neo-Nazi leader. Several years before Derek and Danny’s father Dennis was
killed by a black drug dealers after going to fight a fire at a drug house.
Shortly after that Derek and his friend Cameron Alexander started a white supremacy
group called the Disciples of Christ. They decide to get the basketball courts
they use to control back, so they challenged members of the Crips to a
basketball game. The winner would control the courts, and Derek and his friends
won the game. After winning the game in a celebration their group went to
attack a supermarket owned by a Korean. This supermarket included African
American and Latino workers and they wanted to get the supermarket back under
white control like the basketball control. That night he was at his home
sleeping when he heard people trying to steal his father’s truck. He went out
and shot one of them, and then curb stomped the other. He was then arrested and
sentenced to three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. While he was in
prison he was put on laundry duty with a black prisoner who assaulted a police
officer and was serving a sentence of six years. He joined the Aryan
Brotherhood, but after a year he became disillusioned with some of the members
who had ties with other prison gangs with different ethnicities. He was beaten
and sodomized in the shower by members of the Aryan Brotherhood as his
punishment. Danny’s Principal Dr. Swinney comes to visit him and tells him that
his brother Danny is on the same path as Derek. After that Derek decides to go
through prison alone without any affiliation with white supremacy, and finally
began to realize the problems with his choices. He leaves prison an entirely
different person only to come home to his old ways. Finding his brother with a
D.O.C tattoo, but tries to persuade him to leave the gang. They go to a
neo-Nazi party the night and Derek tell Cameron that him and Danny will no
longer be involved with the movement. This caused all the gang members to turn
on him. He tells Danny what happened in prison in hope that it would change his
outlook as well. Danny finished the paper and the next morning he was supposed
to turn it in to the Principal. The paper showed that he had changed his
thoughts about white supremacy and wrote about how the values of Nazi’s were
flawed. Derek and Danny walked to school together and were stopped at a diner
and told that his friend Seth and Cameron were attacked last night. When Danny
gets to school he is met in the bathroom with a black student named Little
Henry who he had a confrontation with the day before. Little Henry’s older
brother told him that he needed to take care of Danny. Danny was killed in the
bathroom by Little Henry that morning. Derek came to the school to find his
younger brother dead in the bathroom.
study of symbolic interaction led to the labeling theory by Howard Becker. His
theory demonstrates and explains the correlation between labels or stereotypes
and criminal behavior. Becker believed once a person’s behavior is labeled as
criminal or deviant it tends to develop into that type of behavior. Society
interaction or refusal to interact with the people that are considered criminal
or deviant can ultimately lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy theory. This
perception can push them further into the criminal world searching for
acceptance (Adler, 2016). The movie American History X is a prime example of
society’s ability to affect perceptions of others and their self-esteem.
According to Wood (2004) Symbolic Interactionism is the
point of view that claims society predates individuals, who acquire minds and
selves in the process of interacting symbolically with other members of a
culture. Symbols are also necessary to the functioning and continuation of
collective life (pg. 335). This means that people are making assumptions and
labeling others for who they interact with and what they learn. From this people
begin to conceptualize themselves through a looking glass self. Wood (2004)
explained looking glass self as people learning to see themselves mirrored in
others’ eyes (pg. 91). Society allows others to place them into categories telling
them how they should live.
interaction is the sociological theory about communication and interpretation.
This theory demonstrates how we interact with others is a result of symbols we
interpret about ourselves, other people, and the roles each play in society.
These symbols are not usually an actual symbol, but more of a label placed on
certain people. We see people in society as teachers, dads, firemen, and
policemen. These labels or symbols dictate the way we interact with one
another. We are taught these symbols through our socialization with our parents
and peers from a very early age. When we see a policeman, the norm is to show
respect and listen. However, these symbols can also be selective towards
certain groups and lead to stereotypes. Depending on the environment, these stereotypes
can spread quickly. There are many times when the symbols or labels we have
learned lead to hatred, discrimination, and even racism.
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