Cultural Differences and Symbolic Interpretation

Cultural Differences and Symbolic Interpretation

Social learning is one of the most important determinants of the way that human beings interpret behavior and symbolism and is capable of inspiring completely opposite responses to identical experiences (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007; Myers & Spencer, 2004). Perhaps no better example of the extent to which context and social learning dictates symbolic interpretation exists in than the swastika. In Western social culture and the territories of former Soviet Union, the swastika is a virtually universal symbol of hatred, racism, and religious persecution. Conversely, in many Far Eastern social cultures, the swastika represents the complete opposite, particularly in Thailand, where it has a two as a symbol of peace and none of the negative connotations with which it has been associated since the middle of the 20th century.

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The Swastika in Western and Soviet Social Culture:

From the formation of the Nazi Party in post-World War I Germany, the swastika was adopted as the symbol of Nazism and associated with the racial persecution, murderous genocidal violence, and geopolitical expansionist ideology of Nazi Germany that plunged the world into the most costly war in human history. No nation suffered more than the former Soviet Union at the hands of the Nazis, as approximately half of the during that war were Russian.

In addition to the sheer numbers of war dead, the Russian nation suffered some of the most brutal and horrific atrocities perpetrated against any nation, mainly because of a deep hatred on the part of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis for Bolsheviks and Slavs that motivated additional atrocities against civilians in Russian territory, even beyond the by the Nazis throughout the rest of occupied Europe.

Therefore, in Russia, the social response to the swastika remains extremely negative even a half century later, particularly because the use of that symbol by the Nazis in the 20th century was the first widely publicized use of that symbol in modern human culture in Europe. In Russia, any display of the swastika would generate a hostile response, just as it does in virtually all other Western cultures and societies simply because of the social context in which it was first introduced in the 20th century.

The Swastika in Buddhist and Hindu Social Culture:

Prior to the 20th century, the swastika was used in various ancient and medieval societies in a manner that had no relation to its subsequent revival and adoption by the Nazis many centuries later (Macionis, 2003). In some respects, it was adopted many different times as a fairly common symbol in so many different societies mainly because of its geometric simplicity and its symmetry. In many , particularly among Buddhists and Hindus, the swastika is a symbol that has decorated temples and other culturally significant structures for thousands of years.

In fact, in Thailand, where both Buddhism and Hinduism are popular religious perspectives, the phrase for the swastika is still used a friendly greeting much the same way as people in Western society typically greet one another with phrases such as “good morning” and “good day” and it is utterly devoid of any of the intensely negative connotations with which it has been associated in Russia and the in the West for almost a century (Macionis, 2003). In all likelihood, but for the adoption of the swastika as the symbol of Nazism in the early 20th century, it would still have as benign a response in Russia and in the West as it does in the Far East simply because it is social learning and context that are exclusively responsible for the negativity associated with it.


Gerrig, R., Zimbardo, R. (2007). Psychology and Life. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Macionis, J.J. (2003). Sociology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Myers, D.G., Spencer, S.J. (2004). Social Psychology. Toronto, Canada: McGraw-Hill.

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