What’s in a Name

“I don’t know what it’s called,” they say smiling, “But its track four, yeah, track four, this moment is definitely track four!”

“There is something about that song, you know the one with the thing about the elephant, there is something about it that just speaks to me, you know?”

“Oh, I’m like a completely different person when the right song comes on, I mean, I don’t tend to know the names of the songs, but the right ones just hit me and they mean something to me, I guess, something beyond, well, normal.”

Each of the quotes above are taken from interpersonal interactions over the last couple months. Whether talking to me or someone else within the vicinity of where I was, each of them represents an interesting aspect of meaning making via music. While people have talked about the importance of naming things for generating meaning and emotion, each of these cases reminds us that one need not know the given name of something for that social object to have influence upon their mood, experience, or selfhood. Rather, something can be named in any way – such as track four in the first case – by a person who finds meaning in that object.

This leads to an interesting interactionist question – what role does a given name play in processes of meaning making? In some cases, the given name of a song, place, person, or anything else may elicit very strong emotions – both negative and positive – that any other word or label might not generate. In other cases, however, the given name may easily be revised into something different or other in the ongoing confluence of interactional experiences and still offer just as much, if not more, meaning as the given or official name. In both cases, however, we see the attempt to both express the meaning of a given object by labeling it in some way with some kind of language and generate some kind of label or name for a given object once that object represents a meaning for a given person.

This also leads to questions about translation in the process of communication and meaning making in everyday life. When a given object, for example, is renamed or initially named, does that object then need translation to others or is the process of the naming the translational event itself? When one translates a feeling by expressing the way it is generated by an external source – like a song with or without a name – is said one engaging in a bit of symbolic conversation or simply utilizing whatever nearby resource is available to convey an idea or feeling? What if, as could be the case, each of these things and many others are happening at the same time in such interactions? How might we study such dynamics? How might we interpret them?

If we treat the exchange of music or musical references or other cultural artifacts and references to said artifacts as a conversational meaning exchange, what might we learn from systematic study of such exchanges? What might we learn about the names people give themselves and others, this object or that, and other things in their world? What might we learn about the significance of labels and categories and definitions more broadly in the flexibility of interactional experiences across the life course? These, I would suggest, are only a few questions that might be explored by paying attention to the ways people name and narrate references to this or that shared meaning or artifact in daily life.

J. Sumerau is the author of four novels and over 40 peer reviewed articles focused on sexualities, gender, religion, and health. For more information about their writing, visit jsumerau.com.

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About Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog

The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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