A Voice of Reason: Sane Views for a Crazy World

June 8, 2007

The Formation of Cultural Icons: A Critical Analysis Pt. I

This is a paper I am presenting and thought it might generate some interest here.

Icons are a part of any culture. However, they often serve a role which detracts from a role which would be more fitting. In the sense of this report, an icon is an object which takes upon mythical meaning beyond the symbolism which it attempts to represent. Three areas of society which could easily be identified as icons are elaborated upon in this analysis of three historical studies.

How common beliefs become part of a cultural curriculum – or in a sense an icon – was the topic of a study (Wineburg, Mosborg, Porat, Duncan; 2004) performed concerning generational perceptions of the Vietnam War. The study posed to answer the question how historical knowledge is transmitted across generations. Over a thirty month period the authors interviewed fifteen families, drawn from three different communities. The author’s purpose was to ascertain how two generations defined moments of history, and whether the history represented by the generations formed a “collective memory” with regard to a historical event.

Over a course of 30 months, 30 members of 15 families were interviewed about how their conceptualization of the past may form a collective concept about a historical era. The sample families represented Evangelical Christians, lapsed Roman Catholics, Buddhists, and Jews. Four of the families consisted of members who had been born outside of the United States; twelve families were Caucasian and one each as African American, Native American and Asian American. One parent and one child from each family were interviewed about their knowledge and conceptual framework concerning American involvement in Vietnam. Each member participating in the study was also asked to provide their interpretation of well known photographs taken from the Vietnam Era, which could easily be identified as icons of the era.

Prior to the interviewing the student’s perceptions of the Vietnam War and the instruction offered concerning the topic were analyzed by the researchers. Despite the detailed instruction concerning the issues at stake in the Vietnam War by the schools of the students, as a group, had a similar perception of the Vietnam War – “a war without a reason”.

During the interview process both parent and child were asked to write down their reactions to the pictures shown by answering open ended questions, such as, “What do you see in this picture?” and “What associations does this picture bring up?” Both participants would then be asked to respond to the photo and their corresponding interpretation, with the child. This was done in order to protect against parental input having an impact upon the child’s answer.

Later on the responses elicited by each respondent was coded with a graphic textual spreadsheet in order to develop emergent themes from the interview process. Various combinations of grouping students with other students, students and parents from one subset being compared to other students and parents from other subsets, and then groupings based on conceptual agreement were formed.

The first photo used was a picture of a veteran of the Vietnam War looking upon the names etched on the wall while his hand gingerly touches the wall. Of all the photos presented, this one image was the most identifiable picture. All of the teens and all but one of the parents (who had been born in the former Soviet Union) were able to recognize the memorial. Every student also knew what the man was attempting to do – search for a name on the wall and then etch it into a piece of paper he held in his right hand. For the parents, the picture brought back memories of loved ones or friends who had served in the Vietnam War, and the veteran took on a symbolic identification of long remembered people from their past. However, the students’ answers were more general, with the man depicted in the photo not taking any symbolic meaning at all. The experience for the adults in the study also reflected their own personal opinions concerning America’s involvement in Vietnam. Words and phrases such as “resolution”, “respect that was deserved” appeared in the responses in the adults. Interestingly, the man portrayed in the picture is seen by all as a victim of the war, and not as a perpetrator of war, who is worthy of respect and pity, not hatred.

The second photo is also an icon of the Vietnam War era, a photo of a young man placing flowers in the barrels of guns of soldiers in the 1967 March on the Pentagon. The adults surveyed instantly identified the clash between the flower and the guns as a symbolic clash of war opposed to peace. Terms used to qualify the event express the antithetical symbolism the picture displays, “Blocking soldiers with flowers”; Peace, not power”; and “a divided country”. For the students there was a significant disconnect with the interpretation of the picture. Only eight of the fifteen could identify the basic concept of peace versus might. The symbolic elements of the picture were even less easily discerned by the youngsters. One student thought the soldiers were North Vietnamese, another felt the incident was meant to mourn the dead. Interestingly, for the adults, the first photo brought about feelings of the nation coming to reconciliation about the war, the second photo brought the sharp divide felt by their generation back to the forefront. One parent spoke warmly of the camaraderie felt by members of the anti-war movement towards each other; another contemptuously replied, “He’s a slime-bucket”. Part of the student’s problems with this photo was their failure to identify the clean cut youth as a “hippie”. His appearance does not align with their perception of the prototypical hippie of the 1960’s.

The third photo, a “hard-hat” rally drew strong responses and identification by the adults in the group, and almost universal misunderstanding by the younger generation. The rally, which was a pro-war response by blue collar workers in New York City in support of the war in 1970, elicited two polarized replies. One reply stated that “although there was confusion about the issues in the war, these guys, typical working men, were going to support the government”. This picture also drew a rather strong comment by an opponent of the war, “These men are a bunch of assholes, guided by their penises”. On the other hand, the majority of students were unable to interpret the photo. One person identified the type of people represented, “blue collar workers”, but had no idea what the purpose of the rally served. One thought that a sign, which referred to “Building America”, was an anti-war sentiment, as it contrasted the destruction which was going on in Vietnam.

Many of the students were surprised to learn that people actually protested in favor of the Vietnam War. More than one of the students cited the movie Forrest Gump, which had framed their perception that all of America was against the war, when in reality as late as 1972 a Gallup Poll showed that 70% of the nation felt a renewed confidence in the prosecution of the war.

The findings of this study concluded that the younger people perception of the war had not been formed by instruction or by a true understanding of the concepts involved, but had been formed images found in media such as movies about the Vietnam War, and that despite various ethnic and cultural variance, a consistent perception about the war had been formed by these young people, and their perception about the war was remarkably similar than their parents who had experienced the war from a more personal vantage point. The young people’s perception allowed no room for pro-war demonstrations and “the silent majority” that supported the Vietnam War. In the eyes of this generation, removed by the war from time, the Vietnam War was one fought without supporters. In a real sense cultural occlusion has come about with regard to this historical event, and in effect, the icons of the Vietnam War have been selectively used or occluded to create a historical construct.



  1. hiya..one of my best friends (older than me..:)) fought combat in Viet Nam..didnt get so much as a thank u when he came home………great work 🙂

    Comment by Angel — June 8, 2007 @ 9:38 pm | Reply

  2. In many ways the movies and media are the instruction. The parents as creators & purveyors of the view.This ends up giving their perspective to the kids.Excellent post,welcome back looking forward to others I2TF

    Comment by in2thefray — June 10, 2007 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  3. Hi avor, I recently asked the question at my place: why do Jews vote Democrat? I got a couple of interesting answers as well as several sent by email.

    On particularly struck me. He said American Jews do not vote as Jews. They vote the way Americans of their background and class do – usually the same as a good deal of urban college educated professionals in their local areas do.

    I thought this very interesting, as we do “perceive” or “conceptualize” ourselves in some way or the other, and then there’s the habits of our parents. But, I, as a non-Jew have been looking at the connection to Israel, or to a people, which I would expect to affect their vote.

    We do seem to “conceptualize” our lives.

    Hope all is well with you,
    Maggie’s Notebook

    Comment by Maggie M. Thornton — June 14, 2007 @ 1:47 am | Reply

  4. The style of writing is quite familiar . Have you written guest posts for other blogs?

    Comment by How to Get Six Pack Fast — April 15, 2009 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

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