"We don't have to do it alone. We were never meant to." - Brené Brown
As Occupational Therapists, we look within and around, constantly deliberating on what and how to add purpose and meaning to anything we do - and advocate for anything that speaks to us; this is what an ideal situation of symbolic interaction looks like for our profession.
Symbolic interaction is a very grounded, practical and everyday approach to social life and social understanding. According to this concept, any entity that has been created or obtained as a symbol - for example, human rights, cultures, humanities, etc. - can never follow one particular meaning for eternity. The ambiguity in which they exist and have been created needs to be contested and renewed, according to the time and population they interact with.
Symbolic Interaction between Humans
Within this concept, individuals try to survive and flourish by living in their natural environment, doing things together and trying to make meaning in their daily life activities. Finding purpose and meaning is a convoluted process for some, yet we strive to define every situation we enter into. Without purpose or meaning in life, human life is prone to be wasted and become worthless to live for. This is the essential characteristic of human nature as a symbol; we constantly attempt to find meanings in our daily lives, while interacting with our environment. It is never fixed, but emergent and contested at all points of life.
Moreover, what seems meaningful to one person may not make sense to anyone else. This very quality of humans as symbols is powerful. The fact that we tend to forget and embrace this ever-developing, changing and flowing aspect of humankind is the reason why we live in a world of differences and discrepancies.
Interactions in Cultures and Sexualities
Human cultures are multi-layered, ever-emergent symbolic interactions. At the core of culture lies social life. Cultures are never tight, fixed or agreed upon, but are multi-layered 'mosaics of social worlds.'
Cultures are 'the scraps, patches and rags of daily life', toolboxes of ideas and materials, which are constantly in flow and flux, to help us resolve daily problems of living.
This social road leads us to our main tools of symbolic interaction: language and communication. These tools help us make sense of our external environment, just like our other senses. However, the only thing certain about these tools is the uncertainty that they bring. Unfortunately, what makes sense to one person is not a widely accepted standard, given the discrepancies in the interpretation of our cultures. Flowing out of this view of social life is a distinctive view of sexualities - both naturalistic and biological. So, what we need to deliberate upon is, how sexuality depends upon collective conduct and the wider cultural sense associated with it, when this very same concept of sexuality is changing and developing.
To speak of 'non-ambiguity' in sexual cultures is an unrealistic idea, that we are trying to preach and change. Cultures as powerful symbols cannot speak non-ambiguity, because of their very nature. To speak of 'Indian culture', 'Western culture', 'Queer culture', or others, is like walking into a world of multiple interpretations, tensions and differences. It is extremely important to grasp this; some views of culture and human rights debates on sexualities can get very lost if they work with this naïve, dead and over-simplistic view of culture.
No single culture can be thoroughly rigid and fixed, rather it shouldn't be. This way it not only loses its essence, but cannot change and develop. Cultures - and humans - are lived actions: mobile and complex. Cultures are always negotiated and deeply contested, at all times.
This is their nature, their essence; the essence of muddle. Without multi-cultural inclusion and intersectionality within communities, the culture dies a quick death. Individual cultures are not separate entities, apart from each other; they are continually overlapping, emergent and internally contested.
Reconsider the Narrative
Stories have recently moved centre-stage in social thought: as the pathways to understanding culture; as the bases of identity; as the tropes for making sense of the past. We all hold a variety of narratives in our minds, that reflect the variety of our identities - like man, woman, parent, friend, lover, relative and professional.
Some of my stories are about how I came to learn about, advocate, educate and empower humans as sexual beings - and why it can be difficult to implement in Indian culture. The stories of the past help re-live and re-write stories of the present. But amongst these differences, all cultures reflect a similar understanding of sexualities, fears, pleasure and guilt. By viewing our limited social lives as symbolic, emergent and interactive, we may deepen our understanding of our sexualities, our rights and ultimately our human capabilities.
A lot more to fight for.
A lot more to build upon.
A lot more to struggle for.
A lot more to be joyous about.
About the author
Dr. Sakshi Tickoo is an Occupational Therapist, Personal Counsellor and a Student Mentor, specialising in Sexuality and Mental Health - wellness and rehabilitation. Apart from working school-based and in adult home healthcare settings, she runs her platform Sex, Love and OT (sexloveandot.com). The aim of this is to educate and guide healthcare professionals in this intimate ADL and help clients integrate intimacy and sexuality in their daily occupations, irrespective of their age, gender, sexuality, race, culture and/or limitations.
Blumer, H. (1969) Symbolic Interactionism. NJ: Prentice Hall.
Denzin, N. (1992) Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies. Oxford: Blackwell.
Plummer, K. (2010) ‘The social reality of sexual rights: A critical humanist view’, in Aggleton P. and Parker, R. (2010) The Routledge Handbook of Sexuality, Health and Rights.
Plummer, K. (1995) Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds. London: Routledge.
Plummer, K. (1982) ‘Symbolic Interactionism and Sexual Conduct: an emergent perspective’, in Brake, M. ed Human Sexual Relations. NY: Pantheon.
Schafer, K. and Smith, S. (2004) Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition. Palgrave.
Tickoo, Dr. S. and Ellis, Dr. K. (2019) Indian Narrative of Sexuality: An Occupational Therapy Perspective.
Weeks, J. (1996) Sexual Cultures: Communities, Values and Intimacy.