Section A2: The psychological development of meaning and issues related to change and development in meaning
Further study of the psychological development of personal meaning for the individual, together with discussion of a range of issues that have a bearing on the interrelationships between personal and cultural meanings.

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Brief overview of content of this section

More detailed attention to the psychological development of meaning and changes in the individual's meanings. Attention is given to a range of issues related to the development of personal meaning, in relation to cultural meanings.

Particular issues related to contemporary personal meaning. The relationship between personal meaning and cultural meanings.

These issues include areas like the power exercised by people through the meanings that they impose. Particular cultural meanings can be enslaving or liberating. For some people, avoiding the making of meaning is a problem and they can become preoccupied with the existential, and they can neglect the need for meaningful purpose in life.

Some attention is given to the way that meaning in life is communicated through advertising and marketing. Some examples in the analysis of advertisements will show the relationship between the story in the advertisement, the meaning of the story, as well as the unspoken/unwritten assumptions that you need to know to make sense of the story – i.e. underlying presumed values and principles. And finally the message in the advertisement for the viewer. The role of advertising/marketing in creating meaning and imaginations of life will be taken up in much more detail in section C9 which looks into 'consumerist' religion.

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The psychological development of personal meaning

The psychological development of personal meaning
Change and development in personal meaning
Accessing people's meanings: a central part of human relationships
Thwarting of meaning and retreat from meaning
Manipulation and power through meaning
Dependence on institutions and authorities for meaning
Bolstering the meaning system through fundamentalism
Scientific meanings
Clashes between scientific and religious meanings
Young people's perceptions of relationships between religious and scientific meanings
'Earthquake' in the meaning system
How meanings are created and communicated through marketing and advertising

  The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected.
Viktor Frankl
  Western culture undermines, even reverses, universal values and time-tested wisdom. In making meaning in life more individualised and materialistic, it reduces social cohesion, confidence, trust and stability, and leaves people personally more isolated and vulnerable. This, in turn, reduces a community's moral hold on practice: values depend critically on personal, social and spiritual ties for effect, for tangible expression in people's behaviour towards each other. So there are complex feedbacks in the social effects of cultural trends. Richard Eckersley et al., 2006.

Inevitably, this topic is controversial because value judgments are needed about which changes in meaning are good and authentic and which are detrimental. It also raises questions about who decides what is good meaning, and on what criteria the decisions are based. What are considered desirable changes inevitably track back to particular views of what it means to be human. Also pertinent is the prevailing view of healthy meaning ( 4.5 ), and interactions between personal and community views of what this entails. People are naturally dependent on community meanings to some extent; but becoming mature presumes they will increasingly take personal responsibility for their own meaning, whatever its degree of congruence with normative community meanings.

Development of meaning usually occurs through adjustments. As people change with age and experience, they adjust their meanings accordingly; some of this change is the result of choice; some is not – when things happen they have no option but to accept reality. Meaning develops to accommodate these challenges. Sometimes individuals make no adjustment; they feel that there is no reason to change meanings to meet new circumstances. The personal meaning system can be particularly resistant to change.

Some take a more proactive approach to changing their meaning; they can develop it by reading, watching educational television, studying and attending personal development programs – as well as by reflecting on the events of daily life. They are consciously looking for ways of enhancing their understanding of life.

Religions, also psychiatry and counselling, as well as the self-help movement, tap into fundamental human needs for conserving or changing meaning. Individuals may draw on different parts of their religious traditions to update their meaning in new circumstances, to get a more satisfying or fresh interpretation. Similarly, they may access community meanings from other sources – from other religions, philosophy and psychology, popular writings, and the example of heroes and friends – as well as from the media.

Opportunities for the enrichment of meaning are extensive since people have access to ancient and new traditions of wisdom, as well as to contemporary psychological movements. But not all change in meaning is healthy. Where there is great scope for change in meaning, there is also scope for manipulation.

3.1.2 Change and development in personal meaning

Change in personal meaning is not always a smooth process; it may be catalysed by traumatic events calling for answers to pressing new questions. Change in meaning may be positive or negative depending on an evaluation of its content.

On the other hand, development of meaning may take place relatively calmly. Through interaction with others or through their own study people may decide to change their meaning because they have been persuaded rationally to adopt views they believe are worthwhile.

Change in personal meaning is often indexed to change in cultural meanings. New cultural circumstances affect the way people think ( 2.10.11 ).

Role models can be a significant source of personal meaning. Through identification with people they respect, individuals can consciously and unconsciously assimilate the meanings of their heroes and heroines. Mentoring can also be influential.

People know they have meaning when their understanding of what is going on in their life gives an explanation they find satisfying; this would include feelings as well as judgments. The validity of this explanation seems self-evident when it gives helpful answers to life questions. If it did not give plausible explanations, the meaning would feel deficient.

It is not that personal meaning should be able to provide perfectly satisfying answers for all problems, but it should help people address them in a constructive way, or at least take up some psychological stance that helps them cope. Sometimes their meaning does not give them answers that are comforting or easy to accept; but more importantly, it can help them adjust to reality, especially when that reality is not favourable. What is crucial here is whether their meaning is a ‘true' explanation – to this they can be committed, even at some personal cost. For others, particularly when it is a matter of acknowledging responsibility, their meaning does not serve them well when it proposes all sorts of explanations and excuses rather than acceptance of a reality that is painful.

Meaning can be used by individuals as the bigger picture that makes sense of their experience by putting it into perspective. Experience is like raw material that becomes meaningful when it is reflected on and contextualised within a personal meaning structure that functions like a ‘meaning organiser'. This meaning organiser processes experience in the light of values and goals.

People's distinctive meaning processor will show characteristic ways in which they convert ordinary experience into something that is meaningful . Repetition of such a meaning-making or valuing activity becomes a habit and a virtue (or vice, if the values are negative). People do this without having to reflect on details and evaluate every item of their experience before judging it meaningful (that is, consistent with their meaning and values). This can help people make otherwise prosaic experiences into something that has overall meaning and significance. For example, repetitive labour can be converted into meaningful work . Problems (like sickness or injury, or decisions made by authorities about their employment opportunities) can change or block people's intended path in life; but in time these can be accommodated as temporary, even if major, setbacks that do not change their overall personal goals, and they may even have unforeseen benefits.

3.2.1 Accessing people's meanings: a central part of human relationships

People learn readily how to identify and process meaning from an early age. In addition, they see how others tend to respond characteristically to particular experiences – it is part of learning to ‘know' other people, as well as learning ‘from' other people. They build pictures of other people's ‘meaning processors' and contrast this with their own. This learning also helps them predict how others are likely to behave. Developing one's own meaning and interpreting the meanings of others are part of forming and maintaining personal relationships; this also occurs when people create psychological distance from others, when they learn to dislike particular people or when a personal relationship is breaking down. Discovering harmony and conflict between meanings is pertinent both to the development and dissolution of relationships.

Many problems in relationships stem from a failure in this process. Some individuals may not learn well enough about what others are really like – until it is too late. They may not comprehend adequately the character of the other with whom they want friendship or love. A good personal relationship would seem to require a healthy exchange of meanings. Without adequate communication at this level, and without some verbal confirmation, both where meanings are shared as well as where they are different, a relationship may remain fairly superficial. Compatibility and harmony in relationships would seem to presume some fundamental common meanings together with respectful acceptance of differences.

There is more to relationships than exchange of meanings. Emotional attachments, perceived beauty and sexual attraction all contribute. However, communication at a meaningful level seems crucial for satisfying, long-term relationships, where commitments endure beyond the initial momentum of mutual attraction and infatuation.

Interpreting relationships in this fashion is useful in exploring gender differences in meanings; that is, how individuals in a relationship may misinterpret what the other says and does. Learning how to understand and respond to such differences and complementarity between the sexes is crucial for effective communication between men and women.

3.2.2 Thwarting of meaning and ‘retreat' from meaning

The sections above suggest that people have an inbuilt meaning-making ability, and that they are constantly contextualising experience. When for various reasons this ability is impaired, people are likely to suffer in some way. A lack of meaning may lead to unhappiness and feelings of frustration. For some, however, this may not appear to be a problem, especially if their attention is occupied elsewhere; nevertheless, from the value position taken here, insufficient attention given to meaning is regarded as a deficiency in humanness.

Restlessness and boredom can result from an inability to put repetitive actions into perspective; or from not seeing that experience that is neither exciting nor entertaining can have useful meaning (this is also pertinent to education). It may be that a need for excitement and finding things that grab one's attention have become such a strong addiction for some that looking for a larger meaning is neglected. When faced with what was referred to above as repetitive ‘raw' experience, they cannot provide any meaningful context for it, with the result that the experience is regarded as pointless. In the extreme, when the usual run of experience has little meaning, and when excitement levels ebb, they can become bored and turn to substance abuse, self-harm and violence. This explains the link Frankl made between youth lack of meaning and boredom.

If young people want to do just what they feel like doing, when and where they want, they can become prisoners to the existential and to fluctuations in their own emotions. Such a narcissistic preoccupation with self lacks adequate reference to meanings from larger contexts; it does not make adequate reference to the individual's whole life, to the community and the environment. We presume that healthy meaning includes reference to this larger context. Self-centred youth have meaning that tends to revolve almost exclusively around their own needs and plans; others, especially family, are regarded more or less as useful infrastructure to their lifestyle – or, for those who do not fit this role, as threats.

Similarly, this view provides an interpretation of escapism: people may seek to engage in various activities that help them avoid the demands of meaningful commitment. Or they may be completely occupied with trivial pursuits because of a lack of perceived meaning. Either way it is a retreat from meaning,

3.2.4 Manipulation and power through meaning

Understanding the meanings of others is a part of being sensitive and caring. But responding to the meanings of others also puts the individual in a position of vulnerability if this attentiveness is uncritical; it can be a pathway for manipulation. Whoever has access to the contextualising principles people use to construct their personal meaning has some power to enhance their lives or to manipulate them. For example, those who want to keep others subservient in particular roles can impose their will in a subtle way by proposing the meanings that suit their purposes; this would be a classic exercise of ideology. Particular frameworks of meaning can be sources of liberation or of domination. There is no escaping the need for a critical evaluation of criteria used for assigning meaning and for uncovering the sources of cultural meanings, in the process exposing their political and economic interests.

For example, a particular meaning may be helpful for accommodating necessary, repetitive labour. But if this condemns someone to remain in such a station, it becomes dehumanising; justificatory meaning can support manipulative practice.

The manipulation of people's meanings is an abuse of power; it can occur as much in a household as in the workplace and government. These dynamics are evident in social problems such as sexism, racism and ‘social class-ism'; and they can be detected in policies related to globalisation of markets, casualisation of employment, economic competition, workplace agreements and industrial relations.

Social meanings can be developed and utilised for all sorts of purposes. Both classic propaganda and classic advertising draw on the same psychological dynamics ( 15.4 and 15.10 ). Even the apparently harmless notion of ‘what it means to be cool ' has been orchestrated by commercial interests so that young people's desire to be cool can be steered in consumer directions that will turn a profit; this ‘conditioning' of meaning preys on their identity vulnerability ( 7.3 ).

Cultural meanings can provide the impetus for revolution as well as reasons for quietly accepting and never challenging the status quo. Appraisal of cultural meanings often initiates cultural and political change. The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire illustrated this dynamic: the development of critical literacy was instrumental to helping peasants break free from social and political oppression. The first step towards freedom from manipulative power is to stop using the language and meanings of the oppressive group; now, where image consciousness is a driving force in marketing and consumerism, the critical evaluation of cultural meanings also needs a deconstruction of commercially proposed images.

3.2.7 Dependence on institutions and authorities for meaning

While reliance on legitimate authorities can be a natural and valuable source of meaning, there is also a danger in making one's meaning too dependent on others or on authorities and institutions – particularly if this is done for a long period of time. A mature meaning needs to be well assimilated and personalised where individuals take responsibility for it. Normally, trust in authorities and commitment to institutions can be healthy parts of personal and social life. But this does not mean the surrender of personal judgment and informed choices. Institutional meaning needs to be appropriated critically, countering the possibility of manipulation through what is proposed for allegiance.

In a culture that is exceptionally critical of institutions and where there is a widespread sense of cynicism about the relevance of religion, there is a danger that the valuable contribution to personal meaning from institutions can be ignored. Many young people do not need much encouragement to be sceptical of institutional meanings. They may be adrift from the basic meanings that their religion can give them as a starting point in their individual construction of meaning; but they are either unaware that they lack useful religious meanings or they are pleased not to have institutional connections; many do not look for meaning in their religion. For some, religion may have such a bad press that there is perhaps a need to demonstrate for them the case for religion and what it offers in the way of meaning.

3.2.8 Bolstering the meaning system through fundamentalism

One way of strengthening the meaning system is to stress its claims to truth. In a culture where truth has come to have strong associations with ‘evidence', ‘proof', ‘history' and ‘science', it is not surprising that some religious believers want to reinforce the truth of their faith with what they consider to be historical events and scientific facts.

For example, Christians who are said to be ‘fundamentalist' interpret the Book of Genesis and the gospels literally. They see no reason why the texts should not be interpreted that way. That the world was created in six days, that Eve was created from Adam's rib, and that Adam and Eve were the progenitors of the human race in a place called the Garden of Eden, are believed as factual and historical. A strict historicity of the Bible is one of the foundations of their belief system – verifying its truth. In one sense, their faith is historicised.

For fundamentalists, scriptural meaning is not problematic. It is absolute truth: ‘The Bible says this', and it has absolute authority. It is as if there were a universal, ready way to determine which interpretation of particular texts was the correct one. In practice, it is the interpretation of their particular group that is presumed to be correct. By contrast, although critical biblical scholarship presumes that the meanings of scriptures are problematic and need careful study, this does not detract from their importance for believers.

Biblical scholarship over the last hundred years has questioned claims to literal biblical historicity; it proposes that the scriptures are primarily theological. This implies that much of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament are about theological truth; history is not missing, but because it was not the primary concern of the biblical authors, there was no special interest in recounting historical facts with precision; poetic licence was taken with inherited oral and written traditions in the writing of theologically embedded narratives. Verification by history, eye-witness accounts and documentary proof is more a 20th-century phenomenon – a mentality with which the biblical authors were unfamiliar.

The faith of ‘Evangelical' Christians is centred on the Bible. But this does not equate with fundamentalism. Just as for members of the mainline Christian denominations, Evangelical Christians draw on biblical scholarship to varying extents; a proportion of all of these groups retain fundamentalist notions of scripture. And it should not be forgotten that fundamentalist interpretation of religious texts is evident in other world religions.

Fundamentalists appear to be reluctant to take modern biblical scholarship seriously because it seems to threaten the historical basis of their meaning system. There are other psychological characteristics of fundamentalist meaning systems that warrant attention (in Christianity and other religions), but this is beyond our scope here.

3.2.11 Scientific meanings

The function of science is to explore and explain the workings of nature through what has been called the ‘scientific method'. Scientific explanation, or scientific meaning, contrasts with explanations and interpretations of life from personal, aesthetic, spiritual and religious perspectives. It proceeds within the framework of physical and chemical laws, and by hypotheses that can be tested. By strict definition, science is non-personal and value-free – but this is not saying that scientists can ever be value-free. A fundamental condition for the validity and reliability of scientific explanation is that the personal and spiritual dimensions are necessarily excluded. The noted physicist Erwin Schrödinger pointed out that because the very success of science depended on the exclusion of these spiritual dimensions, science could never be used legitimately to deny their existence and importance. Science as such has nothing to say about human meaning, purpose and values, even if neurophysiology succeeds in locating specific wave-like patterns of firing in neural tracts that seem to be the physical location of thought.

The key principle of science is empirical verification; strictly speaking, it is empirical falsifiability, because it is through the disproof of null hypotheses that scientific knowledge progresses. Given this view of science, it would seem be an unlikely candidate for proposing human meaning, let alone a source of ultimate meaning. Nevertheless, science has had a great impact on human meanings. It has been spectacularly successful in its achievements in the 20th century, particularly in applications to technology and medicine that have affected lifestyle and life expectancy, especially in the developed countries. Human meanings can become dependent on this success, as if science can deliver aspects of human salvation.

Scientific theories about the origin and end of the universe, the morphological development of planet earth and the evolution of carbon-based life-forms have changed human perspectives on the nature and origins of life. For most of recorded history, without a scientific perspective, people's views about life's origins naturally drew on the readily available religious interpretations of cosmology. Religious creation stories were interpreted literally because there was no reason to do otherwise. Inevitably, the rise of scientific explanations resulted in conflict between religion and science because both were concerned with explaining the world, even if this was done from different perspectives and with different methods. Further attention will be given to this conflict below.

As one individual commented: ‘My God has to have at least a PhD in quantum physics'. Understandings of the complexity of nature cannot but impinge on thinking about creation. A mechanistic or atomistic interpretation of reality that dominated science for a long time has given way to discoveries about the sub-quantal nature of matter and about the origins, age and evolution of the universe. A built-in uncertainty exists at the most basic levels of wave and particle physics. Issues raised by the New Physics have created an interesting agenda for philosophical and theological meanings.

3.2.12 Clashes between scientific and religious meanings

Given the strict view of science outlined above– scientific and religious meanings have different natures, purposes and functions – it could be expected that science and religion should never be in conflict. Since the time of Galileo, however, there has been a continual history of conflict that at times has been violent. The reasons for the conflict are important because in principle, according to the view of science taken here, it will be because either religion or science (or both) has in some way been faulty or wrongly applied.

If the notions of creation and creator are important for religion, then scientific interpretations of the origin of the universe and the evolution of life will inevitably have to be accommodated in some way within religious meanings. This accommodation works in different ways as explained later.

In the case of Galileo, the science/religion conflict derived from a faulty religious view. The theological conviction that humans were at the centre of God's universe had spilled over into a view of this world as the physical centre of the solar and celestial systems. This physical view was disproved – just as was the earlier view of the world as flat – showing that religious interpretations of human purpose should not absolutise particular presumptions about the structure of the world that were in cosmological vogue at a particular time. It was not the Christian Church's prerogative to pronounce in the areas of physics and cosmology.

However, conflicts like this were inevitable because in earlier pre-scientific times people did not have sufficient reason to differentiate between religious and scientific interpretations, or between the superstitious and the scientific. For many centuries, there was no compelling reason why the Genesis stories of creation should not be interpreted literally, while their theological significance remained paramount. Then, when astronomy and the Darwinian theory of evolution made it clear that the six-day creation of the universe and the origin of humanity were unlikely to have occurred in that historico-physical way, a more sophisticated theory for these complex origins emerged. At the same time, this stimulated a more sophisticated scriptural and theological interpretation of Genesis. In effect, emerging science had helped refine theology. If the Bible was read as a scientific text on human origins, the reader would be in error – not the Bible.

There is now a scientific story of human origins. For those who relied on Genesis for little more than a story of human origins, and for those who did not have a good conception of the relationships between religion and science, or where the divisions were blurred, the scientific story might also have a religious function: providing a plausible account of human origins going back billions of years to the cosmic Big Bang.

For some, the scientific story is a more attractive and realistic alternative than a literal reading of Genesis; so they dismiss the latter as myth in the negative sense, and as a result, dismiss Christianity (and religion generally) because its validity was presumed to be dependent on the historicity of Genesis. For others, this interpretation helped justify an already established view that religion was irrelevant to their lives.

Still others reacted differently. Their religious beliefs were bolstered by reading Genesis literally; this historicised the creation stories, interpreting them as scientific facts. This view read Genesis as if it were like a science text, dictated by God to the biblical author. Ironically, this approach seemed to want historical or scientific verification of beliefs (as explained in section 3.2.8). It did not differentiate the theological message from the literary form. The stories took such strong historical roots in their religious meaning system that any questioning of the stories' historicity was experienced as a threat that might undermine religious faith. The logical alternative for this group was to dismiss the scientific account of human origins as false. And as far as scriptural meanings were concerned, a fundamentalist position was taken.

Another variant of the fundamentalist position is evident in the Creation Science movement. It began with a rejection of generally accepted scientific views of the origins of life and of humans in particular. But in its place, bolstering their religious interpretations, was a ‘new' scientific theory for the origins of life. It was called Creation Science and it sought to establish a scientific case for creation as described in Genesis. It is well established in the United States and Australia and from it has arisen the Creation Science magazines Ex Nihilo and Creation Magazine . While the group has exerted some political pressure to have Creation Science included in the public school curriculum, generally this has been rejected on the grounds that it is not ‘science'.

We consider that the Intelligent Design movement is a ‘softer' version of Creation Science. It accepts a limited view of evolution, suggesting that there are points in the diversification of life where the direct intervention of the creator is needed to explain the emerging complexity. The ‘scientific' case for Intelligent Design proposes that there are gaps and inconsistencies in Darwinian theory; in particular, it claims that some organs and organisms are so complex they must have been created at a particular point in time by an intelligent designer independent of other influences.

Part of the popularity of Intelligent Design theory is the affinity it has with teleology (the philosophy of purposes) in medieval philosophy. A number of philosophical arguments were developed as demonstrations of the intelligibility of the existence of God; they were often, but mistakenly, referred to as ‘proofs' of the existence of God. The argument from ‘design' (contrasting with arguments related to God as prime mover and first uncaused cause) proposed that the purposes that humans discern in the adaptation of animals and plants to the environment, and in other complexities in nature, are intelligible and are thus consistent with the idea that God as an intelligent being designed this complexity into creation; the purposiveness and splendour of the development of life in all its forms point to the existence of an intelligent cause. This philosophical interpretation of the role of God in creation remains compatible with evolutionary theory because it interprets God's role as immanent and not physically interventionist; it is different from the Deist interpretation which saw God as setting creation in motion and then letting it run according to the laws of physics in a mechanical fashion; it regards evolution as a distinctive ‘signature of creation', considering that God can be purposive even through an evolutionary process that involves chance and natural selection. By contrast with these views, Intelligent Design considers that God plays an interventionist role, especially at key points in the development of life-forms.

Hence Intelligent Design, from this point of view, is not science because it sees divine intervention in the emergence of life as a good scientific argument, and not just as a philosophical or religious interpretation. Its contemporary prominence needs to be understood within the historico-political controversy about the teaching of evolution in schools. It was only in 1968 that the US Supreme Court overturned earlier laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in schools. Lobbying for the inclusion of Creation Science, and now Intelligent Design, within the school science curriculum has continued. So far these moves have been resisted. Our concern is that Intelligent Design, particularly as represented by Phillip Johnson, the Discovery Institute and the Centre for Science and Culture, as well as in the writings of Dembski and Behe, is something of a cover for propagating a conservative religious and political view; it sees the scientific theory of evolution as dangerous because it is considered to be necessarily anti-theist and in conflict with the Bible and the Qur'an. It seems to be a subtle way of getting around the prohibition on teaching Creation Science in United States schools.

Ironically, Creation Science and Intelligent Design could well be investigated critically and appropriately within school subjects such as religious education and philosophy; they can more readily deal with the ambiguity of the claims to be scientific, or mixtures of science, religion and philosophy. This question could be located within a broader study of the perceived conflict between science and religion.

To conclude this section we refer to a contrasting interpretation of Genesis. A theological and symbolic approach reads the Genesis account theologically, with an appreciation of the literary form of creation myths. And it reads the scientific theories about the origins of the universe, earth and human life strictly as such.

3.2.13 Young people's perceptions of relationships between religious and scientific meanings

If adults can confuse religious and scientific meanings, then it is likely that children and adolescents will do so too. Hence the importance of learning about the distinction between religious and scientific interpretations.

Research studies have indicated that measures of young people's attitudes to belief in God changed markedly during early adolescence. In the United Kingdom , while 44 per cent of a sample of 11-year-olds agreed that ‘God is very real to me', the level dropped to 18 per cent for the 15-year-olds. Repeated surveys between 1974 and 1986 showed a continual decline. Correspondingly, the percentage of 11–15-year-olds agreeing with the statement ‘I find it hard to believe in God' increased from 36 per cent to 50 per cent. There is no reason to believe that the situation in Australia is very different from this.

In 1964, Ronald Goldman in his book Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence , suggested that two prominent factors making their attitudes to belief more liable to change were:

  • the problem of evil and suffering and how this is to be reconciled with a God who is all-powerful and all-loving;
  • a perceived conflict between what was taught in science lessons and what is thought to be involved in holding religious beliefs.

Another British study of young people's beliefs in the mid-1970s suggested that if young adolescents did not make a transition from a simple literal view of Genesis to a more theological interpretation, it was increasingly likely that they would give up their religious beliefs at about the same time they stopped believing in fairy stories:

  Childhood belief is breached with incredible ease on the basis of a simplistic scientism … the first incursion into a simple Biblical literalism seems to be the automatic death blow to ‘belief'. There is in fact a complete vacuum at the point in intellectual development where the ‘fairy story version' ends and anything more ‘grown up' might take its place. What takes over is a vocabulary of empirical science. Any sort of idea, however fantastic, will be given house room if it can be dressed up in a scientific, or more accurately perhaps, a ‘science fiction' garb

A study by Francis (1990) looked at the perceived clash between religion and science. Only 20 per cent of the sample of 11–15-year-olds disagreed with the statement ‘True Christians believe the Universe was made in 6 days'. Nineteen per cent thought that Christians could not believe in Darwin 's theory of evolution, while a further 65 per cent were unsure whether Darwin 's theory was compatible with Christian belief. Twenty-eight per cent considered that ‘Nothing should be believed unless it can be proved scientifically', while a further 22 per cent were unsure whether this was the case. Forty-four per cent thought that ‘Theories in science can be proved to be definitely true', while a further 37 per cent thought this might possibly be true.

In these British samples, now some years old, a simple scientism seems to have influenced adolescent thinking. Just how pupils in Australian schools stand on this question remains to be determined. In any case, the science–religion interface remains an important one for education. Young people need to be helped to become more aware of the range of meanings that contribute to their emerging worldview. An adequate understanding of science and of the possibilities and limitations of scientific explanation are pertinent.

3.2.15 ‘Earthquake' in the meaning system

A meaning system can be imagined as the individual's ‘psychic geography'; key beliefs, values and commitments highlight the topography of their meaning. For some, the geographical image is apt. Their meaning system is felt to be almost physical and solid like the earth beneath their feet; its solidity is linked with apparently incontrovertible evidence and proof of its truth; it is rigid, authority-dependent and relatively non-negotiable. Hence, where an event or view challenges the plausibility of the meaning system, it can provoke a strong, and at times violent, reaction; the secure meaning is felt to be at risk. If critiques or new ideas are correct, it would cause an ‘earthquake' in their meaning system. New ideas may not even be considered because of their threat.

The picture painted here is an extreme one. But to varying degrees, resistance to change in meaning is something that all people experience. Being aware of possible challenges to students' meaning is an important question for education. Teachers need to be wise enough to understand that new ideas that can be accommodated comfortably by some young people may be distressing for others. This does not mean that all potentially controversial content should be omitted from the curriculum to avoid stressing pupils' meanings; rather, the average school curriculum is probably too non-controversial. But it does suggest the need for care in thinking through in advance the difficulties that challenges to meaning can cause for children and adolescents. This is an aspect of the teachers' code of professional ethics. When students are studying meaning, teachers need to ensure that the investigation does not pressure them to resolve the questions then and there in the classroom.

How meanings are created and communicated through advertising and marketing


Click the icon on the left for an MP3 audio file.

This last short part of the lecture illustrates how the analysis of the advertisements shows three levels of interpretation. Which of the three levels do you think is likely to have a shaping influence on people's meanings and values? Pause the audio out appropriate spots when looking at the video material.

In the light of preliminary comments in the lecture about analysing the meanings in life, or imaginations about what life should be like, that can come through advertising, pause and look at the advertisement for Rams home loans, then look at the three-part interpretation of meaning as explained below, and in the lecture. Click photograph to access the video clip of the advertisement.
3 Analytical Principles for interpreting meaning in a particular item (E.g. TV advertisements)
The result for analysing a particular item
1. The Story. A straight and simple description of the story line -- describing what happens at the 'surface' level of the story. A young girl returns to her flatmates in their rented apartment after having taken out a Rams homeloan that will enable her to move into a roan house.
2. The Meaning. (Meaning, mise en scène, & underlying myths) The underlying meaning that is conveyed by the story. This includes the unspoken/unwritten presumed social reality, or mise-en-scene, that you need to understand – even unconsciously – to make sense of both the story and the meaning. This often means picking up the visual cues or clues to the mise en scène. Usually, the meaning taps into underlying myths about life; and this can enhance viewer engagement. Sometimes the myths target a particular audience. The myths are often recognised as a part of social reality. And, the advertisements can help build up and sustain particular myths about life.

The meaning: Independent, successful and capable young single women don't need to be renting with flatmates in a less than perfect situation when they have the power and the freedom to get their own house or apartment with the help of a home loan.

Mise en scène: The male flatmates lolling and lounging around doing nothing signals the contrasts with the 'up-and-at it' independent and successful young woman. Taps into the negative social reality about untidy males not pulling their weight, on the sofa drinking beer and watching sport on TV etc, etc. A self-confident young woman deserves better than this.

Myths: The myth of being independent enough to have your own home or apartment; the myth of freedom that comes with home ownership; loans give you power to change your lifestyle.

3. The Personal Message. Through the story and meaning, there emerges a particular personal message to the viewer – whether or not the viewer will act on or ignore the message. Yes, a Rams home loan could be your ticket to this sort of independence.

Look at the following advertisements, and for each workout what is the simple story, the meaning and the mythology it proposes and ought taps into, and the resultant sales message to the viewer. See how the repetition of a cluster of Jeep advertisements can build up some elements in the mise en scène of the stories into icons or symbols of particular myths. Recently, I heard a seven-year-old girl talking about her camping experiences – and she said "I bought a jeep", and her friends understood this was a symbolic statement about being in the open air, out of doors, travelling, excitement and adventure etc. The phrase "bought a jeep" now carries a lot of meaning. Similarly, the guitar jingle music and the Jeep logo "Don't hold back!" have become icons of the myth of the great outdoors. See how the Ford advertisers have appeal to a different myth/mise en scène as a counter appeal to sway people away from the status of the BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Jeeps etc. See how the female deodorant advertisement taps into myths about whether men or women are better at handling the regular stress of ordinary life. And the Brute/Axe advertisement taps into the sexual theme – what would any young man do to get attractive women to lust after him? Note the ad that appeals specifically to people who like tattoos -- what myths is it tapping into?

Creation of new meanings through advertisements?

Look at the final video clip which is a funny way of raising questions about whether or not an advertisement can develop new myths that make people think differently about issues. This is an example of the work of an advertising company which as part of the Gruen world program, produced an advertisement that could find a way of getting people to love parking attendants, and parking rangers -- in other words, an advertisement which tried to change the old myths about parking attendants and replace it with a new one.

Examples of advertising clips for interpreting meaning

Special attention is given to the 'message' in the Jeep advertisements. These ads try to get the audience to identify emotionally with the Mise-en-scene of the Jeep ads. The catch pharse is "He (she) bought a Jeep" -- your surefire way of identifying with the promised 'Jeep lifestyle' .

This is the Ford 'anti-Jeep' advertisement. "Only w****** drive Jeeps,Mercs and BMWs etc -- Real people drive a Ford!!"

The myth of 'stressed' men Vs women who easily cope.

Sexual innuendo used to get men to thlink that 'success' may depend on whether or not you use the 'right' deodourant. Emotional link to the product.

What is this deodourant advertisement appealing to

Showing how advertising appeals to emotions. An artificial ad to show why 'oldies' will make the best parking ticket rangers.


Additional resource and reference
click here to download the follow-up resource text: The psychological development of meaning and issues related to change and development in meaning, chapter 3 from the book Reasons for Living: Education and young people's search for meaning, identity and spirituality.

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