In reading Rod Dreher recently, I came across this comment from one of his readers named Raskolnik:
Back in the 60’s, the sociologist Mary Douglas came up with the idea of a “condensed symbol.” The idea is that certain practices or ideas can become a kind of shorthand for a whole worldview. She used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.
A condensation symbol is “a name, word, phrase, or maxim which stirs vivid impressions involving the listener’s most basic values and readies the listener for action,” as defined by political scientist Doris Graber. Short words or phrases such as “my country,” “old glory” “American Dream,” “family values,” are all condensation symbols because they conjure a specific image within the listener and carry “intense emotional and effective power.” Often used to further the meaning of a symbol or phrase, the condensation symbol has a semantic meaning, but through long-term use, it has acquired other connotations that further its symbolic meaning. Doris Graber identified three main characteristics of condensation symbols, as they: (1) Have the tendency to evoke rich and vivid images in an audience. (2) Possess the capacity to arouse emotions. (3) Supply instant categorizations and evaluations.