SPROWT ARTICLE | Lizete Mangueleze

Lizete scaled 1

Symbolic Power and Symbolic Violence on Social Media

Symbolic violence refers to violence exerted on the body without physical coercion, and symbolic power helps create and maintain social hierarchies, forming the very foundation of political life. It’s important to note that symbolic violence can be subtle for those who practice it, as it does not involve physical force and pain. However, it causes moral, emotional, and psychological harm, affecting mental health. Therefore, it’s crucial to exercise caution in positioning and attitudes on social media to avoid symbolic violence.

So, what is symbolic violence, how is it exercised, and where does it occur? To better understand symbolic power and symbolic violence, let’s turn to the thoughts of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that there are various sources of power distributed in four capitals:

Social capital, constituted by the people we know, relate to, and socialize with;

Economic capital, defined by the time, possessions, and money we have;

Cultural capital, referring to education, the things we know, diplomas, and titles; and

Symbolic capital, related to honor, prestige, and distinctive value.

Offline, the four capitals follow a sequence, and symbolic is the last. However, on social media, there is an inversion.

The possession of capitals is displayed through symbols. This is how the iPhone, Chanel bag, and Rolex watch are not just objects but symbols of economic power and status. Artworks and frequenting galleries, museums, and having books are symbols of cultural capital.

Unfortunately, people on social media tend to seem rather than be. The fact is that on social media, symbols are manipulated by social aspiration and ambition. In general, they seek to showcase the desired, which can create violence in others. How often have you started following someone because they have something you desire, or because they are the way you would like to be?

On social media, it’s easier to choose to display certain symbols without balance. People edit their lives and focus on desired and distinctive symbols. However, this attitude increases the desire for status among those who don’t have it and pressures them to act. Social media magnifies symbolic power and generates symbolic violence by making people feel pressured to act.

For example, when people you follow engage in an exclusive activity or possess a particular object, seeing that creates social pressure for those who don’t, especially if it’s someone you know who managed to acquire that object. This social pressure is symbolic violence.

This is why social media is a conducive space for developing certain mental health issues such as anxiety. It also creates room for cyberbullying and other situations that affect mental health.