Cultural icon

A cultural icon is an artifact that is identified by members of a culture as representative of that culture. The process of identification is subjective, and "icons" are judged by the extent to which they can be seen as an authentic proxy of that culture. When individuals perceive a cultural icon, they relate it to their general perceptions of the cultural identity represented.[1] Cultural icons can also be identified as an authentic representation of the practices of one culture by another.[2]

In the media, many items and persons of popular culture have been called "iconic" despite their lack of durability, and the term "pop icon" is often now used synonymously. Some commentators believe that the word is overused or misused.[3]

The values, norms and ideals represented by a cultural icon vary both among people who subscribe to it, and more widely among other people who may interpret cultural icons as symbolising quite different values. Thus an apple pie is a cultural icon of the United States', but its significance varies among Americans.

National icons can become targets for those opposing or criticising a regime, for example, crowds destroying statues of Vladimir Lenin in Eastern Europe after the Revolutions of 1989[4] or burning the American flag to protest American actions abroad.[5]

Religious icons can also become cultural icons in societies where religion and culture are deeply entwined, such as representations of the Madonna in societies with a strong Catholic tradition.[6]


In England

A web-based survey was set up in 2006 allowing the public to nominate their ideas for national icons of England,[7] and the results reflect the range of different types of icons associated with an English view of English culture. Some examples are:

In Russia

Matryoshka dolls are seen internationally as cultural icons of Russia.[17] In the former Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle symbol and statues of Vladimir Lenin instead represented the country's most prominent cultural icons.


Describing something as iconic or as an icon has become very common in the popular media. This has drawn criticism from some. For example, a writer in Liverpool Daily Post calls "iconic" "a word that makes my flesh creep", a word "pressed into service to describe almost anything."[18] The Christian Examiner nominates "iconic" in its list of overused words, finding over 18,000 "iconic" references in news stories alone, with another 30,000 for "icon", including its use for SpongeBob SquarePants.[19]

See also


  1. Grayson, Kent; Martinec, Radan (2004-09-01). "Consumer Perceptions of Iconicity and Indexicality and Their Influence on Assessments of Authentic Market Offerings". Journal of Consumer Research. 31 (2): 296–312. doi:10.1086/422109. ISSN 0093-5301.
  2. Motley, Carol M.; Henderson, Geraldine Rosa (2008-03-01). "The global hip-hop Diaspora: Understanding the culture". Journal of Business Research. Cross-Cultural Business Research. 61 (3): 243–253. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2007.06.020.
  3. "Heard about the famous icon? We have – far too often". The Independent. London. January 27, 2007. Archived from the original on October 26, 2012.
  4. Jones, Jonathan (December 9, 2013). "Why smashing statues can be the sweetest revenge". Guardian.
  5. Laessing, ulf (September 14, 2012). "Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over film". Reuters.
  6. Anthony B Pinn; Benjamin Valentin, eds. (2009). Creating Ourselves, African Americans and Hispanic Americans on popular culture and religious expression. Duke University Press.
  7. "Our Collection". Archived from the original on August 19, 2014. Retrieved August 16, 2014.
  8. British Postal Museum & Archive: Icons of England Archived 2014-12-05 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  9. Holloway, J Christopher; Taylor, Neil. The Business of Tourism (7th ed., 2006 (First published 1983) ed.). Pearson Education. p. 217.
  10. McManus, Erwin Raphael (2001). An Unstoppable Force: Daring to Become the Church God Had in Mind. Flagship Church Resources. p. 113.
  11. BBC: Tea steams ahead in icon hunt. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  12. Thorne, Tony (2011). The 100 Words that Make the English. Cuppa. Hachette Digital (e-book).
  13. Jenkins, Simon (October 2005). Godson, Dean (ed.). "Replacing the Routemaster" (PDF). p. 7. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 27, 2013. Retrieved December 15, 2012.
  14. Culture24: Icons of England. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  15. O'Neill, Brendan (2 April 2009). "Gulf News / Christian Science Monitor". To save a past that rings a bell. Archived from the original on 26 February 2013. Retrieved December 15, 2012.
  16. Parker, Mike (2012). Cultural Icons: A Case Study Analysis of their Formation and Reception (PhD Thesis). Chapter 5: The Spitfire Aircraft. University of Central Lancashire. pp. 123–167.
  17. Bobo, Suzanna (25 December 2012). "Scuttlebutt: Wooden toy tells a story of love and industry". Kodiak Daily Mirror. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
  18. Let's hear it for the Queen's English, Liverpool Daily Post
  19. Modern word usage amazingly leaves us yearning for gay, old times Archived 2010-12-25 at the Wayback Machine, Christian Examiner


  • Biedermann, Hans (1994). Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. Meridan.
  • Brooker, Will (2001). Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon. Continuum.
  • Edwards, Peter; Enenkel, Karl; Graham, Elspeth, eds. (2011). The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World. Brill.
  • Foudy, Julie; Leslie Heywood; Shari L Dworkin (2003). Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Gilbert, Erik (2008). The Dhow as Cultural Icon. Boston University.* Heyer, Paul (2012). Titanic Century: Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon. Praeger.
  • Heyer, Paul (2012). Titanic Century: Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon. Praeger.
  • Meyer, Denis C. (2010). Cles Pour la France en 80 Icones Culturelles. Hachette.
  • Nelkin, Dorothy; M Susan Lindee (2004). The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon. University of Michigan Press.
  • Reydams-Schils, Gretchen J (2003). Plato's Timaeus as Cultural Icon. University of Notre Dame Press.
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