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Social Representations Theory is a body of theory within Social Psychology, and in particular within Sociological social psychology. It has parallels in sociological theorizing such as Social Constructionism and Symbolic Interactionism, and is similar in some ways to mass consensus and Discursive Psychology.


Origin and definition

The term social representation was originally coined by Serge Moscovici in 1961[1], in his study on the reception and circulation of psychoanalysis in France, and is understood as the collective elaboration "of a social object by the community for the purpose of behaving and communicating" [2]. They are further referred to as "system of values, ideas and practices with a twofold function; first, to establish an order which will enable individuals to orientate themselves in their material and social world and to master it; and secondly to enable communication to take place among the members of a community by providing them with a code for social exchange and a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world and their individual and group history".[3] In his study, Moscovici sought to investigate how scientific theories circulate within common sense, and what happens to these theories when they are elaborated upon by a lay public. For such analysis, Moscovici postulated two universes: the reified universe of science, which operates according to scientific rules and procedures and gives rise to scientific knowledge, and the consensual universe of social representation, in which the lay public elaborates and circulates forms of knowledge which come to constitute the content of common sense.

Moscovici's pioneering study described how three segments of French society in the 1950s, i.e. the urban-liberal, the Catholic, and the communist milieus, responded to the challenge of psychoanalytic ideas. Moscovici found that communication processes, the contents, and their consequences differed across the three social segments. Moscovici identified propaganda as the typical communication of the communist milieu, whereby communication is ordered systematically emphasising incompatibility and conflict. The intention is to generate negative stereotypes. Propagation was the typical form of the Catholic segment, identified as didactic and well-ordered but with the intention to make limited concessions to a subgroup of Catholics with affinities to psychoanalysis, and simultaneously, to set limits to the acceptance within the established orthodoxy of the Church. Diffusion was typical of urban-liberal mileus, whereby communication was merely intended to inform people about new opportunities, with little resistance to psychoanalysis.

Moscovici described two main processes by which the unfamiliar is made familiar: Anchoring and Objectification. Anchoring involves the ascribing of meaning to new phenomena – objects, relations, experiences, practices, etc - by means of integrating the object being represented into existing worldviews. In this way, the threat that the strange and unfamiliar object poses is being erased. In the process of objectification something abstract is turned into something almost concrete. It produces a domestication of the unfamiliar in a way that is far more active than anchoring because objectification saturates the idea of unfamiliarity with reality, turns it into the very essence of reality.

It is important to note, therefore, that social representations are depicted as both the process and the result of social construction. In the socio-cognitive activity of representation that produces representations, social representations are constantly converted into a social reality while continuously being re-interpreted, re-thought, re-presented.

Admittedly, the theorisation of social representations was inspired by Émile Durkheim's notion of collective representations. However, social representations should neither be equated with collective representations, nor should they be confused with individual, cognitive representations. Instead, Sandra Jovchelovitch has proposed to regard social representations as a space in-between, at the cross-roads between the individual and society, a medium linking objects, subjects and activities.[4] For Jovchelovitch, representations are rooted to the sphere in which they originate. The change from collective representations to social representations has been brought about by the societal conditions of modernity[5] Bauer & Gaskell (1999)[6] propose that formally, a representation can be characterised as the relation between three elements: subjects, or carriers of the representation; an object, activity, or idea that is represented; and a project of a social group within which the representation makes sense. This conceptualisation is known as the toblerone model of social representations.

There have been various developments within the field since Moscovici's original proposition of the theory. Abric[7] and his colleagues have explored the structural elements of social representations, distinguishing between core and peripheral elements in terms of the centrality and stability of certain beliefs. This approach has come to be known as Central Nucleus Theory (CNT). Other important developments have been made by Caroline Howarth[8] in linking Social identity theory with the theory of social representations, and by Gerard Duveen[9] in elaborating developmental aspects in relation to the sociogenesis of social representations.

Status and prevalence

Social representation theory is popular mainly among European social psychologists. Two of the classic works in the realm of this theory include Moscovici's own seminal work on representations of psychoanalysis in France [10], and Denise Jodelet's exemplary study of the social representation of madness [11]. However, the theory is far from being a settled doctrine as it attracts ongoing debate and controversy from both social represeantationists and other theorists.[12] However, the theory is less known in the United States, partly because much of Moscovici's work has been published in French.

See also


  1. ^ Moscovici, S. (1961). La psychanalyse, son image et son public. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  2. ^ Moscovici, S. (1963). Attitudes and opinions. Annual Review of Psychology, 14, 231-260.
  3. ^ Moscovici, S. (1973). Foreword. In C. Herzlich (Ed.), Health and illness: A social psychological analysis (pp. ix–xiv). London/New York: Academic Press.
  4. ^ Jovchelovitch, S. (1996). In defence of representations. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 26, 121-136.
  5. ^ Jovchelovitch, S. (2007). Knowledge in Context: Representations, community and culture, London: Routledge.
  6. ^ Bauer, M.W. & Gaskell, G. (1999). Towards a Paradigm for Research on Social Representations. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 29(2), 163-186.
  7. ^ Abric, J.C. (Ed). (1994). Pratiques sociales et representations. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France
  8. ^ Howarth, C. (2002). "Identity in whose eyes? The role of representations in identity construction." Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 32(2), pp 145-162.
  9. ^ Duveen, G., & Lloyd, B. (Eds). (1990). Social representations and the development of knowledge. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ Moscovici, S. (1961). La psychanalyse, son image et son public. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  11. ^ Jodelet, D. (1991). Madness and Social Representations. London: Harvester/Wheatsheaf.
  12. ^ Voelklein, C., & Howarth, C. (2005). A Review of Controversies about Social Representations Theory: A British Debate. Culture & Psychology, 11, 431-454.

Further reading

  • Gillespie, A. (2008). Social representations, alternative representations and semantic barriers [1]. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 38, 4, 376-391.
  • Moscovici, S. (1988). "Notes towards a description of social representations". Journal of European Social Psychology 18: 211–250;. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420180303.  
  • Moscovici, S. (1984). The phenomenon of social representations. pp. 3–69.  

External links



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