The theory of social representations is one of the key theories of what has come to be known as European social psychology or sociological social psychology. The theory has a social constructionist orientation and proposes a societal approach to the construction of social knowledge, diverging from the more individual-level analyses of social cognition theories.
The theory of social representations was developed initially by Serge Moscovici. In his seminal 1961 book, La Psychoanalyse, Son Image et Son Public, Moscovici explored the ways in which psychoanalysis, as a form of scientific knowledge, became appropriated by the public; he studied, in other words, how scientific knowledge becomes ‘socialised’ into everyday common sense. Social representations have been defined as:
…systems 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. (Moscovici, 1973, p. xiii)
The fundamental aim of social representations is to ‘make the unfamiliar familiar’ (Moscovici, 1984). This is achieved through two socio-cognitive mechanisms: anchoring and objectification. Through anchoring, new ideas are classified into pre-established categories in a way that gives them an identity and reduces unfamiliarity. For example, Jodelet (1991) in her study of social representations of madness in a rural French community found that the mentally ill who lived as lodgers in the community were classified as ‘tramps’ or ‘idiots’. This allowed the community to attribute familiar characteristics to the new category of mental illness. Objectification, on the other hand, turns abstract ideas into concrete objects. For example, the psychoanalytic terms ‘neurotic’ and ‘complex’ have been objectified in common sense thinking, which means that they are treated as if they were real entities. Through objectification, a representation is turned into a reality. Such shared realities enable groups to navigate the world around them.
The theory of social representations adopts a dialogical epistemological perspective with states that meaning-making is a dialogical process that involves both self and other as an ontological unit (Marková, 2003). Communication is therefore an essential part of the representational process. In his study of psychoanalysis in French society of the 1950s, Moscovici found that different groups (the Catholic Church, the Communist and the urban-liberal milieus) employed different modes of communication about psychoanalysis (propagation, propaganda, diffusion) and this, in turn, led to the development of different understandings of psychoanalysis.
Within the field of social representations, there have been several attempts to distinguish between types of representations. The distinction between hegemonic, emancipated and polemical representations is a prominent one in the literature. Hegemonic representations are widely shared, uniform and are constructed by groups with high solidarity. Emancipated representations reflect more heterogeneous social systems whereby different communities construct diverse versions of the world. Polemical representations are constructed in contexts of antagonistic relations between groups.
The roots of the concept of social representations can be found in Durkheim’s concept of collective representations. However, while collective representations in the Durkheimian sense function as unquestionable facts, social representations are characterised by plurality. This idea is further elaborated in the concept of ‘cognitive polyphasia’ which suggests that different forms of knowledge may coexist within the same group or individual. In order to be able to master the world, people in contemporary societies need to combine a variety of conceptual tools which helps them adjust in variable contexts.
Since its inception, the theory of social representations has been furthered by many social psychologists. One of the most well-known strands of the theory is the structural approach or central nucleus theory, developed by Jean-Claude Abric and the Aix-en-Provence group in France. The structural approach states that representations consist of central and peripheral elements. While the central elements are stable and define the core of a representation, the peripheral elements are beliefs and ideas that can be adapted in different contexts and by different social milieus.
Researchers have used several methodological approaches to study social representations, from qualitative approaches, such as interviews and ethnographic research, to quantitative approaches such as questionnaires.
The applications of the theory of social representations are numerous. It has been used, among others, in the fields of public understanding of science, health and illness, human rights, identity and processes of inclusion and exclusion, history and collective memory, gender, sustainability and the environment, intercultural relations, intelligence, and political participation (for further reading, see external links).
Written by Eleni Andreouli