http://cap.sagepub.com Culture & Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1354067X05058586 2005; 11; 431 Culture Psychology Corina Voelklein and Caroline Howarth British Debate A Review of Controversies about Social Representations Theory: A http://cap.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/11/4/431 The online version of this article can be found at: Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com can be found at: Culture & Psychology Additional services and information for http://cap.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts: http://cap.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Permissions: http://cap.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/11/4/431#BIBL SAGE Journals Online and HighWire Press platforms): (this article cites 12 articles hosted on the Citations © 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. by Alicia Barreiro on February 27, 2007 http://cap.sagepub.com Downloaded from

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  • http://cap.sagepub.comCulture & Psychology

    DOI: 10.1177/1354067X05058586 2005; 11; 431 Culture Psychology

    Corina Voelklein and Caroline Howarth British Debate

    A Review of Controversies about Social Representations Theory: A

    http://cap.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/11/4/431 The online version of this article can be found at:

    Published by:


    can be found at:Culture & Psychology Additional services and information for

    http://cap.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts:

    http://cap.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions:



    http://cap.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/11/4/431#BIBLSAGE Journals Online and HighWire Press platforms):

    (this article cites 12 articles hosted on the Citations

    2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. by Alicia Barreiro on February 27, 2007 http://cap.sagepub.comDownloaded from

  • Abstract Since its inception more than forty years ago, socialrepresentations theory has been subjected to several criticisms,

    particularly within British discursive psychology. This paperreviews four major controversies that lie in the areas of (a)

    theoretical ambiguities, (b) social determinism, (c) cognitivereductionism and (d) lack of a critical agenda. A detailed

    discussion and evaluation of these criticisms reveals that whilesome can be regarded as misinterpretations, others need to be

    treated as serious and constructive suggestions for extending andrefining the current theoretical framework. The main argument

    underlying this review is that many of the criticisms are based onthe difficulty in understanding and integrating the complex,

    dynamic and dialectical relationship between individual agencyand social structure that forms the core of social representations

    theory. Engaging with the critics is thus thought to provideclarification and to initiate critical dialogue, which is seen as

    crucial for theoretical development.

    Key Words cognitive reductionism, critical power, socialdeterminism, social representations

    Corina Voelklein and Caroline HowarthLondon School of Economics, UK

    A Review of Controversies aboutSocial Representations Theory:

    A British Debate

    Social representations theory, originally developed by Serge Moscovici(1961), is certainly one of the more controversial concepts in contem-porary social psychology. Despite its continuing attraction to manyresearchers and theorists around the world, it has received extensivecriticism, particularly within the British context. While these critiquesdemonstrate that the theory of social representations is taken seriouslyenough to debate (Billig, 1987), we consider a thorough discussion ofthese objections essential for the conceptual development of the theory.It will be shown that whereas some of the criticisms can be regardedas misunderstandings, others need to be treated as serious andconstructive points for improving or extending the current theoreticalframework. Furthermore, engaging with these criticisms may promote

    Culture & Psychology Copyright 2005 SAGE Publications(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) www.sagepublications.com

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  • a more critical version of social representations theory that invites asocial psychology of conflict, resistance and social change relevant totodays world.

    On the whole, most critics recognize the importance of social repre-sentations theory within social psychology and are sympathetic to itsaims and general propositions. In particular, many regard it as a necess-ary challenge to dominant US social psychology, which they character-ize as individualistic, behaviourist and experimentally driven (e.g.Jahoda, 1988; Parker, 1987; Potter & Wetherell, 1998). However, it is bothin the details of its conceptual elaboration and in its practical appli-cation that critics find weaknesses. Since problems in the theoreticalformulation of social representations are seen as responsible for allegeddifficulties in its application (Litton & Potter, 1985; Potter & Litton,1985), it is on these theoretical controversies that we will focus. We pointto four central issues that need to be clarified or developed: (a) ambi-guities in defining social representations, (b) social determinism, (c)cognitive reductionism and (d) the apparent lack of a critical agenda.

    What we argue in this paper is that many of the criticisms relate tothe complex and dynamic relationship between social structure andindividual agency put forth in the theory. It is this dialectical conceptof social life and social cognition that is so much in contrast to theCartesian dualism still haunting social psychology today (Farr, 1996;Markov, 1982). This makes social representations theory difficult tointegrate into both US and British social psychology. In many socialpsychological theories, the relationship between the psychological andthe social is depicted as a separation of individual perception and cogni-tion, on the one hand, and culture and social context, on the other. Theunusual position of social representations as simultaneously betweenindividuals and the societies they live in (Howarth, 2001) has led to thecontradictory criticisms of social determinism and cognitive reduction-ism. These conflicting critiques call for a detailed review of the theoryand its propositions, going back to Moscovicis seminal work La psych-analyse: Son image et son public (1961). This is where we start.

    A Brief Introduction to the Theory of SocialRepresentations

    Moscovici developed the theory of social representations from hisstudy of the diffusion of the scientific concept of psychoanalysis amongthe French public in the 1960s. In the preface of the accompanyingbook, Lagache (1976) asserts that Moscovicis ideas should stimulateand invite social psychological dialogue. Clearly this purpose has been

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  • achieved, given the critical discussions and defensive replies that thetheory has since provoked. In this research, Moscovici used a combi-nation of questionnaires, interviews and content analysis of the Frenchpress and complex sampling procedures with different subgroups ofFrench society in order to capture a comprehensive overview of diversebodies of opinion. He did not attempt to construct a unified picture butrather to hold central the heterogeneity and tension that he found inthe data.

    Moscovici takes Durkheims notion of collective representations asthe starting point for his theoretical development. For Durkheim(1898), collective representations are a very general category thatincludes broad elements such as science, ideology, worldview andmyth. However, he does not distinguish between these different formsof organized thought, which is why, for Moscovici (1961), the conceptof representation loses its distinction and clarity. Moreover, the conceptof collective representation does not reflect the mobile and hetero-geneous nature of contemporary societies (Howarth, 2001). As Jovche-lovitch (2001) outlines, the Durkheimian notion refers to a form ofknowledge that is produced by a single source of authority that isstrongly resistant to change and that functions to bind societiestogether. Yet, as Moscovici (1988) makes clear:

    It seems to be an aberration, in any case, to consider representations ashomogeneous and shared as such by a whole society. What we wished toemphasize by giving up the word collective was this plurality of represen-tations and their diversity within a group. (p. 219)

    Moscovici (1961) is interested in the relationship between socio-cultural intersubjectivity and the psychological organization of knowl-edge, and so emphasizes that we need to move towards an activeunderstanding of representations. A representation is not a mere reflec-tion or reproduction of some external reality. There is symbolic spacein the development and negotiation of representations, which is whyall human beings hold creative power and agency in their formationand use. By transforming the Durkheimian notion into the concept ofsocial representations, Moscovici deliberately allows for the coexis-tence of competing and sometimes contradictory versions of reality inone and the same community, culture and individual (Howarth, Foster,& Dorrer, 2004).

    This emphasis on the plural or hybrid nature of social knowledge isalso found in the concept of cognitive polyphasia (Moscovici, 1961),which is currently receiving renewed interest from social representa-tions theorists (e.g. Jovchelovitch, 2002; Wagner, Duveen, Verma, &

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  • Themel, 2000). This concept implies that different and incompatiblecognitive styles and forms of knowledge can coexist within one socialgroup and can be employed by one and the same individual. Depend-ing on the tasks and social settings prevalent at a particular time, humanbeings can draw on conflicting representations. Cognitive polyphasiathus refers to a state in which different kinds of knowledge, possessingdifferent rationalities, live side by side in the same individual or collec-tive (Jovchelovitch, 2002, p. 124). In this way, so-called traditional andmodern representations, which appear contradictory, may actuallyconfront rather than replace each other (cf. Wagner et al., 2000).

    The concept of cognitive polyphasia already indicates that the natureof a social representation closely relates to its social and psychologicalfunctions. But what is the main function of representation? To put itsimply, social representations are ways of world making (Moscovici,1988, p. 231). A more detailed definition that is commonly referred todescribes social representations as a

    . . . system of values, ideas and practices with a twofold function; first, toestablish an order which will enable individuals to orientate themselves intheir material and social world and to master it; and secondly to enablecommunication to take place among the members of a community byproviding them with a code for social exchange and a code for naming andclassifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world and their indi-vidual and group history. (Moscovici, 1973, p. xiii)

    This definition highlights that social representations help us to makesense of our world and to interact within it with other societalmembers. They have the main function of familiarizing the unfamiliarsince it is the unknown or incomprehensible that may constitute athreat to our socially constructed realities (Moscovici, 1984a). In otherwords, social representations are triggered by the realization of a gapbetween what one knows and what one does not understand or cannotexplain (Moscovici, 1961).1 Every representation can thereby be under-stood as being situated inside a dynamic semiotic triangle, as proposedby Moscovici (1984b). This triadic relation specifies the three import-ant dimensions of social psychology generally and of every represen-tation in particular: the object that is represented, the subject thatundertakes the representation, and the social group towards whom thesubject is positioning him- or herself in undertaking this representa-tion. The subjectobject opposition is not enough to fully understandthe fundamentally social nature of representation. We need to be inrelationship with others to give meaning to the object and to be able todevelop an intersubjective reality that serves as a common code forcommunication and social interaction (Jovchelovitch, 2002).

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  • The creation of such an intersubjective reality through social repre-sentation implies both human agency and social influence. On the onehand, social representations are created by human beings in order toconventionalize objects, persons and events by placing them in afamiliar social context (Moscovici, 1984a). On the other hand, onceestablished, these representations influence human behaviour andsocial interaction by often subtly imposing themselves upon us and solimiting our socio-cognitive activities. Social representations are there-fore not only a product of human agents acting upon their society butare equally prescriptive and coercive in nature. They become part of thecollective consciousness, especially once they are fossilized in traditionand taken for granted in social practice (Moscovici, 1984a, p. 13).

    Yet this does not mean that social representations cannot be chal-lenged or changed. In the same way that they are created by humanbeings, they can be modified by them. Jovchelovitch (1996) highlightsthat since they act as reference points in every social encounter, socialrepresentations are inseparable from the dynamics of everyday life,where the mobile interactions of the present can potentially challengethe taken-for-granted, imposing pockets of novelty on traditionscoming from the past (p. 124). It is these dialectics between agency andstructure, tradition and change, that have led to different criticisms ofsocial representations theory. Let us now turn to these.

    Controversies about the Theory of SocialRepresentations

    Theoretical Ambiguities?Certainly the most frequent criticism of the theory of social represen-tations is that it is too broad and too vague. Moscovicis writings havebeen severely criticized as being fragmented and sometimes contra-dictory (Potter & Wetherell, 1987, p. 139), as demonstrating a polem-ical style of argument by anecdote (McGuire, 1986, p. 103) or as apot-pourri of contradictory ideas, seasoned with some pieces of spec-ulative cognitive psychology (McKinlay & Potter, 1987, p. 484). Potterand Litton (1985) do not even give social representations the status ofa theory but rather refer to it as a concept in search of theory (p. 82).More recently, Valsiner (1998) has reiterated this point in stating thatits actual theoretical elaboration has yet to take place (p. 149). Withoutgreater conceptual precision, critics warn, social representations isdoomed to become a background concept (Billig, 1988, p. 8), a catch-all term (Litton & Potter, 1985, p. 385) or a kind of pseudo-explanation(Jahoda, 1988, p. 206).

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  • Despite claims to the contrary (Potter & Litton, 1985), definitions ofsocial representations are available in the literature. For instance, Billig(1988) highlights that as early as 1963 Moscovici states that socialrepresentation is defined as the elaborating of a social object by thecommunity for the purpose of behaving and communicating(Moscovici, 1963, p. 251). Another often-cited definition has been givenin the brief introduction above. However, Moscovici is keen not toapply a definition that is too restrictive, as complex social phenomenacannot be reduced to simple propositions (Moscovici & Markov,2001). Rather than using a hypothetico-deductive model that formu-lates clear guidelines for testing and operationalizing a theory, hefollows a more inductive and descriptive approach in the study ofsocial representations.

    Another reason why it makes more sense to characterize rather thandefine social representations is their inherent dynamics. Given theirposition inside the triadic asymmetry of self, other and object, socialrepresentations can be very volatile and will transform over time.Thus, attempts to provide an exhaustive definition of such phenom-ena are based on a misconception of their nature (Markov, 2000,p. 430). Such misconceptions could stem, in part at least from languagedifferences and translation.

    In its early years, the theory was predominately elaborated in French,starting with the work of its founding father Moscovici (1961) followedby studies by Herzlich (1969) and Jodelet (1989/1991). Moscovicisoriginal work, which lays down the basic concepts and theoretical foun-dation of social representations, is still not available in English and soremains largely inaccessible to Anglo-Saxon social psychologists. Rtyand Snellman (1992) explain that this has resulted in the theory notentering Anglo-Saxon literature before the early 1980stwenty yearsafter its inception. Markov (Moscovici & Markov, 2001) particularlyregrets the lack of an English translation of the second and lesser knownpart of La psychanalyse which explores the relationship between socialrepresentations, language and communication. Also more recent workwithin the area of social representations has remained in French,German or Spanish (e.g. Aebischer, Deconchy & Lipiansky, 1991;Banchs, 1996; Flick, 1991; Wagner, 1994), adding to the language barrierfor many English-speaking academics. Moreover, every translation intoEnglish inevitably involves a loss or change in meaning, due to theconnection between language and culture. For example, one possiblereason for misunderstandings in the Anglo-Saxon world lies in a differ-ent understanding of the word representation. Representation inEnglish is approximate to reflection or reproduction, whereas in

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  • French the word carries a more active and purposeful component(Wagner, 1998).2

    Linguistic differences may explain some of the contentions; however,we still need to address the specific criticisms of over-generalizationand contradiction. Jahoda (1988), for example, criticizes the overlapbetween the concept of social representation and other categories suchas common sense, ideology or culture. Eiser (1986) goes further inaccusing Moscovici of caricaturing other cognitive theories in order topreserve the distinctiveness of his own theory, thus implying that thetheory has little substance or originality. Billig (1988) highlights aspecific inconsistency in the use of social representations, in terms ofbeing described as both a universal and a particular concept. While auniversal sense derives from treating social representations as aconcept that exists in every society, a particular sense is evident inseeing social representations as peculiar to modern societies.

    It is very true that the broader a concept becomes the less it can helpus to focus on very specific phenomena. In the context of social repre-sentations theory, this means that in order to reduce its vagueness andoverlap with similar concepts we need to clarify what is distinctiveabout social representations. This is precisely what Moscovici (1961)does in his seminal work: he develops the notion of social representa-tion by comparing and contrasting it to existing sociological andpsychological concepts. He discusses how the notions of ideology,science and worldview are too general and global to account for thesociocultural specificity of a representation as a form of knowledgeparticular to a certain group. This discussion helps resolve the seem-ingly inconsistent use of social representations that Billig (1988) hasnoted. Our reading of Moscovici points towards a universal under-standing of social representations as indispensable features of social lifein all cultures. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that both traditionaland contemporary societies have the capacity to re-present differentforms of social knowledge (de-Graft Aikins, 2003). The point is, ofcourse, that conditions of late modernity profoundly impact on the paceat which social representations develop, merge and oscillate. Moscovicinever argued that social representations could not exist in traditionalsocieties, but that in late modern times they take on a more diverse andfragmented form. This is due to the emergence of multiple sources ofpower, authority and knowledge (Foucault, 1980). What has changedtoday is the structure of society and thus the lifespan, diversity andfragmentation of social representations, not their existence, creation orinfluence on social interactions.3 Thus, the social world has a funda-mental impact on not only what we think but, crucially, how we think.

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  • Another reason for Moscovicis (1961) rejection of the sociologicalnotions of ideology, science or worldview is that they cannot capturethe psychological organization of that socially produced knowledge.He wants to move beyond a sociological understanding of social repre-sentations as explanatory devices irreducible by any further analysis(Moscovici, 1984a, p. 15). However, turning to existing psychologicalnotions is equally problematic. Moscovici (1961) points out that withinpsychology as a whole the term representation is mostly equated withthe internal seemingly biased reflection of an external reality. ForMoscovici an object is not simply reproduced in the mind of an indi-vidual but given life through the socio-cognitive activity of its user,which embeds it in a cultural and historical context. It is not a cogni-tive process or a social process; it is simultaneously both.

    Looking at the field of social psychology, Moscovici (1961) finds thatexisting notions do not achieve such an integration of the sociologicaland the psychological. He concludes that it is necessary to develop aconcept that is distinct from notions such as opinion, attitude or stereo-type, which he describes as short-term responses towards objects inde-pendent of social actors and their intentions. Hence the aim ofdeveloping a distinct social psychological concept marks the beginningof social representation and, indeed, has been followed by social repre-sentations theorists in their elaboration of its relation to other conceptssuch as social identity (Breakwell, 1993; Duveen, 2001; Howarth,2002a), attributions (Hewstone, 1983; Hewstone & Augoustinos, 1998)or attitudes (Gaskell, 2001; Jaspars & Fraser, 1984).4 Clearly the theor-etical ambiguities discussed here do not seem to have caused a rejec-tion of social representations within the discipline but rather provokedinterest in refining and developing it, as demonstrated by its richhistory of more than forty years of stimulating research and debate.

    Social Determinism?A more specific criticism of social representations theory relates to analleged overemphasis of social influence (e.g. Parker, 1987) that is saidto neglect the human capacity of reflexivity (e.g. Jahoda, 1988). Jahodaasserts that people are not described as active agents but as passiveentities unable to break free from the existing framework of social repre-sentations. As such he claims that the theory indicates a revival of thenotion of group mind, whereby the ideas of an elite dominate laythinking. It is this prescriptive influence on human activity whichMoscovici (1984a) stresses in saying that social representations imposethemselves upon us with an irresistible force (p. 9) that McKinlay andPotter (1987) find equally unjustified. They argue that as representations

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  • are guided by history and tradition, there is not adequate room forsocial change within the theory of social representations:

    The reality of yesterday controls the reality of today, says Moscovici, suchthat intellectual activity constitutes a mere rehearsal or representation ofwhat has already gone before, in that our minds are conditioned by repre-sentations which are forced upon us. (McKinlay & Potter, 1987, p. 475)

    The demand for more consideration of change and dynamics hasrecently been taken up by Hermans (2003). He questions how far socialrepresentations theory is able to capture individual responses to thecommon stock of knowledge and the dynamic multiplicity of indepen-dently organizing self-positions.

    The argument that social representations theory paints an overlydeterministic picture of human relations is closely linked to the criti-cism of the notion of consensus. It is claimed that the theory presentssocial representation as a process where every mind is infiltrated withthe same images and explanations and thus individuals come todevelop a consensual view of reality. This depiction is unsurprisinglycriticized for being an unrealistic version of psychology (Parker, 1987;Potter & Litton, 1985). Billigs (1988, 1993) objection relates to themarginalization of the psychological and social importance of argu-mentation. His main point is that an (over)emphasis on the commoncharacter of cognition runs the risk of dismissing the dialogic orconflicting character of our psychology. To put it simply, withoutcontradiction and conflict there is no food for thought since there isnothing to argue about both with others and with oneself. For Billig(1987), thought is necessarily dialectic and involves dilemmas anddisputes to remain alive.

    What is problematic about these criticisms is that they reduce socialrepresentations theory to one of its major elements, which is the influ-ence of society on the individualthe impact of culture on cognition.However, as a consequence of its dialectical epistemology, one elementof the theory cannot make sense without its interrelated counterpart.Culture and cognition exist in a symbiotic relationship to one another.A representation is not simply a repetition or replication of some ideapresented by a dominant social group; it involves the deliberate actionof those involved. This is something described in depth in discussionson the interrelation between social representations and social identity.In their examination of representations of gender in young children,Duveen and Lloyd (1990), for example, specifically describe howhuman beings evolve in relation to a net of already established socialrepresentations. Duveen (2001) explains that these representations

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  • underlie the childs interactions with parents, teachers and thecommunity. Once confronted with the representations that circulate inthe community in which the child grows up, however, he or she doesnot simply absorb and internalize them as they are, but comes to re-interpret, to re-construct, and so to re-present them to him- or herself(Howarth, 2002a, p. 156). Thus, in the process of taking on socialrepresentations, there is always the possibility of re-negotiation and sotransformation and change.

    Voelklein (2003) emphasizes that it is exactly through the contactwith conflicting social representations that human beings begin toreflect on their own views and realize what is distinctive about therepresentations they hold. It is through such dialogue and conflict thatexisting representations are revisited and adjusted. Hence, the theorycannot be seen as overly deterministic, but rather, as Markov (2000)has argued, conceives of the dynamics of thought, language and socialpractices as interdependent socio-cultural and individual phenomenawhich are co-constructed by means of tension and polarization ofantinomies (p. 419). Such a dialogic understanding of social represen-tations also helps us to address the criticism of consensus. Rose et al.(1995) make clear that the idea of consensus as agreement at the levelof specific conversations would contradict social representationstheory by rendering the concept of social representation entirely staticand by making communication de facto obsolete. While there must bea certain degree of consensus based upon a common language,tradition and rituals for cognition, recognition and communication totake place, there is also the argumentative level of immediate socialinteraction that is characterized by fragmentation, contradiction andthus social change.

    One possible explanation for this misinterpretation is the equationof the adjective social in social representations with their consensu-ally shared nature. However, the social nature of these representationsis based upon a number of points outlined by Moscovici (1961). First,representations make up the common culture and so construct thesymbolic boundaries and thereby identities of social groups andcommunities (cf. Howarth, 2002a). Secondly, representations are socialin the sense that they are always collectively created and validatedthrough processes of communication and social interaction and thuscannot be seen to belong to one individual alone (cf. Rose et al., 1995).Thirdly, representations are social since their content and specific formare influenced by the historic or economic climate as well as the socialpractices and general cultural context (cf. Jovchelovitch & Gervais,1999). A certain degree of consensus, then, is not the sole defining

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  • feature of social representations, but rather the product of thecollaborative creation, negotiation and use of social representations.

    Indeed, Moscovici (1985) has made clear that he holds a dynamicand holistic understanding of consensus that is not synonymous withuniformity. Echoing Billigs (1987) rhetorical approach to socialpsychology, he argues that social representations always presuppose amixture of diversity and agreement. However, what we can concede isthat conflict and argumentation are still under-theorized within socialrepresentations theory, as argued by Potter and Billig (1992). It is there-fore time to address social representation as dispute and ideologicalconflict (Howarth, in press), as, without such development, the theorycould be seen as weak in terms of its power in social critique.

    Cognitive Reductionism?A third major criticism maintains that social representations theorycharacterizes representation as a overly cognitive phenomenon that canchiefly be explained by psychological processes with scant reference tosocial influence (Jahoda, 1988; Parker, 1987; Semin, 1985). McGuire(1986), for example, describes social representation as a process ofabstracting small units of information received and assimilating theminto pre-existing cognitive (rather than socially constructed) categories.He claims that while social representations introduce serious errorsin cognition through the oversimplification they produce, they arenonetheless cost effective (p. 102) since they enable coping with anotherwise unmanageable complexity due to the (assumed) limitednature of human information-processing.

    For Semin (1985), the problem lies in introducing psychologicalprocesses into a theory of social knowledge and societal change.According to him, the main problem derives from the conflict betweenMoscovicis aim to shift the level of social psychological analysis fromthe individual to the collective while proposing anchoring and objecti-fying as the two key psychological processes, which, for Semin, can bereadily subsumed under cognitive psychology and again used as aninformation-processing metaphor. Billig (1993) explains that the reasonfor this (mis)understanding is that the processes of anchoring and objec-tification are similar to cognitive psychologists descriptions ofcategorization and schemata. The real mistake is depicting anchoringand objectifying as purely cognitive processes, or even assuming thatthere can be purely cognitive processes. Rigorous social representa-tions research has highlighted that anchoring and objectification areindeed social, cultural and ideological as much as cognitive (e.g. Jodelet,1989/1991; Voelklein, 2004; Wagner, Elejabarrieta, & Lahnsteiner, 1995).

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  • Rather constructively, Billig (1988, 1993) warns social representationstheorists not to become trapped in the one-sidedness of cognitivepsychology, which has neglected particularization by exclusivelyfocusing on categorization. The same could happen to social represen-tations theory, he argues, if the theorization of anchoring does not takeinto account the human abilities to negate and particularize. Moreover,he remarks, anchoring is not an automatic process but might lead toarguments and debate in groups. More critically, Potter and Billig(1992) assert that the processes of anchoring and objectification channelsocial representations theory into cognitive reductionism and subsumeit under the decontextualized, desocialized and uncultured universeof laboratory experiments (p. 16). Instead of concentrating on thoughtsand beliefs, they argue, social psychology should focus on the prag-matics of discourse and how social representations are achievedthrough talk in practice. More recently, Potter and Edwards (1999) haverelated this criticism to an opposition between cognition and action.They claim that while discourse theories are oriented towards accom-plishing particular tasks in relation to others, social representationremains on a perceptual-cognitive and therefore individual level. Simi-larly, Potter (1996) states that social representations are ways of under-standing the world which influence action, but are not themselvesparts of action (p. 168).

    To remedy this alleged overemphasis on cognition, Potter and Litton(1985) would like to re-establish social representations as linguisticrepertoires, which they define as recurrently used systems of terms forcharacterizing actions, events and other phenomena, consisting of alimited range of lexical items and particular stylistic and grammaticalconstructions, combined with specific metaphors and tropes (p. 89).They suggest that this reinterpretation would emphasize that represen-tations are linguistically constituted and constructed in specificcontexts, and it would have the advantage of not assuming any directlink to identity and social categories.

    Despite these criticisms, social representations theorists would bewrong to hastily reject the cognitive dimension of social representations.On the contrary, as one of the central aims of social representationstheory, it is important to reconstitute the essentially socio-historicalnature of cognition. This would release the term cognitive from itsrather unhelpfully negative connotations. Markov (2000) takes up thisissue in detail: she explains that cognition, from a social representationalperspective, is based upon a dialogical understanding of the mind thatis rooted within a Hegelian paradigm and the tradition of dialogism.Social representations theorists regard cognition as socio-cultural, as

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  • dynamic and, hence, as something that cannot be simply reduced tothe level of the individual (Markov, 2000). Moscovici clearly rejectsindividualistic versions of cognition. He argues against treating mindsas black boxes (1984a, p. 15) and so, instead, looks at the content ofthoughts and how these are historically and socially constituted andcommunicated.

    What is often overlooked by critics of this approach is that socialrepresentations theory clearly goes further in integrating culture andcognition than approaches of shared or distributed cognition thathave been proposed in other areas of social psychology (cf., e.g.,Resnick, Levine, & Teasley, 1991). Unlike these approaches that retainthe separation of individual cognition and social interaction and onlyconsider possible relations between them, social representations theorydescribes cognition as inherently and inevitably social and cultural.Consequently, the theory moves beyond the narrow definition of socialcognition as individual cognition about others or influenced by others(Verheggen & Baerveldt, 2001).

    A possible reason for the charge of cognitive reductionism from theperspective of British discursive psychology could lie in the latterscharacterization of cognition and action as oppositional. It appearshere that cognition is equated with something that happens insideindividual minds without due attention to its social and ideologicalproduction. It is precisely such a dichotomy of mind and society thatsocial representations theorists seek to challenge.

    Having challenged the depiction of social representations as meremental templates, it needs to be made clear that many social represen-tations theorists also object to the interpretation of social representa-tions as purely linguistic resources. As Moscovici (1985) has clearlystated, a discourse is not a representation, even if every representationis translated into a discourse. All that is image or concept does notentirely pass into language (p. 92). While representations maymanifest themselves in language, they do not necessarily have to. Wemay find social representations objectified in photographs, drawings,films, newspaper articles and the media generallyin any socialpractice (e.g. de Rosa, 1987; Jodelet, 1989/1991; Livingstone, 1998;Moscovici, 1961; Voelklein, 2004; Wagner, Kronberger, & Seifert, 2002).Howarth (in press) emphasizes that social representations are oftenonly apparent in action . She gives examples from her research intoblack British pupils experiences in schools, which illustrate how therepresentation of black youth is not so much expressed in actualdialogue but permeates the institutional cultures of schools, informingthe actions of teachers, particularly in their social practices of gaze in

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  • looking and not looking at black pupils (Howarth, 2004). A linguisticreinterpretation of social representations is less likely, we wouldassume, to capture the institutionalized and historical nature of theserepresentations. By concentrating exclusively on what talk does, thatis, by taking a functional stance, British discursive psychology alsorisks letting individualism in through the backdoor (Jovchelovitch,1995, p. 83). The concept of linguistic repertoires underemphasizes thesocial origins of talk and text and overemphasizes the content andimmediate context of the conversation or document under study.Therefore, it marginalizes not only the wider relational and socio-cultural factors but also the actual social production and contestation ofrepresentation. This would in turn limit the critical potential of socialrepresentations theory.

    An Acritical Agenda?Social representations theory has also been charged with being acriti-cal, in failing to seriously address issues of power and ideology(Ibaez, 1992; Jahoda, 1988). Parker (1987), for example, asserts that theway Moscovici treats the term ideology blunts any critical cuttingedge (p. 458) as it is turned into a harmless label for a system ofbeliefs (p. 465). Moscovicis (1984a) conceptualization of ideologyrelates to his distinction between the consensual and the reifieduniverse, which has been equally criticized. The consensual universeis the world of common sense. This is often seen as the space in whichsocial representations are created, negotiated and transformed. Thereified universe, by contrast, is inhabited by experts, often seen asscientists, who base their judgements of reality on experimentation,logic and rational choice. Moscovici (1984a) has described ideology asa mediator between these two universes:

    We see more clearly the true nature of ideologies, which is to facilitate thetransition from the one world to the other, that is, to cast consensual intoreified categories and to subordinate the former to the latter. Hence theyhave no specific structures and can be perceived either as representations,or as sciences. (p. 23)

    For the case of psychoanalysis, Moscovici (1984a) discusses howcommon sense can be turned into an ideology by being appropriatedby a party, a school of thought or an organ of state so that a product,created by the society as a whole, can be enforced in the name ofscience (p. 58). This distinction between the consensual and reifieduniverse has been fiercely debated both by critics (e.g. Jahoda, 1988;McKinlay & Potter, 1987; Potter & Billig, 1992; Wells, 1987) and byadvocates of social representations theory (e.g. Flick, 1998; Foster, 2003;

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  • Howarth, in press; Purkhardt, 1993). As echoed in a recent article byvan Bavel and Gaskell (2004), McKinlay and Potter (1987) point outthat there is a conceptual contradiction between, on the one hand,stating that all individuals use social representations to make sense oftheir worlds and, on the other hand, separating the world of sciencefrom the world of common sense. Given the fact that Moscovici (1984a)has acknowledged himself that science is equally subject to historicaland social influence, he obviously must recognize that scientists, likethe rest of us, rely on social representations in their daily interactionsand activities. It would, therefore, be a profound mistake to think ofscience as an unproblematically asocial realm of activities in whichknowledge of pure fact is generated; the scientist is as much trappedin his social world as is the layman (McKinlay & Potter, 1987, p. 479).

    Potter and Edwards (1999) claim that one negative implication of thisdichotomy is that it has prevented social representations theorists fromconsidering the impact of their own representations in the productionof research itself. This last point, at least, does not appear to be justi-fied. Social representations theorists have been critically aware of thepossible influences of their own representations and have discussedthe impact of these and of their own identities on both the process andproducts of research (e.g. Farr, 1993; Howarth, 2002b; Voelklein, 2004).

    Another criticism of the relationship between the two universes isthat it is often described as a one-way process of influence from thereified to the consensual. We can see this in research into the publicunderstanding of science and biotechnology, for example, that exploreshow scientific or technical concepts become familiarized in commonsense (e.g. Bauer & Gaskell, 1999; Wagner et al., 2002). However, socialrepresentations theorists rarely investigate this relation in the oppositedirection: that is, how common sense influences the content and struc-ture of science (Howarth et al., 2004). This clearly deserves attention,as both Howarth (in press) and Purkhardt (1993) discuss. If all knowl-edge is socially constructed, so is scientific knowledge.

    Yet the formation of scientific and everyday concepts can be quitedistinct due to the different conditions and structures of authority andpower in both universes. One way of understanding how these twouniverses can coexist within one and the same social world is in termsof different modes of thought. Bruner (1985) distinguishes between thenarrative and the paradigmatic cognitive functioning or mode ofthought that can each be performed by the same person at differenttimes. Whereas the paradigmatic mode of thought is a systematic,abstract way of thinking that is based on logic, rigorous analyses,consistency and the establishment of facts, the narrative mode of

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  • thought is very concrete, particular and concentrated on humanintentions and actions. Myths, well-formed stories, images and richmeanings play an important part in this narrative way of sense-making.

    Conceptualizing the reified and the consensual as two coexisting andinteracting forms of knowledge has also been proposed by Duveen andLloyd (1990) and Flick (1998). As Foster (2003) outlines, there isevidence in Moscovicis work that he did not want to treat the twouniverses as strictly separate from one another. She comes to theconclusion that the distinction between the reified and the consensualis less central to the theory of social representations than has beengenerally assumed, and supports this claim by pointing to his conceptof cognitive polyphasia.

    A second way out of this overemphasized dichotomy has beenproposed by Howarth (in press). She argues that the differencebetween the consensual and the reified universe points us to the processof reification that positions certain social representations as expertknowledge. Reification infuses social representations with ideologicalpower by legitimizing their dominant and dominating position overalternative representations. Howarth argues that in order to fullydevelop the theorys critical potential, social representations theoristsneed to analyse the ways in which different knowledge systemsbecome reified in different situations. Developing Jovchelovitchs(1997) assertion that some groups have more access to resources andthus a better chance of imposing their versions of reality and truth,Howarth (in press) invites us to study the role of power and conflictwithin the process of social re-presentation. By examining the politicsthat influence the hegemonic construction of social representations wecan gain a better understanding of the interests that are at stake andthe alternative representations that may be marginalized. This perspec-tive also deconstructs the problematic unidirectional depiction of therelationship between common sense and science.5

    A critical approach to social representations obviously needs aclearer grasp of ideology. We need to analyse how representations maybe infused with ideological power to justify the status quo and somaintain systems of inequality and exclusion (Howarth, 2004) as wellas investigate how the public take on, appropriate and contest existingideologies in their representational work (Voelklein, 2003). An ideo-logical perspective emphasizes that in the practice of social life, repre-sentations are never neutral but constantly permeated by powerrelations. Such a critical approach to social representations theorywould provide us with the tools for evaluating representations in terms

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  • of their ability to legitimize and sustain unequal and oppressive powerrelations and marginalizing practices.


    Throughout the paper, we have tried to demonstrate that the complex-ity of the dynamics between society and self that are inherent in socialrepresentations theory is at the root of many of the criticisms andmisunderstandings to which the theory is subject. We have elaboratedthis peculiar position of social representations theory with reference tofour major areas of criticism: (a) the claim of theoretical ambiguities;(b) the portrayal of the theory as socially deterministic; (c) the contrast-ing critique of it as cognitive reductionism, as well as (d) the chargethat it follows an acritical agenda. Through a detailed evaluation ofthese criticisms, certain points could be revealed to be misinterpreta-tions of social representations theory, such as those charges regardingthe lack of distinction from other conceptualizations, the notion ofconsensus or the nature of language and cognition. However, otherpoints of critique were shown to be important and constructive ideasfor theoretical refinement and extension: for example, criticisms withregards to the problematic distinction between the consensual and thereified universe and the underdevelopment of the influence of argu-mentation, conflict, ideology and power on social representations.

    A starting point for investigating the void in treating ideology andpower issues in social representations theory could be to examinewhether there is some intrinsic characteristic of social representationstheory that prevents researchers from approaching these issues. Oneproperty of the theory as it is currently applied that could be maderesponsible for this situation is its primary concentration on thecontent and structure of a social representation as opposed to itsfunction and broader societal implications. Bauer and Gaskell (1999)assert that social representations research has generally emphasizedstructure over function (p. 173), and they take it for granted thatresearch on social representations will continue to foreground thecomparative analysis of common sense, the contents of representa-tions (p. 175). While we appreciate that an understanding of thenature and content of a representation is a prerequisite for discussingits political or ideological consequences, it is this extra step in theanalysis that is often omitted and that we regard as crucial forstrengthening the theorys critical power. In order to follow a criticalagenda, we need to move beyond a mere description of the status quoto a consideration of the historical roots, the immediate social function

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  • and the future implications of particular representations. That is, weneed to examine what social representations do in social and politicalrelations.

    Besides recognizing areas for future development, theorists andresearchers in this tradition may also want to consider how far theycontribute themselves to the misunderstandings and criticisms voicedtowards social representations theory. Employing concepts and termsthat are predominantly associated with a highly individualizedpsychology, such as cognition or representation, without elaboratingon how they are to be understood within the context of their use mayeasily mislead the casual reader of writings on social representations.In addition to a lack of definition and elaboration, social representa-tions theorists and researchers have also been criticized for incorpor-ating these individual psychological terms uncritically and for hidingbehind the cognitive label of unfamiliarity reduction that frees themfrom sufficiently engaging with social and historical contexts (Guerin,2001). Markov (2000), for example, asserts that many social represen-tations researchers give key social psychological concepts an individ-ualistic and static instead of a socio-cultural and dynamic meaning. Inthis way, they do not do justice to the theorys dialectical and dynamicfeatures and foster stagnation and misconception rather than theoreti-cal development.

    Focusing on the dynamic and dialectical aspects of social represen-tations theory is also desirable in terms of widening participation inthis theoretical approach. If social representations theory comes to beperceived as static and descriptive, it is less likely to appear suitablefor explaining the heterogeneity, tension and flux of modern social lifethat Moscovici (1961) set out to explore. It is, then, no surprise thatdiscourse theory becomes an attractive alternative. As Potter andEdwards (1999) make clear, what they consider an advantage of adiscursive approach over social representations theory is its actionorientation and its focus on the immediate dynamics of the communi-cative situation. While a discursive approach has its own limitations,to which we have briefly alluded, a stronger involvement with andreflection on the dynamic conceptual features of social representationsand their methodological exploration as a socio-cultural practice couldopen further possibilities for theoretical development.

    As we have stressed throughout this paper, social representationstheorists need to challenge both our critics and peers who marginalizethe role of power, dialogue and resistance in the development andcirculation of representations. We would suggest that empirical workin the field should build up a more explicitly critical agenda that

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  • promotes a social psychology of conflict, resistance and social partici-pation in our understanding of the interconnections between socialstructures and subjectivities, culture and cognition, the social and thepsychological. It is in this spirit of theoretical advancement and criticalengagement in social representations theorizing and research that thisreview should be understood.


    We would like to thank Wolfgang Wagner, Hubert Hermans and Juliet Fosterfor reviewing this paper and providing very constructive suggestions. We arealso thankful to Ama de-Graft Aikins, Alexandra Kolka, Anne-Katrin Schlagand Mike Bartholomaei for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of thispaper.

    1. Studies into the development of social knowledge about previouslyunknown or threatening social objects demonstrate the representationalprocesses involved in taming the unknown. These include extensiveresearch into representations of science and new technologies (e.g. Bauer &Gaskell, 1999; Wagner et al., 2002), of HIV-AIDS (e.g. Campbell, 2003; Joffe,1996) and of mental illness (Jodelet, 1989/1991; Schmitz, Filippone, &Edelman, 2003).

    2. The Oxford Dictionary (1995) defines a representation primarily as animage, likeness, or reproduction of a thing e.g. a painting or drawing, thusclearly referring to the mirroring function of representation.

    3. Conversely, an emphasis on diversity and fragmentation does not meanthat there cannot be widely shared or hegemonic representations withincontemporary societies (Howarth, in press; Moscovici, 1988).Representations of gender, for example, are remarkably resistant tohistorical change (Voelklein, 2003) and contextual factors (Lloyd & Duveen,1992).

    4. However, as we discuss below, with Moscovicis use of the notion ofideology, Jahodas (1988) criticism of an unnecessary overlap of certaincategories seems to be at least partly justified.

    5. Such an approach resonates with recent work within the sociology ofscientific knowledge (e.g. Latour, 1991) that is concerned with identifyingthe different actors that take part in the legitimization of certain ideas asscience.


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    CORINA VOELKLEIN is a doctoral candidate in the Social PsychologyInstitute at the London School of Economics (LSE). Her research examinessocial representations of womanhood held by contemporary East Germanwomen and their relation to the former state socialist ideology. She alsoteaches postgraduate students in the Social Psychology of Economic Life andworks as Qualitative Software Instructor with the Methodology Institute atthe LSE. Alongside her research and teaching and based on her background inbusiness studies and organizational social psychology, she works as freelanceconsultant in organizational psychology on different change and evaluationprojects. Her research interests centre on societal change, socialrepresentations, ideology and gender, as well as novel approaches toqualitative research methodology. ADDRESS: Corina Voelklein, Institute ofSocial Psychology, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, LondonWC2A 2AE, UK. [email: [email protected]]

    CAROLINE HOWARTH is Lecturer in Social Psychology at the LondonSchool of Economics. Her research and teaching seek to push socialpsychology in general and social representations theory in particular in amore critical direction by addressing questions of racism, power, exclusionand resistance. This has demanded the conceptualization of the role of re-presentation in identity formation, in the marginalization and racializationof specific communities and in the possibilities of belonging, resistance andtransformation. Together with Derek Hook (LSE) she is establishing aResearch Network on Racism and Critical Social Psychology. She is also on theeditorial boards of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology andPapers in Social Representations. ADDRESS: Caroline Howarth, Institute ofSocial Psychology, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, LondonWC2A 2AE, UK. [email: [email protected]]

    Culture & Psychology 11(4)


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