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Social RepresentationsReview - Social Representations
Explorations in Social Psychology
by Serge Moscovici
New York University Press, 2001
Review by Pawel Kawalec, Ph.D.
Jun 30th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 26)

This collection of Moscovici's papers aims at elucidating the American social psychology with a new perspective on social phenomena. The category of social representations, which was first accredited by E. Durkheim, is legitimized by Moscovici as an alternative to the behaviorist methodology which purportedly dominates the mainstream social psychology. On the one hand, social representations determine psychological understanding of reality by an individual. On the other, however, they extend far beyond the psychological mechanisms of the individual; they are socially distributed and sustained. Nevertheless, none of the essays addresses the objections that were raised against the category of social representations, for instance, the claim that the category is vague and redundant. Moreover, the selected papers fail to elaborate the details of the new methodology which is to ground social representations and the new social psychology.

Introduction by Gerard Duveen suggests that this book is primarily addressed to social psychologists - especially English speaking ones - who are unfamiliar with the category of social representations. The seven texts selected for this monograph, however, do not seem to fit this aim best. The key objections raised against social representations are barely mentioned, and the lack of argument and empirical evidence is compensated for by a sumptuous style, which is readily accessible, but rather inappropriate for the purpose delineated by Duveen. This incoherence makes it hard to clearly identify the readership of this monograph. Since none of the essays systematically elaborates on how to understand the category of social representations, nor explains in detail its underlying methodology, it would seem - contrary to Duveen's claim - that the book is primarily addressed to those who are already familiar with this category.

The first six chapters are reprints of Moscovici's papers, and the last one is a reprint of an interview with him by I. Marková. Some of the papers were previously published in languages other than English, but the original sources are not acknowledged. So, the English versions date from 1972 to 1998.

The nature of social representations is predominantly addressed in chapter one, The Phenomenon of Social Representations, and in the interview. Social representations determine the way an individual conceptualizes reality, but they rise and evolve quite independently of the individual. Moscovici identifies two basic mechanisms which generate social representations: anchoring and objectification. Anchoring is "a process which draws something foreign and disturbing … into our particular system of categories" (42), and therefore it enables us to classify and name objects. Objectification, on the other hand, consists in reproducing a concept in an image, i.e. in "reproducing it among the things we can see and touch and thus control" (42). The following conclusion turns on these mechanisms: "significant knowledge and beliefs have their origin in a mutual interaction, and are not formed in any other way" (127). "Thus, … there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as individual rationality, which is the downfall of one of the most widespread beliefs" (131).

Moscovici emphasizes the fact that it is due to communication that social representations are sustained and circulated, and thereby they constitute the common meaning attributed to reality by a given society. And the latter turns on the following three elementary functions of social representations: illumination (give sense to realities), integration (incorporate what is new into familiar framework) and partition (constitute categories characteristic for a given society).

Social psychology which studies social representations is then "a science of consensual universes in evolution, a cosmogony of physical human existence" (77). And contrasts sharply with the mainstream American social psychology which is a "social psychology of a nice person" (79). The latter - to use Moscovici's own terms - is "not truly a science" for it is "engaged" not in the "work of scientific analysis but of engineering", or in the conflict between the US and the Soviet Union (e.g. game theory).

The remaining chapters study the life and works of M. Proust, J. Piaget and L. Vygotsky to provide illustration of social representations, and different approaches to them. They also exhibit a wider cultural, philosophical and historical background for establishing and developing social representations and the social psychology based on them.

Moscovici's monograph leaves many issues unsettled. The crucial one seems to be the vagueness of the category of social representations. To paraphrase one of Moscovici's favorite examples - social representations cannot at the same time function like books, and like a library. Precisely this twofold character apparently inherent in Moscovici's favorite category, however, seems to lead to a dilemma: social representations are in fact nothing different from individual's attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes etc., or there is something more to them what can only be comprehended at the level of a "collective mind". Either of these claims seems rather problematic, and none of the essays focuses on them.

Many textbooks on social psychology mention Moscovici's contribution on minority influences, but it seems rather unlikely that this monograph will bring about a spectacular breakthrough in the wide neglect of the category of social representations.

© 2001 Pawel Kawalec

Dr Pawel Kawalec, Faculty of Philosophy, Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.


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