Social Representations

What are Social Representations?

Social representations reflect many different kinds of social and cultural knowledge, and refer to general shared beliefs relating to ideas, objects, attitudes and people, among the members of groups and communities.

Moscovici defines Social representations as

  • ‘A set of concepts, statements and explanations originating in daily life in the course of inter-individual communications. They are the equivalent, in our society, of the myths and belief systems in traditional societies; they might even be said to be the contemporary version of common sense.’ (Moscovici, 1981)

Social representations are consensual understandings shared among group members. They emerge through informal everyday communication.

They are consensual (agreed upon) understandings shared by group members that:

  • constantly change with the introduction of new ideas
  • differ across different cultures and sub-cultures (who may develop their own shared representations).

Social representations transform the unfamiliar and complex into the familiar and straightforward, and thus provide a common-sense framework for interpreting our experiences. An individual or a specialist interest group develops a sophisticated, non-obvious, technical explanation of a commonplace phenomenon (e.g. explaining mental illness in terms of biological or social factors rather than spiritual forces). This attracts public attention and becomes widely shared and popularized (i.e. simplified, distorted and ritualized) through informal discussion among non-specialists. It is now a social representation—an accepted, unquestioned commonsense explanation that outs alternatives to become the orthodox explanation.

The Process and Effects of Forming Social Representations

Social representations are formed by the introduction of new and often complicated theories or concepts by specialists (through the mass media). Other than this, social representations are also formed by:

  • everyday informal communication   Opens in new window and discussion that popularizes, simplifies and often distorts the ideas.
  • anchoring of new ideas by relating them to preexisting social representational ideas.
  • objectifying (simplifying the representation of ideas by making them more concrete) through personification—using the inventor to stand for the invention, e.g. ‘Thatcherism’, and figuration—using images to illustrate concepts, e.g. the ‘world-wide-web’.

Social representations may influence the perception of the social world by:

  • helping the individual make sense of the world by making the unfamiliar familiar.
  • shaping an individual’s perception of, and reaction towards, events and stimuli. Since people’s beliefs are socially constructed, their attitudes will often reflect those of others in their culture.

The theory of social representations has come under some criticism, often for the rather imprecise way in which it is formulated (e.g. Augoustinos & Innes, 1990). Nonetheless, it does suggest a way in which ordinary social interaction in society constructs commonsense or ‘naïve’ causal theories that are widely used to explain events (Heider, 1958).

Social representations, like norms, tend to be grounded in groups and differ from group to group, such that intergroup behavior can often revolve around a clash of social representations. For example, in Western countries attitudes and behavior that promote healthy lifestyles are associated with higher social status, and health promotion messages tend to emanate from middle-class professional groups (Salovey, Rothman & Rodin, 1998).