Social Representations Theory and Social Constructionism

Serge Moscovici

Social Representations mailing list 1 postings, 28 Apr - 27 May 1997


Dearest Marisa, 2

Thank you for the messages from Deriabin and Gergen as well as for your comments. I apologise for answering only today. I have been busy writing an autobiographical narrative which has taken up all my time for the two or three years, so that I somewhat drifted apart from social psychology. Deriabin wonders why social constructionism and social representations do not get close to one another. I wonder why Gergen, Ibanez, Potter and others attack us wherever they can. Or else, what justifies the tone in which Gergen does in this message and elsewhere. There is little sound argument in what he says and on the contrary much labelling in order to associate us with a "bad" object. For instance structuralism, in his opinion. As far as I know, structuralism was intended to be "formal" and draw universal laws of thought on a basis. In this sense, historically speaking, it is closer to Marxism, for instance. I have always entertained the greatest respect for Levi-Strauss and his work. Yet, for many reasons, structuralism appears inadequate to a dynamical and historical vision of social phenomena.


I cannot see where and how the theory of social representations has been rewritten to fit the cognitive paradigm. Reading some philosophers of mind (Putnam, Kripke, Davidson, Bunge, etc.) has brought me to ponder on our theory in the later years. I know, however, at least three reasons why I could not have got closer to the so-called leading paradigm:

1. It contends that information processing is at the root of human cognition. Which for me means only putting the old associationist theory in new bottles.

2. Most cognitive social psychologists see individual representations (supposing that they accept the idea of representation at all) as more fundamental that social representations, in short as epiphenomena. They think that the former, all things considered, is not different from the latter.

3. In fact, the paradigm of social cognition is a paradigm of social stereotypes. From this point of view, I have had the opportunity of saying so again and again, the underlying view of society is that of mass psychology and opinion psychology. It shares Walter Lippmann's distrust in public knowledge, which should be ruled by stereotypes (a notion coined by himself!). And for which questions of substance should be decided by experts who have access to real scientific knowledge and are immunized against stereotypes. Which severely restricts the meaning of public debate. Traces of this conception are to be found in the fact that, at the beginning, people took an interest in the biases of social knowledge and compares "experts" with "novices", leaning on the distinction between "truth" and "mere opinion". Now, the notion of collective and social representations presupposes that all people are "rational", that they are rational because they are social, and so on.

My position is nearer to Dewey's in this criticism of Lippman, especially in relating conversation to social representations. Let me just quote him: "Conversation has a vital impact lacking in the fixed and frozen words of written speech. The connections of the ear with vital and ongoing throught and emotion are immensely closer and more varied than those of the eye. Vision is a spectator ; hearing is a participation". And I remember having written I no longer know where: we think with our mouths. You know only too well my arguments concerning also the contrast between "content" and "process" in the study of cognition.


Gergen mentions political divergences. I thought he took the word political in earnest, but he means academic politics. I taught in the USA for several years and it seems to me I did not do anything to create some "complicity" with the "establishment". I did not even try to propagate the theory of social representations, as I was aware of the numerous obstacles. And then I do not think that academic politics determines the value of success of a theory. He thinks the reverse is true and that is his right. So what does he blame us for in fact ? For doing research, for thinking and wanting to create knowledge. But what are we supposed to do with a theory pray ? Say everyday that it is the best and finest ?

For me, a theory exists only insofar as it fosters a practice of discovery, of facing social problems, and gives some meaning to our lives. Is his intellectual community broader than mine ? I am not sure of that for many reasons, including political ones. But this judgement of broadness is also part of this tone of self-righteousness, superiority, that he assumes towards me and my work. It is very self-serving. I have had, for a long time, an explanation of this which has nothing to do with science, only with the power that is today concentrated in one part of the world, one language and institutions of diffusion of knowledge. In this respect, what to Gergen appears as "owning the territory" to me appears as "owning independence or freedom", the right to think and write in a world of diverse people, diverse culture, diverse ideas and especially diverse social problems. And this diversity IS reflected among the people interested in social representations. Since the only condition for a dialogue is respect, scholarship, and no relinquishing this or that. Besides the constructionist idea is in many respects and old one for us.


Communicating through Internet is a fine experience, addressing others as one addresses oneself. In French, we say "thinking aloud". I know virtually nothing about the debates that are taking place among the "specialists" of social constructionism, whether they criticize themselves as much as they do others. I surmise that Deriabin knows more about it. In his message, he says that there are many common things between "social constructionism and social representation theory". And he observes that Gergen and others do not refer to my work. Which seems to him curious, but does not seem so to me. I have been long enough around to have become acquainted with two attitudes which are in fact current ones. The former consists in ensuring the exclusive ownership of ideas, neglecting those of other people (past and present. Do you remember the case of group polarization?). And the latter attitude consists in giving the impression that one's ideas are so radical, so new that nobody else could have had them. For that matter, as Gun Semin once said, a work older than ten years is no longer quoted ! To make this kind of historical reference, one needs rigor and decent scholarship. Michael Billig is an exception, a felicitous one. Everyone is too busy grabbing, asserting, occupying the field! This rashness may deserve our admiration and the underlying attitudes should perhaps not be criticized. Yet we must also be aware that this kind of attitudes are often linked with a denial of the spirit of dialogue, of a certain continuity of ideas. And it may even have the effect of splitting our research community further apart. Recently, a number of books have devoted chapters to the psychology of language, analysis of discourse, and so on. I have been struck by the lack not only of references - after all, everyone is free to have some or not - but of discussion of my work and, above all of that, of Ragnar Rommetweit. He is a deep thinker ! It was he who opened the way to a criticism of Chomskian linguistics! Despite this, linguistics is mentioned as if he had never written anything about it. I could give more examples, but it is useless. I sometimes think that the habit of referring to other people's (past and present work) in order to give meaning to one's own is a "Mitteleuropa" sickness. It is a question of intellectual style and norms!


Of course, social constructivism and the theory of representations have "things in common". I would like to explore Deriabin's suggestion in concrete terms. Yet, I am afraid I am not sufficiently well acquainted with the latest developments of this "trend" to tell what these "things in common" are. Let us leave aside its faddish aspects which are not negligible and his excommunication whose reasons are not clear. In my opinion, what constructionism rejects is easier to understand than what he proposes. Social constructionism presents itself in association with the linguistic turning-point as a new beginning. It claims to be a radical as everyone does today, just as Internet is presented as an upheaval in civilization, and so on. But calling one-self a radical does not make one be such, this is obvious. Among what one considers symptomatic of radicalism, the clearest is the rejection of positivism, empiricism, etc. The problem is that the more one looks at the arguments, the less sure this is. Personally, I find he has quite a lot of elements in common with positivism, f.i.:

Mach's relativism is grounded on the idea that there are no foundations, nothing "absolute". This prompted Einstein to say that Mach's relativism is good for destroying but not for constructing. Thus the tendency to think of truth as something that does not exist and ultimately as something that must not exist is a phenomena of the modern age. There is some reason to believe that this tendency first appeared in 19th century positivism. At the same time as the tendency to believe in the end if ideology or the end of metaphysics from which we should free ourselves. Which Rorty expressed when he said that "we should curse ourselves from our metaphysical needs". This is why I think that constructionism epistemologically assimilates many things that it rejects. Of course, when it mentions truth, foundation, etc., - the point must not be overlooked -, the connotations are negative, they are put between inverted commas. And this is interesting for our theory. Because the social representation of knowledge retains "truth" and "falseness", f.i. as basic cultural categories, just as the social representation of religion retains the categories of "sacred" and "profane". So somewhere it seems to be understood that constructionism is true, right, and the other points of view are false, wrong. Otherwise one would not grasp wherefrom he draws the certritude of being "radical", being in the right, while the others are not "radical" and, on top of that, are wrong.

I say all this with a heart all the lighter as I have never been a positivism. In my youth, I was more on the marxistic line. And later, when I did some research on the history and philosophy of science, it was under the guidance of my master Alexandre Koyr=E9 who was radically antipositivistic. Writing this at my age, I feel like old Jacob saying to his son: "Your hands are the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob".


In fact, there is a significant difference with social constructionism. To my mind, social constructionism intends to be a meta-theory telling us what is, or what should be, "good science", and criticising what is, or should be, "bad science". That is a worthy endeavour, like that of the thinkers who want to teach us what is, or must be, a "good society", or that of literary critics who want to teach us what is, or should be, "good literature". I exaggerate a little, yet I do not think I am entirely mistaken. Although I happened to write articles or essays in this area, my goal, as concerns social representations, has been more modest, i.e. to propose a theory. I do not enjoy (or maybe I am not able to) metatheoritical criticism. It does not provide enough intellectual and personal pleasure. And I like theories because one has the impression to understand, to "create" something (notions, phenomena), to be able to act. Even if the results are modest, the excitement and enjoyment are identical. I am not an empiricist, but a hedonist. This is why I like experiments, filed studies, etc., for the fun of doing, "discovering" something. I wish I were a good craftsman, just as I would have liked to be a good writer.

Now I have always wanted to be a social actor instead of being a social critic. Any "good" theory, phenomenon, practice, etc. is a critical because it changes lives, displaces unwanted ones. The French revolutionists were in the right: one destroys only what one replaces.

Why do I tell you all that ? Because I came upon the notion of constructionism in the context of the theory of social representations and understood it as a theoretical, not a metatheoretical one. My effort was to offer a plausible model of how knowledge and meaning are shared, and why transformation, generation of knowledge, cannot but be a social process, not an individual one. And that is important. Actually most researchers Deriabin alludes to assert that construction IS a social (meta-theory). But my point of view is that they do not show why it is NECESSARILY social (theory). If they wanted to, then they could not do without the idea of social representation. As it was the case with Searle when he wanted to study the construction of social reality. I do not mean that the individual aspects are negligible, or that the individual counts for nothing. But the social is logically unavoidable as a basic "ingredient", because a way of representing is also a way of communicating.


Some more about construction and social representations. First, I would recall certain dates. Simply to state that my interest for this notion precedes the existence of this trend in social psychology. And has nothing to do with a negotiation of academic politics with a new establishment. Here are two dates:
- If you open Israel and Tajfel's books about the crisis in social psychology, you can see I am among those who took a constructionist stance;
- In 1978, van Foerster and Varela organized a closed seminar in San Francisco, maybe the first one with the theme, "The construction of reality". There some thirty researchers, among which were Bateson, Maturana, Watzlavic, Goffman, etc., discussed the idea that knowledge is constructed, not found. I was one of the very few Europeans invited by the organizers whom I did not know. Probably because they were aware of the stance I had taken in my writings. How did I arrive at this stance ? As far as I am aware, by three ways:

1. Vico and Marx, according to whom we know society because we made it.

2. Heisenberg, whose principle of indeterminacy teaches us that the knowledge of natural phenomena depends on the observer. One could say that we know nature too because we "make" it. In a sense, there is a close relationship between historical agency and constructing knowledge of whatever kind. In my book, "Essai sur l'histoire humaine de la nature" (1968), I tried to show that we construct nature by inventing knowledge, reproducing it and sharing the emerging practices. There I also tried to show a link between active minorities and inventive or constructive practices.

3. Deliberately, I wanted to analyse and show that the experience of the world of common sense mentioned by phenomenologists, Heider included, or natural thought, are socially "made", juste as the mental categories that render them possible. What at a given time presents itself on the mode of perceptive evidence and is taken for granted, on this side of the individuals' consciousness and choice, has been generated by communication and is at stake in political and ideological struggles, polemics between the social actors. In truth, the notion of social representation forced itself on me as a notion beaking with the autonomy of attitudes and opinions, with a perceptual socially naive vision of human behavior, and shared knowledge. And with the simple opposition between opinion and truth. Starting from this break, I wanted to create a kind of social psychology of knowledge, of the various forms of knowledge. Shared representations are there to set up and build a common "reality", a common sense which becomes "normal", taken for granted at the end of a conflict between competing representations, common practices. The theory of social representations very soon implied the idea of construction and, unless I am mistaken, before Bergman and Luckmann's famous book questioning the duality science/common sense, true knowledge/false knowledge, which underlies a large part of social psychology.


When my book about psychoanalysis is mentioned, it is only mentioned as a study about social representations. Those who do leave aside the part about social communications, thus the part in which the communication process appears basically as a process of change of the representations in the course of political and ideological struggles in which psychoanalysis was at stake, with the cultural change it meant. Therefore communication is not seen as the transmission from a source to a passive receiver (the audience), as the production of distorted replicas of a so-called scientific representation in the guise of common sense representations. The formula is short: no representation without communication and no communication without divergence, concurrent representations, that is, without social stake. Of course the idea of conflict, of something at stake, does not play a great part, so it seems to me, in what we can read about social construction.

In fact, every constructive activity, at least so it seems to me, is "syncretically" communication AND representation, instrumental and symbolic. As I suggested, conversation is of prime importance in this respect. But the constructive activity prolongs the anchoring and objectivation process and can be grasped there as their outcome. I say this because I do not believe that this activity can be grasped only as explanations, interpretations or making accounts. Nor do I believe that, because we have constructed something, a language, a discrimination, etc., we can suppose they have no independent reality and are easier to deconstruct, as one makes and unmakes a contract, a convention. Once they are constructed, they can last for a long time and require a great effort to be changed, as our work on influence shows. Such is my answer to Deriabin's message about the area where I see convergence as a practical matter. These things may be simple, they are also fundamental which it is not useless to recall.


Mauss said that "taboos are made to be violated". And I think I have violated a taboo in my work about social representations, by often giving them the form of essays, speculations. I have attempted always to lean on, yet avoiding to imitate the argumentative rigor of standard scientific exposition. The comparative looseness of logical texture gives the possibility of experimental reflexions, which is more designed to explore than to assertively conclude. Of course this leaves oneself vulnerable to criticism. In fact, I wanted to leave my work open to discussion and invite the contributions of others. I have been wrong and right. I have been wrong, because critics have had it good and everyone feels entitled to teach me a lesson, to tell what I must do or not do. And I have been right, because the theory has greatly benefited from the discussion and contribution of others. Whether one likes it or not, the theory of social representations has been here for over thirty years and the number of those who took interest in and contributed to it has kept growing. The theory has not become an institution or a thing, it is still a theory in the making.

One should have a very bleak view of human knowledge to dissent with Deriabin's questions. And because the theory is such as it is today, some researchers of his generation will certainly give practical, creative answers to his questions. Unless there is a compensation benefit to be got from the present fragmentation of our discipline. The rigidity one observes today may be due to the fact that most social psychologists have started by being experimentalists, individualists, and later were converted to constructivism, the social and language. But it is my task to analyse the cause of their attitude. On the contrary, I can say, as an answer to one of Deriabin's questions, that the fury or silence with which the results of my work meet here or there can probably be partly explained by the fact that the theory of social representations is complex and does not easily boil down to a proposition that one can easily verify or falsify if one has a mind to.  Nor to a formula that can be started unreservedly, which in my opinion is particular to every scientific proposition.

Secondly, social psychology has been in the habit on working only on or with processes - even speech or conversation are viewed as processes while I cannot see how to approach the social or the cultural without laying the stress on the content, on sense-making. Whether linguistic or figurative, constructed or declarative effects of content, dialogical effects, pragmatic effects are not to be dispensed with.

Thirdly, in social psychology you cannot work without making, among others, the hypothesis that social or individual actors do not say anything whatever, do not think anyhow, are neither novices nor weak-minded, do not behave without reflexion. In other words, shared representations have some coherence, some complexity, therefore some rationality. On this point, social psychology has the same preoccupations as anthropology dealing with symbolic values. It has also to make the hypothesis that stereotypes, attitudes, biases, all that be understood within the context of a representation historically normalized by practices that the group, culture, etc. tries to legitimate. There is a very pleasant manner of convincing oneself of what I have just said: by reading Proust's "In Quest of Lost Time". The French novelist wonderfully explains how and why it is normal in certain strata of society to be antisemitic, homophobic, why it would be abnormal not to be, without being an imbecile or cognitive miser for that matter.

If this context of representations is overlooked, this is not mere chance. It is because the idea of representation is at variance with a vision of a society, a group without any differences in social positions, without rules, without norms, without institutions, without languages that are authorized or prohibited, without legitimate or illegitimate practices, and so on. A view contrary to Proust's vision, f.i. And yet in his way he was a social psychologist. A follower of Tarde, to be sure.


The catchword, "everything goes", has become something of a fashion and may foster the illusion that severing the ties with constraints and method is easy. But somewhere in their minds the people who say this, and those who hear it, know that it is merely wishful thinking. Probably because their own experience has been that of publishing a paper in one of our professional journals, being accepted to deliver a speech, finding academic work, and so on. All of this usually requires resorting to strategies or influence, and once things come to this, we are talking about an obviously political problem. In fact, looking back on history from this point of view, scientists are not different from other human beings. Leaning toward one group means ignoring another one, giving rise to a condition of reciprocal neglect. So scientific dialogue is difficult because it entails a social recognition instead of the existing miscognition. I hope that, one day, a much needed dialogue theory - Markova is working on one - will turn its attention to this phenomenon of contemporary scientific life, with some practical results.
For some reasons due to my personal history, I have been immunized against such a splitting. Just as I became, at a certain age, everywhere a "foreigner". I feel flattered when people call me French and I hear them talking about a "French school", for obvious reasons. I know, however, that this labelling has other motives and meanings. And I regret it, not for me because I have known graver labellings, but for the persons who use it, and I a ashamed for them. Because I am convinced that, in the long run, the value of our work will prevail. That is my deep-lying attitude toward some people in our profession. I came to science, and became an active member of our community, because I believed that it can be what Avishai Margalit calls a "decent society". I refuse to be embroiled in something else that Gergen or another person imputes to me. Decency is a built-in limit of my ability to pursue a dialogue.

What is important for me now, at this point of my thinking, is the following:  without a theory of social representations, we cannot understand social construction. And all that is said about language, discourse, reduces social subjects or individuals to incommunicability, solipsism. What is fundamental in my eyes when one speaks about language is the nature of the interaction (conflict, cooperation, constraints, etc.), the symmetrical or asymmetrical character of the relationship which depend on a stake or outcome. You cannot give an account of thought and language without taking into account the implicit representations of the actors, the interdiction of some practices or their duplicity f.i. Even speech acts depend on a shared representation. Promises are said to have performative character. Yes, but this depends on the way in which I represent to myself the identity of the person who promises something. There is a French phrase saying "C'est une promesse de Gascon", which means that people expect that the person will not keep his promise and himself will not be bound to respect it, etc. Seeing what we can do together in terms of work is easy.

Marisa, I was wondering how to conclude this long rambling on Internet for which you gave me the opportunity. It was a kind of holiday, a cathartic experience, after ending a book which is so personal. Then I remembered a proposal made once - before I used the e-mail of Internet myself - to study precisely how common sense, the language exchanged, groups themselves are shaped in this cybercommunication. Finally, it would be a nice way of meeting and putting some ideas together. So the story will go on !

28 Apr - 27 May 1997
Serge Moscovici <>


Notes and Related Internet Resources

1 Information about Social Representations mailing list is accessible at Social Representations Communication Network web-page.

2 Professor Marisa Zavaloni, University of Montreal, Canada

On Social Constructionism see The Virtual Faculty web-page.


Moscovici, S. (1997). Social Representations Theory and Social Constructionism. [WWW-документ] URL

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