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The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology

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22 Social Representations As Anthropology of Culture

Ivana Marková, Department of Psychology, University of Stirling, Stirling, Scotland, UK

  • Published: 21 November 2012
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The Theory of Social Representations studies formation and transformation of meanings, knowledge, beliefs, and actions of complex social phenomena like democracy, human rights, or mental illness, in and through communication and culture. This chapter examines the nature of interdependence between social representing, communication, and culture. It first explains differences between mental, collective, and social representations with respect to culture and language. It then focuses on two meanings of social representing: first, on representations as a theory of social knowledge and second, representations as social and cultural phenomena and as interventions in social practices. Rationality of social representations is based on diverse modalities of knowing and believing shared by groups and communities; it is derived from historically and culturally established common sense. This perspective justifies the claim that social representations should be treated as anthropology of contemporary culture. Finally, the chapter discusses main concepts linking social representations, language, and culture.

In this chapter we explore interdependencies between social representing, language, communication, and culture. In contrast to individual representations, social representations are dynamic phenomena that are embedded in culture and formed and transformed in and through language and communication. The researchers of social representing aim to understand how citizens think, feel about, and act on phenomena that are in the center of societal, group, and individual interests and discourses, be they political, health-related, environmental, or otherwise. Such phenomena pose significant challenges for social psychology generally and social representing specifically. Their understanding cannot be fitted within narrow and static frameworks, which still dominate large parts of social sciences. Instead, the study of social phenomena requires researchers’ and practitioners’ creativity in broadening and deepening the scope of their disciplines. This involves a scholarly interest in the ways in which traditions and novel ideas enrich each other, in the ability to understand how the relatively stable and new phenomena struggle for dominance and transform one another and how these tensions and conflicts are reflected in thought and language. The Theory of Social Representations, we shall argue here, provides researchers and practitioners with the means of coping with such challenges and so ensures the credibility of social psychology as a scientific discipline.

Because the concepts of “representation” and “representing” are used in different fields of social sciences and psychology, the study of social representing must dispel confusions between social and individual representations, the problem or rationality and irrationality, and misunderstandings of meanings of concepts linking social representing with cultural anthropology. Such issues also pose challenges for social psychology as a social scientific discipline: Can we make it theoretically convincing and useful in practical interventions?

Representation and Culture

During its long history in European scholarship, the meaning of representation has undergone considerable changes and diversification. Today, there are three main meanings of representation in human and social sciences and in philosophy. They stem from diverse epistemological traditions, address different levels of analysis, and imply contrasting relations with respect to culture and language.

Mental Representation, Culture, and Language

The first meaning refers to mental representations. It has been associated, at least since the seventeenth century with philosophers René Descartes and John Locke, with glorification of the cognition of the individual and with mirroring of the objective reality. According to this tradition, the self's cognition is the only source of certain knowledge or representation of reality.

The concept of mental representation as a mirror of objective reality has nothing to do with culture. The proponents of this perspective attribute any mistaken representations to the influence of other people and, indeed, of culture. As Descartes ( 1637/1985 ) put it, true knowledge cannot be pursued by an “example and custom.” Whereas Descartes did not say much about language, the philosopher John Locke ( 1690/1975 ) argued that the perfection of knowledge could be hindered or facilitated by incorrect or correct use of words. Although views of these philosophers were highly original in the context of philosophy and science of the seventeenth century, they have become a hindrance in social sciences of the twenty-first century. Their variations with respect to representations, culture, and language still play a significant role in contemporary cognitive sciences and in philosophical traditions based on foundational epistemology (for criticism of foundational epistemology, see Rorty, 1980 ; Taylor, 1995 ). Reflecting on views of foundational philosophy, the anthropologist Gellner ( 1998 , p. 3) characterizes them by saying: “We discover truth alone, we err in groups.” In his influential book Reason and Culture , Gellner ( 1992 ) claims that human reason is innate and universal and that it exists independently of culture. On the one hand, it can be argued that this idea expresses an essential presupposition that all humans have the same potential for rationality and for the development of intelligence and so that it mitigates racism. Gellner insists that culture and common sense knowledge hinders this universal human potential: “reason is latent in us all,” but “most cultures fail to promote it” (Gellner, 1992 , p. 53). On the other hand, we shall see later, to ignore culture in the growth of human intelligence leads to a paradox: any human individual always belongs to one culture or other, and it remains questionable what it could possibly mean to claim that reason can be explored independently of culture or that culture fails to promote reason.

Collective Representation, Culture, and Language

A different meaning of representation was held by the sociologist Emile Durkheim who, despite remaining philosophically within the framework of Descartes and Kant, dramatically altered the concept of representation. First, Durkheim ( 1898 ) sharply distinguished between individual and collective representations. Individual representations are of physiological and neurological nature and do not have much to do with knowledge. In contrast, collective representations do not originate in single minds but arise directly from social structures. They are generated in social life and in social groups, institutions, and cultures. For Durkheim, representing referred to various forms of thinking—whether scientific, religious, social, or ideological—rather than to specifically defined objects. Such meaning was fully in agreement with the French use of the word representation in arts, literature, and daily discourse as well as in social sciences.

Collective representations are social facts, and as such, they form the basis of all understanding, knowledge, and logic. Durkheim's ambition was to develop the idea of collective representations as a theory of sociological knowledge. Being social facts, collective representations impose an irresistible pressure on individuals who yield to their coercion, internalize them, and so perpetuate specific forms of thinking, feeling and acting. For something to be knowledge, it must be stable. Durkheim held the position that representations change very slowly during the historical journey of mankind from religion to science and from less to more adequate representations.

In Durkheim's time, social and cultural phenomena were understood as intertwined and Durkheim's concept of collective representations formed an interface between culture and society; he used the term social both for social and cultural systems. Representations included religion, normative constraints of society, moral orders, social solidarity, as well as systems of beliefs and knowledge. Being social facts, collective representations are external to individuals who acquire them through internalization. Language, too, is a social fact. It circulates in society, forms the individual's social environment, and imposes itself on the individual. When the individual acquires language, he/she adopts the whole system of social thoughts, their classifications, and evaluations. Words fix ideas and transmit them from generation to generation. Therefore, language is a social thing (Durkheim, 1912/2001 ; Marková, 2003/2005 ).

Social Representations, Culture, and Language

Having considered relations between mental and collective representations with respect to culture and language, in the rest of this chapter we turn to social representations.

Building on the ideas of Durkheim and Piaget, Serge Moscovici has proposed an original Theory of Social Representations and developed it, both conceptually and empirically, in La Psychanalyse: Son Image et Son Public (Moscovici, 1961 /76). This book was published in English as Psychoanalysis: Its Image and Its Public (2008). This classic explores transformations of professional and scientific knowledge of psychoanalysis into everyday thinking and discourse of various social groups, and the mass media reporting, in a specific socio-political culture in the late 1950s in France. But we need to make a general point: it would be a mistake to understand the transformation of professional and scientific knowledge into everyday thinking as a naïve form of thinking and developing simplified lay theories. Instead, these transformations into common sense thinking and knowledge are accomplished and enriched through different means of communication and images; they involve arguments based on trust and distrust of others, collective memories, conscious and unconscious beliefs, myths and metaphors, fears and hopes. Following the publication of La Psychanalyse , social representing has been studied in various social, political, health-related, and other kinds of phenomena preoccupying the minds and discourses of general public (for a comprehensive review, see Wagner & Hayes, 2005 ).

The Dynamic Nature of Social Representing

Moscovici's social representations, in contrast to Durkheim's collective representations, are dynamic: they arise and are maintained and transformed through interaction and different forms of communication between the established social structures—for example, traditions, on the one hand, and the individuals’ and groups’ mental and social activities and social practices on the other. From the inception of the theory, language and communication have been vital features of representing, and this is already expressed in La Psychanalyse . As Moscovici explains, a representation is always directed at others: it speaks through pointing something to someone; it communicates through mediating meanings and symbols to someone. Representing and communicating is jointly generated by human subjects and groups that have different histories and experience. Their interaction does not follow the Durkheimian path of the progress from less adequate (e.g., religious representations) to more adequate (e.g., scientific representations). Arising in traditions, social experience, and communication, social representations are discontinuous; emotions, contents of beliefs, and images are sensitive to socio-cultural changes and to tensions and preferences of the Zeitgeist.

In contrast to collective representations that refer to various ideas and forms of thinking, social representations refer to specific objects or specific social phenomena. For example, the way citizens think, feel, and act (or represent) democracy depends on their historical and cultural experience as well as on their knowledge of, beliefs, and images about contemporary socio-political circumstances as well as of their expectations of the future. What is important to emphasize, however, is that it is not the object that is social. On the contrary, social representations arise from the fact that objects or phenomena are socially shared (Moscovici, 1988 ; Wagner, 1998 ; Wagner et al., 1999 ).

Unlike Durkheim's time, contemporary meanings of the notions “social” and “cultural” are not synonyms, although the boundaries between them are not always clear. The notion social ranges from usages in social sciences and their subdisciplines (e.g., economics, sociology, social psychology, politics, etc.) to professional fields like social security, health services, social work and social practices, among many others. Numerous attempts and failures to define culture as an entity point to inherent difficulties of this notion, and these difficulties also transpose themselves with respect to their relations to social representations (Duveen, 2007 ). These problems are raised by Jodelet ( 2002 ) in her article, “Social Representations in the Field of Culture.” The author draws attention to the changing relations between psychology, anthropology, and culture in the course of the last two centuries, arising both from diversifications within human and social sciences and from the more recent cognitive revolution, among other factors ( see also Valsiner, 2003 ).

During the five decades after the publication of La Psychanalyse , the explorations of social representations have become widely differentiated. A large volume of research has been carried out in different social and cultural conditions. Individual researchers have subscribed to divergent underlying epistemologies, and numerous studies have been performed on different topics, contents, and structures. As a result, some researchers (e.g., Wagner et al., 1999 ; Wagner & Hayes, 2005 ; Palmonari & Emiliani, 2009 ) speak about social representational approaches—or schools of social representations—rather than about a single theory. For example, these authors refer to the Aix-en-Provence school based on structuralistic approach that emphasizes central nucleus and periphery of representations (e.g., Abric, 1994a , 2001 ; Flament, 1994a , 1994b ; Guimelli, 1994 ), whereas the Genevean school of Doise specifies organizing principles of social representations (Doise, 1985 , 1986 ). Jodelet's approach is anthropological and cultural (e.g., Jodelet, 1989/1991 , 2002 , 2006a , 2008 ); Wagner, Duveen, and their collaborators (Wagner et al., 1999 , 2000 ; Duveen, 2007 ) bring to attention the role of social construction and discourse; and Valsiner draws on the role of semiotic mediation and social experience (e.g., Valsiner, 2003 ). In addition, one can hardly discuss social representations and culture without foregrounding language, communication, and, more specifically, dialogicality as a major feature of the relation between social representations and culture (Marková, 2003/2005 ; Valsiner, 2003 ).

Within these diversities in focus, we can nevertheless distinguish between two fundamental meanings of the concept of social representations that underlie all approaches (Jodelet, 1989/1991 ; Duveen, 2002 ; Marková, 2003/2003 ). First, the Theory of Social Representations is a theory of social knowledge. As such, it establishes networks of concepts and figurative schemes that are generated in and through tradition, common sense, daily knowledge, and communication and that are shared by particular groups and communities. The theory of social knowledge enables the researcher to define research problems. Second, social representations or social representing refers to concrete social phenomena and to forms of apprehending and creating social realities in and through communication, experience, social practices, and interventions (Jodelet, 2006a ; in press ) and semiotic mediation (Valsiner, 2003 ). This also enables the researcher to understand problems posed by the theory and to attempt their answers. Let us consider these two meanings in some detail.

Social Representations As a Theory of Social Knowledge

There is a fundamental difference between what is considered by knowledge in cognitive sciences and in the Theory of Social Representations. In the former, building blocks of epistemologies are knowledge and justified beliefs arising from the cognition of the individual. In parallel with this, in social sciences, epistemologies are often considered as paths from beliefs to knowledge, implying a gradual progress in intellectual development (for a historical account of these ideas since ancient times, see Lovejoy, 1936 ). Such was the position, for example, of Jean Piaget whose epistemology focused on transformations of less adequate patterns of thought to more adequate ones. In his studies of moral development, Piaget ( 1932 ) conceptualized this path as a gradual transformation of beliefs into knowledge or as a transformation of the morality of constraint to the morality of cooperation. Asymmetric relations—say, between a child and an adult—imply constraint and, therefore, only the possibility of belief or compliance resulting from the authority of the source. In contrast, symmetric relations in terms of social status and influence between individuals allow for co-operation and, therefore, for the mutual construction of knowledge (Duveen, 2002 ). As we have already seen, Durkheim's ideas concerning the transformation of less adequate to more adequate collective representations throughout human history take a similar path. The Piagetian and Durkheimian way of progress in the intellectual development relies on classical—that is, the Kantian form of—rationality. This means that the action of reason and of intellect excludes partly or totally those actions based on motives, desires, or emotions—that is, on irrational activities (Kant, 1788/1873 ). The Piagetian rationality (1970), like the Kantian rationality, is universal. All children pass through the stages of operational development, and through these stages they acquire, step by step, higher forms of intelligence.

Although informed and inspired by Durkheim and Piaget, Moscovici takes a different route:

The proper domain of our discipline is the study of cultural processes which are responsible for the organization of knowledge in a society … In parallel more attention should be paid to language which has not until now been thought of as an area of study closely related to social psychology. ( Moscovici , 1972/2000 , pp. 55–56)

But how can one link, epistemologically, culture, language, and knowledge, in and through social representations?

From Taxonomic Psychology of the Ego-Object to Representing Through the Ego–Alter–Object

Moscovici's ( 1970 , 1972/2000 ) analysis and criticism of what he called a “taxonomic” social psychology is instructive. It will lead us to overcoming problems of taxonomic psychology and to understanding the fundamentally important link between culture, language and knowledge. The study of the relation between the Ego and the Object in social psychology refers to no more than classification—or taxonomies—of stimuli or variables. For example, in taxonomic social psychology that is undertaken in numerous laboratory experiments, the Ego is treated (or classified) as undifferentiated and undefined; it is a subject without culture. The aim of such experiments is to discover how social stimuli affect classes of variables like perception, attitudes, judgment, and so on. But humans live in societies and are differentiated from one another in many ways; they live in cultures and they communicate. Therefore, “others” are not “other subjects” with whom humans compare themselves—for example, as in Festinger's ( 1954 ) social comparison theory— in order to reduce uncertainty with respect to what is right and wrong, or good or bad; neither are they subjects whose presence facilitates the Ego's activities, as in Zajonc's ( 1965 ) social facilitation theory. Instead, the Ego and the Alter communicate and jointly generate knowledge and social representations. Therefore, we must substitute the dyad Ego–Object, in which the Ego is taxonomically undifferentiated, by the triad Ego–Alter–Object. Once we introduce the Ego–Alter, we are immediately in the realm of language, communication, and culture. The Ego–Alter are not undifferentiated and undetermined subjects; they interact, communicate, and speak. As it is already clear in La Psychanalyse , representing takes place in communication. If knowledge is generated neither by the Ego nor by the Alter alone, but jointly by the Ego–Alter, then the minimum unit in the formation of knowledge cannot be expressed as a relation between the Ego–Object but as a triadic relation, the Ego–Alter–Object (Moscovici, 1970 , 1972/2000 , 1984 ; Bauer & Gaskell, 1999 ; Marková, 2003/2005 ; Jesuino, 2009 ). But who is it that stands behind these abstract notions, the “Ego” and the “Alter?” Although in this generalized model the “Ego–Alter” could mean an interaction between any kind of the self and other(s), in concrete and contextualized dialogical situations, there is always the specific Ego and the specific Alter (or the self–other[s])—for example, “I–you,” “minority–majority,” “I–group,” “group–another group,” “I–culture,” and so on. Indeed, these specific Ego and Alter are embedded in other dyadic Ego–Alter interactions. For example, a mother–child interaction (Ego–Alter) takes place in a specific culture; this means that we can conceptualize this mother–child dyad as the Ego within a particular culture (Alter), or that this same dyad can be conceived as the Ego within a specific social group (Alter), and so on. Or a conversation between two individuals is not just an exchange of words between I and you that takes place in a specific here-and-now, but it has its past, present, and future. Moreover, parents, leaders of political groups, friends, the “generalized other,” and so forth, speak through the mouth of each conversational partner. All these social and language-based interdependencies make the dyadic relations between the Ego–Alter dynamic, with implicit and explicit meanings affecting their discourses and contributing to transformation of representations in all dialogical participants. They all contribute to different dialogical perspectives and create tensions among them.

Language and communication as a point of departure in epistemology of social representations has yet another implication: to communicate means to take diverse routes, leading once to intersubjective understanding between individuals or between groups or cultures, once to conflict; to negotiation, to compromise, or to a firm self-positioning. Therefore, communication does not necessarily lead to a better understanding and “true knowledge.” In contrast to the ascent theory of knowledge toward science and true knowledge that was adopted by Durkheim and Piaget, the Theory of Social Representations does not presuppose progress toward higher forms of knowledge or toward more adequate representations. Instead, it presupposes transformation of one kind of knowledge into another one; transformation of different kinds of knowledge is pertinent to specific socio-historical and cultural conditions. This is why the triangularity of the Ego–Alter–Object forms the basis of linking language and communication, culture, and social representation.

The Dialogicality of the Ego–Alter in Mikhail Bakhtin

We can arrive at the triangularity of the Ego–Alter–Object from a different theoretical perspective, like the dialogicality of the Ego–Alter in Voloshinov's ( 1929/1973 ) and Bakhtin's ( 1981 ) approaches to language and communication. For these scholars of the early part of the twentieth century, alike, social knowledge and social reality is jointly created by the Ego–Alter. In Voloshinov's and Bakhtin's work, too, the Ego and Alter dialogically co-constitute one another in a dynamic figure-ground set-up. I am using the term dialogicality to characterize the fundamental capacity of the Ego to conceive, create, and communicate about social realities in terms of the Alter. What the human individual has become through the work of the past, and what his/her prospects are for the future, results from dialogicality (Marková, 2003/2005 ).

To my mind, these two epistemological approaches, the one stemming from Moscovici and the other arising from Bakhtin ( 1981 , 1979/1986 ), enrich one another and provide potential, in the Theory of Social Representations, for a more focused study of relations between knowing, believing, language, and speech. In both epistemologies, the Ego and the Alter transform one another's representations in and through dialogical and symbolic interactions. The concept of transformation in both approaches is characterized by tension and by multifaceted and heterogeneous relationships between the Ego and Alter. There can be no single mind without other minds: they dialogically co-constitute one another. Neither for Bakhtin nor for Moscovici can dialogue be neutral. Neutrality can be only artificially imposed but daily speech is always judgmental, evaluative, and orientated to creating new meanings.

Bakhtin expressed this idea pertinently in his analysis of Dostoyevsky's novels. Consciousness must be in interaction with another consciousness to achieve its proper existence: “justification cannot be self- justification, recognition cannot be self- recognition. I receive my name from others, and it exists for others (self-nomination is imposture)” (Bakhtin, 1984 , pp. 287–288).

Social Representations As Phenomena and As Interventions

The second meaning of social representations refers to the ways in which humans apprehend, interact with, and create their social reality. As they attempt to orientate themselves and create meanings of events in their lives, humans form representations of complex social phenomena that are in the center of social life and social disputes, whether they are political, ecological, or health- or community-related. Resources for generating social representations are phenomena that disrupt routines, turn them upside down, and call for action. Specifically, firm or irresistible beliefs ( see below) concerning, say, democracy, management of banks, social responsibility, mental illness, distrust, freedom of speech, and so forth, are sources of action, and they instigate social change. Complex phenomena obtain their specific and multileveled meanings in interdependence with culture and in relation to other representations within that culture and community. For example, the representation of freedom of speech would be related to other social representations and actions within that particular culture, like political protests against terrorism, expressions of abuse of the dominant political Party, censorship of any dissent, of the media, and the like. Thus, freedom of speech would have different meanings in relation to different semiotic networks and social phenomena. Two points should be mentioned as fundamental with respect to culture: social representations are phenomena in the making and representing can take part of action and intervention.

Social Representations Are Phenomena in the Making

In emphasizing relationships between social representations and communication, Moscovici (Moscovici & Marková, 1998 , pp. 393–394) draws attention to viewing them “in the making, not as already made.” This characteristic is essential both historically and developmentally. Social representations are not quiet things (Howarth, 2006 ); being phenomena in the making, social representations are formed and transformed in and through asymmetries, conflict, discontinuities, and tension. Representing, like communication, requires commitment. For example, one cannot study influence and innovation processes between majorities and minorities by removing tension and engagement: “Whether in conversation or in influence processes, one deals with change, with negotiation between two opposing partners—one cannot exist without the other” (Moscovici & Marková, 1998 , p. 394).

Interdependencies between communication and different social groups can be illustrated by Duveen's analysis of communication systems in Moscovici's ( 1961/1976 ) La Psychanalyse: Son Image et Son Public . Specifically, Duveen ( 2008 ) analyzes Moscovici's thoughts about social groups in relation to different communicative systems through content analysis of the French press. Focusing on different types of social groups in relation to the three genres of communication—that is, diffusion, propagation, and propaganda—Duveen identifies specific forms of affiliation corresponding to each communicative genre and consequently also to different representations of the members of the in-group and the out-group in each instance. He characterizes diffusion as the voluntary association of the members of in-group who possess a skeptical intelligence, whereas the out-group embraces forms of dogmatism. Duveen describes this kind of group in terms of sympathy. Propagation, on the other hand, refers to groups in which a central authority sets limits to creativity or intellectual curiosity. The out-group does not share the belief in the legitimacy of such authority or the relevant ideology. Duveen calls this kind of group a communion. Finally, propaganda is used by groups whose political commitment and organization defines the way of conduct of in-group. In contrast, the out-group is either committed to a different kind of ideology or simply does not share the ideology of the in-group. Duveen characterizes such group in terms of solidarity. His analysis shows that commitment to a particular kind of ideology elicits a particular kind of communicative genre. It illustrates that communicative genres of groups are part of their particular cultures and that, therefore, representing, like communication, is never a neutral exchange of information. Moreover, if we attempted to remove tension from communication, “it would become a kind of dead psychology” (Moscovici & Marková, 1998 , p. 394).

Thus we arrive at an important feature of representations as phenomena in the making: Social representations are structured semiotic mediators that are constantly in the process of innovation, created in and through conflict and tension (Valsiner, 2003 ). In experiencing tension, humans attempt to construct a predictable world out of great diversity and regulate their conduct. Referring to Moscovici's back-and-forth movement between experiencing and representing Valsiner ( 2003 , p. 73) concludes: “representing is needed for experiencing, while experiencing leads to new forms of representing.”

Representing As Action and Intervention

Another feature of representing, Valsiner ( 2003 ) maintains, is its implication for action and social change, or its function as intervention. Jodelet ( in press ) characterizes intervention as a practice involved in an “explicit and intentional project of a deliberate act of change.” Intervention encourages transformation of knowledge and behavior of individuals and groups toward better standards of living. Jodelet specifies three forms of activities interconnecting social representations and intervention: first, social representations can modify thinking of individuals or groups about a practical issue; second, they can transform practices, and these, in turn, can lead to transformation of representations; and finally, intervention of social representations is intentionally directed at producing changes in activities of individuals and groups concerned.

The relation between intervention practices and social representations is itself an object of research practice (Abric, 1994b ), in particular in health research (Jodelet, 2006a ; Jovchelovitch & Gervais, 1999 ; Morin, 2004 ) or in education (Garnier & Rouquette, 2000 ). For example, intervention should allow for exchanges between traditional and new forms of knowledge (Quintanilla, Herrera, & Veloz, 2005 ), the preservation of culture, and its negotiation with emerging alternatives in society (Jodelet, 2006b ). Doise ( 2002 ) regards social representations of human rights as interventions into social relations, whether these concern relations between individuals and groups, or individuals and institutions. Human rights must be clearly defined precisely because they are interventions of one kind or other.

Culture and Social Representations Are Relational Phenomena

Referring to two ways of studying social representations (which basically correspond to the two main meanings as discussed in this section), Jodelet ( 1989/91 ) emphasizes that when we focus on positions held by individuals and groups with respect to objects, representations are treated as structured fields. By “structured fields,” she means relations between contents contributed by subjects (or the Ego and Alter) and principles that organize contents, like cultural schemata, norms, and so forth. This perspective draws attention, again, to the relation between social representations and culture. I suggest that this does not mean to consider a social representation on the one hand, and culture as its context on the other hand, and to ask how they are related. Equally, it would be wrong to consider culture as a container within which one can identify a set of specific social representations.

Jodelet's concept of a structured field, I suggest, can be viewed as something like the concept of an electromagnetic field in physics of relativity. Electromagnetic field is a totality of forces that exists “between the two charges and not the charges themselves, which is essential for an understanding of their action” (Einstein & Infeld, 1938/1961 , p. 151). Thus “force between particles,” rather than “behavior of single entities” defines the field. Equally, we cannot understand the specificity of the Theory of Social Representations without taking on the concept of the force of interaction that binds elements to one another as complements, rather than as behavior of single entities (individuals, groups) that come to interact with one another. Taking Jodelet's concept of the structured field, individuals and groups are not undifferentiated subjects as in the taxonomic psychology ( see above), but their meanings are defined in and through concrete society or culture. Their internal interaction (in contrast to external interaction; e.g., in the analysis of variance) constitutes a new reality: the interacting components define one another as complements, whether this involves institutions vis-à-vis environment, institutions vis-à-vis groups, one group vis-à-vis another group, or social representation vis-à-vis culture ( see above, the Ego–Alter). Like an electromagnetic field, the structured field of social representations is dynamic. It is open to participants’ new experiences and to social change.

There is yet another implication of the concept of structured field. Just like when speakers communicate, they select different ways of expression with respect to one another depending on their relations, status, experience, and otherwise, so when they represent a phenomenon they are in an intimate complementary relation with culture. In other words, it is not the case that the same culture would be in relation with a set of different social representations. Such a position would be something like Piaget's mountain seen from different perspectives. In this case, the mountain remains the same, but the child's position is different and through the growth of intellectual development, the child learns to understand this. In contrast, the relation between social representation and culture is unique. Each social with culture in a specific manner; it selects different aspects of that culture because not all aspects are relevant in the same way for each social representation. Consequently, the forces of interaction between them imply that for each representation we have a slightly different meaning of culture. If we return to communication between groups and their communicative genres, propaganda and propagation view different aspects of culture. The former places emphasis on authoritarian aspects of the culture, whereas the latter focuses on more democratic features.

We need to view forces as both constraining and stimulating. In Moscovici's words, “society is an institution which inhibits what it stimulates. It both tempers and excites … increases or reduces the chances … and invents prohibitions together with the means of transgressing them” (Moscovici 1976 , p. 149).

Social Representations As Anthropology of Contemporary Culture: The Case of Rationality

Throughout his career, Serge Moscovici (e.g., 1987 , 1993a , 1988/93 ; Moscovici & Marková, 1998 , 2006 ) has persistently insisted that the Theory of Social Representations is—or should be treated—as anthropology of contemporary culture. Cultural anthropologists are concerned with the totality of life of social groups under study—that is, with beliefs and knowledge, myths, images, as well as with social practices in daily living. To understand these phenomena, anthropologists study them in relation to one another, like meaningful wholes, rather than as independent elements that, if need be, could either be joined together or disjoined. In the previous section, I touched several times on the problem of rationality, culture, and social representations. This issue is significant in contemporary social sciences, and it raises specific questions in relation to social representing; therefore, in this section, I turn attention to this issue in some detail.

Rationality and Irrationality in Social Sciences

Whatever we can say about rationality and irrationality of, and within, social sciences, it is necessary to place this issue in the context of natural sciences. Since the end of the seventeenth century, natural sciences have been based on “knowledge which eliminates mystery. In contrast to Greek science it does not end in wonder but in expansion of wonder,” as says Michael Foster ( 1957 , p. 53) in his treatise of “Myth and Philosophy.” Since the seventeenth century, natural sciences have prided themselves on being rational disciplines.

In contrast, social sciences started their scientific career as irrational disciplines. As Moscovici ( 1988/1993 ) reminds, they originated in the study of phenomena like nationalism, religion, myth, and beliefs. For example, Weber and Durkheim commenced from religion, Simmel from the relativity of values, and Marx from a kind of the Hegelian concept of historical forces. Vico, Herder, Hamann, and Humboldt were developing ideas of relativism and cultures. Other social scientists, like Le Bon, Ortega y Gasset, or McDougall, preoccupied themselves with the study of collectives and crowds in which rational individuals turned themselves into irrational beings.

Since the nineteenth century, the ideas of relativity, variability, and the evolution of species have been drawing attention to the importance of perspective-taking in the growth of knowledge. Yet perspective-taking has influenced natural sciences and social sciences differently. Natural sciences, despite the influence of theories of evolution and relativity, defined these scientific discoveries in rationalistic manner and so remained rational disciplines; in social sciences, however, we can observe a split between rationalistic and less rationalistic (or non-rationalistic) approaches.

In social sciences—specifically in anthropology and social psychology—the meaning of rationality has become a subject of keen interest. This has led to the search for universals that apply to all humans and to all cultures. Consequently, this has raised questions about the sources of relativism and irrational beliefs. Rationality as opposed to relativism even forms titles of classic volumes like those by Wilson ( 1970 ; Rationality ) and by Hollis and Lukes ( 1982 ; Rationality and Relativism ). The contributors to the latter volume suggest that the problem of understanding relativism and irrational beliefs arises from the fact that different cultures, languages, and the minds of others can be understood only within their own idiosyncratic socio-historical situations, rather than universally. Can we, therefore, identify anything transcultural among humans? Does culture challenge “the very idea of a single world” ( ibid , p. 1)? The dichotomy between the presupposition of universal rationality and questions concerning the sources of irrational beliefs as well as their rich and extensive presence in different cultures have led to the search for different forms of relativism. For example, researchers have been concerned with weak and strong forms of relativism, types of representational beliefs (convictions, persuasion, opinions), and different kinds of translation, interpretation, and explanation of beliefs.

Yet such questions can hardly be settled by academic discourses about rationality and relativism. Cultures are no longer isolated in their geographical ghettos. Therefore, Harris ( 2009 ) argues that it would be less misleading to abandon the notion of a singular rationality and speak, instead, about rationalities in the pluralistic sense. The contemporary world of societies is opened to other cultures and it set the stage for permanent situations of uncertainty moving cultures in different directions. In this situation, reason is not a private domain of the individual but it must be negotiated (Rosa & Valsiner, 2007 , p. 697). A narrow rationality of the individual defined in formal terms cannot meet the world of ambiguities of the contemporary world, and it transcends not only individual reason but also a particular cultural reason. In these circumstances, judgments of what is right and wrong and what is and is not ethical guide any kinds of preferences, control the individual and social choices, and confront different reasons for choosing something rather than something else. In these confrontations, “Reason then turns into Rationality ” ( ibid , p. 697), giving rise to Ethics and to Objectivity that emerges in and through transformations of rules and new norms. As Rosa and Valsiner ( ibid , p. 698) argue, “Rationality, Ethics and Objectivity” (all with capital letters) cannot be disentangled from one another. It is in this sense that we shall view rationality and social representations.

Reason and Cultures

The interdependence between culture, rationality, and social representations is perhaps most clearly expressed in Moscovici's ( 1993a ) lecture on Razón y Culturas (Reason and Cultures). One could say that the red thread through this lecture is an ethical concern of culture and social representations. Moscovici notes that the Cartesian approach discarding example and custom has also led to discarding culture, whether religious or profane, and substituted it by a narrow concept of rationality. However, to rationalize in this narrow way, Moscovici argues, means to ignore moral and ethical values of traditions in human histories and cultures as well as their symbolic values. He raises the question as to whether this narrow approach means that social psychology has nothing to say about arts or literature or whether this means that humans are satisfied with perceiving others, making judgments about objects, or looking for motivations of their conduct. Moscovici notes that humans have deep experiences in and through living in their cultures; they read novels, appreciate arts, listen to music, and experiment with ethical and moral values. These issues that have been neglected by social psychology are brought back to life by the Theory of Social Representations. Moscovici draws on three fundamental concepts: social representations, anthropology, and culture.

The lecture on Razón y culturas was written at a time when it became clear that the cognitive revolution failed to cope with complex human and social phenomena. In the late years of the twentieth century, cultural psychology gained importance because it was thought that it would solve questions of economic, educational, and political psychology as well as of child development and transformations of mental faculties in adulthood, migration, and nationalism, among others. Cultural psychology was seen as a plausible alternative to individualistic and mechanistic approaches (e.g., Bruner, 1985 ; Jodelet, 2002 ; Valsiner, 1987 ; 1989 , 1998 ; Valsiner & Lawrence, 1996 ) in focusing on intentionality, indigenous psychologies, language and communication, and on semiotic and symbolic practices. But, Moscovici points out that even if cognitive revolution were to succeed, these phenomena could be understood only with reference to culture. But instead, as we have seen in the previous section, contemporary social psychology and anthropology are still disputing problems of rationality and the relation between universality and cultural relativism. These problems are not new.

Three Paradoxes of the Individual and Collective Mentality

Moscovici ( 1993a ) identifies three historically established paradoxes with respect to individual and collective mentality; both Durkheim and Lévy-Bruhl struggled against them in their particular ways. Therefore, Theory of Social Representations, to fulfill its role as anthropology of contemporary culture, needs to address these paradoxes.

The first paradox concerns individual rationality and collective irrationality. As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, for Descartes and Locke, only the individual was rational whereas culture and language were sources of error. Yet no individual starts thinking and talking from nothing like the biblical Adam; each individual lives in a culture and in language. Durkheim acknowledged this paradox, and therefore, for him, all representations were rational beliefs; however, as mankind progressed from religion to science, some became closer to true knowledge than others. Collective representations are socially true, as Durkheim ( 1912/2001 ) states in “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.” They are founded in the nature of things and they hold to and express reality. Religions, too, express reality, and therefore, all are true in their own fashion: there are no religions that are false. All religions respond, although in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence, and this is why for Durkheim a collective representation is a rational belief. In contrast, and as Moscovici ( 1998a , p. 134) analyzes this question, Lévy-Bruhl showed that members of different cultures did not view rationality of social representations in the same way. He has studied throughout his life the ways of thinking of primitive cultures and tried to understand why it was not possible to explain one form of thought by another one.

The second paradox to which Moscovici refers concerns the presupposition of “the mental unity of mankind” that contradicts with the observation that local cultures are very diverse. This paradox leads to the question as to whether it is possible to find any commonalities within these diversities. It is this question that is being vehemently discussed by social scientists and particularly by social psychologists and anthropologists, as we indicated above.

The difficulty of resolving this paradox might be magnified by ancient beliefs that were clearly expressed in Darwin's assumption that all species could be placed on an upward continuum and that humans differed from animals in degree but not in kind (Lovejoy, 1936 ; Ingold, 2004 ). As Ingold explains, for Darwin, “the evolution of species in nature was also an evolution out of it” (Ingold, 2004 , p. 210, his emphasis) as the mind progressively liberated itself “from promptings of innate disposition.” This means that ancestors of humans became humans gradually, in stages, rising from primitive savages to humans, developing (in degrees) reason and language. But at what point does an animal become a human?

If no organic being excepting man had possessed any mental power, or if his powers had been of a wholly different nature from those of the lower animals, then we should never have been able to convince ourselves that our high faculties had been gradually developed. But it can be shown that there is no fundamental difference of this kind … yet this interval is filled up by numberless gradations … Differences of this kind between the highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages, are connected by the finest gradations. ( Darwin , 1859/1874 , p. 157)

Darwin stated that in The Origin of Species he aimed to show this continuous development of species toward perfection (compare this with Durkheim's and Piaget's ideas toward progress). Thus the idea of gradual perfection might have led to an implicit assumption that cultures could be at different stages of their development, and it seems that this assumption is implicit in the ideas of rationalists and relativists that we discussed above.

The third paradox concerns the difficulty of intergroup or intercultural communication. Moscovici notes that groups or cultures in general believe that others understand their point of view but, in fact, others are not always capable of understanding others. Groups are often closed to the perspective of other groups, and communication between groups is absent even if groups occupy the same public space. This incommunicability affirms mutual incompatibility between different social representations and diverse forms of communication, and it characterizes our present society, which consists of numerous groups with noticeable antagonistic representations. For example, Europeans can hardly understand exotic beliefs of primitive assumptions. Moscovici maintains that a question like, “What objects constitute the world around us?” cannot be answered otherwise than by specifying the framework of a particular representation to which it is pertinent. Loyalty to certain values makes groups insensitive to values of others (Geertz, 2000 , p. 70). The third paradox results in incompatible implicit or explicit ethnocentric beliefs. These beliefs, on the one hand, are based on assumptions of superiority of the own group, and at the same time, groups propagate multiculturalism.

How does the Theory of Social Representations respond to these three paradoxes? The first paradox, arising from treating the individual and group as independent entities is being resolved by treating the Ego–Alter as interdependent. The second paradox, arising from the narrow treatment of rationality, is substituted by fiduciary rationality (see below). The third paradox can be surmounted by the reflection of the group on the existing incommunicability and attempting to improve communication. Yet overcoming this paradox remains one of the challenges for social representing. In conclusion, all paradoxes arise from the difficulty to overcome the traditional epistemology based on reasoning capacities of the individual, the narrow concept of rationality, and the treatment of groups as independent categories.

Fiduciary Rationality

Interdependence between the social representation and culture of a group also makes the communication within a group preeminent above the communication with outsiders. I suggest that to understand the nature of this preeminence, we need to return to the epistemic question of rationality in the triad Ego–Alter–Object. The Ego–Alter dialogical relation within a group comes from the ethics of common sense pertaining to social representations of that group. Social representations captured by common sense within a group, Moscovici argues,

are analogous to paradigms, which, contrary to scientific paradigms, are made partly of beliefs based on trust and partly of elements of knowledge based on truth. In as much as they contain beliefs, validating them appears a long, uncertain process, since they can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed. ( Moscovici & Marková , 2000 , p. 253)

Within the epistemological triad of Ego–Alter–Object, relations between these components can take on different forms and strengths. For example, if the Ego searches for knowledge of this or that, he/she might pursue the route of own discovery and autonomous thought, focusing, within this triangularity, more strongly on the Object than on the Alter. In this case, the Ego would examine, in a step-by-step strategy, dispassionately and systematically, the object of knowledge. Dispassionate knowledge can be expanded by new learning, or it can be suspended, resisted, or ignored. Moscovici ( 1993b ) calls such kinds of knowledge (or beliefs) resistible.

For example, if the knower does not care about certain facts like “The Earth is not flat,” or “AIDS is caused by a virus,” then he or she might ignore, not think about, or suspend such facts and substitute them by others that appear more convincing. In a way, in such cases we can say that we possess beliefs just like other kinds of possession; if we do not need them any longer, then we can dispose of them.

Another kind of relation within the triangularity of the Ego–Alter–Object could be based on a strong relation between the Ego and Alter, whereas the relation between the Ego and Object would be treated as secondary. In this case, knowledge/beliefs can range from those that Moscovici calls irresistible to those that would function as constraints—be it compliance, conformity, or obeisance. Let us consider the latter, irresistible beliefs. Such beliefs can hardly be changed through evidence to their contrary, by facts, or by persuasion. Irresistible beliefs can lead to self-sacrifice and other-sacrifice of individuals and groups, rather than to their change. Such strong beliefs within a group are often based on trust and trustworthiness of the other. Irresistible beliefs “are like perceptual illusions: we are not a liberty to dismiss them, to have them or correct them if need be. Like many ideas, memories, or rituals, they take possession of us and are … independent of our reasoning” (Moscovici, 1993b , p. 50).

The rationality of these forms of relations in the epistemological triad is based not only on knowledge and justified beliefs but on the totality of human experience embedded in, and accumulated through, history and culture. It includes the struggle for social recognition, desires and their symbolic transformations, ethics and morality, myths and metaphors, judgments and evaluations of the self/other relations, and objects of knowledge. It is the epistemology of living experience and of daily thinking rooted in common sense, which is being transformed into new social representations when conditions for them are obtained.

In his analysis of Razón y culturas , Moscovici ( 1993a ) argues that what makes one group distinguishable from another one is “the act of privileging a type of representation and as a result, a form of communication” with other members of that group. He calls this kind of group loyalty the fiduciary rationality . As I understand it, fiduciary rationality is a form of dependency among group members that arise from within, from trust and loyalty, rather than from an outside pressure. Fiduciary rationality functions like irresistible beliefs. It is rooted within the group and it binds groups together. Rationality of the common sense, too, is based on fiduciary rationality.

We need to view social representations of various dependencies within a group—for example, rules and norms of acting and constraints of group members and solidarity and sympathy as established in and through tradition, history, and culture. They are present already in informal organizations that develop from within the group, before any more formal organization is formed. Similarly, communication is based on an inner contract among the in-group members. A contract is an ethical requirement for communication (Rommetveit, 1974 ), and we can say with Mikhail Bakhtin that there is no alibi for communication.

Concepts Relating Social Representations, Language, and Culture in Empirical Research

The term culture permeates a great deal of empirical research on social representations—particularly the research that aims to separate itself from narrow rationalistic and cognitive perspectives. This research examines diverse topics ranging from political, ideological, and historical issues to mental health, illness, social services, and child development, among others. As one would expect, in many studies the terms social representations and culture are rather nonspecific and could be easily replaced by other terms like opinions, attitudes, stereotypes, or prejudice in the case of the former, and context, situation, or community in the case of the latter. In view of this, in this section I focus only on those studies that theoretically enrich this growing field addressing relations among culture, language and communication, and social representations. To do this, I focus on three fundamental concepts of the Theory of Social Representations that make such contributions—specifically on cognitive polyphasia; figures and metaphors; and communicative and cultural themata. These concepts, we shall see, are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive, and I can do no more than to draw attention to them.

Cognitive Polyphasia and Heterogeneity in Thinking and Dialogue

One of the basic features of the Theory of Social Representations from the beginning has been the focus on dynamic co-existence of distinct modalities of thinking and communication in common sense knowledge (Moscovici, 2008 ). These distinct and rich modalities of thinking and communicating co-exist in communicative actions, contribute to viewing the issue in question from different perspectives, and so enable formulation of diverse arguments. They originate from knowledge and beliefs shared by social groups, and they have been established through their cultural and historical experiences. Such communication-centered thinking is directional and controversial, although it checks and validates its normative coherence (Moscovici, 2008 , p. 168). It forces humans to take up their own positions in social situations and defend them; it is the thinking that judges, evaluates, criticizes, and makes proposals for action. Moscovici coined these diverse modalities of thinking and communicating as cognitive polyphasia .

It is not that humans change their ways of thinking according to their mood, temporary preferences, or personality characteristics. The concept of cognitive polyphasia is inherently dialogical. The divergent modalities of thinking are articulated as specific Ego–Alter communications. This point is important: We relate to others dialogically, which means that we express our thoughts as it is specifically pertinent with respect to this or that Alter. Whereas a Cartesian scholar would expect that the thought of the individual should be rigorous and should follow an identical logical route from one moment to the next, in the Ego–Alter dialogical communication, different cognitive and emotional goals employ heterogeneous modes of thinking. To think means to pursue diverse mental routes. These may range from scientific to religious, from literal meanings to metaphoric interpretations, from jokes to formal expressions, and so on. They are suited to and articulated in different contexts of which they are parts. Speakers create links to others’ communications, anticipating their responses, reactions, and feelings. Moreover, the speakers’ dialogues are also filled with ideas of absent others; in communication, speakers express commitment and loyalties to views of those who are not physically present in dialogue or they object to, reject, or contest opinions of absent “others.”

Probably no other work has provided a deeper insight into cognitive polyphasia than Jodelet's ( 1989/1991 ) research on social representations of madness. We can see here that cognitive polyphasia dominates different kinds of communication among villagers, and Jodelet examines in these contexts the production of social representations from communication, different modes of thinking, and knowledge. She shows that cognitive polyphasia emerges from the villagers’ necessity of coping with fear of mental illness and enabling villagers to live together with patients. At one level, most villagers do not believe in medical dangers coming from mental patients. They know that mental illness is not contagious and that the lodger with mental illness does not transmit germs or microbes as in the case of tuberculosis. At another level they believe in contamination, but these beliefs remain unspecified because they are difficult to articulate. Beliefs take form of folk-fantasies, superstition, and convictions of a magic power. Jodelet emphasizes the persistence and forms of dual appeal in speech and actions of villagers, ranging from “biological and social, to ancestral, indeed archaic, representations of insanity with their magic contents borrowed from the realms of animism and sorcery” (Jodelet, ibid , p. 300). At the same time, villagers pride themselves on living in modern ways, on using advanced technology like fast trains or television, and on being aware of new means of medical treatment. Jodelet raises the question as to how can archaic beliefs retain their power in the face of modern medical treatment. She comments:

The embedding of these beliefs in the language codes which are transmitted by communication and the everyday acts which are transmitted by tradition, both conditions of collective memory, suffice to explain their permanence, not their intensity of character or the veil of secrecy with which they are covered. ( Jodelet , ibid , p. 300)

Such diverse meanings and beliefs are usually implicit and hidden in linguistic codes and in meanings of words. One may guess that they have been unconsciously transmitted for generations and that the contradictory forms of knowledge and belief have their specific expressions in particular social situations.

Other researchers have presented many examples of cognitive polyphasia in common sense thinking, and we can find excellent reviews of these studies (for example, see Duveen, 2007 ; Jovchelovitch, 2007 ; Wagner & Hayes, 2005 ) showing diverse forms of thinking in different social and cultural settings and among different groups. Numerous studies show that different cultural communities—for example, in India (Wagner et al., 1999 ), in Chinese immigrants in the United Kingdom (Jovchelovitch & Gervais, 1999 ), or citizens in Turkey (Narter, 2006 )—think about health issues both in terms of traditional ways of thinking and modern medicine. Cognitive polyphasia also dominates new and old ways of thinking about environment and science (Castro & Lima, 2001 ). Psaltis ( 2011 ) is concerned with diverse forms of thinking between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, relating them to varying meanings, emotions, distrust, and threat. These forms of thinking about the Cyprus issue express cognitive polyphasia when groups consider solutions to the problem from the point of view of the past, the present, and the future.

Research on cognitive polyphasia directs attention to shifts and changes in societies that experience movement from traditional forms of thinking toward modern forms. Yet it shows that traditional elements of representing, for example, mental illness, are deeply embedded within the communal life and are drawn “into a more active form of reflection and change through this process of cultural contact, communication, and exchange” (Duveen, 2007 , p. 557, his emphasis).

Wagner and Hayes ( 2005 , p. 235) have argued that the concept of cognitive polyphasia highlights two research areas. Instead of treating language and thought as independent, “representations are social because of their articulation within the context of their genesis and enactment.” The other research area places attention on the processes of change and transformation in representational systems. Just as a contemporary society's culture is constantly in flux and transformation and rarely in the state of equilibrium, so are the modes of thought and representations within it. Wagner and Hayes observe that cognitive polyphasia emerges primarily when members of groups are coping with new conditions during their lifetime and that transformations in forms of thinking and communicating continuously run between different generations.

Figure, Myth, and Metaphor

From the outset, the Theory of Social Representations included the figurative dimension—or images and metaphors—as features of representing. The term figure is preferable to image because imaging could be confused with mirroring or with a passive reflection (Moscovici, 2008 , p. 20). I wish to emphasize once more that the transformation of one kind of knowledge into another one, including that from science into common sense, involves creating metaphors, figures, and myths. Scientific discoveries diffuse themselves into common sense not as simplified versions of science; transformation of scientific knowledge into common sense knowledge is accompanied by creating figurative schemes and metaphors. It is well-documented that the science of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has had a profound effect on literature, art, and public imagination (e.g., Beer, 1993 ). For example, the discovery of X-rays at the end of the nineteenth century has led to artists’ and public's images of the invisible world and to fantasies and occult ideas. More recently, metaphors of illnesses like cancer, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS in language and thought and their transformations in public representations were captured by Sontag ( 1978 , 1989 ). Political, economic, and educational changes, too, are accompanied by new images and metaphors. The collapse of the Soviet bloc was marked by creating new symbols in re-emerging states. For example, Baltic States, in designing their new banknotes, chose symbols that represented preferred values of the newly created free nations (Mathias, 2008 ). Images, Moscovici ( 2007 , p. 9) maintains, speak to the public and accelerate communication. In her chapter on “Crossing Latin America: Two French perspectives on Brasil and Mexico,” Jodelet ( 2007 ) shows that since ancient Greece, alterity or others have always played crucial roles in imagination. The discovery of the New World has created, from the beginning, rich forms of imagination of indigenous peoples in Latin America by European intellectuals, arts and literature, as well as social scientists and has contributed significantly to generating social representations filled with imaginary others.

If we turn to the research on figurative schemes, metaphors, and images in social representations, we find that it has considerable methodological implication. To access processes of thinking and communication, questionnaires and scales are substituted by other means such as drawings, analyses of the media images, posters, and by studies of semiotic contents of these.

Representing in Drawings of Maps

One of the first studies of figurative schemes was the exploration by Milgram and Jodelet ( 1976 ) of drawings representing mental maps of Paris. The study showed that subjects were not drawing maps based just on their personal experiences but that they were transmitting images of certain subcultures and ethnic groups to which they belonged. For example, certain places were drawn only by those belonging to special professions—for example, slaughter houses were drawn by butchers but scarcely by anybody else. Other places, such as the icons of the town like Notre Dame, Place de la Concord, or the Eiffel Tower, were drawn by nearly everybody. We can say that drawings express historical-cultural networks of meanings that are part of subjects’ and subgroups’ experiences, knowledge, and feelings about the place where they live (Guerrero, 2007 ). Institutions that societies create are nourished by collective memories, myths, national identities, and imagination (Banchs et al., 2007 ).

Imagining based on drawings of maps inspired extensive studies in Latin America (Arruda & de Alba, 2007 ). In her study of maps of the city of Mexico, De Alba ( 2007 ) shows that the symbolic construction of the city is an imaginary sphere in which mythical references, mystical beliefs, reveries, and urban legends have no correspondents in the real world. An interesting theoretical issue discussed in Arruda and Ulup's ( 2007 ) research of mental maps of Brazil is the presence of blank spaces in the center or center-west region. The authors maintain that void spaces coincide with the colonial occupation of these territories and that drawings sometimes reproduce the ancient images of isolated and dangerous places. The authors observe that although one might consider empty spaces on maps as signs of lack of knowledge, it is more likely that these distant places in the center of Brazil express strangeness from which subjects wish to dissociate. These empty places may also serve as reminders of the past and collective memories of occupation. Thus, emptiness does not always mean nonexistence but a choice or a defense (Arruda, Gonçalves, & Mululo, 2008 ). In contrast, seaside spaces were filled with images. They were inhabited by Europeans and civilized local people. In addition, the authors found that the participants from northern Brazil represented south as a very different region because of its temperate climate and its population of the European origin.

Figurative Schemes in Comparative Research

A considerable amount of research has been carried out to compare figurative schemes and images in different fields like health and illness (e.g., Herzlich, 1973 ; Joffe, 2003 , 2008 ; Joffe & Haarhof, 2002 ), biotechnology (e.g., Wagner et al., 2002 ), the body (Jodelet, 1984 ), the body and hygiene as culturally determined (Jodelet, 2005 ; Wagner & Hayes, 2005 ), historical and cultural events (e.g., Sen & Wagner, 2005 ; Wertsch & Batiashvili, 2011 ). Kalampalikis ( 2007 ) analyzes symbolic conflicts embedded in social representations of two interpretations of history that are embedded in the name of Macedonia.

Equally, images and metaphors in social representations have been explored across cultures or in specific groups. In the 1980s, De Rosa ( 1987 ) carried out a multimethod research on the social representation of mental illness. In this research, children and adults were asked to draw images in connection with madness; their drawings suggested the presence of ancient images of madness ( see also Schurmans & de Rosa, 1990 ).

Visual images in the press, advertisements, and campaigns are used to influence or change social representations of political or health issues (De Rosa, 2001 ; Joffe, 2008 ). Intentions of the producers of posters, on the one hand, and images of the public, on the other hand, could be quite divergent. For example, some posters produced on behalf of people with mental disabilities sometimes confirmed, rather than changed, the existing representations (Marková & Farr, 1990 ). Visual images in the press have been particularly influential in staged photographs capturing public images about genetic engineering as injecting tomatoes with genes that make them grow bigger (Wagner et al., 2002 ). Wagner and Hayes ( 2005 , p. 181) comment that images of tomatoes injected with genes remind inoculation and injecting foreign materials into bodies known from medicine and chemistry. There is also an associated belief of infection that passes from one organism to another:

Finally, the monstrosity of genetically engineered organisms is related as well. The topic of ‘ Frankenstein foods’ is not far from these ideas and in fact frequently came up in interviews. Just as tomatoes are good to eat, they are also good to think with. These images and metaphorical projections capture the ‘What is it’ and the ‘How does it work’ part of popular imagination about ‘genetic engineering. ( Wagner & Hayes , 2005 , p. 181)

These examples show how the two opposite yet complementary explanations of phenomena in the world of reason and myth, or logos and mythos, mix to generate social representations. Nevertheless, it would not be correct to say that sciences are guided by logos ( see Moscovici, 1992 , on “scientific myths”) and common sense by mythical thinking.

A recent volume on Mythical Thinking and Social Representations forms a true dialogue between anthropology and the Theory of Social Representations (Paredes & Jodelet, 2009 ). The contributions to this volume show that mythical thinking does not disappear with scientific progress, technology, and mass education but that it continues to be present in everyday reasoning and that it permeates daily practices. Jodelet ( 2009 , p. 31) observes that there are least three central aspects that relate social representations and mythical thinking. There is an instrumental aspect of common sense that utilizes certain mythical thinking in the construction of social life. Furthermore, production of common sense re-activates ancient myths with requirements of contemporary cultural identities. Finally, through functional aspect of common sense, the formation of myths facilitates interpretations of events or objects in social life and in social relations.

Communicative and Cultural Themata

In contrast to cognitive polyphasia, figurative schemes, metaphors, and myths, the concept of themata has entered into the Theory of Social Representations more recently (Moscovici, 1993c ; Moscovici & Vignaux, 1994/2000 ). It has since become one of the most important theoretical concepts in social representations with respect to culture and communication. Let us explain.

One of the fundamental features of human thinking is making distinctions and understanding phenomena as antinomies. For example, we understand freedom in contrast to what we consider to be a lack of freedom; justice is understood through what is considered to be an absence of justice; logos as contrasted with mythos, and so on. Antinomies are features of thinking, language, and communication in all cultures, but different cultures and societies employ their capacity of making distinctions and thinking in antinomies in specific ways. We find them throughout eons of human history both in scientific and in common sense thinking, although very often they are present implicitly without becoming an explicit topic of discourse. Socio-cultural changes, however, may bring implicit antinomies to the public awareness and into discourses, reflecting societal tensions and conflicts. This means that from that moment on, they turn into themata , whether in scientific thinking where they generate scientific theories (Holton, 1975 , 1978 ) or in common sense thinking where they generate social representations (Moscovici, 1993c ; Moscovici & Vignaux, 1994/2000 ).

Many antinomies are implicitly present in our common sense thinking for centuries, and they may never be brought to explicit awareness. This is so, because there may never be any reason—or at least there may not be any reason for many generations—for them to become problematized and thematized. For example, logos and mythos could be viewed throughout history as complementary antinomies until, for one reason or other, logos become a superior and rational way of explanation of phenomena, whereas mythos is degraded as irrational thought (Moscovici, 2009 ). In principle, all antinomies can become themata—that is, issues for public debates and disputes—but many of them do not rise to that status.

Themata that generate most social representations are those pertaining to the Ego–Alter, like private/public, morality/immorality, justice/injustice, and freedom/oppression, among others. Such themata are in the heart of social sciences, and they generate social representations of phenomena like democracy, citizenship, quality of life, and health and illness, to name but a few. How and in what ways themata become problematized and which meanings become foregrounded is specific to the structured field in which a social representation in engaged. A social representation is rarely generated from a single thema. If we consider, as an example, a social representation of HIV/AIDS and its vicissitudes over the last three decades in different parts of the world, we find that re-thematization of morality/immorality has been associated with re-thematization of social values related to sexuality, promiscuity in the general public, discrimination of minorities, and social recognition, among other issues (Marková et al., 1995 ). Although the antinomy morality/immorality itself has not been questioned, the content and context of morality/immorality has been differently thematized in different structured fields in which the social representation of HIV/AIDS has been engaged. For example, the question of personal and social responsibility, medical confidentiality, and human rights all became part of discourse in such specific structured fields. Communicative processes, through which these changes in meanings are usually achieved, carry symbols and images, which not only circulate in public discourses but also organize and generate discourses; they shape common thinking, language, and behavior; and provide grounds for the formation of new social representations.

Liu ( 2004 ) describes themata as “deep structures” of social representations. In his research on rapid changes of social representations of the quality of life in China, he identified two themata that, in contemporary society, compete with one another: “to be” and “to have.” Being prioritizes traditional Chinese values like the authentic relation between subject and object, a union between self and others, and their rootedness, connectedness, and mutual commitment. Having , on the other hand, gives priority to how subject instrumentalizes object as a resource to be possessed and consumed. Possession has become a new value in the rapidly changing China, whether it is the possession of money and material objects or of symbolic objects like social status and power. Neither having nor being exist in pure forms, but they are both dynamically inter-related into the meaning of the quality of life in contemporary China.

In their research on social representations of Roms, Peréz et al. ( 2007 ) identified two underlying themata. One of them highlights nature versus culture. This polarity emphasizes the superiority of cultured European majorities over natural minorities of Roms. The second thema, human versus animal, represents Roms as having deficits in human qualities. Drawing on his socio-anthropological research, Moscovici ( 2011 ) shows that in the case of Roms themata are also articulated along the extensive historical narratives artistic/criminal.

Research on social representations of genetically modified food as presented in the press shows that these are underlain by themata of health versus disease and risk versus safety (Castro & Gomes, 2005 ). The already noted research by Wagner et al. ( 2002 ) implies that social representations of genetically modified tomatoes, both in the press and in interviews with citizens, are triggered by themata like natural versus unnatural.

Morality of Human Rights As a Thema

Although Doise ( 2002 ) does not use the concept of thema, we can subsume his work on human rights as social representations under this concept. Moral universality of human rights codified itself in societies as a basic thema, although naturally, it has been thematized differently in specific cultures and societies. Doise's own empirical research shows that participants in different countries express consistent attitudes on general principles or articles of the Declaration of Human Rights. This strong coherence disappears, however, when subjects respond to specific contexts in which human rights are presented. Having examined theories and practices in relation to human rights, Doise concludes that the basis of legal thinking on human rights is not to be sought in their institutional expression, but it is profoundly anchored in normative social representations. Doise traces the origin of normative social representations of human rights in communication and human interactions. Communicative contracts carry implicitly ethical norms (Rommetveit, 1974 ; Bakhtin, 1979/1986 ) that regulate our mutual interactions, mutual commitment, and social recognition of one human by another. These contracts are then built into social norms and social representations.

In a similar manner, Mead ( 1915 ) drew attention to the error in the assumption of theorists who were convinced that individuals had originally possessed their natural rights before any formal societal organizations existed. He was critical of those who thought that formal organizations had to be established to protect those natural rights. Mead argued that, on the contrary, already in informal organizations that developed within groups, the rights, rules, norms of acting, and constraints had already existed. Mead specifically referred to philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke who were not aware of this fact. Thus, he said that if Locke had the knowledge of the contemporary anthropologists, then he would have recognized that people had been organized in informal groups from which governmental institutions later developed. Governmental institutions arose out of communities that already had formulated their customs. In other words, rights were already in existence, and they were recognized by group members, although in a different form than in governmental institutions. No special introduction or special instruments were required to establish them in formal institutions.

Doise has maintained that although norms do not translate themselves automatically into institutional expressions, they remain to be the shared references to which victims can appeal (Doise, 2002 , p. 25). Concerning the issue of how to assess whether human rights are upheld by different countries, normative social representations are used as a tool of evaluation. Countries use their own norms and ethnocentric social representations of human rights to evaluate different countries with respect to discrimination and prejudice in others, and they commonly overvalue their own morality. Doise has analyzed contemporary trends and habits of speaking about different kinds of human rights—for example, individual rights, socio-economic rights, the self-determination rights of ethnic groups, and rights for natives to maintain special ties with the land of their forefathers. Variability in dealing with human rights is great and anchored in different kinds of beliefs that are rooted in histories, politics, and in common sense.

Conclusion: Toward Theoretical and Empirical Diversity in Social Representing

After World War II, the social sciences exerted a strong effort to establish their places in reconstructing the world and to coordinate themselves internationally. Among these efforts was the UNESCO research of the roles of social sciences in higher education. Social psychology was grouped together with cultural anthropology and sociology because it was assumed that this was its proper place (Moscovici & Marková, 2006 ). But the UNESCO research showed that the position of social psychology was split between psychology and sociology. In the years to come, social psychology leaned toward experimental psychology and its methods, and the relation to culture considerably diminished or totally disappeared. Equally, language and communication played only a minimal role in social psychology, the situation that Moscovici ( 1972 ) and Rommetveit ( 1974 ) deeply regretted.

In contrast, we have seen in this chapter that from its beginning, the Theory of Social Representations has been conceptualized within culture, language, and communication. In this chapter I have discussed three concepts: cognitive polyphasia; figurative schemes, myths and metaphors; and themata. These three concepts have made most significant contributions to the Theory of Social Representations. However, there is also substantial empirical research in social representations that covers diverse topics in education, politics, environmental problems, health, mental health, and aging. There is growing research on social representations of otherness or alterity, everyday life (Haas, 2006 ), identity (Moloney & Walker, 2007 ), and historical events. Jodelet ( 1992 ) has initiated the study of collective memories as an important aspect of social representations. Examining historical perspectives of collective memory in the work of social scientists like Halbwachs and Douglas, she has analyzed the process with the Nazi Klaus Barbie that took place in 1987 in France. Numerous studies of social representations of historical events that have followed Jodelet's research have provided accounts of groups’ representations in which history and collective memory have mixed and organized and have transformed these representations. Such accounts are never neutral cognitive narratives but dialogical evaluations and justifications of history; they are forging many ethnic, social, and national identities and pose questions about how histories could be re-interpreted and rewritten on the basis of politics and ideology (e.g., Liu et al., 2009 ; Lastrego & Licata, 2010 ; Paez, 2010 ). Raudsepp, Heidmets, and Kruusvall ( 2008 ) have explored social representations of collective memory in their study of the socio-cultural context of Estonia during the transition from a post-Soviet republic to a liberal State in the European Union. They have analyzed explicit and implicit socio-cultural regulative principles, and they have explored how these principles have transformed in the course of the transition period, focusing on the changed roles of Russian minorities and Estonian majorities during that time. Social representations of collective memories of daily life during communism in Rumania have been captured by Neculau ( 2008 ) and those of the Cyprus conflict by Psaltis ( 2011 ). Findings of these substantial empirical studies feed back to the theory.

Future Directions

The growing interest in theoretical and empirical research in social representations also highlights challenges and problems for the future. Among these I mention the following.

First, despite the fact that strong emphasis on language and communication was already part of La Psychanalyse , this remains a neglected area of studies of social representations. Language and communication are usually taken for granted as essential features of human interactions but rarely studied as phenomena that require a specific exploration. We only see beginnings of such research in dialogical studies of different kinds of discourse (e.g., conversation and dialogue, polylogue, inner speech, focus groups studies) that have been recently emerging. They include analyses of various grammatical structures like modalizations, positioning, deontic claims, and other means by which speakers take distance from or express closeness to objects of social representations (e.g., Harré, this volume; Salazar Orvig, 2007 ; Marková et al., 2007 ; Salazar Orvig & Grossen, 2008 ; Linell, 2009 ). In addition, what participants communicate to one another is not produced solely by them; they necessarily draw on their cultural resources, on perspectives of the parties that are not present in discourse (third parties), and on groups to which they belong or which they reject. For example, absent others could become, directly or indirectly, participants in talks among villagers in Jodelet's ( 1989/1991 ) research on madness, because absent others could become invisible or semi-visible judges of relations between villagers and patients. Groups do not live in a vacuum but are part of a broader community. Outsiders coming to the village are not neutral onlookers but they communicate with in-groups: they can make flattering as well as damaging comments about relations between villagers and patients. A close association with mentally ill patients could downgrade, in the eyes of others, the villagers’ social identity. These different circumstances involving numerous communicating parties reflect themselves in diverse modalities of thinking.

Participants in interactions may jointly construct utterances that may suggest that they share—or assume sharing—a social representation. Alternatively, in and through a joint construction of utterances, they may question limits of their shared knowledge (Marková, 2007 ). They may refer to beliefs, to a super-addressee (god, generalized other, consciousness), the law and its different kinds, rules and norms, morality and ethics, traditions, habits, and stereotypes. There are countless examples of the interdependence among language, communication, and social representations that have not been explored or have only just become subjects of research interest.

Another challenging issue was implied earlier in this chapter. It concerns the fact that cultures live no longer in isolated ghettos, and rather, the contemporary world of societies is open to other cultures and they “set the stage for permanent situations of uncertainty,” moving cultures in different directions (Rosa & Valsiner, 2007 ). This is also the issue that Moscovici expressed in his third paradox concerning incommunicability among different groups (see above, p. 497). The challenge for the Theory of Social Representations concerns the issue of studying ethical problems arising from the growing uncertainty in the world of increasing complexity; and with problems how to establish reflective communication in intergroup and intercultural relations. Such issues concern the future developments of relations between the Theory of Social Representations and culture (Permanadeli et al., 2012 ). Moreover, the Theory of Social Representations is only one psychological approach that focuses on culture. Cultural diversity is studied, for example, by structuralist, discourse, anthropological, phenomenological, narrative, and other approaches (Jodelet, 2012 ). Among all of these, what specific contributions can the Theory of Social Representations make that will differentiate it from other approaches? This is a challenge in the world of rapid changes that is characterized by a series of “trans-” processes (Jodelet, ibid ) What different forms will transformation of knowledge take in these changes where the local competes with the global and crossbreeding thinking produces new kinds of cognitive polyphasia?

Finally, there are theoretical challenges concerning the epistemological status of social representations. Both knowing and believing co-constitute social representations, although some social representations are based primarily on knowledge or factual beliefs and others mainly on passionate beliefs and convictions. Knowledge and beliefs are transmitted in and through culture, language, and communication, as well as through learning (tacit or explicit) by repeating and changing others’ activities. But what status can be attributed to knowledge generated from trust in authority of other individuals or institutions and of collective norms? Can these serve as preconditions of rationality and coherence of reasoning?

No doubt there are other theoretical and empirical challenges. The theory is now 50 years old, and over these long years it has undergone transformations and has become gradually enriched by different cultures all over the world as it has spread from Europe to other continents—particularly to Latin America and most recently to Asia.


I am very grateful to Denise Jodelet for her generous help in providing ideas and references to research on social representations and culture and to Angela Arruda for references to the research in Latin America. This chapter was written during the period of my Emeritus Fellowship awarded by the Leverhulme Trust, and I wish to acknowledge the Trust's generous support for this project.

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Defining representation.

Representation is a critical concept not only in postcolonial studies and academia, but in the larger cultural milieu. The term itself can be defined in many different ways. Often, we think of representation primarily as “presence” or “appearance” where there is an implied visual component. Representations can be clear images, material reproductions, performances and simulations. We understand them to be re-presenting a particular “real” thing; however, the relationship between the thing and the representation of the thing is one that has engaged philosophers, linguists, historians, and artists for centuries. In a different context, we use representation to denote the relationship between a politician and her/his constituency. A single person is endowed with the responsibility of representing many citizens; this is the foundational principle of representative democracy. For this discussion, we are highlighting the visual, political, and artistic elements of this concept.

Representations — these ‘likenesses’– come in various forms: films, television, photographs, paintings, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture. Written materials — academic texts, novels and other literature, journalistic pieces — are also important forms of representation. Yet how can simulations or “impressions on the sight” be completely true? How does one judge the accuracy or truth-content of a representation? Or rather, how does one interpret or read the representation? (See Essentialism ) Edward Said, in his analysis of textual representations of the Orient in  Orientalism , emphasizes the fact that representations can never be exactly realistic:

In any instance of at least written language , there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation. The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient as such. On the contrary, the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as “the Orient.” (21)

Representations, then can never truly be real or objective. Instead, they are constructed images, images that need to be interrogated for their ideological content.

The Post-Colonial Critic, 1990

In a similar way,  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak   makes a distinction between  Vertretung  and  Darstellung . The former she defines as “stepping in someone’s place … to tread in someone’s shoes (108).” Representation in this sense is “political representation” (108) or a speaking for the needs and desires of somebody or something.  Darstellung  is representation as re-presentation, “placing there” (108). Representing is thus “proxy and portrait (108)” according to Spivak. The complicity between “speaking for” and “portraying” must be kept in mind (108). She also addresses the problem of “speaking in the name of”: “It is not a solution, the idea of the disenfranchised speaking for themselves, or the radical critics speaking for them; this question of representation, self-representation, representing others, is a problem”(63). Spivak recommends “persistent critique” to guard against “constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others because of the ones who are getting access into public places due to these waves of benevolence and so on” (63).

If there is always an element of interpretation involved in representation, we must then note who may be doing the interpreting. Ella Shohat claims that we should constantly question representations:

Each filmic or academic utterance must be analyzed not only in terms of who represents but also in terms of who is being represented for what purpose, at which historical moment, for which location, using which strategies, and in what tone of address.  (173)

This questioning is particularly important when the representation of the subaltern is involved. The problem does not rest solely with the fact that often marginalized groups do not hold the power over their own representations; it rests also in the fact that representations of these groups are both flawed and few in numbers. Shohat asserts that dominant groups need not preoccupy themselves too much with being adequately represented. There are so many different representations of dominant groups that negative images are seen as only part of the “natural diversity” of people. However, “representation of an underrepresented group is necessarily within the hermeneutics of domination, overcharged with allegorical significance” (170). The mass media tends to understand representations of the subaltern as allegorical, meaning that since representations of the marginalized are few, the few available are thought to be representative of all marginalized peoples (See Postcolonial Novel ). The few images are thought to be typical, sometimes not only of members of a particular minority group, but of all minorities in general. It is assumed that subalterns can stand in for other subalterns. A prime example of this is the fact that actors of particular ethnic backgrounds are often cast as any ethnic “other.” Some examples include Carmen Mirandain  in The Gang’s All Here  (1943), Ricardo Mantalban in  Sayonara  (1957), Rudolph Valentino in  The Son of the Sheik  and Sarah Shahi in  The L-Word . This collapsing of the image of the subaltern reflects not only ignorance but a lack of respect for the diversity within marginalized communities.

Shohat also suggests that representations in one sphere — the sphere of popular culture — affect the other spheres of representation, particularly the political one:

The denial of aesthetic representation to the subaltern has historically formed a corollary to the literal denial of economic, legal, and political representation. The struggle to ‘speak for oneself’ cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard. (173)

It cannot be ignored that representations affect the ways in which individuals are perceived. Although many see representations as harmless likenesses, they do have a real effect on the world. We must ask what ideological work these representations accomplish. Both the scarcity and the importance of minority representations yield what many have called the burden of representation. Since there are so few images, negative ones can have devastating affects on the real lives of marginalized people. We must also ask, if there are so few, who will produce them? Who will be the representative voice of the subaltern? Given the allegorical character of these representations, subaltern writers, artists, and scholars are also asking who can really speak for whom? When a spokesperson or a certain image is read as metonymic, representation becomes more difficult and dangerous.

Solutions for this conundrum are difficult to theorize. We can call for increased self-representation or the inclusion of more individuals from marginalized groups in the act of representing, yet this is easier said then done. Also, the inclusion of more minorities in representation will not necessarily alter the structural or institutional barriers that prevent equal participation for all in representation. Focusing on whether or not images are negative or positive, leaves intact a reliance on the realness of images, a realness that is false to begin with.

This brings us again to Spivak and her famous question, ‘”Can the Subaltern Speak.” In this seminal essay, Spivak emphasizes the fact that representation is a type of speech act, with a speaker and a listener. Often, the subaltern makes an attempt at self-representation or perhaps a representation that falls outside the “the lines laid down by the official institutional structures of representation” (306). Yet, this act of representation is not heard because it is not recognized by the listener, perhaps because it does not fit in with what is expected of the representation. Therefore, representation by subaltern individuals seems nearly impossible. However many artists and activists who are committed to critical political and cultural resistance still work to challenge status quo representation and the ideological work it does, despite the structural failure of such subaltern speech.

In the senses discussed, representations are ideological tools that can serve to reinforce systems of inequality and subordination and sustain colonialist or neocolonialist projects. A great amount of effort is needed to dislodge dominant modes of representation and subvert and challenge hegemonic ideologies. Self-representation may not be a complete possibility, yet is still an important goal.


  • Shohat, Ella. “The Struggle over Representation: Casting, Coalitions, and the Politics of Identification.”  Late Imperial Culture . Eds. Roman de la Campa, E. Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinkler. New York: Verso, 1995. Print.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.  The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues . Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
  • —”Can the Subaltern Speak.”  Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture . C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, eds. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988. 271-313. Print.

Author: Ann Marie Baldonado, Fall 1996 Last edited: October 2017

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Introduction to postcolonial / queer studies, biocolonialism.

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I like what this article delves into, but found its claims to be a bit presumptive. For example, regarding the passage about actors being cast as characters who are any ethnic “other”: In this sentence, the author mentions a few examples, one of which I am thoroughly familiar with – that of Sara Shahi in L Word. Having watched every single episode of “L Word” ever to have aired, I’ll speak to that character. The woman Sara Shahi plays is Carmen, a lesbian Mexican girl, living in L.A. and working as a deejay. Over the course of the show, we get to see Carmen in many different dynamics, including her family dynamics: We get to know her, thus, as a native Angeleno Mexican girl with a large, close-knit, Mexican family that upholds various Mexican traditions as well as a member of a group of gay women of various ethnicities – Black, Jewish, Mulatto, White, etc. It is hard for me to imagine the role of Carmen being one that is instead cast as, say, a Pakistani girl or a Japanese girl or “any ethnic other”. Even if the role was conceived of as such (and I have serious doubt that this author actually knows first-hand whether or not this was the case), the role of Carmen certainly grew into a distinctly Mexican one. This, of course, as far as I’m concerned, makes it somewhat irrelevant just how vague the character’s conception may or may not have been – especially, since, in truth, precious few television characters are completely and fully realized in all of their inevitable detail when they first enter into an ensemble cast. Furthermore, the simple truth is that one can – and so many people love to – complain endlessly about any omissions or oversights in the representation of minority characters in the larger world, but one should also be savvy enough about the limitations of the forums / mediums in which the representation occurs, and also the biases inherent in their own ideas about the minority group (especially if it is their own), to achieve some perspective with regards to what would be a reasonable expectation to have when they encounter such representations. And, if they are still dissatisfied, to have the drive and the motivation to proactively get involved and enact change in whatever way they feel is substantive and viable. As they say, “talk is cheap”…

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I think the author point is less about how Mexican culture was represented on the L Word but that Sarah Shahi is of Persian, Iranian, and Spanish (as in from Spain) descent but was cast to play a Mexican. Thus, people of color are able to stand in for all people of color and that in itself is problematic.

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Social Representation Theory: An Historical Outline

The concept of social representation (SR) was developed by Serge Moscovici in 1961 as a social psychological approach articulating individual thinking and feeling with collective interaction and communication. SRs are conceived as symbolic forms that come about through interpersonal and media communication. They are the ways individuals think, interact with others, and shape social objects in their interaction with the local world. This text presents an outline of the history of social representation theory (SRT), using a four-period model: first, creation and incubation in France starting with Moscovici’s first book; second, the opening to the English-speaking academe around 1980; third, institutionalization and proliferation with the start of the journal papers on SRs and regular conferences in 1992; and, fourth, normalization, approximately from 2000 onwards. The first period (1961–1984) started with Serge Moscovici’s first presentation of his ideas in a French-language volume on “La psychanalyse son image et son public.” This was republished in an updated version in 1976 and translated into English in 2008. The theory postulates cognitive and social factors in the genesis and structure of SRs. These are accompanied by specific styles of communication that reflect the communicators’ identity and ideology. Together these aspects constitute common sense. The first period was a time of incubation because Moscovici and his first PhD students, Claudine Herzlich, Denise Jodelet, and Jean-Claude Abric, tried the concept in different domains. The second half of this period saw Moscovici and collaborators extend SRT’s theoretical frame to include the idea of consensual vs. reified domains. A consensual domain of communication is characterized by the free interchange of attitudes and opinions, while a reified domain is determined by institutionalized rules. Moscovici also postulated a process of cognitive polyphasia. By cognitive polyphasia he described a phenomenon where individuals use different and even contradictory thoughts about the same issue depending on the social setting they are in. The year 1984 marked the publication of a book for English-speaking scholars edited by Robert Farr and Moscovici that collected papers from an international conference in 1979. It was the first book-length collection of works on SRT and highlighted empirical research by a variety of international scholars. The period following 1979 through to 1992 saw a broadening of the base of scholars becoming interested in SRT. The 1980s brought Willem Doise’s conceptualizing of anchoring as a process of social marking, Abric’s theory of core and peripheral elements of a representation, and Hilde Himmelweit’s founding of a societal psychology. Proliferation was boosted 1992 by the founding of the journal Papers on Social Representations and the beginning of a biannual series of International Conferences on Social Representations, starting in 1992. This increased the international visibility of SRT and helped scholars to organize themselves around topics and form cross-national research groups. The period from 1992 to the first decade of the new century was characterized by an increasing number of empirical and theoretical studies. A series of theoretical branches emerged: there was research on the micro-genesis of SRs on the individual level, an extension of the structural theory of SRs, the discussion of the socially constructive aspects and sociopolitical uses of SRT, the design of a dialogical approach to the mind and social life, and Moscovici’s suggestion to consider large-scale themata as a factor in social thinking. If the period after 1992 was a time of institutionalization, the time after the turn of the century can be called a period of normalization. That is, a period when SRT was presented in chapters for handbooks of social psychology and when dedicated handbooks and monographs were published. From this period onward it becomes virtually impossible to give even a superficial account of the most important contributions to SRT’s burgeoning field of research and theory development.

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Social positions and groups: New approximations between Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology and social representation theory

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“We were at this crossroads”

People and societies are guided by what they imagine to lie beyond the present, by what can and should be the case in the future. Yet people do not always agree about the form, content or path to realisation of a given imagined future. As a result, conflicts can arise over something that does not exist yet. In this paper, I propose to integrate theories of social and alternative representations with a sociocultural psychological interpretation of imagination, in order to explore the addressivity of futures and to call for more studies that explicitly take into account the future’s role in the present. I draw on a dialogical case study that was carried out on the Faroe Islands, more precisely on the island of Suðuroy. Whereas the Faroe Islands are experiencing a rapid acceleration in growth, Suðuroy has failed to keep pace and has witnessed decades of emigration and a worsening of its population’s relative socio-economic situation. Islanders liken the current situation to standing at a crossroads, while being unable to agree on which path must be taken in order to reinvigorate a shrinking future. By analysing how one of the two major social representations constructs the other – its alternative representation – I suggest that the absence of transformative dialogue results from incompatible futures. Furthermore, in line with a sociocultural psychological perspective, I also attempt to move beyond the homogenising force inherent in social representation theory by introducing Ingolf and Karin, whose stories illustrate how social and alternative representations are not uniformly shared and enacted, but take different forms in light of unique life experiences.

Social psychology and human rights

In this paper I will illustrate the heuristic value of studying human rights as social representations. Results of cross-national studies are reported after a short presentation of social representation theory. Shared meanings in the field of human rights exist within and between cultural and national groups. Other findings concern dimensions on which individuals differ in their positioning toward human rights, related to respondents' beliefs about their own efficacy and the efficacy of institutions. These beliefs are anchored in national group membership, in value priorities and in experiences of social conflict. Studies in Geneva suggest there is a distinction between a large-scale principled agreement and much more restricted attitudes toward the application of human rights principles in specific situations.

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Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, Ph.D.

Why Representation Matters and Why It’s Still Not Enough

Reflections on growing up brown, queer, and asian american..

Posted December 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

  • Positive media representation can be helpful in increasing self-esteem for people of marginalized groups (especially youth).
  • Interpersonal contact and exposure through media representation can assist in reducing stereotypes of underrepresented groups.
  • Representation in educational curricula and social media can provide validation and support, especially for youth of marginalized groups.

Growing up as a Brown Asian American child of immigrants, I never really saw anyone who looked like me in the media. The TV shows and movies I watched mostly concentrated on blonde-haired, white, or light-skinned protagonists. They also normalized western and heterosexist ideals and behaviors, while hardly ever depicting things that reflected my everyday life. For example, it was equally odd and fascinating that people on TV didn’t eat rice at every meal; that their parents didn’t speak with accents; or that no one seemed to navigate a world of daily microaggressions . Despite these observations, I continued to absorb this mass media—internalizing messages of what my life should be like or what I should aspire to be like.

Ron Gejon, used with permission

Because there were so few media images of people who looked like me, I distinctly remember the joy and validation that emerged when I did see those representations. Filipino American actors like Ernie Reyes, Nia Peeples, Dante Basco, and Tia Carrere looked like they could be my cousins. Each time they sporadically appeared in films and television series throughout my youth, their mere presence brought a sense of pride. However, because they never played Filipino characters (e.g., Carrere was Chinese American in Wayne's World ) or their racial identities remained unaddressed (e.g., Basco as Rufio in Hook ), I did not know for certain that they were Filipino American like me. And because the internet was not readily accessible (nor fully informational) until my late adolescence , I could not easily find out.

Through my Ethnic Studies classes as an undergraduate student (and my later research on Asian American and Filipino American experiences with microaggressions), I discovered that my perspectives were not that unique. Many Asian Americans and other people of color often struggle with their racial and ethnic identity development —with many citing how a lack of media representation negatively impacts their self-esteem and overall views of their racial or cultural groups. Scholars and community leaders have declared mottos like how it's "hard to be what you can’t see," asserting that people from marginalized groups do not pursue career or academic opportunities when they are not exposed to such possibilities. For example, when women (and women of color specifically) don’t see themselves represented in STEM fields , they may internalize that such careers are not made for them. When people of color don’t see themselves in the arts or in government positions, they likely learn similar messages too.

Complicating these messages are my intersectional identities as a queer person of color. In my teens, it was heartbreakingly lonely to witness everyday homophobia (especially unnecessary homophobic language) in almost all television programming. The few visual examples I saw of anyone LGBTQ involved mostly white, gay, cisgender people. While there was some comfort in seeing them navigate their coming out processes or overcome heterosexism on screen, their storylines often appeared unrealistic—at least in comparison to the nuanced homophobia I observed in my religious, immigrant family. In some ways, not seeing LGBTQ people of color in the media kept me in the closet for years.

How representation can help

Representation can serve as opportunities for minoritized people to find community support and validation. For example, recent studies have found that social media has given LGBTQ young people the outlets to connect with others—especially when the COVID-19 pandemic has limited in-person opportunities. Given the increased suicidal ideation, depression , and other mental health issues among LGBTQ youth amidst this global pandemic, visibility via social media can possibly save lives. Relatedly, taking Ethnic Studies courses can be valuable in helping students to develop a critical consciousness that is culturally relevant to their lives. In this way, representation can allow students of color to personally connect to school, potentially making their educational pursuits more meaningful.

Further, representation can be helpful in reducing negative stereotypes about other groups. Initially discussed by psychologist Dr. Gordon Allport as Intergroup Contact Theory, researchers believed that the more exposure or contact that people had to groups who were different from them, the less likely they would maintain prejudice . Literature has supported how positive LGBTQ media representation helped transform public opinions about LGBTQ people and their rights. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that the general US population significantly changed their views of same-sex marriage in just 15 years—with 60% of the population being opposed in 2004 to 61% in favor in 2019. While there are many other factors that likely influenced these perspective shifts, studies suggest that positive LGBTQ media depictions played a significant role.

For Asian Americans and other groups who have been historically underrepresented in the media, any visibility can feel like a win. For example, Gold House recently featured an article in Vanity Fair , highlighting the power of Asian American visibility in the media—citing blockbuster films like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings . Asian American producers like Mindy Kaling of Never Have I Ever and The Sex Lives of College Girls demonstrate how influential creators of color can initiate their own projects and write their own storylines, in order to directly increase representation (and indirectly increase mental health and positive esteem for its audiences of color).

When representation is not enough

However, representation simply is not enough—especially when it is one-dimensional, superficial, or not actually representative. Some scholars describe how Asian American media depictions still tend to reinforce stereotypes, which may negatively impact identity development for Asian American youth. Asian American Studies is still needed to teach about oppression and to combat hate violence. Further, representation might also fail to reflect the true diversity of communities; historically, Brown Asian Americans have been underrepresented in Asian American media, resulting in marginalization within marginalized groups. For example, Filipino Americans—despite being the first Asian American group to settle in the US and one of the largest immigrant groups—remain underrepresented across many sectors, including academia, arts, and government.

Representation should never be the final goal; instead, it should merely be one step toward equity. Having a diverse cast on a television show is meaningless if those storylines promote harmful stereotypes or fail to address societal inequities. Being the “first” at anything is pointless if there aren’t efforts to address the systemic obstacles that prevent people from certain groups from succeeding in the first place.

representation definition in social studies

Instead, representation should be intentional. People in power should aim for their content to reflect their audiences—especially if they know that doing so could assist in increasing people's self-esteem and wellness. People who have the opportunity to represent their identity groups in any sector may make conscious efforts to use their influence to teach (or remind) others that their communities exist. Finally, parents and teachers can be more intentional in ensuring that their children and students always feel seen and validated. By providing youth with visual representations of people they can relate to, they can potentially save future generations from a lifetime of feeling underrepresented or misunderstood.

Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, Ph.D.

Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the City University of New York and the author of books including Microaggressions and Traumatic Stress .

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Social Representations for the Anthropocene: Latin American Perspectives pp 33–51 Cite as

Social Representations and History: Theoretical Problems

  • Lúcia Villas Bôas 4  
  • First Online: 01 May 2021

185 Accesses

Part of the The Anthropocene: Politik—Economics—Society—Science book series (APESS,volume 32)

Addressing the relationship between social representations and history, this chapter discusses the idea of representation as both affirmation and negation of historiographic discourse, based on what have been called the ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ historiographic conditions. It begins by discussing how memory has become an epistemological object within the discipline of history. It thus offers reflections on the relationship between history and memory, understood as two forms of managing the past, while exploring their implications for social representations theory. Building upon some considerations of a current in historiography called ‘history of the present time’, the chapter presents the concepts of ‘regime of historicity’ and ‘presentism’, developed in particular by François Hartog and Reinhart Koselleck, and discusses some of the challenges they present in relation to current processes surrounding the intelligibility of memory. Finally, it emphasizes that the possibility of developing common ground between history and Social Representations Theory depends on building a post-disciplinary and epistemo-political agenda.

  • Social representations

Dr Lúcia Villas Bôas is Coordinator of the UNESCO Chair in Teaching Professionalization at the Fundação Carlos Chagas ( FCC ), scientific lead of the Franco-Brazilian Serge Moscovici Chair (FCC/French Consulate in São Paulo) and Professor on the Academic and Professional Master’s Programme at the City University of São Paulo (UNICID). Email: [email protected].

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Dr Alfredo Guerrero Tapia is Senior Researcher at the Faculty of Psychology, National Autonomous University of Mexico and has a PhD in Social-Environmental Psychology from UNAM. He has worked in the field of social representations, theoretically and empirically, since 1989, and is Co-Editor, with Denise Jodelet, of the book Develando la cultura (México: Facultad de Psicología/UNAM, 2000). He belonged to the International Research Group on Latin American Imaginaries and Social Representations, supported by the Laboratoire Européen de Psychologie Sociale, of the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, whose research project “Images of Latin America and Mexico through mental maps” was published in the book Espacios imaginarios y representaciones sociales (Barcelona, Anthropos/UAMI, 2007). Email: [email protected].

Here it is important to open a parenthesis because, in general, modern historiography distinguishes between two levels: History, with a capital ‘H’, referring to historical reality; and history, with a small ‘h’, referring to historical knowledge. Thus, History is the substance or referent of the discourse that the historian produces as history, or historical knowledge. It is to this distinction that Vilar’s famous phrase refers ( 1980 : 17): “history speaks of History”, that is, history-discipline speaks of History-Substance (Falcon 2000 ).

“History is now written under the pressure of collective memories that attempt to compensate for the historical uprooting of the social and anxiety about the future through the valorization of a past that was not previously lived as such.”

The perspective of ‘actual history’, theorized by Gadamer in Truth and Method ( 2002 : 449), is used here, although its use is specific. According to this author, “When we try to understand a historical phenomenon from the historical distance that determines our hermeneutical situation as a whole, we always find ourselves under the effects of this actual history. It determines beforehand what appears to us as questionable and as an object of inquiry, and we soon forget half of what it really is, more than that, we forget the whole truth of this phenomenon, every time we take the immediate phenomenon as the whole truth.”

“So, our representations render the unfamiliar, which is another way of saying that they depend on memory.”

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Villas Bôas, L. (2021). Social Representations and History: Theoretical Problems. In: Prado de Sousa, C., Serrano Oswald, S.E. (eds) Social Representations for the Anthropocene: Latin American Perspectives. The Anthropocene: Politik—Economics—Society—Science, vol 32. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-67778-7_2

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Gender and Media Representations: A Review of the Literature on Gender Stereotypes, Objectification and Sexualization

Media representations play an important role in producing sociocultural pressures. Despite social and legal progress in civil rights, restrictive gender-based representations appear to be still very pervasive in some contexts. The article explores scientific research on the relationship between media representations and gender stereotypes, objectification and sexualization, focusing on their presence in the cultural context. Results show how stereotyping, objectifying and sexualizing representations appear to be still very common across a number of contexts. Exposure to stereotyping representations appears to strengthen beliefs in gender stereotypes and endorsement of gender role norms, as well as fostering sexism, harassment and violence in men and stifling career-related ambitions in women. Exposure to objectifying and sexualizing representations appears to be associated with the internalization of cultural ideals of appearance, endorsement of sexist attitudes and tolerance of abuse and body shame. In turn, factors associated with exposure to these representations have been linked to detrimental effects on physical and psychological well-being, such as eating disorder symptomatology, increased body surveillance and poorer body image quality of life. However, specificities in the pathways from exposure to detrimental effects on well-being are involved for certain populations that warrant further research.

1. Introduction

As a social category, gender is one of the earliest and most prominent ways people may learn to identify themselves and their peers, the use of gender-based labels becoming apparent in infants as early as 17 months into their life [ 1 ]. Similarly, the development of gender-based heuristics, inferences and rudimentary stereotypes becomes apparent as early as age three [ 2 , 3 ]. Approximately at this age, the development of a person’s gender identity begins [ 4 ]—that is, the process through which a person tends to identify as a man, as a woman or as a vast spectrum of other possibilities (i.e., gender non-conforming, agender, genderfluid, etc.). These processes continue steadily throughout individuals’ lives as they receive and elaborate information about women and men and what it means to belong to either category, drawing from direct and indirect observations, social contact, personal elaborations and cultural representations [ 5 , 6 ]. As a result, social and mental representations of gender are extremely widespread, especially as a strictly binary construct, and can be argued to be ubiquitous in individual and social contexts.

Among the many sources of influence on gender representations, media occupies an important space and its relevance can be assessed across many different phenomena [ 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ]. The ubiquity of media, the chronicity of individuals’ exposure to it and its role in shaping beliefs, attitudes and expectations have made it the subject of scientific attention. In fact, several theories have attempted to explore the mechanisms and psychological processes in which media plays a role, including identity development [ 12 , 13 , 14 ], scripts and schemas [ 15 ], cultivation processes [ 16 , 17 , 18 ] and socialization processes [ 5 , 6 ].

The public interest in the topic of gender has seen a surge in the last 10 years, in part due to social and political movements pushing for gender equality across a number of aspects, including how gender is portrayed in media representations. In the academic field as well, publications mentioning gender in their title, abstract or keywords have more than doubled from 2012 to 2022 [ 19 ], while publications mentioning gender in media representations have registered an even more dramatic increase, tripling in number [ 20 ]. Additionally, the media landscape has had a significant shift in the last decade, with the surge in popularity and subsequent addition of social media websites and apps to most people’s mediatic engagement [ 21 ].

The importance of media use in gender-related aspects, such as beliefs, attitudes, or roles, has been extensively documented. As reported in a recent review of the literature [ 22 ], several meta-analyses [ 17 , 23 , 24 ] showed support for the effects of media use on gender beliefs, finding small but consistent effect sizes. These effects appear to have remained present over the decades [ 25 ].

Particular attention has been given to stereotypical, objectifying and sexualizing representations, as portrayals that paint a restrictive picture of the complexity of human psychology, also producing sociocultural pressures to conform to gender roles and body types.

Gender stereotypes can be defined as an extremely simplified concept of attitudes and behaviors considered normal and appropriate for men and women in a specific culture [ 26 ]. They usually span several different areas of people’s characteristics, such as physical appearance, personality traits, behaviors, social roles and occupations. Stereotypical beliefs about gender may be divided into descriptive (how one perceives a person of a certain gender to be; [ 27 ]), prescriptive (how one perceives a person of a certain gender should be and behave; [ 28 , 29 ]) or proscriptive (how one perceives a person of a certain gender should not be and behave; [ 28 , 29 ]). Their content varies on the individual’s culture of reference [ 30 ], but recurring themes have been observed in western culture, such as stereotypes revolving around communion, agency and competence [ 31 ]. Women have stereotypically been associated with traits revolving around communion (e.g., supportiveness, compassion, expression, warmth), while men have been more stereotypically associated with agency (e.g., ambition, assertiveness, competitiveness, action) or competence (e.g., skill, intelligence). Both men and women may experience social and economic penalties (backlash) if they appear to violate these stereotypes [ 29 , 32 , 33 ].

Objectification can be defined as the viewing or treatment of people as objects. Discussing ways in which people may be objectified, Nussbaum first explored seven dimensions: instrumentality (a tool to be employed for one’s purposes); denial of autonomy (lacking self-determination, or autonomy); inertness (lacking in agency or activity); fungibility (interchangeable with others of the same type); violability (with boundaries lacking integrity and permissible to break into); ownership (possible to own or trade); denial of subjectivity (the person’s feelings or experiences are seen as something that does not need to be considered) [ 34 ].

In its initial definition by Fredrickson and Roberts [ 35 ], objectification theory had been offered as a framework to understand how the pervasive sexual objectification of women’s bodies in the sociocultural context influenced their experiences and posed risks to their mental health—a phenomenon that was believed to have uniquely female connotations. In their model, the authors theorized that a cultural climate of sexual objectification would lead to the internalization of objectification (viewing oneself as a sexual and subordinate object), which would in turn lead to psychological consequences (e.g., body shame, anxiety) and mental health risks (e.g., eating disorders, depression). Due to the pervasiveness of the cultural climate, objectification may be difficult to detect or avoid, and objectification experiences may be perceived as normative.

Sexual objectification, in which a person is reduced to a sexual instrument, can be construed to be a subtype of objectification and, in turn, is often defined as one of the types of sexualization [ 36 ]. As previously discussed by Ward [ 37 ], it should be made clear that the mere presence of sexual content, which may be represented in a positive and healthy way, should not be conflated with sexualized or objectifying representations.

The American Psychological Association’s 2007 report defines sexualization as a series of conditions that stand apart from healthy sexuality, such as when a person’s value is perceived to come mainly from sexual appeal or behavior, when physical attractiveness is equated to sexual attractiveness, when a person is sexually objectified or when sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person [ 36 ]. Sexualization may involve several different contexts, such as personal, interpersonal, and cultural. Self-sexualization involves treating oneself as a sexual object [ 35 ]. Interpersonal contributions involve being treated as sexual objects by others, such as family or peers [ 38 , 39 ]. Finally, contributions by cultural norms, expectations and values play a part as well, including those spread by media representations [ 36 ]. After this initial definition, sexualization as a term has also been used by some authors (e.g., Zurbriggen & Roberts [ 40 ]) to refer to sexual objectification specifically, while others (e.g., Bigler and colleagues [ 41 ]) stand by the APA report’s broader meaning. In this section, we will explore scientific literature adopting the latter.

These portrayals have been hypothesized to lead to negative effects on people’s well-being on a mental and physical level, as well as bearing partial responsibility for several social issues, such as sexism, gender discrimination and harassment. However, the pathways that lead from an individual’s relationship with media to these detrimental effects can be complex. Furthermore, they seem to involve specificities for men and women, as well as for different sexual orientations. A wealth of publications has been produced on these themes and, to the authors’ knowledge, no recent review has attempted to synthesize their findings.

The present article aims to summarize the state of the art of research on stereotyping, sexualization and objectification in gender and media representations. A focus will be placed on the definitions of these concepts, the media where they occur, and verifying whether any changes over time are detectable or any specificities are present. The possible effects of these representations on people’s well-being will be explored as well.

A search of the literature was conducted on scientific search engines (APA PsycArticles, CINAHL Complete, Education Source, Family Studies Abstracts, Gender Studies Database, MEDLINE, Mental Measurements Yearbook, Sociology Source Ultimate, Violence & Abuse Abstracts, PUBMED, Scopus, Web of Science) to locate the most relevant contributions on the topic of media and gender representation, with a particular focus on stereotypes, objectification and sexualization, their presence in the media and their effects on well-being. Keywords were used to search for literature on the intersection of the main topics: media representation (e.g., media OR representation* OR portrayal*), gender (e.g., gender OR sex OR wom* OR m*n) and stereotypes, objectification and sexualization (e.g., stereotyp*, objectif*, sexualiz*). In some cases, additional keywords were used for the screening of studies on specific media (e.g., television, news, social media). When appropriate, further restrictions were used to screen for studies on effects or consequences (e.g., effect* OR impact* OR consequence* OR influence* OR outcome*). Inclusion criteria were the following: (a) academic articles (b) pertaining to the field of media representations (c) pertaining to gender stereotypes, objectification or sexualization. A dataset of 195 selected relevant papers was created. Thematic analysis was conducted following the guidelines developed by Braun and Clarke [ 42 ], in order to outline patterns of meaning across the reviewed studies. The process was organized into six phases: (1) familiarization with the data; (2) coding; (3) searching for themes; (4) reviewing themes; (5) defining and naming themes; and (6) writing up. After removing duplicates and excluding papers that did not meet the inclusion criteria, a total of 87 articles were included in the results of this review. The findings were discussed among researchers (LR, FS, MNP and TT) until unanimous consensus was reached.

2.1. Stereotypical Portrayals

Gender stereotypes appear to be flexible and responsive to changes in the social environment: consensual beliefs about men’s and women’s attributes have evolved throughout the decades, reflecting changes in women’s participation in the labor force and higher education [ 31 , 43 ]. Perceptions of gender equality in competence and intelligence have sharply risen, and stereotypical perceptions of women show significant changes: perceptions of women’s competence and intelligence have surpassed those relative to men, while the communion aspect appears to have shifted toward being even more polarized on being typical of women. Other aspects, such as perceptions of agency being more typical of men, have remained stable [ 31 ].

Despite these changes, gender representation in the media appears to be frequently skewed toward men’s representation and prominently features gender stereotypes. On a global scale, news coverage appears to mostly feature men, especially when considering representation as expert voices, where women are still underrepresented (24%) despite a rise in coverage in the last 5 years [ 44 ]. Underrepresentation has also been reported in many regional and national contexts, but exact proportions vary significantly in the local context. Male representation has been reported to be greater in several studies, with male characters significantly outnumbering female characters [ 45 ], doing so in male-led and mixed-led shows but not in female-led shows [ 46 ] in children’s television programming—a key source of influence on gender representations. Similar results have been found regarding sports news, whose coverage overwhelmingly focuses on men athletes [ 47 , 48 ] and where women are seldom represented.

Several analyses of television programs have also shown how representations of men and women are very often consistent with gender stereotypes. Girls were often portrayed as focusing more on their appearance [ 45 ], as well as being judged for their appearance [ 49 ]. The same focus on aesthetics was found in sports news coverage, which was starkly different across genders, and tended to focus on women athletes’ appearance, featuring overly simplified descriptions (vs. technical language on coverage of men athletes) [ 48 ]. In addition, coverage of women athletes was more likely in sports perceived to be more feminine or gender-appropriate [ 47 , 48 , 50 ]. Similarly, women in videogames appear to be both underrepresented and less likely to be featured as playable characters, as well as being frequently stereotyped, appearing in the role of someone in need of rescuing, as love interests, or cute and innocent characters [ 51 ]. In advertising as well, gender stereotypes have often been used as a staple technique for creating relatability, but their use may lead to negative cross-gender effects in product marketing [ 52 ] while also possibly furthering social issues. Hust and colleagues found that in alcohol advertisements, belief in gender stereotypes was the most consistent predictor of intentions to sexually coerce, showing significant interaction effects with exposure to highly objectifying portrayals [ 53 ]. Representation in advertising prominently features gender stereotypes, such as depicting men in professional roles more often, while depicting women in non-working, recreational roles, especially in countries that show high gender inequality [ 54 ]. A recent analysis of print ads [ 55 ] confirmed that some stereotypes are still prominent and, in some cases, have shown a resurgence, such as portraying a woman as the queen of the home; the study also found representations of women in positions of empowerment are, however, showing a relative increase in frequency. Public support, combined with market logic, appears to be successfully pushing more progressive portrayals in this field [ 56 ].

Both skewed representation and the presence of stereotypes have been found to lead to several negative effects. Gender-unequal representation has been found to stifle political [ 57 ] and career [ 58 ] ambition, as well as foster organizational discrimination [ 59 ]. Heavy media use may further the belief in gender stereotypes and has been found to be linked to a stronger endorsement of traditional gender roles and norms [ 60 ], which in turn may be linked to a vast number of detrimental health effects. In women, adherence and internalization of traditional gender roles have been linked to greater symptoms of depression and anxiety, a higher likelihood of developing eating disorders, and lower self-esteem and self-efficacy [ 36 , 61 , 62 , 63 ]. In men as well, adherence to traditional masculine norms has been linked to negative mental health outcomes such as depression, psychological distress and substance abuse [ 64 ], while also increasing the perpetration of risky behaviors [ 65 , 66 ] and intimate partner violence [ 65 , 67 ].

2.2. Objectifying Portrayals

Non-sexual objectifying representations appear to have been studied relatively little. They have been found to be common in advertising, where women are often depicted as purely aesthetic models, motionless and decorative [ 68 ]. They may also include using a woman’s body as a supporting object for the advertised product, as a decorative object, as an ornament to draw attention to the ad, or as a prize to be won and associated with the consumption of the advertised product [ 55 ].

The vast majority of the literature has focused on the sexual objectification of women. This type of representation has been reported to be very common in a number of contexts and across different media [ 69 ], and several studies (see Calogero and colleagues’ or Roberts and colleagues’ review [ 69 , 70 ]) have found support for the original model’s pathway [ 35 ]. Following experimental models expanded on the original (e.g., Frederick and colleagues or Roberts and colleagues [ 69 , 71 ]), highlighting the role of factors such as the internalization of lean or muscular ideals of appearance, finding evidence for negative effects on well-being and mental health through the increase in self-objectification and the internalization of cultural ideals of appearance [ 71 , 72 ].

Sexual objectification also appears to be consistently linked to sexism. For both women and men, the perpetration of sexual objectification was significantly associated with hostile and benevolent sexism, as well as the enjoyment of sexualization [ 73 ]. Enjoyment of sexualization, in turn, has been found to be positively associated with hostile sexism in both men and women, positively associated with benevolent sexism in women and negatively in men [ 74 ].

Exposure to objectifying media in men has been found to increase the tendency to engage in sexual coercion and harassment, as well as increasing conformity to gender role norms [ 75 ]. Consistently with the finding that perpetration of objectification may be associated with a greater men’s proclivity for rape and sexual aggression [ 76 ], a study conducted by Hust and colleagues found that exposure to objectifying portrayals of women in alcohol advertising was also a moderator in the relationship between belief in gender stereotypes and intentions to sexually coerce. Specifically, participants who had a stronger belief in gender stereotypes reported stronger intentions to sexually coerce when exposed to slightly objectifying images of women. Highly objectifying images did not yield the same increase—a result interpreted by the authors to mean that highly objectified women were perceived as sexually available and as such less likely to need coercion, while slightly objectified women could be perceived as more likely to need coercion [ 53 ].

Research on objectification has primarily focused on women, in part due to numerous studies suggesting that women are more subject to sexual objectification [ 73 , 77 , 78 , 79 , 80 ], as well as suffering the consequences of sexual objectification more often [ 81 ]. However, sexually objectifying portrayals seem to have a role in producing negative effects on men as well, although with partially different pathways. In men, findings about media appearance pressures on body image appear to be mixed. Previous meta-analyses found either a small average effect [ 82 ] or no significant effect [ 72 ]. A recent study found them to be significantly associated with higher body surveillance, poorer body image quality of life and lower satisfaction with appearance [ 71 ]. Another study, however, found differing relationships regarding sexual objectification: an association was found between experiences of sexual objectification and internalization of cultural standards of appearance, body shame and drive for muscularity, but was not found between experiences of sexual objectification and self-objectification or body surveillance [ 83 ]: in the same study, gender role conflict [ 84 ] was positively associated to the internalization of sociocultural standards of appearance, self-objectification, body shame and drive for muscularity, suggesting the possibility that different pathways may be involved in producing negative effects on men. Men with body-image concerns experiencing gender role conflict may also be less likely to engage in help-seeking behaviors [ 85 , 86 ]. This is possibly due to restrictive emotionality associated with the male gender role leading to more negative attitudes toward help-seeking, as found in a recent study by Nagai, [ 87 ], although this study finds no association with help-seeking behavior, conflicting with previous ones, and more research is needed.

Finally, specificities related to sexual orientation regarding media and objectification appear to be present. A set of recent studies by Frederick and colleagues found that gay men, lesbian women and bisexual people share with heterosexual people many of the pathways that lead from sociocultural pressures to internalization of thin/muscular ideals, higher body surveillance and a lower body image quality of life [ 71 , 88 ], leading the authors to conclude that these factors’ influence applies regardless of sexual orientation. However, their relationship with media and objectification may vary. Gay and bisexual men may face objectification in social media and dating apps rather than in mainstream media and may experience more objectification than heterosexual men [ 89 ]. In Frederick and colleagues’ studies, gay men reported greater media pressures, body surveillance, thin-ideal internalization, and self-objectification compared to heterosexual men; moreover, bisexual men appeared to be more susceptible to ideal internalization, displaying stronger paths from media appearance pressures to muscular-ideal internalization compared to heterosexual men; lesbian women, instead, demonstrated weaker relationships between media pressures and body image outcomes [ 71 , 88 ]. Consistently with previous studies suggesting a heightened susceptibility to social pressures [ 90 ], bisexual women appeared to be more susceptible to media pressures relative to other groups [ 88 ]. Another recent study of lesbian and bisexual women supported previous evidence for the pathway from the internalization of cultural appearance standards to body surveillance, body shame and eating disorder symptoms; however, it found no significant connection between experiences of objectification and eating disorder symptoms [ 91 ].

2.3. Sexualized Portrayals

Several studies have found sexualizing media representations to be commonplace across a number of different media contents and across different target demographics (i.e., children, adolescents or adults) and genres. Reports of common sexualized representations of women are found in contexts such as television programs [ 92 ], movies [ 93 , 94 , 95 , 96 ], music videos [ 97 , 98 ], advertising [ 54 , 55 ], videogames [ 51 , 99 , 100 ], or magazines [ 101 ].

Exposure to sexualized media has been theorized to be an exogenous risk factor in the internalization of sexualized beliefs about women [ 41 ], as well as one of the pathways to the internalization of cultural appearance ideals [ 102 ]. Daily exposition to sexualized media content has been consistently linked to a number of negative effects. Specifically, it has been found to lead to higher levels of body dissatisfaction and distorted attitudes about eating through the internalization of cultural body ideals (e.g., lean or muscular) in both men and women [ 71 ]. It has also been associated with a higher chance of supporting sexist beliefs in boys [ 103 ], and of tolerance toward sexual violence in men [ 104 ]. Furthermore, exposure to sexualized images has been linked to a higher tolerance of sexual harassment and rape myth acceptance [ 76 ]. Exposure to reality TV programs consistently predicted self-sexualization for both women and men, while music videos did so for men only [ 103 ]. Internalized sexualization, in turn, has been linked to a stronger endorsement of sexist attitudes and acceptance of rape myths [ 105 ], while also being linked to higher levels of body surveillance and body shame in girls [ 106 ]. Internalization of media standards of appearance has been linked to body surveillance in both men and women, as well as body surveillance of the partner in men [ 107 ].

As a medium, videogames have been studied relatively little and have produced less definite results. This medium can offer the unique dynamic of embodiment in a virtual avatar, which has been hypothesized to be able to lead to a shift in self-perception (the “Proteus effect”, as formulated by Yee & Bailenson, [ 108 ]). While some studies have partially confirmed this effect, showing that exposure to sexualized videogame representations can increase self-objectification [ 109 , 110 , 111 ], others [ 112 ] have not found the same relationship. Furthermore, while a study has found an association between sexualized representations in videogames, tolerance of sexual abuse of women and rape myth acceptance [ 113 ], and in another, it was linked to a decreased real-life belief in women’s competence [ 114 ], a recent meta-analysis [ 115 ] found no effect of the presence of sexualized content on well-being, sexism or misogyny.

Research on social media has also shown some specificities. Social media offers the unique dynamic of being able to post and disseminate one’s own content and almost always includes built-in mechanisms for user-generated feedback (e.g., likes), as well as often being populated by one’s peers, friends and family rather than strangers. Sites focusing on image- or video-based content (e.g., Instagram, TikTok) may be more prone to eliciting social comparison and fostering the internalization of cultural appearance ideals, resulting in more associations to negative body image when compared to others that have the same capabilities but offer text-based content as well (e.g., Facebook) [ 116 ]. Social media appears to foster social comparison, which may increase appearance-based concerns [ 117 ]. Consistently with previous research, exposure to sexualized beauty ideals on social media appeared to be associated with lower body satisfaction; exposure to more diverse standards of appearance, instead, was associated with increased body satisfaction and positive mood, regardless of image sexualization [ 116 , 118 ].

3. Discussion

3.1. critical discussion of evidence.

The reviewed evidence (summarized in Table 1 ) points to the wide-ranging harmful effects of stereotyping, objectifying and sexualizing media portrayals, which are reported to be still both common and pervasive. The links to possible harms have also been well documented, with a few exceptions.

Summary of findings.

These representations, especially but not exclusively pertaining to women, have been under social scrutiny following women’s rights movements and activism [ 119 ] and can be perceived to be politically incorrect and undesirable, bringing an aspect of social desirability into the frame. Positive attitudes toward gender equality also appear to be at an all-time high across the western world [ 120 , 121 ], a change that has doubtlessly contributed to socio-cultural pressure to reduce harmful representations. Some media contexts (e.g., advertising and television) seem to have begun reflecting this change regarding stereotypes, attempting to either avoid harmful representations or push more progressive portrayals. However, these significant changes in stereotypes (e.g., regarding competence) have not necessarily been reflected in women’s lives, such as their participation in the labor force, leadership or decision-making [ 31 , 122 , 123 ]. Objectifying or sexualizing representations do not seem to be drastically reduced in prevalence. Certainly, many influences other than media representations are in play in this regard, but their effect on well-being has been found to be pervasive and consistent. Despite widespread positive attitudes toward gender equality, the persistence of stereotypical, objectifying and sexualizing representations may hint at the continued existence of an entrenched sexist culture which can translate into biases, discrimination and harm.

Despite some conflicting findings, the literature also hints at the existence of differences in how media pressures appear to affect men and women, as well as gay, lesbian and bisexual people. These may point to the possibility of some factors (e.g., objectification) playing a different role across different people in the examined pathways, an aspect that warrants caution when considering possible interventions and clinical implications. In some cases, the same relationship between exposure to media and well-being may exist, but it may follow different pathways from distal risk factors to proximal risk factors, as in the case of gender role conflict for men or body shame for lesbian and bisexual women. However, more research is needed to explore these recent findings.

Different media also appear to feature specificities for which more research is needed, such as videogames and social media. The more interactive experiences offered by these media may play an important role in determining their effects, and the type of social media needs to be taken into consideration as well (image- or video-based vs. text-based). Moreover, the experiences of exposure may not necessarily be homogenous, due to the presence of algorithms that determine what content is being shown in the case of social media, and due to the possibility of player interaction and avatar embodiment in the case of videogames.

Past findings [ 37 , 69 ] about links with other social issues such as sexism, harassment and violence appear to still be relevant [ 67 , 73 , 103 , 105 ]. The increases in both tolerance and prevalence of sexist and abusive attitudes resulting from exposure to problematic media representations impact the cultural climate in which these phenomena take place. Consequently, victims of discrimination and abuse living in a cultural climate more tolerant of sexist and abusive attitudes may experience lower social support, have a decreased chance of help-seeking and adopt restrictive definitions for what counts as discrimination and abuse, indirectly furthering gender inequalities.

Exploring ways of reducing risks to health, several authors [ 22 , 41 , 75 ] have discussed media literacy interventions—that is, interventions focused on teaching critical engagement with media—as a possible way of reducing the negative effects of problematic media portrayals. As reported in McLean and colleagues’ systematic review [ 124 ], these interventions have been previously shown to be effective at increasing media literacy, while also improving body-related outcomes such as body satisfaction in boys [ 125 ], internalization of the thinness ideal in girls [ 125 ], body size acceptance in girls [ 126 ] and drive for thinness in girls and boys [ 127 ]. More recently, they were also shown to be effective at reducing stereotypical gender role attitudes [ 128 ], as well as fostering unfavorable attitudes toward stereotypical portrayals and lack of realism [ 129 ]. Development and promotion of these interventions should be considered when attempting to reduce negative media-related influences on body image. It should be noted, however, that McLean and colleagues’ review found no effect of media literacy interventions on eating disorder symptomatology [ 124 ], which warrants more careful interventions.

Furthermore, both internal (e.g., new entrants’ attitudes in interpersonal or organizational contexts) and external (e.g., pressure from public opinion) sociocultural pressures appear to have a strong influence in reducing harmful representations [ 55 , 56 ]. Critically examining these representations when they appear, as well as voicing concerns toward examples of possibly harmful representations, may promote more healthy representations in media. As documented by some studies, the promotion of diverse body representations in media may also be effective in reducing negative effects [ 70 , 118 ].

3.2. Limitations

The current review synthesizes the latest evidence on stereotyping, objectifying and sexualizing media representations. However, limitations in its methodology are present and should be taken into consideration. It is not a systematic review and may not be construed to be a complete investigation of all the available evidence. Only articles written in the English language have been considered, which may have excluded potentially interesting findings written in other languages. Furthermore, it is not a meta-analysis, and as such cannot be used to draw statistical conclusions about the surveyed phenomena.

3.3. Future Directions

While this perception is limited by the non-systematic approach of the review, to what we know, very few studies appear to be available on the relationship between media representation and non-sexual objectification, which may provide interesting directions to explore in relation to autonomy, violability or subjectivity, as was attempted in the context of work and organizations [ 130 ].

More cross-cultural studies (e.g., Tartaglia & Rollero [ 54 ]) would also prove useful in exploring differences between cultural contexts, as well as the weight of different sociocultural factors in the relationship between media representation and gender.

More studies focusing on relatively new media (e.g., social media, videogames) would possibly help clear up some of the identified discrepancies and explore new directions for the field that take advantage of their interactivity. This is particularly true for niche but growing media such as virtual reality, in which the perception of embodiment in an avatar with different physical features than one’s own could prove to be important in sexualization and objectification. Only preliminary evidence [ 131 ] has been produced on the topic.

Studies to further explore the relationship between media representations, gender and sexual orientation would also be beneficial. As already highlighted by Frederick and colleagues [ 132 ], gay, lesbian and bisexual people may deal with a significantly different set of appearance norms and expectations [ 133 ], and face minority-related stresses [ 134 ] that can increase susceptibility to poorer body image and disordered eating [ 135 , 136 ]. Additionally, none of the reviewed studies had a particular focus on trans people, who may have different experiences relating to media and body image, as suggested by the differences in pathways found in a recent study [ 137 ]. Sexual orientation and gender identity should be kept into consideration when investigating these relationships, as their specificities may shed light on the different ways societal expectations influence the well-being of sexual minorities.

The examined literature on the topic also appears to feature specificities that need to be taken into account. As previously reported by Ward [ 37 ], the vast majority of the studies continue to be conducted in the United States, often on undergraduates, which limits the generalizability of the results to the global population. Given the abundance and complexity of the constructs, more studies examining the pathways from media exposure to well-being using methodologies such as path analysis and structural equation modeling may help clarify some of the discrepancies found in the literature about the same relationships.

Finally, as previously reported by many authors [ 37 , 69 , 138 ], sexualization, self-sexualization, objectification and self-objectification are sometimes either treated as synonymous or used with different definitions and criteria, which may add a layer of misdirection to studies on the subject. Given the divergences in the use of terminology, clearly stating one’s working definition of sexualization or objectification would possibly benefit academic clarity on the subject.

4. Conclusions

Consistent empirical evidence highlights the importance of media representations as a key part of sociocultural influences that may have consequences on well-being. Despite some notable progress, harmful representations with well-researched links to detrimental effects are still common across a number of different media. Exposure to stereotyping, objectifying and sexualized representations appears to consistently be linked to negative consequences on physical and mental health, as well as fostering sexism, violence and gender inequity. On a clinical level, interventions dealing with body image and body satisfaction should keep their influence into account. The promotion of institutional and organizational interventions, as well as policies aimed at reducing their influence, could also prove to be a protective factor against physical and mental health risks.

Funding Statement

This research received no external funding.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, F.S. and L.R.; methodology, T.T. and M.N.P.; writing—original draft preparation, F.S.; writing—review and editing, T.T. and M.N.P.; supervision, L.R. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Sociologists have researched the influence of media representations of social groups and events on audiences. They found that ethnic minority groups are often misrepresented, and certain genders, age groups and social classes are also represented in a stereotypical way in the media . The question is, why?

  • We will define media representations and look at different types of media representation.
  • Then we will consider how age, gender, sexuality, social class, ethnicity and disability are represented in the media.
  • We will discuss the media representation of crime.
  • Finally, we will look at different sociological perspectives on media representation theory.

The definition of media representation

Firstly, what do we mean by media representation?

Media representations are established, stereotypical representations of social groups through various media platforms.

Let's look at an example to illustrate the representation of an institution in the media.

An example of media representation is the representation of monarchy through the media's portrayal of the royal family in the UK. The media represents the King as the head of the country, and this strengthens the 'national identity' as the royals are part of national events, e.g. including sports and national events.

Types of media representation

Media plays a significant role in representing the key social markers of identity, including:

ethnicity, and

Let us now explore and understand the different types of media representations by addressing the key indicators.

Age representation in the media

The media represents children , youth and the elderly (categorisations based on age) differently, which influences society 's behaviour towards them.

Children in the media

The media's representation of childhood is often through images or videos of a child being playful, happy and carefree.

Youth and young people in the media

The media's representation of the youth is largely associated with fashion, music, fast food, the internet etc. The advertising industry aims at young people to increase demand for their products.

Although media representations of the youth are constructed around lifestyle and identity, they also portray them as a social problem .

Media coverage of the youth often portrays them as rebellious, disobedient, antisocial or immoral.

Media Representations, Young woman leaning against gate and smoking, Vaia

The media's portrayal of youth subcultures as a threat to the dominant norms and values of society tends to fuel deviant behaviour by young people. Representation of the youth in association with notions of deviance and criminality leads to an exaggerated outburst of public concern, which is called moral panic .

Tip: Refer to Stan Cohen's (1972) study on the relationship between the media and the Mods and Rockers for more on moral panics.

Wayne et al. (2008) conducted a study where they looked at over 2000 news pieces and discovered that young people were mostly represented as a threat to society. They described the media as showing a "one-dimensional representation of youths". 1

This is also the case when the media delivers a negative picture of the youth as being harmful, dangerous, or immature rather than drawing attention to the challenges they face as teenagers like unemployment and mental health problems.

The elderly in the media

The popular stereotypes associated with the media's representation of the elderly involve seeing them as a 'burden' on the younger generations. They are also known to be emotionally and physically weak.

Elderly characters in films and TV series are often shown as forgetful, stubborn, conservative or grumpy .

There are adverts that represent elderly people enjoying healthy, active lifestyles and ageing 'gracefully'. However, there is a significant gender difference in the media representations of elderly people.

While an advertisement shows an old woman playing with grandchildren or watching television at home, an old man is portrayed as a style icon with high social status - driving a sports car or playing polo.

Advertisements about anti-ageing and anti-wrinkle treatments and creams almost exclusively target older women, rather than men.

Gender representation in the media

The traditional mainstream media representation of women is often associated with social roles, whereas men are shown performing occupational roles .

Media representations of women and femininity

Gaye Tuchman's (1978) concept of symbolic annihilation refers to the under-representation of women. The idea indicates that women are associated with social roles linked to gender stereotypes.

Product adverts where women are linked particularly with roles related to housework and motherhood, such as washing powder adverts in which the mother and daughter are washing clothes together.

Tuchman further argues that women's looks and sex appeal are always prioritised over their achievements in media representations.

The media portrays working women as unattractive and unstable to carry household roles or sustain a family.

Marjorie Ferguson's (1983) content analysis of women's magazines (from 1949 to 1974 & 1979 to 1980) suggests that the representation of women was based on stereotypical traditional female roles, which she called the cult of femininity.

Naomi Wolf (2013) suggested that women were presented as 'sex objects' in the media.

Laura Mulvey (1973) used the term male gaze to define how the camera focuses on female body parts for the viewing pleasure of men. The male gaze exists mainly because heterosexual men controlled the camera. Simply put, women are represented as sex objects and not as a person.

According to liberal feminists, media representations fall behind the reality of social and economic conditions. They acknowledge that representations of women have improved in the last few years, but argue that the majority of media professionals - journalists, producers, directors, editors, etc. are men.

Media representations of men and masculinity

Antony Easthope (1986) argued that a range of media representations of men promote the notion that masculinity is determined biologically and that it is a natural goal for men to achieve. They associate masculinity with traditional stereotypes of being strong, aggressive, competitive and violent.

Representation of sexuality in the media

Traditionally, media representations of sexuality have been almost exclusively heterosexual, with LGBTQ+ people remaining invisible, marginalised, or negatively portrayed.

Media Representations, LGBTQ representation two women kissing with Russian flag taped over their mouths, Vaia

Batchelor et al. (2004) found that when there were representations of LGBTQ+ people in mainstream media, they were not included in realistic or respectful plot lines. Instead, the only reason a character was represented as non-heterosexual was often to kickstart a plot line.

In the television show ' Atypical ', one of the main characters is portrayed as gay. The writers of the show use the sexuality of the character to introduce a storyline of cheating. The fact that they are gay is not touched on accurately and is simply a tool for a dramatic story.

Steve Craig (1992) suggests that media representations of gay male characters in films or popular shows are often associated with exaggerated stereotypes, such as displaying particular "feminine" facial expressions, tones, and clothing, or possessing amusing or negative characteristics.

Craig points out three often overtly homophobic media indicators of 'gayness':

Camp : This is widely used for representing gay characters (in films or TV), lying somewhere between male and female, portraying them as flamboyant, fun-loving and 'non-threatening'.

Macho: This is a look that exaggerates aspects of traditional masculinity and is portrayed as a threat to heterosexual men.

Deviant : This depicts gay people as evil or negative, as sexual predators or as people who feel guilty about their sexuality. These representations reinforce the impression of homosexuality as 'morally wrong'.

David Gauntlett (2008), a sociologist and media theorist, argues that the LGBTQ+ community remains under-represented in much of the mainstream media, but the tolerance for sexual diversity is slowly improving.

According to him, the increased representation of diverse sexual identities with which audiences are unfamiliar would make the general masses more aware and comfortable with alternative sexual lifestyles.

Representation of social class in the media

Media representations of social classes vary significantly. It may be worth reminding ourselves what we mean by 'social class'.

In sociology, social class refers to the socioeconomic categories on which a society is divided. The people belonging to a particular category share economic and social status in terms of wealth, educational achievement and job type.

Media representations of the wealthy ( upper class ) are generally positive as something one should aspire to.

Tip: Go back to the example at the beginning, talking about the media representation of the monarchy.

Media represents the middle class through television dramas and adverts promoting products that suit the taste and interests of the middle class. Most media professionals (journalists, editors, directors, etc.) are privately educated, and the content they represent is more likely to represent the middle-class point of view.

David M. Newman (2006) argues that media representation of the working class is generally negative - labelling them as a social 'problem' - for example, as drug addicts and criminals.

Media representation s of unemployed and/or single parents hold them solely responsible for their family's poverty rather than focusing on the issues that created the situation, e.g. expensive childcare, little to no government financial support, and the social stigma around single (especially female) parents.

Media representation of ethnicity in sociology

Media sociologists believe that the media's representation of ethnic minority groups is often associated with negative, racist stereotypes.

Minority groups in general are often portrayed as a 'threat' to society. Consider the following examples.

Immigrants are seen as a threat in terms of their numbers, as their perceived motive is to take advantage of welfare services and partake in employment opportunities.

Refugees and asylum seekers are represent ed as a cause of social unrest that leads to moral panic.

Negative media representations portray Muslims (or any South Asians who 'appear' Muslim) as dangerous, oppressive and irrational, with stories focused on terrorism and religious domination.

Teun A. van Dijk (1991) analysed news channels for several decades and discovered that representations of ethnic groups were able to fit into several negatively labelled categories: ethnic minorities represented as a threat , as criminals, as unimportant in society or simply not represented at all.

Media representatives from ethnic minority groups have developed media institutions and agencies such as Eastern Eye, Snoop and The Voice, focusing on the interests and concerns of ethnic-minority audiences in response to these stereotypical portrayals.

Ethnicity, crime and the media

Media representation of crime, for example, often involves news explicitly pointing out the involvement of Black or Muslim people.

A crime committed by a Black person is often represented to be motivated by gang rivalries rather than socioeconomic reasons.

Another example would be media coverage of subjects like AIDS in Africa or Black children as underachievers in schools, rather than focusing on the culture and interests of the Black audience and their contribution to society.

Furthering from this, Wayne et al. (2007) found in their study of the news that nearly half of news stories concerning young Black people involved them committing crimes.

In addition, Stuart Hall (1978) conducted a study into levels of mugging in London in the 1970s. At the time, the media presented sensational headlines of an increase in muggings, particularly by Black youths. Despite this, Hall's research found that there were actually fewer muggings than in the previous decade. He determined this outcome was from a moral panic caused by the media.

Representation of disability in the media

Sociologists argue that media representations of disabled people are generally associated with a range of stereotypes. People with disabilities are often objects of pity, seen as unable to participate fully in social life and being in constant need of help or assistance.

Colin Barnes (1992) suggests the following recurring stereotypes in representations of people with disabilities:

Pitiable and pathetic - media representations focusing on disabled children and the possibilities of miracle cures in TV shows or documentaries.

Sinister and evil - think of the negative characters in James Bond movies. They are often shown to have some kind of physical impairment.

Atmospheric or curio us - media portraying disabled people engaging in drama to create an atmosphere of menace, unease or deprivation.

Super-cripples - portrayal of disabled people as having special powers.

Sexually 'abnormal' - the media portrays the disabled as having no sense of sexuality, no sex appeal or even as sexually challenged.

The media rarely represents disabled people to be productive working members of society - Barnes termed this stereotype as an omission.

Disabled representation in telethons

Media representation of disabled people through telethons merely confirms social prejudices and rather reinforces the idea that they should be 'dependent' on others. Instead of helping one to understand the everyday challenges of being physically disabled, telethons are primarily to entertain people and raise money.

Media representation theory: sociological perspectives on media representations

Let's look at sociological perspectives on media representations.

Marxists and feminists believe that the root cause of gender stereotypes is economic interests .

For Marxists , media representations are a by-product of the capitalist market.

For feminists, t he male-dominated media aims to attract large audiences with stereotypical images of women.

Consider an advertisement that utilises sexualised depictions of women's bodies to promote diet products or cosmetics. Such an advertisement not only promotes consumerism and helps companies make a profit, but also upholds (sexist and objectifying) beauty standards for women to aspire to.

Radical feminists believe that traditional hegemonic images of femininity are deliberately portrayed to keep women oppressed and limited to a narrow range of roles. This creates a form of false consciousness in women, discouraging them from taking up opportunities that would consequently challenge men's patriarchal power.

David Gauntlett (2008) , a postmodernist, stresses the relationship between the mass media and identity. According to him, today's mass media challenges traditional definitions of gender and is rather a force for social change.

An advertisement focusing on men's emotions and problems and portraying men as sensitive challenges the traditional stereotypes of masculinity, such as toughness.

Media representations - Key takeaways

  • Media representations are studied through the portrayals of different social groups, such as age, social class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability.
  • The media represents children, youth, and the elderly differently and influences society's behaviour towards them.
  • Representations of women and men are often based on stereotypical traditional gender roles associated with the genders. Traditionally, media representations of sexuality have been almost exclusively heterosexual, with LGBTQ+ people remaining invisible, marginalised, or negatively portrayed.
  • The wealthy are presented as aspirational, the middle-class perspective is considered universal, and the working class is often considered a 'social problem' in the media. Media representations of ethnic minority groups is often associated with racist stereotypes and minorities are portrayed as threats.
  • In the media, people with disabilities are often portrayed as objects of pity, seen as unable to participate fully in social life and in constant need of help or assistance.
  • Wayne, M., Henderson, L., Murray, C., & Petley, J. (2008). Television news and the symbolic criminalisation of young people. Journalism studies, 9(1), 75-90.

Frequently Asked Questions about Media Representations

--> what is the definition of media representation.

Media representations are established, stereotypical representations of social groups through various media platforms. This can vary from representations of age to representations of disability.

--> What is gender representation in media?

Representations of women and men are often based on stereotypical traditional gender roles associated with the genders. 

--> What is an example of media representation?

An example of media representation is the representation of monarchy through the media's portrayal of the royal family in the UK.

--> What is the importance of media representation?

Media plays a significant role in representing the key social markers of identity like age, gender, class, sexuality, etc. By analysing these representations, we can see how society perceives different social groups.

--> What is media representation in sociology? 

Media representations in sociology are studied through the portrayals of different social groups, such as age, social class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Neo-Marxists claim that media representations of social classes focus on hierarchy and celebrate wealth. True or false?

Newman argues that media portrayals of the most destitute are often associated with positive stereotypes. True or false?

The media conceptualised the metrosexual man - a kind of masculinity that was based on appearance and fashion, and promoted empathy, generosity, and being supportive of women. True or false?

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What is the male gaze?

Laura Mulvey  (1973) used the term  male gaze  to define how the camera focuses on female body parts for the viewing pleasure of men. The  male gaze  exists mainly because heterosexual men controlled the camera. Simply put, women are represented as sex objects and not as a person.

What did Easthope (1986) argue about in relation to male representation?

What are the 6 main types of media representation?

The types of media representations are based on social indicators such as:

  • Social class

Who conducted a study into levels of mugging in London in the 1970s? What was the outcome of the study?

Stuart Hall (1978) conducted a study into levels of mugging in London in the 1970s. At the time, the media presented sensational headlines of an increase in muggings, particularly by Black youths. 

Despite this, Hall's research found that there were actually fewer muggings than in the previous decade. He determined this outcome was from a moral panic caused by the media. 

Give an example of media representation of the elderly in films and TV series.

Elderly characters in films and TV series are often shown as forgetful, stubborn, conservative or grumpy. 

What is symbolic annihilation?


  • Research Methods in Sociology
  • Social Relationships
  • Sociological Approach
  • Stratification and Differentiation

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