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Serge Moscovici

Nikos Kalampalikis
Denise Jodelet
Michel Wieviorka
et al.

– III – La psychologie sociale

Serge Moscovici, a Tribute to a Conceptual Maverick

George Gaskell

Texte intégral

1 The seeds of social psychology were sown in Western Europe but with the rise of National Socialism many social psychologists migrated to the United States where the discipline flourished. In the post-World War II years, American social psychology came to dominate the research agenda and to provide a substantial subsidy to Europe in terms of theoretical developments, methodological innovation and access to scientific journals. But this came at a cost as societal values, pressing social issues and research priorities were, and continue to be, somewhat different on either side of the Atlantic. In Europe and the US there are rather different representations of issues such as race, class, criminal justice, health and social policy. Furthermore, mainstream social psychology as conceived in the US views the ‘social’ as ‘in the head’, a cognitive representation of the other, while in Europe the social is ‘between heads’, manifested in language and communication.

2In the mid-1960s, Moscovici joined with other European leaders in social psychology to promote a distinctively European approach to the discipline. The movement soon bifurcated between those who continued to endorse the American tradition and those who attempted to strike out in a different direction. Moscovici was a leader of the latter camp. His career was punctuated by radical reinterpretations of conventional wisdom—that which was taken for granted by the majority of both American and European social psychologists. His challenges were not focussed on methods or data but rather on the nature and interpretation of phenomena under study. And from this conceptual criticism, Moscovici went on to make some very significant conceptual developments. Let me briefly illustrate the point with some examples.

Conformity, minorities and social change

3In societies that celebrate individualism, how is social order maintained? One explanation is to point to communitarian values and behaviours; those who stand out, those who don’t follow the rules, are subject to social pressure (Asch, 1951). If they yield to social pressure all is well; if not, they are treated as a deviant and excluded. In this light conformity research explored the processes by which the majority imposes its will on the minority. Moscovici (1976) turned the argument on its head. He argued that the so-called naïve subject in the laboratory is a member of the majority, the wider community, with years of experience of behaving in ways that have the tacit legitimation of society. What Asch’s studies investigated was not the processes of conformity but rather how an active minority with patently absurd views can impose them on a member of the majority. This conceptual critique led on to research on minority influence and social change (ibid.), and to a programme of research that continues to the present day.

Group decision making

4Conventional wisdom points to groups as conservative and moderate in their collective views and decisions, with the jury as an exemplar. In contrast to Allport’s claim that analytically there is no such thing as a group, only individuals, Kurt Lewin (1958) showed emergent properties of group activity. In particular he demonstrated that if behaviour change is the goal then it is necessary to change the group norms that legitimate the behaviour at the individual level. Moscovici and Nemeth (1974) extended Lewin’s insights with the interpretation that groups can promote innovation and the movement towards unexpected behavioural outcomes. This followed the reinterpretation of another group process, the so-called ‘risky shift’ (Moscovici and Zavalloni, 1969). The risky shift described the empirical finding that group decisions were inclined to be more risk seeking than the combined preferences of the individual group members would suggest. Some claimed this was due to the ‘diffusion of responsibility’ for any adverse consequences of the choice outcome, while others proposed that group discussions make a societal value of risk more salient. Moscovici and Zavalloni showed that the risky shift was a special case of a more general phenomenon— group polarisation. Polarisation is the outcome of the greater engagement with an issue in the group leading inexorably to more extreme positions. This strikes a contemporary chord in the apparent polarisation of political attitudes in some countries argued to be a challenge to the spirit and effective working of liberal democracies. Gutmann, the chair of the Obama’s Presidential Committee on Bioethics, writes with Thompson on the need for schooling in the art and practice of compromise as an antidote to the autistic hostility between political movements (Gutmann and Thompson, 2012). In Europe social media have become platforms for virtual groups and the polarisation towards populism and xenophobia.

Attitudes and representations

5Developments in psychophysics led on to social measurement in psychology. Thurstone and Likert revolutionised public opinion research with scales, quantification and statistics, all taken to be tokens of ‘serious’ science. In 1963, Moscovici assessed developments in research on attitudes and opinions in the Annual Review of Psychology. He was highly critical of the body of research assessing public opinion—information gathering as he called it. He went on to say “methodological refinement has been associated with an atrophy of theoretical thinking. Descriptions are numerous, but attempts at conceptualization rather infrequent. It is, of course, possible to proceed along these lines, but social psychology could not then be expected to benefit from this considerable work. In the present state of affairs, public opinion research would appear to be one of the blind alleys of our science.”

6Essentially, Moscovici’s concern was with the proliferation of research based on ‘what’ type questions; the collection and description of public opinion as an end in itself and not a means to some end. Of course, some information gathered is fascinating, for example he quoted a finding from the Survey Research Centre that for 70 % (of Americans) the world appears to be ruled by God. But news headlines are not coterminus with social science. My interpretation of Moscovici is that he was signalling that a complementary and potentially more productive research question starts with the question ‘why’? ‘What’ invites an answer based on data and facts; ‘why’ invites an answer starting with ‘because’—the beginnings of an explanation. And with ‘because’ comes the opening of a possible contribution to the understanding processes.

7Of lasting significance Moscovici ended the Annual Review chapter with an introduction to the concept of social representations which over the years has seen a number of important conceptual developments in the analysis of the evolution, structure and function of everyday knowledge.

8Billig (1991) assesses the theory of social representations as follows:

One of the most important recent developments in European social psychology has been the emergence of the concept of social representations. The emergence of a new concept does not always indicate the formulation of a new idea. Sometimes in social psychology a concept is created to describe a novelty of experimental procedure, and sometimes to accord scientific pretentions to a well-known truism. By contrast, what has characterized the concept of social representations has been the intellectual ambition of its adherents. They have announced an intellectual revolution to shift social psychology to the traditions of European social science. Serge Moscovici, who has been both the Marx and Lenin of this revolutionary movement, has advocated a fundamental reorientation of social psychology around the concept of social representations. This revolution, if successful, will affect both pure and applied social psychology. In fact, the whole discipline will become more applied in the sense that the emphasis will be shifted from laboratory studies, which seek to isolate variables in the abstract, towards being a social science, which examines socially shared beliefs, or social representations, in their actual context. According to Moscovici, this reorientation would transform the discipline into an “anthropological and a historical science.”

9For Martin Bauer and me, it was the obvious choice of a theoretical perspective to study the voices and images of concern over modern biotechnology through the controversies over ‘Dolly the Sheep’, genetically modified crops and foods, and human embryonic stem cell research (Bauer and Gaskell, 2002). The integration of communication systems in terms of contents (anchoring and objectification), objectives (propaganda, propagation, and diffusion), outcomes (stereotypes, attitudes, and opinions), and social milieus (natural groups) provided a paradigm for research, a description and operationalisation of social representations. Armed with these concepts we elaborated a social psychological approach to innovation in science and technology and added some ideas to the theory of social representations (Bauer and Gaskell, 1999, 2008). Other contributors to this volume highlight further conceptual developments and the impact of the theory on the study of issues in contemporary society.

The (continued) age of the crowd

10Moscovici often visited the Department of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics. On one occasion he arrived when I was writing a review of a book on Gustave Le Bon (Nye, 1975). Le Bon was a remarkable polymath, whose Psychologie des foules in 1895 influenced Freud, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, and many others. It also influenced Moscovici who reinvented mass psychology. Why was it Moscovici asked, that in the 20th century, the age of equality, with a more educated public having greater political power and influence, that charismatic leaders have created the great upheavals cf. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Khomeini, Franco, and Tito, and others? Confronted or led by such leaders the credulous masses sacrifice their own interests and obey without question as the Promised Land beckons. Moscovici’s (1985) book The Age of the Crowd is a prescient commentary on contemporary times. He says “all that is needed is a one or two striking images, a few high sounding and emotionally appealing formulae or a reminder of a great collective belief. The heart, faith and hope rule, reason plays a secondary role.” Slogans such as “Make America great again!” and in the UK after the Brexit referendum “Independence Day, restore the sovereignty of parliament!” suggest the continuing grip of mass psychology.

Societal psychology

11Moscovici (1990b) was an active supporter of Hilde Himmelweit’s call for a societal psychology. They argued that social psychology is both a branch of general psychology and related to other social sciences such as history, anthropology, politics and economics (Himmelweit and Gaskell, 1990). However social psychology, as was, had little relevance to these other social scientific disciplines leading them to develop their own versions of psychology without reference to each other. A fine example is the concept of ‘mentalité’ of the Annales school of history. Himmelweit and Moscovici recognised that many pressing social issues cannot be explained by any single discipline, let alone social psychology. They conceived of societal psychology as an attempt to communicate between the disciplinary boundaries of the many psychologies and in the long run to unite them. And in so doing societal psychology would need models to investigate and integrate micro- and macro-processes.

The legacy

12Moscovici’s legacy can be seen in the initiation and continuity of diverse and vibrant programmes of research and in the number of outstanding social psychologists researching in these programmes. Within this diversity are common themes. The study of issues of relevance to contemporary societies; research that draws upon theory and aims to contribute to theoretical development, and a social psychology that talks to other social sciences. As outlined elsewhere this might well involve micro-macro theory, bridging the individual and societal levels (Lopes and Gaskell, 2015). A research agenda informed by the common themes that characterise Moscovici’s outstanding career would be a way to ensure his legacy and give social psychology a more prominent role in the social sciences.


(London School of Economics, Royaume-Uni)

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2019

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