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Serge Moscovici

Nikos Kalampalikis
Denise Jodelet
Michel Wieviorka
et al.

– V – Les représentations sociales : actualité et impact dans le monde

For a Biography of a Theory

Annamaria Silvana de Rosa

Texte intégral

Serge Moscovici: homme solitaire/homme des réseaux, homme de pensée/homme d’action

1Any biography of a theory starts from introductive notes about his founder. Here just some insights based on a personal account and documents relevant for the history of the discipline that Serge Moscovici has contributed to re-found in Europe and to institutionalise participating in the creation of the European Association for Experimental Social Psychology and leading it as its first President (EASP, 2017).

2During our conversations, that I will miss forever, Serge Moscovici often self-defined himself as a “solitaire” (a lonely person). However he was a special kind of solitaire, not only because he has been so popular and admired from an impressive large number of people from all over the world, but because he had a very personal way to get in deep contact with the “others” and to mobilise their energies in a significant influential way. It was at the same time a solitaire and homme de réseaux, although his openness to the networking logic never led him to sacrifice the personalisation of the scientific relationship that makes intellectual exchange a meeting of souls as well as of minds.

3Innovating style of thought and making his implicit, but relevant influence was his natural way of being and a sort of lifestyle, so that most of the people who have encountered him, both in a personal interaction or even through his readings, recognise that he has changed significantly their intellectual paths and in some cases their entire life (as it happened to me). It is really incredible how much a single man (even a kind of solitaire man!) may influence many others’ life! During an invited speech in 2004 at the 7th International Conference on Social Representations in Guadalajara, celebrating the Balzan Award assigned to Serge Moscovici, “An award that honours us all,” I had already occasion to express some feelings, that sound even more relevant after his departure from this world to keep alive his heritage respecting his memory: “Only our respect for the man and his thought preserves us from the vain temptation to bask in his reflected light. We are well aware that one does not become tall by gazing at a tall man. However, we can broaden the horizon of our own view of things if we can visualise them through the eyes of someone who is taller than we are. His stature is indeed as monumental as his work. One day, Clotilde Pontecorvo, a colleague to whom I had introduced him, said: he is like a ‘monument’ as well as a ‘document’ and both belong to history!”

  • 1 See the Tribute to Serge Moscovici (1925-2014) in the web site of the europhd, including a Cahiers (...)

4Although he loved so much to spend time in library in company of books as foods for mind, as genuinely passionate autodidact, or to be concentrated in writing his impressive collection of books, chapters, articles1, he has also deserved generously his time to friends, pupils, colleagues and scholars, who often naturally shifted from one role to another. His special way to elaborate his own biography and to narrate Chronique des années égarées (Moscovici, 1997a) which have marked his life for ever, generating the feeling to be always a “stranger” everywhere ( “not enough French in France; too French outside France!”), as well his outstanding intellectual stature did never detach him from the ordinary life and people: not by chance his home in Paris was in a very lively district close to an open air multicultural food market (le marché d’Aligre), and the cafés, restaurants and clubs (so popular in the Parisian social life for encountering people) have been cited in his essays as privileged lieux for the social genesis of social representations.

5Homme de pensée he was at the same time homme d’action, recruited at a very early stage of his academic career by a group of influential social psychologist from the US who were committed to science building, and in particular “social psychology” under critical political and historical circumstances in the two decades following the Second World War. His contribution as member of the Transnational Committee on Social Psychology of the Social Science Research Council since 1964 was so determinant that one year later (1965) he was designated Chairman of the Planning Committee of the European Association for the Advancement of Experimental Social Psychology, chosen among a whole company of established and ‘maverick’ social psychologists, and just two years later (1966) as the first President of the EA (E) SP— European Association of (Experimental) Social Psychology. Since then Moscovici’s provocative and innovative point of view (recognised and legitimised by Leon Festinger), firmly in contrast with the cloning model of exporting and reproducing studies originally conducted in the United States to cross-cultural comparisons in other geo-cultural contexts, was in favour of a model preserving the “recognition” of the cultural distinctiveness in developing knowledge not through imitation, but through innovation and cross-fertilisations of ideas stimulated by international interactions among scientists belonging to different geo-cultural contexts and research traditions. In the book The Making of Modern Social Psychology, Moscovici, as the best-placed insider of the intellectual and institutional historical adventure of a new science building, together with Marková, reconstructs the fascinating “hidden story of how an International Social Science was created” at the dynamic cross-road of three intersecting dimensions: a) the political-historical set of circumstances, b) the intellectual and scientific issues which changed the course of social psychology, and c) the institutional impact. The narrative style in writing the history of the Transnational Committee not as “a rational reconstruction of past events in which judgements and explanation provide a coherent and justified logic for the development of scientific associations and thus for the theories makes that are in play,” but as an attempt “to reconstruct the genesis of the relations between the protagonists, the dialectic of their actions and their common improvisations and strategies, in short, their works across continents” (Moscovici and Marková, 2006: XVI) makes this book particularly interesting also for introducing our contribution focused on the logic of dynamic between people/events/geo-cultural contexts and science, between networks of researchers and the process of knowledge production, dissemination and development, between inter-institutional collaboration and genesis of innovative institutions.

6The internationalisation in the foundation of a modern social psychology was not limited to the “West European experiment” in the dialogue between Americans and Europeans for designing the “European Map of Social Psychology” (a dialogue which was not simply an ideas exchange, but implied demanding institutional activities of fundraising, series of international meetings, conferences, training events, like summer schools, etc.). It was extended to the East European experiment (depicted in the Moscovici and Marková’s book through the fascinating metaphor of the encounter of a “Small Science with Big History”), to the Latin America experiment and to the creation of an “Invisible College” generating “Pilgrims’ Progress”. In this book (2006), Moscovici provides a great first-hand testimony, supported by carefully documented account of historical sources, of the making of the modern social psychology. At the same time, he offers a prospective heuristic vision to understand some critical trends, which have even recently affected EASP, generating an Opinion Piece (November 30, 2013) that “wishes to raise a debate within the Association as to whether these original goals of the Association are still valid and relevant, to what extent they are currently respected, and how the Association could improve the implementation of these goals.” The homeostatic phenomena and inertia of history leading to lack of recognition of cultural diversity and real world issues (see also Farr, 1996; Greenwood, 2004), contrary to the visioning thinking of the EASP pioneers and its first President Moscovici—who already depicted an “identity crisis” of the social psychology in the breaking the bridge with other social sciences, isolating itself from common reality and common sense, transforming the experimental approach “from a method of invention” to “a method of proof”—are summarised in the cited Opinion Piece in three main key points:

  • “Lack of plurality in terms of geographical representation, theoretical and methodological approaches, and the dissemination of knowledge; […]
  • Social irrelevance: Whereas the original impetus was multidisciplinary, many European social psychologists have adopted individualistic, atomistic models of social behaviour. This does not only contribute to social psychology’s limited visibility in societal debates and among policy-makers, research councils and European funding programs, but also to disciplinary ‘isolation’; […]
  • Intellectual narrowness: Despite dropping the word ‘experimental’ in the Association’s name, they tend to perceive it as promoting a view of social psychology based on narrow experimental approaches with largely homogeneous (student) samples.”

7More recently the EASP Report on Diversity (March 2017) has confirmed that “there is a gap between the aspiration of EASP to be an Association of all social psychologists in all of Europe and the reality that it is primarily an Association of mainstream social psychologists working in Western Europe,” and in particular “in terms of thematic/ methodological orientation, an analysis of symposia at the 2014 General Meeting shows domination by mainstream topics and approaches and an absence of other approaches such as social representations, societal psychology, constructivist psychology or critical psychology” (p. 2). As Graumann also explains, the use of “experimental” was very liberal in the founding mission of the EA (E) SP. “The work promoted by the association was never restricted to experimental psychology, our outputs have addressed a wide range of phenomena studied through a wide range of methods—everything from social cognition to societal psychology. Indeed, this is encapsulated in the work of our first President, Serge Moscovici, whose work on social representations and on social influence employed a diversity of methodological approaches. In short, the aspiration of our Association has not only been to regroup social psychologists in all of Europe but also to regroup all social psychologists in Europe” (p. 3).

8In order to understand why the elaboration of the social representations theory is so central to the foundation of an European project for the social/societal psychology, as an “explicative” rather than “predictive” discipline, it can be useful to remind this piece of interview with Claude Tapia:

[…] contrary to the theory of dissonance and other ‘classics’ in social psychology, it (the social representations theory) is not predictive, but rather explanatory; then, it is not reduced to a proposition (as is the case for others) nor a theory focused on the process (regardless of the content), but precisely on the content which are formed in the common sense and beyond, on social realities themselves that are behind. I insist on the fact that one of the problems of the current social psychology is to focus mainly intra-individual phenomena, that is to say, the processes occurring within individuals (Tapia, 2001: 73, my translation).

9These arguments against the individualistic approach prevailing in the modern social psychology—far from his vision and mission of a social psychology as a major bridge-science ( “science-pont”) between psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences, but at the condition to gain an epistemological autonomy and to revitalise the priority of the theorisation on the practices of methods—have been extensively presented by Moscovici (1989). It is around these arguments that Willem Doise (2001) introduces his chapter presenting the Moscovici’s project for the social psychology as the European main road to the new science in the vision of one of his pioneers. Indeed this book (Buschini and Kalampalikis, 2001) represents in itself a testimony at the same time of the deep and original vision that Moscovici has developed about the human beings and their life, the society and nature, and of the wide “network” of human relations with leading scholars in many diversified field of knowledge that he was able to attract inspiring a worldwide community of thought.

From the inspiration of a maître de la pensée to the institutionalisation of scientist’ network of networks

10Elsewhere (de Rosa, 2003a) I too have narrated my first magic encounter in 1982 with Serge Moscovici, who has since then represented the driving force of my intellectual life. The intellectual passion for his theory inspired me the creation of the innovative doctoral program European/International Joint PhD in Social Representations and Communication ( It has fostered a deeper understanding of the need for advanced research training and scientific dissemination in this field of study, originally specifically European, currently a multilingual, worldwide discipline with a substantial body of literature. Contrary to the fragmentation of traditional social science disciplines, open to trans-disciplinary and multi-methodological research approaches (experimental and field work), it crosses—from the optic of social psychology—sociology, anthropology, education, economics, linguistics, semiotics and communication and media studies with relevant ‘input from’ and ‘outcomes for’ the applied disciplines and even in a dialogue with natural sciences.

11Implemented in 1996—after three years spent to design and share with all partner institutions its training and management structure formalised in Inter-institutional Agreements at the top institutional level, including the signature of joint diploma—the multi-year series of International Summer Schools and of Winter and Spring International Lab Meetings regularly organised by the EuroPhD since the pilot Summer School in 1995 and the creation of documentation and networking tools, supported by and integrated into the digital environment, have produced a priceless impact on a network of networks, generating a dynamic of the knowledge production and dissemination through integration of face-to-face and virtual networked relations. Formally established in 2004, the So.Re.Com. THEmaticNETwork (​sorecomthenet-summary) was the logical next step, as well as synergetic and complementary to the permanent research training activities. Aimed at promoting cooperation among academic, professional research and commercial institutions from all European countries—in connection with a scientific community represented in all the five continents— and facilitating the dissemination of scientific results throughout Europe and around the world, its institutional birth in 2004 corresponds to the selection as the unique thematic network of excellence in psychology and social sciences approved by the European Commission and co-funded by the Sapienza University. Born from a personal bibliographic inventory, initially including almost 500 references in the field of social representations and communication, the So.Re.Com. “A.S. de Rosa” @-library has been implemented in 1996 on the EuroPhD website. The ultimate goal is to make it accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere, therefore disseminating resources otherwise dispersed and fragmented in several universities, public and private research centres and governmental institutions (de Rosa, 2015, 2017).

For “a biography of the theory of social representations”: from the visionary mind of Serge Moscovici to a collective scientific enterprise—between “movement” and “school”

12In this section I will present the basic architecture of the multi-year research program aimed to draw a biography of the theory of social representations and the multi-channels identified to investigate the genesis and development of this scientific field from Serge Moscovici’s visionary mind to the collective enterprise—between “movement” and “school”—originated by the inspiration of his social representation theory and worldwide disseminated with institutional impact within and beyond the boundaries of social psychology.

13Indeed almost ten years were already passed since I started to conceive this over-ambitious research program in 1992 and officially launched in 1994 (de Rosa, 1994), when—on November 2002—Moscovici sent me a letter writing:

[…] il y a d’un côté l’aspect épistémologique: cette méthode se situe entre disons l’histoire classique et l’histoire orale de la science (there is from one side an epistemological aspect: this method is placed between the classic history and the oral history of the science); […] je suis maintenant persuadé que tu as fait un très beau travail, à la fois curieux et original. Le temps est venu de faire une sorte de bilan, donc d’écrire un livre (I am convinced that you have done a very beautiful work, at the same time curious and original. The time has come to pull the sums, therefore to write a book).

14In the meantime, other fifteen years have passed since 2002, when I discussed with Serge the outline of my book entitled The biography of a theory. Although we both liked its structure and despite Moscovici’s encouragement, I was never satisfied of the completeness of the bibliographic sources retrieved, because the literature was continuously expanding and I did not want to provide an incomplete picture of the impressive dissemination of his theory. However today—having reached more than 10,000 references—it is time to finally take a stock of the theory’s dissemination worldwide, in various languages and thematic domains, along different generations of scientists even generating various paradigms and methodological approaches.

15The project is framed by an architecture implying a multi-channels research design, that looks at people, texts, organised forms of exchanges for scientific networking and dissemination and institutionalised research training in a synergic and complementary way. Therefore, it is not exclusively based on the systematic meta-theoretical analysis of the whole corpus of the literature but also on a rich collection of video-interviews. These interviews with key scientists in the field and the new generation of scholars, as complementary methodological tool according to a common interview outline, has been produced mainly during the International Summer Schools and during international mobility stages at partner Universities, in some cases collecting even more than one interview for the same key author over different times to detect significant developments. The overall research program is then aimed at mapping the “biography of the theory” through the integration of systematic empirical analyses of data and meta-data based on experiential autobiographical narratives of scientists who have contributed to the development and dissemination of the scientific field (de Rosa, 2013, 2016).

Tracing paths back and forth for “the biography of the social representations theory”

16Following reflections presented in an invited contribution in 1992, the inception of the research program aimed at the meta-theoretical analysis have its roots in the critical reflections where the lines of arguments of a theoretical-methodological debate are designed clearly distinguishing the reference to social representation as an “object” of investigation, as a “theory” and as addressed from a “meta-theoretical perspective”. The goal to identify the epistemic principles that characterize this theory from other constructs and theories in social sciences and in particular in social psychology is also at the core of three lines of critical reviews: the first that compares the social representations with attitudes, emphasising the problems of coherence between the theoretical definition and procedure of research (de Rosa, 1993); the second that compares the social representations with social cognition approaches contrary to the assimilation made in the literature by authors too often driven by the similarity of thematic objects in many domains (education, health, politics, environment, etc.), as the two theoretical approaches would be interchangeable (de Rosa, 1990, 1992, 1995); the third one—published at least a decade later—was aimed at comparing the social representations with the radical version of the discursive analysis, revealing the epistemological weakness of the literature when it disregards to distinguish that the extreme ideological approach to discursive analysis leads from one side to a complete deny of any “representation” (including the social representations) wrongly exchanged as a cognitivist intra-individualistic dimension, and from the other side to wrongly reduce the discursive approach to a sort of content analysis to investigate social representations (de Rosa, 2003b).

17As briefly described above, the idea of the So.Re.Com. “A.S. de Rosa” @-library is much more complex, because it has been built driven by the dream that not only master and doctoral early-stage researchers would have been involved in contributing to its development, but also the authors any time they produce a new publication on social representation. This would have contributed at the same time to make their work visible and accessible to the larger scientific community and to the development of the digital infrastructure of shared interest for the scientific community. This dream has not yet fully realised. Thus, we hope that the dream that has inspired the library will be fully realised with its global access, use and development and that in the future the authors may be interested to fully contribute to the use of the platform.

18Step by step the time for a book on The biography of a theory is finally mature to present in an integrated form the main results of the meta-theoretical analysis of the scientific productions in more than fifty years of its development, and that will be enriched by the autobiographical narratives of scientists collected along more than two decades and by the analysis of the dynamic of institutional networked program and scientific conferences: an intellectual enterprise that has engaged me since 1994 and that will be a challenge of the scientific community interested to further develop it, thus honoring the memory and heritage of Serge Moscovici, who has firmly believed in such intellectual adventure.


1 See the Tribute to Serge Moscovici (1925-2014) in the web site of the europhd, including a Cahiers of Greetings to say Ciao to him (


(université de Rome La Sapienza, Italie)

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