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Serge Moscovici

Nikos Kalampalikis
Denise Jodelet
Michel Wieviorka
et al.

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

The Power of the Idea: The legacy of Serge Moscovici

Sandra Jovchelovitch

Texte intégral

1 Moscovici’s theory of ideas is formulated comprehensively in Psychoanalysis, Its Image and Its Public (Moscovici, 2008), although we can also see it very clearly in his theory of minority influence (Moscovici, 1976). In his study of psychoanalysis, Moscovici set out to study how psychoanalysis enters the public sphere and becomes a cultural factor. There he investigated how a set of ideas, assumptions and practices moves into the social domain and is transformed by its encounter with a plural public. This is a book about how a science, psychoanalysis, enters the public sphere, and in this process, is transformed into something else. The crux of the matter is how one form of knowledge, science, becomes another, common sense. The result we know well: a book that went on to become a classic in the social psychology of knowledge and the original foundation for the theory of social representations. Social representations are the ideas we live by and sometimes will die for. Created and transformed through communication in the public sphere, they go around in histories and stories, cultures and generations. They change, but do not go away. They venture into new domains but keep links to their domains of origin, and importantly, to their communities of origin. They create disruption but also familiarise the unfamiliar. In Moscovici’s theory, social representations offer a continuum between life and knowledge, between science and common sense, between a psychology of rationality and cognition and a psychology of experience, emotion and society (Jovchelovitch, 2007; Marková, 2003).

Thinking with and against Marx and Durkheim

2With the theory of social representations, Moscovici proposed that: 1) there is wisdom in common sense, and 2) lay thinking is irreducible to any other form of knowledge. He wrote: “social representations, our folk-sciences, etc., cannot be reduced by scientific knowledge nor be a substitute for it” (1993a: 46). These two propositions challenged two widely held assumptions belonging to both Marxist thinking and Durkheimian sociology.

3The first assumption is that ordinary thinking is marred by false consciousness, ignorance and distortion. The ‘deficit’ view of lay thinking permeated much of the debate surrounding research on the attitudes and beliefs held by ordinary people (for an overview, see Hilgartner, 1990). Moscovici (personal communication) described the orientation and general methodology of much psychology as dismissive of what ordinary people have to say because ‘the thinking of ordinary people is wrong; they do not really know what they are talking about’. This view captures the negative assumptions that undermine ordinary thinking and dismiss the epistemological status of lay understandings.

4The second assumption is that knowledge progresses in a linear pathway through cumulative stages of development. Durkheim, and others, including Piaget proposed this concept of knowledge. For these thinkers, so-called ‘primitive’, cultural forms of representation are lesser stages of a superior, higher form of knowing, represented by science (Durkheim and Mauss, 1963; Piaget, 1995). Everyday cultural representations follow a developmental pathway that progresses linearly through successive stages that culminate with the rationality of science at the top. I discussed this assumption extensively when assessing the contribution of Moscovici’s theories for our understanding of knowledge in context (see Jovchelovitch, 2007, and more recently, Marková, 2016; Wagoner, 2017). This second assumption is itself based on the modern belief—or illusion I suggest—that all human cultures progress through the same cultural line. Eventually, they converge in a unified way of thinking that leaves behind myth, superstition and religiosity. This illusion made science the privileged, and superior, form of cognition, a form of cognition that stands at the end of a developmental scale that sets the standard to all humans. It is not accidental that at the end of the scale are Western, industrial ‘developed’ societies.

5However, studying social representations of psychoanalysis challenged both assumptions. Rather than studying how common sense becomes science, Moscovici took the opposite direction and sough to understand how science becomes common sense. The aims was not to bring common sense to the higher stage of true knowledge represented by science, but rather to understand how societies think and appropriate knowledge. Everyday cultural settings are a powerful source of knowledge; this knowledge may be a different type of knowledge than scientific and technological knowledge, but no less wise in the “know-hows” and “know-whys” it contains. What may look irrational or wrong to the observer makes sense to the actors of knowledge, and it is also, if not only, in this sense that a knowledge system must be assessed: in relation to the meaning and psychological reality it has for those who actually produce it. With many others I found those two challenges relevant and liberating, and in my own work I pursued the idea that knowledge is always contextual, plastic and polyphasic: it both expresses and adapts human beings to cultural niches and political communities (Jovchelovitch and Priego-Hernandez, 2015; Wagner and Hayes, 2005).

6Thus in opposition to the view that common sense and lay knowledge are fraught with error, ignorance and distortion, Moscovici gave us a theory that rehabilitates common sense and reconnects psychology to everyday, natural thinking (Jovchelovitch, 2008). But Moscovici did not seek to rehabilitate common sense in order to describe it and accept it; I think it is fair to say that his project was one of understanding, and therefore of transformation. Understanding understandings, as in the hermeneutic tradition, goes far beyond an acceptance of understandings, a prima facia acceptance of all types of social representation. As Gerard Duveen pointed out to me many times, in the psychology of Moscovici there was also that old Marxian idea that the point of psychology is not only to interpret the world but also to change the world.

7For Moscovici, science becomes common sense but science can equally ‘illuminate’ and change common sense. He saw a tension played out between science and ordinary representations, between experiment and experience, between the elegance of formal logic and the passion and pragmatism of folk culture. He was both mathematician and literary critic, scientist and philosopher, a skilled experimentalist and an astute observer of experience in everyday life. Central to his overall project was the struggle to overcome the line that separates a psychology of cognition and cold rationality from a psychology of experience and sense-making. This tension he tried to reconcile and to some extend explore as productive despite the enormity of the separation that has, in the history of western philosophy, kept this two streams apart.

8In this, I would like to suggest, Moscovici revealed his profound attachment to the polis, to a psychology in and off the public sphere. Re-reading Hannah Arendt, I understood that Moscovici stood with Socrates and his legacy to us is a Socratic, deeply dialogical form of social psychology (Marková, 2016). In the next section of this brief paper, I would like to explore some parallels that take us back to the relationship between the psychologist and the polis. Moscovici took up the problem of natural thinking and was not afraid of the city, although just as Socrates before him he had good reasons to be.

In search of a Socratic psychology

9Hannah Arendt remarked that our philosophical tradition began when the trial and death of Socrates led Plato to despair of life in the polis (Arendt, 2005). Arendt’s account places despair with the polis at the origins of Plato’s retreat from the affairs of the city. This despair marks the beginning of the division between a vida activa and a vida contemplativa, an active life lived in the public sphere, in the middle of arguing and thinking, and a contemplative life, lived in solitary contemplation, developing ideas and knowledge (Billig, 2008). The response Socrates received from the polis convinced Plato that arguing and thinking did not go well together. Thinking belongs to the contemplative life and requires a safe space outside of human affairs.

10Plato’s despair makes sense: the polis executed Socrates. It completely misunderstood Socrates disavowal of knowledge and decided that it had no use for a philosopher, which we may associate with the way today’s world dismisses the role of expertise. Plato’s despair produced a furious denunciation of doxa—or opinion, which went on to became a pillar of his concept of truth. To this day, it is profoundly entrenched in our understanding of the world (Waldenfels and Evans, 1982). To doxa, Plato opposed a higher truth, based on higher ideas that were only possible outside the polis.

11Socrates project for philosophy had been a different one. His agenda was social and did not separate arguing and thinking. He moved amongst citizens and walked in the marketplace, right in the middle of doxa. In conversation, through the painful labour of dialogue, he invented his method of eliciting the knowledge of the other: midwifery or maieutic. A conversation made of arduous and disconcerting questions and answers could render visible what was latent and under the surface. Socrates walked the city wanting to help his fellow human beings to find the truth in their doxa, to give birth to the thinking they were themselves pregnant with. He wanted, says Arendt, “make the city more truthful not by destroying doxa but by revealing it in its truthfulness.”

12The difference with Plato is decisive. Socrates did not want to educate the citizens and tell philosophical truths. His actions did not seek to turn philosophy against doxa, or doxa into philosophy. The matter for him was rather to deliver the truth of doxa, through a dialogue in which interlocutors worked together to move forward an understanding of the world. Illumination is not intrinsic to the cognitive rationality of the solitary knower; it emerges as communicative action between holders of different positions that in dialogue reach a better understanding and knowledge of the problems at hand.

13This programme became the basis of Habermas’ theory of communicative action and his re-working of the emancipatory potential embedded in the idea of reason (Habermas, 1992). In my view, it is equally exemplary of Moscovici’s own programme for the study of social representations and his overall vision of psychology as a science. Furthermore, it is instructive of how he himself dealt with the events that shaped his life and inspirational for us to consider our own present conjuncture.

Psychology in and out of public spheres

14An easy solution to the tensions between doxa and philosophy is the idea that all doxa deserves praise. This view of doxa translates into many contemporary discussions about science and common sense, which prise one at the expense of other and vice versa. Much of the critique levelled at expert knowledge today reflects this tendency. It is a critique parasitic on the old contempt folk wisdom nurtures about excessive theoretical views, usually too full of themselves to be able to appreciate life as pragmatically it is. Doxa, as common sense, pertains to life and its pragmatic necessities; philosophy, and the higher epistemic ground occupied by science, pertain to seclusion from the polis, be it in the protective space of the lab or in the academic rooms of ivory towers.

15However, Moscovici never romanticised common sense. Rather the opposite, he studied it experimentally and sought to understand its logic, both in terms of its potentials and in terms of its constraining, and at times dangerous, characteristics. Describing this form of knowing as irresistible beliefs, Moscovici (1993a) suggested that they are the basis of our mental lives. Individual psychology, he argued, will remain partial and superficial if it does not consider the socio-affective-cognitive underground upon which individuals come to think, know and speak. He clearly understood the resources of common sense, its intrinsic rationality and its bonding and binding energy, giving it a major role in building the common cement that stabilises the precariousness of our lives together. But although fundamental to whom we are, common sense is a “human, all too human” affair and Moscovici’s explorations on social representations focused not only on understanding doxa, but also on the latent and rather dark truth of doxa, magisterially unpacked in his studies of the Dreyfus affair, of totalitarianism, the unconscious and mass psychology (Moscovici, 2000a, 1993a, 1991, 1985b).

16Moscovici’s paper on the Dreyfus affair and Proust is of particular interest here. There he explored the psychodynamic of anti-Semitic feelings, which were soon to induce the horrors of the genocide and alter irreversibly the course of his own life. Importantly, Moscovici discusses the power of minorities to resist and produce change combined with the personal pain experienced by those who cease to belong due to exclusion imposed by the majority. Displacing the Dreyfusards and the Jews out of the polis revealed the “anti-Semitism which appeared during the Dreyfus affair to be of a new variety, originated from the assimilation of the Jews, from their living inside French society, and not outside as it was the case in the past” (Moscovici, 2000a: 198).

17From having experienced some kind of assimilation, Jews were now each becoming persona non grata, better kept out of the public eye, not people one would like to be seen with. Displacing dissenting minorities from the public to the private sphere and foreclosing their right to the city and thus to be seen and be socially recognised becomes the tragedy of Swann and with him, a whole people. Thus writes Moscovici “Dreyfusards continue to exist in the interstices of social life without existing fully there, at one and the same time visible and invisible. They are exactly like the displaced persons after the Second World War” (ibid.: 192). Alternatively, we may think of the refugees of today. Once in and part of the polis in their places of origin, now they are out and excluded from the polis: “The question is no more just to be or not to be but to belong or not to belong” (ibid.: 190).

18Studying the dark side of doxa was central to Moscovici’s work and his understanding could have easily tempted him to identify with Plato. Plato’s despair with the affairs of the polis was equally available to Moscovici; indeed, it is available to us as well. Moscovici was not tried and killed; he survived, but just about. What he saw and experienced could have nurtured a thousand retreats from the affairs of the polis. Yet, he did not turn around. Instead he continued to live and work in the middle of the polis.

19Hannah Arendt believed that thinking and experience overlap; indeed she sees experience as the root of the life of the mind (Arendt, 1971). Her account of Plato’s despair gave me a new insight into how the thinking of Serge Moscovici intersects with biography and gives us a legacy that is more Socratic than Platonic. He walked the polis as Socrates did, curious about the conditions under which thought, speech and action become possible. Perhaps biography propelled him to immerse himself in the life of the polis and develop a psychology of and in public spheres. However, he was never complacent with neither doxa nor science; if anything, he saw clearly the interpenetration and the mutual sources these two epistemic forms shared. With the concept of cognitive polyphasia, he described what the accumulated evidence of our own field has shown: episteme and doxa mix as cognitive operators (Moscovici, 1992c).

Concluding remarks

20How can we conceive of the relations between doxa and science in this early 21st century? Epistemologies have never been static, and the seismic events of 2016 put them in sharp movement again. Most are considered as life changing, including Brexit in the UK, Trump in the US, the impeachment of Roussef in Brazil, the rejection of the peace agreement in Colombia, the steady rise of the European far right, and a public atmosphere where hate of minorities became part of the mainstream again. At the same time, the promises and utopias embedded in globalisation were thrown into question, fuelled by the rise in nationalism. It frequently feels as if our conceptual categories are unable to anchor these events and render them intelligible (Kalampalikis and Haas, 2008).

21Some have suggested a return to Marx and the concept of ideology as false consciousness. Others have suggested that we go back to Nietzsche and his idea of resentment (Mishra, 2017). In psychology, I believe that the legacy of Serge Moscovici serves us well. The power of his theory of ideas relied on the breadth of his intellectual vision, in his capacity to link social psychology to multiple disciplines and wider debates, in connecting us to pressing, urgent social problems. His voice carried the wisdom of the scholar but also the depth of experience of a man who saw and survived the moral and political devastation that followed World War II. This experience permeated his social psychology, and gave his thinking a certain melancholy and dystopian edge. However, I always found in him the conviction that there is intelligence and goodness in the ordinary men and women who go about the business of living life each day. For me he remained a humanist and a believer in the power of everyday life. Moscovici saw common sense as more than a source of wrong beliefs and distortion. His theories of active minorities and social representation are grounded on this conviction.

22Moscovici’s robust platform for researching and engaging common sense, without romanticising it or forgetting how dark it can be, continues to be relevant today. His life and work inspire future generations of psychologists to keep a strong relationship to the polis and take forward a Socratic psychology that connects thinking and arguing (Billig, 2008), self and other (Marková, 2016), individual and society (Himmelweit and Gaskell, 1990), past, present, and future (Farr, 1993). I end with his words: “On one side, people think they can lean on the hard rock of science; on the other side, they think they can retrieve the richness and freshness of experience and reality which are usually evacuated by the conditioned air of the laboratory […] what Pascal called ‘l’esprit de géométrie et l’esprit de finesse.’ Reuniting what has been separated, i.e. experiment and experience could remedy this inconvenience and open up a field in which social psychologists could display the ingenuity which has always been theirs” (Moscovici, 1991: 266-67).


(London School of Economics, Royaume-Uni)

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