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.