Toward a Social Representations Theory of Attitude Change: The Effect of Message Framing on General and Specific Attitudes toward Equality and Entitlement

By Sibley, Chris G.; Liu, James H. et al. | New Zealand Journal of Psychology, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Toward a Social Representations Theory of Attitude Change: The Effect of Message Framing on General and Specific Attitudes toward Equality and Entitlement


Sibley, Chris G., Liu, James H., Kirkwood, Steve, New Zealand Journal of Psychology


A representational theory of attitude change integrating research on social representations and media framing effects is proposed. The theory seeks to explain why some aspects of attitude and opinion are more malleable than others. It is posited that the framing of a given social issue may influence isolated attitudes and cognitions related to specific aspects of that issue (peripheral elements); however, framing should be less likely to influence relevant attitudes to the extent that they are anchored in societally elaborated representations, and hence form strong and coherent evaluative associations with more general concepts and values (central or core elements). As an initial test of the theory, proposed changes to a university affirmative action policy were framed using either a traditional remedial action or newly developed New Zealand-specific bicultural partnership frame. Qualitative analyses indicated that irrespective of condition, New Zealand European/Pakeha students endorsed societally elaborated "standard" discourses that positioned equality as being based solely on individual merit (i.e., grades) and opposed policies that also included ethnic group membership as a criteria used to govern resource allocations (i.e., targeted scholarships for ethnic minorities). However, participants who read the bicultural partnership frame tended to hedge such discourses by expressing limited support for the isolated and less heavily anchored issues specific to that frame. Quantitative analyses further demonstrated that although participants expressed increased support for a specific affirmative action program framed in terms of biculturalism, more generalized attitudes toward resource allocations favoring minority groups remained unchanged across conditions.

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The past three decades have witnessed the emergence of new public discourses regarding affirmative action for minority groups (Van Dijk, 1993). Such discourses are often framed in terms of reverse discrimination or preferential treatment, which draw upon egalitarian values and implicit rather than explicit discourses involving race in order to deny minority groups better access to resources while defending the speaker against charges of racism (Gamson & Modigliani, 1987; Reeves, 1983; Van Dijk, 1993; Wetherell & Potter, 1992). As a consequence, the civil rights movement of the 1960's has struggled to sustain support for affirmative action policies that go beyond legislating against overt discrimination (i.e., old fashioned racism, McConahay, 1986; Sears, 1988). In other contexts, a robust literature has demonstrated that the way that information is presented, or the perspective taken in a message, will influence the responses of the individual to the issue at hand (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1984; see also Iyengar, 1991). The former literature emphasizes the durability of attitudes, while the latter draws upon the same cognitive architecture at the individual level to argue for malleability.

The purpose of this paper is to offer a theoretical perspective integrating social representations theory (Moscovici, 1984; 1988) and framing effects theory (see Carragee & Roefs, 2004; Entman, 1993; Gamson, 1992; Hertog & McLeod, 2001) in order to explain why some forms of attitude toward social issues are so much harder to change than others. Toward this goal we seek to (a) develop and contrast a bicultural partnership frame for affirmative action based on representations appropriate to New Zealand (NZ) with a version of the well documented remedial action frame identified in North American media and political discourse (e.g., Gamson & Modigliani, 1987), and (b) present quantitative and qualitative analyses of both participants' generalized attitudes toward equality and entitlement, and their more specific attitudes toward an affirmative action policy for ethnic minorities evoked by these contrasting frames.

Social representations theory

Social representations are widely communicated bodies of knowledge that are shared to a greater or lesser extent among various subgroups in society (Farr & Moscovici, 1984).

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