Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

The Study of Representations in Sociology: Between Multidisciplinarity, Lines of Continuity and Differences

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

The Study of Representations in Sociology: Between Multidisciplinarity, Lines of Continuity and Differences

Article excerpt


The present article aims at analysing the role that sociology has played in the process of formation of the theory of social representations. In an effort to highlight the multidisciplinary nature of the theory, but also to recognize an independent point of view on the subject, the article proceeds to a comparison between sociology and other disciplines, especially with the prolific theoretical approach of Serge Moscovici and his school.

Keywords: collective representations; social representations; sociology.


Although connected to the original statute of the discipline, the theme of representations, - whether individual, social or collective - has known a development in sociology characterized by spells of fervent production, with moments where the theoretical reflection, taken for granted, has given way to a indefinite number of empirical studies that did not produce any new thinking. There are several reasons for this apparent lack of interest. In the first instance it can be said that the issue has lost centrality as a result of multiple trends, both internal to the discipline (Bronner, 2006) - and thus directly attributable to sociology as a science - and external to it, as a result of a theoretical production opened - and in some cases left- to other disciplines, such as social psychology which on this topic founded a new paradigm (Palmonari, Emiliani, 2009).

The aim of this article is to analyse the formation process of the theory of representations, starting from the historical definition of Durkheim's collective representations, to discuss then the contribution to the subject by Serge Moscovici and the French psychosocial school. We conclude by looking again at sociology and its way of representing the latest perspectives on the subject.

More specifically, through the reconstruction of this process we will try to understand whether, starting from the definition of Emile Durkheim (1898), sociology has produced some original specificity on the subject, or if it only borrowed from the numerous contributions in other fields of research. In fact, as we will highlight later, somehow anticipating the conclusions, the theme of representations is not solved in sociology and it is still extremely debated within the discipline, but according to patterns and routes sometimes not easily recognizable.

We will highlight that in sociology the use of the term representation has known different meanings from the one attributed by Serge Moscovici - although there are frequent references to his theory - but that the discipline nevertheless continued to analyse it according to the different theoretical perspectives in which it occupied a variably prominent position and often through different denominations.

Although the aim of this paper is to pinpoint the concept in sociology, we need to point out immediately that the topic of representations can not be confined to a specific subject or research area, having been since its inception a multidisciplinary approach; this aspect will emerge clearly in the first part of the essay, where we describe the path that has led to the development of a theory of representations that is born, develops and consolidates within multiple disciplinary paradigms, among which sociology, anthropology and last but not least social psychology. As mentioned before, the second part focuses on sociology, the theoretical approaches and most recent researches on the topic, outlining what are the issues on which sociology has given a specific contribution to a theory that still has a strong explanatory power. Ultimately, we will try to highlight a path on a subject which still under development, characterized by highways but most likely also by new roads that need to be better explained, on pain for sociology of losing an independent and original point of view on the subject.

1. From collective to social representations

The concept of representation has had extensive coverage among social scientists in recent years to the point that Serge Moscovici, the scholar who has most worked on this issue, has defined the current era as "the era of representations" (Moscovici, 1999). …

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