A Social Psychological Framework for Examining Representation, Cognition and Everyday Talk


Historical and social science overviews of antisemitism and anti-Zionism were provided in Chapters 2 and 3, respectively. The chapters demonstrate that these forms of prejudice have been manifested in channels of societal information (representation), in patterns of thinking, identification, categorisation and emotional experience (cognition), and in the ways in which people communicate (everyday talk). However, the distinct dimensions of representation, cognition and discourse tend to have been examined in isolation from one another, despite the clear linkage between them and the implications that one dimension frequently has for others.

This chapter introduces various social psychological theories which, in unison, can shed light on the inter-relations between representation, cognition and talk. The chapter begins with an overview of (i) Social Representations Theory, which theorises the construction of “common sense” knowledge and its representation in channels of societal information; (ii) Identity Process Theory, which sheds light on how social representations contribute to identity construction, threat and management; and (iii) Intergroup Threat Theory, which describes and examines the nature of threats which can be represented and perceived as being posed by outgroups. This chapter presents a rationale for integrating various levels of analysis – representational, cognitive and discursive – as well as the distinct levels of human interdependence – intrapsychic, interpersonal and intergroup – in order to understand the complex constructs of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and it provides an integrative theoretical framework for doing so.

Social Representations Theory

Social Representations Theory (Moscovici, 1988, 2000) was designed to theorise how abstract and esoteric ideas are diffused among the public and how they make their transition into societal thinking on a large scale. A social representation is defined as a system of values, ideas and practices regarding a given social object, as well as the elaboration of the social object for the purpose of communicating
and behaving. Social representations enable individuals to think and communicate about social phenomena and to evaluate them. Moreover, they implicitly specify “appropriate” ways of behaving in relation to them. For instance, delegitimising social representations of Israel in the Iranian media provide the readership with shared negative imagery of the Jewish State, facilitating cognitions, emotions and social behaviour that result in intergroup tensions (Bar-Tal and Teichman, 2005).

In his analysis of how representations are formed, Moscovici (1988) outlines

the processes of anchoring and objectification:

Anchoring reflects the categorisation of unfamiliar objects through their comparison with an existing stock of familiar and culturally accessible objects. For instance, for Iranians to develop an understanding of Israel, it must first be named and imbued with familiar characteristics, which facilitate communication and discussion about it. It has been observed that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini frequently linked the IsraeliPalestinian conflict to the Jews' historical “exploitation” of Muslims during the early days of Islam (Shahvar, 2009). This has served to construct Israel unambiguously as the “villain” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Objectification is the process whereby unfamiliar and abstract objects are transformed into concrete and “objective” common-sense realities. The substrategies of objectification include: (i) metaphor use (encouraging us to view something in terms of something else), and (ii) personification (which attributes human characteristics to an abstract phenomenon. For instance, in an analysis of the Iranian media (Jaspal, 2014d) it was found that Israel was frequently referred to in terms of a “cancer”. Thus, the country was attributed a concrete “essence” through its metaphorical objectification in terms of a metastatic disease, which engendered a perception that it must be destroyed (in the same way that cancer should be destroyed).

The processes of anchoring and objectification perform both descriptive and evaluative functions by elucidating the “essence” of Israel (i.e. what it is) and its social value (i.e. how it should be evaluated).

Social Representations Theory emphasises that there is a “symbolic space” in which social representations are developed, negotiated and re-configured and that “all human beings hold creative power and agency in their formation and use” (Voelklein and Howarth, 2005, p. 433). Thus, while the media, political institutions and other channels of societal information will clearly influence the genesis and development of social representations, human beings also contribute to the genesis, development and negotiation of representations through interpersonal communication, engagement with social institutions and, importantly, individual identity processes. Thus, in order to gain an understanding of social representations, it is important to examine both media (and other) depictions of Jews and Israel but also the ways in which people talk about them. Social Representations Theory research has employed a wide range of methodological approaches (Breakwell and
Canter, 1993; Vignoles, 2014). In this book, the theory has been used alongside thematic analysis in the interview studies, and alongside critical discourse analysis in the media analytic studies. In order to understand the representational, discursive and cognitive aspects of antisemitism and anti-Zionism and indeed responses to these forms of prejudice, it is necessary to use the theory at multiple levels and from distinct methodological perspectives, all of which can provide distinctive and valuable insights.

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