The significance of personal epistemologies in everyday life
What is the role of personal epistemologies in practice? Several studies have found that they are associated with recognising different views, argumentation, and drawing conclusions. More specifically, they are related, for example, to the ability to recognise contrasting views and to evaluate them (Mason & Boscolo, 2004), skills of argumentation on climate change and genetically modified food (Mason & Scirica, 2006), the ability to recognise reasoning fallacies (Weinstock, Neuman, & Glassner, 2006), as well as views on food additives (Kajanne, 2003) and evolution acceptance (Borgerding, Deniz, & Anderson, 2017). Recently, Staerklé and Green (2014) suggested that personal epistemologies could also contribute to defining intergroup relations.
Other people’s personal epistemologies can also have a significant role in making important decisions that concern a particular individual, for example, in contexts such as law (Weinstock, 2016) or medicine (Eastwood et al., 2017). Anyone who ends up on trial or in an equivalent situation, where other people give verdicts or make other important decisions, would probably hope that the decision-makers have personal epistemologies that are as advanced as possible. Less ideal would be that important decisions are made by people who do not want to go to any further effort after finding a solution that seems plausible or who think it is not worthwhile to deliberate and to scrutinise different opinions that seem like knowledge but are not finally backed up by any proper evidence (Weinstock & Cronin, 2003). Similar concerns have been raised recently in discussions about the so-called post-truth age, and unfortunately, there are many recent examples, particularly from public decisionmaking in which this ideal has not been met.
Social representations: everyday, common-sense theories of groups
When an individual knows something, personal epistemologies provide the framework to it, even though people seldom think about these frames consciously. Knowledge can mean an absolute truth, an opinion, or a well-formulated hypothetical construction to a person. People form their own personal epistemologies and personal standpoints in social interaction, and they also form ideas and build knowledge as groups and communities.
The theory of social representations (SRT) is the most notable approach from which to study groups and communities’ shared understandings. The seminal work in the field, Serge Moscovici’s (1961/2008) dissertation La psychanalyse, son image et son public, is about how psychoanalysis spread to French society - how it was addressed in newspapers representing various ideological trends and how it was rooted in French daily conversations. The liberal, the communist, and the catholic press — the French opinion leaders at that time — presented and discussed psychoanalysis from their own premises, raised and faded out themes according to their own interests, and adjusted concepts and presented them in the light of their own starting points. Moscovici suggested that new things are made familiar and understandable through two processes. In anchoring, something new and unknown is associated with already known phenomena and located in existing conceptual matrixes. For example, a psychoanalytic therapy session is seen as a catholic confession, whereby it becomes understandable. The second process is objectification, in which an abstract case gets almost a concrete manifestation. For example, when God is perceived to be a father, the experience is almost physically touchable.
Emile Durkheim’s concept of collective representations provided one theoretical point of reference to the theory of social representations: while Durkheim’s collective representations are permanent and unchanging, explanatory and given, social representations are dynamic and something to be explained (Moscovici, 1981). Also, the impact of Piaget on Moscovici’s work was profound. Although Moscovici abandoned Piaget’s description of human development as being an evolutionary, linear process, he retained the idea of cooperative interaction in the development of knowledge as well as the creative aspect of representation, meaning that in gaining new knowledge, children must reinvent the world since they often have no familiar foundations for those aspects of their environment that they are confronting for the first time (Jovchelovitch, 2007; Sakki, Menard, & Pirttilà-Backman, 2017).
According to Moscovici (1973, p. xiii), social representations are:
systems of values, ideas and practices with a twofold function; first, to establish an order which will enable individuals to orient themselves in their material and social world and to master it; secondly, to enable communication to take place among the members of a community by providing them with a code for social exchange and a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world and their individual and group history.
These representations are the counterparts of our society to myths and belief systems of traditional communities. They are not just about “opinions” or “images of something,” or “attitudes towards something” but “theories” or “areas of knowledge” as their own entities and with their own legitimacy. With the formation of common everyday theories, abstract and unknown things become familiar and communicable.
More recently the concept of cognitive polyphasia has gained a lot of interest. The idea of cognitive polyphasia had already been proposed in 1961 by Moscovici when he defined it as “dynamic coexistence — interference and specialization - of distinct modalities of knowledge that correspond to definite relationships of man and his environment” (Moscovici, 2008, p. 190). Thus, the concept helps us understand knowledge as a plurality of parallel and sometimes contradictory forms of thought, meanings, and practices that reside in the same individual, group, or community (Jovchelovitch, 2007; Wagner, Duveen, Verma, & Themel, 2000), and fulfils a variety of functions and responds to different needs of social life (Jovchelovitch, 2008). It means that representations may be heterogeneous and contradictory, and under certain circumstances, they can occur at the same time and in the same situation (Jovchelovitch, 2007; Provencher, 2011).
In this line of thought, in a more recent discussion on cognitive polyphasia, Moscovici (Moscovici & Markova, 2000) emphasises the role of norms, context, and goals in knowledge construction. While nonns provide limits to what is considered as rational thinking and knowledge in our societies, the context guides the way people recognise and process information, and goals shape the way people use such knowledge (Provencher, 2011). In other words, cognitive polyphasia is an asset of human cognition, a tool that enables adjustment to different situations and conditions (e.g., Caillaud & Kalampalikis, 2013; Renedo & Jovchelovitch, 2007), the expression of multiple identities (Amer, Howarth, & Sen, 2015; Howarth, Wagner, Magnusson, & Sammut, 2014) as well as the communication between representations in the maintenance or transformation of knowledge (Jovchelovitch, 2008).
A concept tightly related to the cognitive polyphasia is the one of themata (Moscovici & Vignaux, 1994), which refers to the centrality of interdependent antinomies, for example, human/nature or tradition/modem, and thus, to polyphasia in the process of social representation (Markova, 2003). In practice, this means that people draw upon oppositional representations in their construction of knowledge (e.g., Renedo & Jovchelovitch, 2007; Wagner et al., 2000). In line with such a perspective, it also means that social representational processes are linked to power. Through communication and dialogue, some representations gain more success and become self-evident at the expense of other representations of more marginalised groups in society (Howarth, 2006; O’Dwyer, Lyons, & Cohrs, 2016).
Importantly, thus, in comparison with theories based on the cognitive-developmental paradigm presented above, in the social representations theory (SRT) the knowledge about certain objects is not considered as a developmental process that transforms from one representation to another; instead different forms of knowledge co-exist, contradict, and constantly change (Jovchelovitch, 2007, 2008).