Familiarising the Unfamiliar: Cognitive Polyphasia, Emotions and the Creation of Social Representations
Within the Social Representations Theory (SRT) paradigm, social representations are defined technically as practical social knowledge that is produced when groups and individuals encounter the unfamiliar. Social representations therefore function to familiarise the unfamiliar. Theorists also assert that social representations ‘create reality’: they constitute processes through which new meanings and social identities are created and projected into the social world. Both themes are informed by Moscovici’s formulation of a ‘principle of familiarity’. This principle is deemed to be universal and to constitute two interdependent sociopsychological processes: a preference for, and attachment to familiarity that co-exists with and drives resistance to unfamiliarity. A common – and paradoxical - application of this principle to knowledge production states that individuals and communities are motivated to familiarise the unfamiliar because of the threat the unfamiliar poses to the safety of what is known. In this paper I argue that Moscovici’s ‘principle of familiarity’ is conceptually limited. By overemphasising an interdependent relationship between ‘attachment to the familiar’ and ‘fear of the unfamiliar’, the principle (a) ignores more plausible motivations driving the creation of social representations and (b) undermines the constructivist character of the phenomena. I discuss anthropological evidence on African communities that are ‘open to the unfamiliar’. In contrast to Moscovici’s universal ‘principle of familiarity’ these communities are motivated to familiarise the unfamiliar because of the risks and threats inherent in the familiar and the power attributed to the unfamiliar. Drawing on Moscovici’s reflections on cognitive polyphasia and broader SRT discussions about social representations as cognitive-emotional processes, I consider conceptual challenges this counter-evidence poses to social representations theory in its broader project as a universal theory of social knowledge.