Social Representations of Threatening Phenomena: The Self-Other Thema and Identity Protection

  • Nicholas Smith University of Westminster
  • Cliodhna O'Connor Maynooth University
  • Helene Joffe University College London
Keywords: themata, social representations, dialogical thinking, self/other, identity protection


Themata are the antimonies or dyadic oppositions that lie at the root of common sense and shape

how we make sense of issues in the social world. This paper showcases and extends understanding

of the role played by themata in the social representations literature, with specific reference to

their role in structuring public responses to threatening phenomena. To this end the paper reviews

empirical research examining how publics engage with a range of contemporary risk issues,

namely climate change, earthquakes and emerging infectious diseases (EID). It demonstrates that

a core thema, that of self/other, underpins public engagement with these diverse risks. By drawing

together insights from the three risks it demonstrates not only that a single thema can drive a

diverse set of representational fields but also the consequences of this thema both for a society’s

insiders and its outsiders. Primarily, it has the consequence of identity protection and complacency

for insiders and potential spoiling of identity for outsiders.

Author Biographies

Nicholas Smith, University of Westminster

NICHOLAS SMITH is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, University of Westminster.

He is a social-environmental psychologist with research interests in the perception and

communication of risk issues. He is particularly interested in the psychology of climate change.

Most recently he has studied how different religious groups engage with the issue.

Cliodhna O'Connor, Maynooth University

CLIODHNA O’CONNOR is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Maynooth University.

Her research investigates how people engage with scientific information and the implications this

has for social attitudes, self-concept and common-sense beliefs. She is particularly interested in

how science influences social identity and intergroup relations, and has explored these links in a

range of social contexts including gender stereotypes and psychiatric diagnosis.

Helene Joffe, University College London

HELENE JOFFE is Professor of Psychology at UCL (University College London). She obtained

her Ph.D. in Psychology at London School of Economics and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at

London School of Economics before gaining a permanent post at UCL in 1995. Helene’s work

has focussed on how ordinary people apprehend risks ranging from AIDS to Ebola, from climate

change to earthquakes. She is also involved with international work on how to make cities more

liveable; how to increase people’s wellbeing within them. She has published around 100 papers,

chapters and books, translated into French, Portuguese, Polish and Korean. These include her

book ‘Risk and the Other’ (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and ‘Cities at Risk: Living with

Perils in the 21st Century’ (Springer, 2013). She won the Lloyds Science of Risk Prize for best

international paper on risk in 2013.