An essay on social representations and ethnic minorities

An essay on social representations and ethnic minorities (2011)
Serge Moscovici

1 The Berlin Wall comes down

I assume there is no need to demonstrate that the years that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall represented a major turning-point for the human sciences, and therefore for our science – if, and when, it regards itself as a human science!
What happened at that time, and what has happened since, was a refutation, a falsification of the doctrines and practices that triumphed after the Russian Revolution; and this mobilized proletarian masses who were convinced by the ideas of the day that the basic conflicts of capitalism would inevitably be resolved by the Revolution. The Revolution marked the beginning of a final struggle that would lead to the classless society, the abolition of all inequalities, and to the withering away of States, and therefore of wars and nations.

Such was the prospect held out to proletarians who had no ‘country’, as the expression goes: the Revolution would result in the disappearance of all prejudices and of all those forms of segregation – based upon gender, colour or ethnicity – that had until then kept minorities apart.

The end of history is an illusion, and no-one can escape their destiny. Other groups and other social movements might have been expected to take the place of social classes, to state in familiar terms what the tasks of society were and, indeed, to get on with them. So far as I am concerned, I subsequently wrote that this role would be played by minorities – ethnic minorities, women, and so on – who had been passive for so long and would become active when, like volcanoes that had been dormant for hundreds of years, they erupted into life.

But it was a surprise to see that ethnic issues were beginning to emerge, and that relations between ethnic minorities and the nations in which they had lived for centuries were taking on an eminently classical form. Not entirely, but I will come back to that point. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me evoke three points.
First, I have always admired the psychologists who work in the field of prejudice, racism and so on, but had never become involved with it. I then broke my own rule when a Gypsy village in Eastern Europe was burned down and when it became apparent that there was also growing hostility towards Gypsies in Western Europe. The Gypsies are a people with a solid social structure, but with no common language, territory or religion.
It might be said that they are nomadic. But is that really the case? It is by no means certain, but there is virulence to the persecution of minorities in general, and nomadic minorities in particular, that is otherwise found only in the persecution of heretics.
Second, I began by presenting a paper on ‘the nomadic element’ in Gypsy minorities to the Amalfi International Sociological Conference in 1995. With the encouragement of my colleagues, I then established a research project at the Laboratoire européen de psychologie sociale.
Juan Pérez, a Professor at Valence who has a passion for the Gypsy people, has always been the driving force behind this research. My purpose here is not to present the findings of that research, but to outline a few thoughts about how our theory of social representations might be able to contribute to a study of the interaction between a minority that suffers discrimination and the majority that discriminates against it, or, in a word, of prejudices and relations between groups. This will also shed some new light on a very old phenomenon to which most research in social psychology has been devoted.
Last, Primo Levi rightly remarked that the fact that there is no single explanation for phenomena relating to prejudice and intolerance does not mean that there are many explanations. If there are many explanations, we need to find reasons for their existence. It is therefore not the critique of these many theories that seems to me to be problematic, but rather the fact that the reasons for them have been considered to be above all criticism.
2 The Eichmann experiment
2.1 Facts and values
I think we can rightly say that if we look at human history, it is very unusual for a community or an ethnic group that has immigrated to different countries not to be assimilated by some groups or the state. For example, millions of Spaniards, Poles, Portuguese and Russians have immigrated to the same regions of France, and have become authentically French within the space of one or two generations. They carry no significant traces of their countries of origin, except for their names and perhaps their cuisine.
I think it is essential to prove that prejudices are obstacles or motives that encourage ethnic groups or communities to accept this shared fate and to play a normal part in the life of a society. When we think about this eminently trivial ‘law’, we say to ourselves that what we call a prejudice is neither an expression nor a definition of a given reality, but of the goal or aim of a group or a society.
We cannot live together without knowing what that goal is or without sharing it. What concerns me, and what surprises me most, is that most theories or discussions of prejudices, stereotypes and relations between groups are couched in terms of the logic of facts and categories as in Allport’s (1954: 170) classic study: ‘The cognitive processes of prejudiced people are in general different from the cognitive processes of tolerant people’.
I would be the last to challenge the generous nature of this explanation. At the same time, these notions of prejudice, stereotype, category, and so on, carry family resemblances with the old notion of the omnipotence of ideas. Moreover, I have learned from experience that, when danger arises, a persecuted minority cannot expect too much of the cognitive difference between prejudiced and tolerant people.
I do not want to appear to be an expert in this field. Many researchers who illuminate this cognitive perspective, and who have performed beautiful experiments, Tajfel (1978) being the best known and widely discussed (Billig, 1988), have helped me to understand what racism is about. But it is necessary to recognize that in general the balance is tilted in favour of facts, rather than of values.
2.2 Obedience to authority
I respect the talent and knowledge of my colleagues and do not see it as my goal to criticize their theories. Yet many indices show that our science did not concentrate, after the War, on efforts to describe or explain the phenomena which cost millions and millions of lives. So I will start my reflection by looking at the well-known experiment carried out by Milgram (1974).
Whilst I did not meet him at the time he carried out his experiment, I knew him long enough to see how much he suffered from isolation, and how his work has been judged as unethical by his colleagues. This is due to the fact that social psychology has ceased to explore, unlike other human sciences, the mass phenomena characteristic of our modern and disturbed society. Spinoza warned mankind of the cost of passions: they darken reason and become a form of madness.
You will recall that in Milgram’s experiment an individual, selected at random, inflicted on another individual – a human guinea pig – electric shocks ranging from mild to dangerous, and that two-thirds of the ‘naïve subjects’ were willing to inflict pain on their fellow human beings. When I gave the manuscript describing this research to two colleagues, they said: ‘Either they are sadists, or it’s a case of “human to human”’.
‘It’s an experiment about Auschwitz!’ they exclaimed. And there was some truth in that remark. These experiments were inspired by the Eichmann trial that took place in Jerusalem at the same time. Milgram followed the legal preparations for that major crime, and he also studied Hannah Arendt’s (1965) book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
In her eyes Eichmann was a civil servant stripped of any passion, someone with ideological motives, who persecuted Jews to death insofar as he obeyed the totalitarian regime that overturned the code of morality. Eichmann was hanged a few days after the first series of Milgram’s experiments was completed, and this made a bond between the two events.
It suggested that the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis was the most extreme case of those that were committed by thousands of people in the name of obedience. The well-known social psychologist Gordon Allport used to call this experiment on the relationship between a persecuting majority and a persecuted minority ‘the Eichmann Experiment’. As everyone knows, of course, the experiment is very exciting and has attracted universal attention.
The theory is quite disappointing. On the one hand it proposes a biological explanation for the social phenomenon. Milgram argued that becoming a member of authority of a dominating social group provides an evolutionary advantage to cope with a hostile environment. The propensity for obedience is inherent in such a hierarchical organization mode. Sometimes, when he described the relationship between Nazism and his experiment, Milgram considered obedience to authority as a kind of action exercised almost physically by the powerful on the powerless (Milgram, 1967).
The thinking of Milgram oscillates between two lines of interpretation, two approaches towards authority – as a state of our nature and as a state of violence (Blass, 2004). This is something of a current tendency in social psychology.
And yet, as we have known since the days of the Romans, the notion of autoritas, which has a symbolic and moral value, is clearly distinguished from the notion of potestas, or the power that is exercised physically. In a word, it is violence.
In contrast, having authority over an individual or group presupposes a pre-existing symbolic relationship, such as that between father and son or between teacher and pupil, and therefore a conscious and voluntary act. In a fine little book on authority, the philosopher Kojève writes that an agent can, if he or she is free and self-conscious, act upon others (or an other) without those others (or other) reacting, even though they are capable of doing so (Kojève, 2004: 60).
Without wishing to take myself too seriously, I would add that Milgram’s experiments prove this hypothesis. There is no need to suppose that the people who took part did not react and that they behaved in the way that they did because of innate cruelty or some kind of desire. Instead, we may suppose that they were convinced of acting in order to advance science or that they were sacrificing their conscience on the altar of science.
It is much more ordinary and less difficult to admit that we do not wish to disturb ‘the order of things’; we say this, because we are reluctant to break the moral link with the values of justice, knowledge and nationality associated with authority. Milgram’s theory has nothing to say about all this, and that is why it is not convincing (Blass, 2004).
His experiments are shocking because of their implications, and they have become a demonstration of the human propensity for ‘evil’, of society’s moral decay, or of the wretchedness of ordinary men who can become murderers without realizing what they are doing. We accept this because men have been convinced since time immemorial that evil is inevitable. It is a metaphor of Milgram’s desire to get away from the abstract conception of relations of authority and the discovery of the form of racist dehumanization known as the Holocaust.
2.3 Disobedience to authority
The study of human experience is a painful task in search of the bleeding truth, which one does not want always to see. On more than one occasion Milgram found his results unbelievable and he was beside himself because of it. Sometimes it is all too easy to forget that science was his vocation. He believed in the experimental method, and always saw it as a privileged viewpoint.
The crux of the matter is that a human group in his experiments used torture not because it was prejudiced or motivated by passion, but because it was under an obligation, obeyed a hierarchy and was proud of carrying out duty. ‘He believed,’ writes Milgram’s biographer (Blass, 2004: 269), ‘that his experiments spoke to all hierarchical relationships in which people become willing agents of legitimate authority to whom they relinquish responsibility for their actions. Having done so, their actions are no longer guided by their conscience but by how adequately they have fulfilled the authority’s wishes.’ The experiment, which became something of a showpiece, succeeded in suggesting how ‘nasty’ and ‘brutish’ is ‘human nature’. It would, however, be more interesting or realistic to think, or perhaps to observe, a relationship between the in-group and the out-group resisting authority, rather than passing a judgement on those who were being blindly obedient. In the German universities and Churches of the day, silence meant consent, a consent legitimizing ‘the banality of evil’.
One recalls the famous lecture in which Max Weber advised students and teachers that they should conform to the demands of their profession and their institutions, to behave as civil servants, and not as prophets. Social responsibility is a duty; convictions are a private choice:
When an official receives an order, his honour lies in his ability to carry it out, on his superior’s responsibility, conscientiously and exactly as if it corresponded to his own convictions. This remains so even if the individual thinks that the order is wrong, and if, despite his or her protests, the superior insists on compliance. (Weber, 2004: 54)
As the proverb says, silence is consent.
Social inertia and obedience triumphed in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Besides Denmark, only one small country, Bulgaria, proved to be the exception to the rule in Europe. As other small countries in Eastern Europe, it was expected to carry out the Nazis’ order to the letter. In his admirably level-headed book The Fragility of Goodness, Todorov begins by describing the Eichmann envoys’ implementation of the programme to deport the Jewish population to the extermination camps.
After negotiations and some resistance, the Bulgarian heads of parties, even the King, agreed to pass the law of approval by the National Assembly. When the news emerged, rumours and signs of opposition became widespread. Action was needed to prevent violence and suffering that might ‘expose the government and the entire nation to accusations of mass murder’ (Todorov, 19992001: 28).
Various protests and ‘disorderly’ reactions on the part of the population were recorded. They noisily denounced both the authorities and anyone who obeyed them. The petitions of writers and lawyers, the open letters written by political personalities, and last but not least the statement issued at the highest level by the Church, are essential reading. The Holy Synod’s statement reads:
The Church of Christ, which received from its divine founder the eternal and imperious commandment to teach and baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to accept all men in its midst and point them the way to salvation, cannot agree to measures contrary to its divine mission of salvation and to the eternal commandment of its founder, Christ God. (Todorov, 19992001: 55)
I do not remember having read another similar declaration from those dark times. More specifically, it asked that ‘No actions shall be taken against the Jews as a national minority; however, specific measures shall be taken against any real danger, whatever its origin that might threaten the spiritual, cultural, economic, social and political life of the Bulgarian people’ (Todorov, 19992001: 56). The disobedience of the various actors had a unique effect: all the authorities from the government to the royalty abandoned their law and the Eichmann administrators’ plans.
‘Wait and see’ in a catastrophe means not having the courage to express one’s convictions. The study of this dangerous tendency of humans to obey is not at the heart of our contemporary social psychology. This was once the task of religion. There is now a lack of religion. We should, however, avoid all grandiloquence as we explore a phenomenon which, in my opinion, despite so many studies, is still enigmatic. Milgram’s experiments are too. And the way he explored people’s relationships at a crucial time interested me as a preparation for what follows.
In his little book Literature and Evil Georges Bataille writes: ‘literature commands loyalty: the rigorous morality, in this view, comes from a complicity in knowing the evil that grounds intense communications’ (Bataille, 1957: 10; my translation). Although there was a resemblance, the evil in Milgram’s experiments is presented as a series of gestures. The underlying prejudices have the appearance of great resolve. What the ‘normal’ group thinks about the discriminated group seems to result from the work of logic of concepts or categories which justify the judgement or the stereotypes of a race, an ethnic group, and so on. But here the most curious prejudice, attitude or stereotype appears to be a natural container of a social content.
Ethnic hostilities seem to be [writes Roger Brown in his famous textbook of social psychology], ‘rooted in ethnocentrism, inequitable distribution of resources and stereotyping which is simply natural category formation. None of these can be easily changed; hence it is not surprising that the reduction of group hostility has turned out to be a discouraging task’ (Brown, 1986: 624).
The generation to which I belong has known, during the years of the Second World War, the torments of small nations and of Nazism. There was, among the racism or chauvinism, an abundance of religious and scientific notions, judgements of facts, as well as judgement of values among discriminated minorities or neighbouring nations. The famous anthropologist Ruth Benedict was correct when she wrote:
Racism is not like race, a subject, the content of which can be investigated. It is like a religion, a belief which can be studied only historically. Like any belief, which goes beyond scientific knowledge, it can be judged only by its fruits, its votaries and its ulterior purposes. (Benedict, 19421983: 97)
I accept that a psychologist studies races, if they exist, but for me as a social psychologist my goal is to study racism. The French scholar Taguieff arrived independently at a similar view to Benedict in her remark on chauvinism and racism. At the end of a long review of this field one reads in his preface to Voegelin’s classic book Race et Etat (19332007: 85) the following lines:
What Voegelin clearly demonstrates is that racialist theoreticians cannot rely upon biological classifications alone: their plan to elaborate a world view always leads them to go beyond the limits of physical anthropology, to indulge in the manufacture of fanciful social psychologies, or simply to reflect popular ‘wisdom’. Supposedly oral or ‘spiritual’ characteristics are arbitrarily ascribed to a ‘Nordic race’, including ‘the pursuit of long-term aims’, ‘love of the sea’, ‘aristocratic reserve’, ‘sincerity’, ‘purity’, the ‘feeling for nature’, and of course ‘Nordic temerity’.
The double face of the quotations from Benedict and Taguieff concerning Darwinism and racism highlights the process of transformation of ‘scientific’ knowledge into common sense and vice versa. Without this process of ‘translation’, diffusion and the theories of Darwin, the writers or so-called scientists would never be able to make a link with the political or ethnic movements, and would stay isolated from all religions or popular beliefs.
And what is the truth or knowledge which is not shared or rejected in a society? I do not propose exposing the detail of persuasive arguments in order to convince that the containers and the content of our stereotypes, attitudes, etc., are social. They are all inspired by Peirce’s dictum: the thought is cognition, it must be linguistic or symbolic in character, that is, it must be communication.
3 Evil and modernity
3.1 A social perspective
The decisive events in world history are the products of the 19th century. Ruth Benedict states: ‘racism is a creation of our own time. It is a new way of separating the sheep from the goats’ (19421983: 2). She insists that chauvinism and racism are the theisms of the modern world. The prestigious notion of religion resorts to the reality of a multitude of systems of belief, ethos or life-styles.
In any case it means that we should not, as is done, reduce social phenomena to psychological ones or treat them as insignificant epiphenomena. Starting with Milgram himself, he put the social aspects of phenomena into brackets. But, due to the widespread celebrity of his experiments, sociologists have challenged his explanation of the phenomena he studied in order to offer a more coherent clarification.
The well-known British sociologist Bauman, in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), analysed the type of society in which such a ‘mechanical’ obedience to authority could necessarily take place. He argued that the Holocaust did not result from sadistic impulses, myth or archaic residuals, or from expressions of an authoritarian personality. On the contrary, a mechanical obedience corresponds to scientific and technical practices and to a disenchantment with the world in which modern technology has replaced the old magic. It is in this type of society that such a mechanical obedience could develop.
In a chapter devoted to Milgram, Bauman argued that obedience in modern societies results from a deeply rooted tendency to rationalize human relations and beliefs, and to employ the rules of science and technology. This is what Einstein called dehumanization, and Weber the disenchantment of the world. The condition of this rationalization is the well-known separation of facts and values.
In general, Bauman states that in our epoch the vocation of our science is based on the specialization facilitated by the awareness and knowledge of objective reports. It does not have in view the perspective of the salvation of the soul. When we no longer have a living moral consciousness, we can no longer refuse to obey the order we are given by our superiors or by the ‘offices’.
This may also explain, in Bauman’s view, why, in the situations illustrated by Milgram’s experiments, one individual is capable of inflicting electric shocks on someone whom he does not know, without any shame and without too much remorse. As Bauman (1989: 34) writes: ‘Cause suffering and remain yourself’. The profound cause of such a performance is the atheism of values and autonomy of goals.
3.2 The problem groups
By now this is all very clear. But we need to express it in a language familiar to the socially shared reality. In order to do that, we must look for phenomena with their own meanings that cannot be easily explained. Though, if we pause to reflect on it, we will realize there is something very customary in that procedure.
Namely, we are a problem-solving society, or a problem-solving culture: we reason, we adjust ourselves to any kind of problem, and we depreciate values we share, whether we agree or disagree on them. As a matter of fact, many people are not aware of these norms and values, and share them because authority has told them to do so.
The great writer Borges protested vehemently against this weakness of will: the word problem can be an insidious petition of the principle: to speak about the problem of Jews is to postulate that the Jews are a problem; it is to profess and recommend a special treatment for them, like shooting, cutting their throat, violence, and reading doctor Rosenberg. Another fault of false problems is to submit them to solutions equally false (Borges, 1967: 47).
To be sure, Jews are not the first, nor the only group to qualify as a problem group. But one cannot qualify groups as problems, which is a kind of identity designation, without actually derogating people. But problem groups are quite familiar in the public discourse when the political and social situation is serious. Sometimes one has the feeling that we invent a new species of scapegoat; the mask constitutes a form of general appearance of an individual in a society and all prejudice is recognized by everybody as a mask, that is to say, there is nothing left for hypocrites to believe that they can escape.
As the philosopher Badiou said, there is no problem of immigrants in France, there is no problem of Muslims which had not already been the problem of Jews in the years of the 1930s (Badiou, 2009: 57). But there were already majorities, the solution groups, which provided a racial solution, and a religious solution. Indeed, they were in search of problem groups; because if a problem group does not exist, one has to invent it. Hitler had to invent such a group.
It is not absolutely indispensable to take part for or against the persecuted minority. On the contrary, a certain amount of awareness can shed more light, and it can cure the wound of a group considered insecure. We started a study of Gypsies in six European countries as a problem group. It is obvious that they have been invented as a counter-type of the existing prototypical members of nation, race, religion and so forth (Voegelin, 19332007) and that their name is a kind of baptism.
The taboo of contact, by its punitive character, has devoted a considerable effort to closing one group to another. In other words this prohibition of contact commits itself to the belief that the groups are different, like humans and animals, and not contrasts, for example like the French and the Americans. No single formula can sum up the reason for the Gypsies’ tormented history. But history makes palpable the nature of the ethical-social dilemma that the ethnic group of Tzigane has faced for a long, very long period of time.
We know, for example, that the majority of Italians or Spaniards who discovered new peoples had already been instructed, at least by their religions, about the taboo of contact with respect to savages and unbelievers in general. This fact re-awakens our favourite worry: is the other human or not? Even though they have not been delinquent, we know that in Spain Gypsies have been declared nomads and criminals.
Moreover, their humanity had been denied and they have been therefore alleged to be non-human – the universal polarity between an atypical and a counter-typical out-group. In an experimental study carried out with Juan Pérez (Pérez, Moscovici & Chulvia, 2002) we have demonstrated the extent to which that representation survives to the present day.
The real prejudice focuses on the duality of human/not human, culture/nature and domesticated/wild. The taboo of contact justifies, even overjustifies, the naked use of force. For several hundred years Gypsies were accused of living a nomadic life of debauchery and libertinage, and were threatened by the Inquisition with exile as the Jews of ‘mixed blood’. This continued up to the 20th century.
The Nazis bundled the whole Tzigane people into a category of inveterate ‘criminals’ and mischlings who deserved the treatment meted out to ‘half-Jews’. In the mid-1930s, the women and children were, on Himmler’s orders, interned in Ravensbrück, and the men in Dachau, to await the final solution. At the end of 1942, the Directorate of the psychiatric centre of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut of Munich, near Dachau, reported the outcome of research approved by Adolf Hitler:
It is he and his collaborators who are merited with bringing into practice the theories and the demands of the racial Nordic thinking … the fight against the parasitic races of foreign blood like those of Jews and Gypsies … and to have prevented the reproduction of the carriers of genetic diseases and of the individuals who are genetically inferior. (Rüdin, 1942–1943, quoted by Taguieff, 2007: 25)
Here I end the quotation, which goes on to advocate death as a final solution.
One finds it difficult to understand why Milgram has completely misunderstood the nature of the evil he was searching for, although the evidence was plain enough. If one examines after some years the desire to understand his simultaneous experiments more fully, it is the consequence of how they appear to us today, the hostility of his colleagues, and a need to understand their public and moral impact. He could have signed off at the end of his papers, as did the painter at the bottom of his paintings, ‘In doloribus pinxi’.
3.3 Majorities and minorities
Chomsky remarks that when one speaks a language, one knows a great deal that was never learned. That is probably true about most social phenomena we study. I had to evoke a certain number of memories of what I had lived through during the War, of horrors which are difficult to acknowledge. However, I have arrived at the point where I can propose some openings in the field of intergroup relations without casting into question its richness and its originality.
The study of racism in America and in Europe was obviously born, together with theories of race, as the second social problem beside unmemorable poverty. And the reason for this was perhaps nothing but a loss of reason. The evidence seems plain enough. The famous American social anthropologist could write at the end of the Second World War: ‘Psychologists look elsewhere for the explanation of current racial hatred and persecution. It is certain that Nazi race theories have developed not on the basis of objective fact, but under the domination of powerful emotional attitudes. A well-known psychological tendency leads people to blame others for their own misfortunes…’ (Benedict, 19421983: 168).
It seems difficult to believe that the people who did so much for science and philosophy could commit such abhorrence, like a tribe possessed by a magic spell. And if one cannot persuade a racist of his biases by rational argument, one has to maintain a stance just there on the border of solipsism, leading to a painful casuistry. What does justify our radical autonomy between prejudice and true belief, or between a rational and irrational evaluation? Lévi-Strauss tells us in a personal voice:
Today, I evaluate better the illusion, which is probably inevitable in an intellectual and which consists in believing ideas with an unlimited power. I have come to understand through my profession as an ethnologist, through direct and indirect study of very different societies that are very diverse from our own, and which differ among themselves, that no real or even possible society, can ever achieve rational transparency. One does not make a society from a system. Any society is above all made by its past, by its habits and customs: altogether by irrational factors, against which theoretical ideas, which one claims to be rational, are being hounded. This is the only point of their agreement and, when they arrive at their goal, there is nothing left to them but to destroy one another. (Lévi-Strauss, 2009: 35)
Time has darkened our optimism. In studying racism, prejudice is the study of the crisis of our time. It is useful to be told this by the scientist who has written the famous study on racism.
I claim that the study of prejudice will never be worthwhile without taking into account its life-space. It is normal when everyone can say ‘I am what I am’. It is sad to observe that the usual demand is ‘Be like me, but unlike me’. This is persecution, the double mind of every moment, of every day, and in every relation or emotion. And it will be always an answer to ‘what happens’.
Personality and desires, however fortunate, will follow the prescribed routine. It is a vicious circle and a terrible bondage that has led the specialist of human communication, following Bateson, to say that the ‘double bind must be disobeyed; it is a definition of self or of the other. The person thereby defined is this kind of person if he is and is not if he is. An individual in the double bind is punished for correct perceptions.’ Our social sciences in a search to save appearances would consider such life-spaces improved by our making.
I strongly believe that there is not a word to be changed in this passage. It enlightens the distances between concepts and the permanent clichés by which our habits of mind have given the impression of real understanding. What has become new during the last century is the existence of the politics of racism and chauvinism. What must be renewed are representations and the vocabulary of sciences that will devote themselves to the study of this politics.
The evidence is plain enough. It happens when one person classifies another as French, American, the European, a community of Gypsies, and so on, in order to decide whether they are similar or different. You have also to think of the symbolic and affective factors that make it hard for people to fit themselves into a community with others who are subordinate or foreigners. These are in a way two faces of the same relationship.
The French philosopher Bergson expressed beautifully the relation between the two opposed maxims Homo Homini Deus and Homo Homini Lupus, showing that they are easily reconcilable When one formulates the first, one thinks about someone as a compatriot; the second one defines a foreigner. Lewin was convinced that similarity does not concern a group or living social relations. Such a living and dynamic group is based on interdependence rather than on similarity.
In the end, numerous reasons of interest can be considered with respect to what shapes the relations between majorities and minorities. There is not the slightest cause for hesitation regarding their criticism. I do not want to say that if our theories are open to any kind of novelty, they will provide, from the scientific point of view, more certainty. What will be novel, in any case, is that the understanding of the relations between majorities and minorities will also become more specific. One can speak about discrimination, exclusion, and so on.
But we shall discover that the expression that links these relationships between majorities and minorities is persecution. This is confirmed by the conclusion to Ruth Benedict’s (19421983: 147) book: ‘In order to understand race persecution, we don’t need to investigate race, we need to investigate persecution. Persecution was an old, old story long before racism was thought of.’
It is imprudent and even more regrettable to search for ways to dissimulate what has left an impression on our recent history. One did not need much time to recognize a remarkable symbol of the life-style of the minority.
This reference to interaction or interdependence has another consequence we must explain: there are numerous categories or associations which refer to collectives, religions – and are without reference to a social principle or an historical definition. For example, when one evokes homosexuals, Christians, and so on, one makes allusions without designating a particular group, a form of particular interdependence. The question therefore arises as to the nature of groups which throughout history have shaped our prejudices of all kinds. Starting to research such a wide topic is truly like opening a door onto a hopeless unknown.
Goethe has considered the minority–majority relationship to be an original Ur-bond. It is the bond between the prototypical members of a nation, race, and religion, whose strength lies in their authority to initiate relations and resolve the problems of everyday life.
The minority represents, in Voegelin’s scheme, the counter-type, the obstacle and the reverse of the ‘prototype’; it is a problem-group with a long and tormented history. The taboo against contact sanctions this split and at the same time ratifies the authority of the majority and the obeisance of the minority. On the other hand this prohibition sanctions the fact that groups are not different, like people and animals, but contraries as are Americans or Europeans.
The meaning of the interdependence between minorities and majorities is as evident today as it ever was, since its discovery in Athens. To close these reflections, it is obvious that they are useful in our reflection about racism and so on. They are useful but not interesting enough to persevere with the phenomenon of exclusion, of discrimination, the lack of contact, and so on.
Flaubert grasped the truth when he wrote that the hatred against Gypsies stems from something very deep and complex: ‘It’s the hatred alive in any kind of persecution, in the social rules of persecution and many majorities towards a dissonant minority including the heretic, the philosopher, the hermit, the poet’ (Flaubert, 18671982: 106). At this point I feel it is useful to quote again Ruth Benedict (1959: 55), the anthropologist who expressed so strongly the essence of our time: ‘the history of racism is nothing but another example of the persecution of the minority’.
4 Racism: an ‘ism’ of the modern world
The distinguished anthropologist Ruth Benedict, from whom I borrow this title, is rarely mentioned by my specialist colleagues. Yet she contributed a great deal to the diffusion of the concept of authority. She made acute observations on the study of phenomena which are decisive. Amongst other things, she pointed out that one cannot study racism and similar phenomena as isolated concepts, as stereotypes, and so on, but as phenomena that have values, as ensembles of ideas and beliefs, which in one form or another obtain a popular form.
This is another way of saying that our modern society, perhaps more than any society in history, has produced a capital of prejudices and common-sense knowledge. And they are, as Joyce remarked of anti-Semitism, the easiest prejudices to prove. They are easy to prove because they express the most familiar ritualized beliefs that have been created by nation, party or church. One wonders how the ‘claims of racism or chauvinism’ can be refuted only by science and education. Ruth Benedict spent many years thinking about this, and the answer to this question is her work.
The only theory which has been proposed to deal specifically with these phenomena to date is, to my knowledge, the theory of social representations (Moscovici, 19612008; 19881993; 2002). It is therefore fruitful to introduce this theory into this vast and essential area of human life; but accept that I do not have the space here to present this theory more fully within the limited extent of this article.
First, a social representation, like any human representation, is both intellectual and figurative; it is a network of concepts and symbols with an imaginary element (Jacob, 1981). Second, we cannot fail to be struck by the fact that common sense exists not only in all humans, but that it is also the sense on which the life of the community is based.
A group, large or small, is formed by something outside that group, either shared interests, use of some predominant technique, or the action of some outside agencies. A group is ‘created’ in an artistic sense from beliefs and theories that foreshadow a representation in statu nascendi. This is very disconcerting, but history teaches us that groups are not shaped because they adapt to their common external environment; rather, they are shaped from within.
It was beautifully captured by Durkheim when he showed how and why men form a society that they must obey. The same could be shown of social representations of classes, categories, ranks, ethnic communities and so on. This is probably why any society that classifies its members, separates majorities and minorities, embeds folk beliefs, religious or political rituals within the representations that obey a norm which gives its acts an ethical meaning. These acts are not committed by criminals or madmen, but by people who know what is permitted and what is forbidden, and by those who have learned early in their lives the difference between right and wrong.
But a difference which makes the difference for a persecuted minority is that the verdict is in before the trial has begun. Its sins or crimes are not defined as transgressions of the norm, anti-social acts, but as inherent, and therefore natural, tendencies. As a rule, what is deemed to be ‘true’ of the group is also eminently applicable to individuals, who are seen as the most visible and concrete incarnations of the group’s ‘qualities’. I think that I have understood something of the essence of prejudgement when I realized that it permits things to pass from the one to the many and from the many to one with the speed of light, or nearly so.
At this point, we can evoke the two basic processes underlying social representations: objectification and anchoring. To put it in more intuitive terms, everything in a social representation is ordered around a figurative kernel that in a sense ‘underlies’ all the images, notions or judgements that a group or society has generated over time. A minority’s clearest distinguishing feature is the figurative kernel of its representation. In the case of Gypsies, it is articulated around the nomadic/sedentary thema, and this thema is as basic as is the left/right thema in the social representation of political parties.
In the course of my research I have found that, where Gypsies are concerned, the figurative kernel of their representation has not changed for several hundred years. Unfortunately, I do not have time to dwell at any length on the process of the objectification of the social representation of Gypsies, which I have analysed in my research on this minority, now known in Europe as the Roma. Let me just say that the figurative kernel that associates the concept of this minority with its image appears in everything that is said or thought about it, and finds expression in a series of emblematic themata.
First, there are the themata of pure and impure (clean/dirty) defining the minority’s presence as an anomaly within the autochthonous population. It was in a sense materialized at the time when the Spanish Inquisition introduced the racial concept of ‘purity of blood’. Like the Jews, the Gypsies were regarded as a ‘wicked nation of beggars and idlers’, and as an almost satanic element within society.
Given that they were Christians, they were not expelled from Spain but, because they were impure, they were forced to live in residential zones they were forbidden to leave. Blood was no longer evoked, but purity and impurity became concrete realities when they were placed ‘under house arrest’ and forced to live apart from the majority.
The second emblematic themata are the stigmata that almost always distinguish minorities and make them stand out from the majority. A stigma repeats, at the deeper level of the majority–minority relationship, the question the Spanish asked themselves about the Indians of America: ‘Are they men or not?’ It is as though the stigmata were not just a mark of the minority, but a way of thinking that replaces symbolic thinking, or makes symbolic thinking impossible.
There is no essential difference between natural stigmata and so-called artificial stigmata. Both indicate a break between the ‘normal’ majority and the ‘abnormal’ minority, that the bearer is a member of such and such persecuted minority and wears the badge of shame. No matter whether they work or not work, Gypsies are all represented as not working or in a ‘private’ working sphere. One always perceives ruptures in life that result from the activities of these communities. All that changes is the legal or illegal character of those activities – art or a public entertainment on the one hand, or robbery on the other.
One finds that in a number of studies over several hundred years their social representations are dominated by themata of robbery or popular acrobatism, as if their psychology were socially prefigured from the beginning. As Nietzsche put it: ‘Something is branded in, so that it stays in the memory; only that which hurts incessantly is remembered’ (1996: 42). Evidently, by the stigma.
Everyone knows that, whatever the law may say, in many places Gypsies do not have the right to sit where they like on a train or in a station, and that they are told where they can live – and how long they can stay there – by the town council. This segregation is obviously much worse when these restrictions are enforced through violence against Gypsy villages or neighbourhoods.
The emblematic common-sense thema that justifies these actions is the taboo of contact. Whatever the explanation for it, this is an ancient and probably universal taboo. It is always an obstacle to everyday encounters, and it objectifies behaviours of rejection, disgust or fear towards the minority. Denise Jodelet (19891991) offers a very detailed analysis of this behaviour in a situation where the majority has always lived alongside the minority. And in an experiment carried out in Spain, we have shown that ontologizing Gypsies as animals is one of the ways in which a majority can reinforce the taboo on coming into contact with the minority.
It comes as no surprise to learn that these themata in a sense structure social representations and precede, if I can speak metaphorically, the birth of relations between minorities and majorities in contexts of ethnic, religious and other forms of persecution. Leaving aside my own experience, my reading of anthropological and historical studies has convinced me that my research with Juan Pérez gives us a better idea of the wall between minorities and majorities described by Lewin, and of the way majorities build walls to keep out minorities.
It also gives us a better idea of why we find it so difficult to free ourselves from the hold of racial, ethnic and religious bias and of its corsi and ricordi throughout history. If we think of the rare periods of enlightenment when men could say to themselves ‘It’s unthinkable’ or ‘I must not do that’ before they surrender to temptation, we get a better idea of the power of man’s compulsion to persecute his fellow man.
Perhaps that is the meaning of the ‘Know thyself’ inscribed by the Greeks on the Temple of Apollo in Athens. In saying this, it is not my intention to criticize the theories of the researchers who have been studying these phenomena for so long, and I respect their competence and their gift for invention. All I can say for the moment is that a desire to justify the extension of the theory of social representations to the real field of research encouraged me to study a persecuted minority that I have known for so very long.
Those who have lived through or seen at close hand a catastrophe usually believe that it will be the last catastrophe, and they lose their sang-froid when they see that it is happening again or that there will be other catastrophes. When it comes to racism, what we have experienced since WWII proves to have been a false dawn. I am not saying that nothing has changed or that it has all happened before. The more we study it, the more racism (or chauvinism) proves to be the only unnatural religion, the only religion that offends common sense and that spoils our pleasure.
It is, as Pascal (1966) puts it, the only religion that has always existed. Ever since, or almost ever since they arrived in Europe, Gypsies have been classified as nomads, wanderers and bohemians, as opposed to sedentary peoples, and described as resisting the gradual sedentarization of Europe. It is fear or rejection that makes us establish temporary ghettos for these travellers on the outskirts of our towns.
5 Nomadic and sedentary
The origins of the process of anchoring, assuming that it does have origins, lie in the way we see fragments of a social representation, and the way it is inscribed in the language, images or situations typical of the social environment. There is probably a mimetic side to this process: concepts or words do not just symbolize the things of the world we share; they also represent them to others. We might say that the anchoring process has the effect of making what we assume to be our relationship with the world dependent upon our relationship with others. And as Billig says of the singularity of the anchoring process:
There is a crucial difference between the cognitive approach and that cognitive … tendency to view categorizations in terms of individual functioning that is represented as a social functioning. What is represented in a social object and an anchoring draws the individual into the cultural tradition of the group, the developing of the traditions. In this way, representations are rooted in the life of the group. (Billig, 1988: 5)
The majority therefore tries to express its goals and symbolic actions through its relations with the minority by turning to its own past and traditions and by communicating them to others. Anchoring, in other words, familiarizes us with new social representations and takes us back to what was familiar about old representations. The same thing happens when a work of art is translated or reproduced. And the reason why prejudices exist is that any new action of judgement also corresponds to an old meaning.
You will of course recall the notion of the figurative kernel that is present in any social representation. And you will recall that this kernel associates concepts with images, and vice versa, and defines themata. Examples include the right/left thema in the political field, and the sacred/profane thema in the religious field. The nomadic/sedentary thema expresses the Gypsy minority’s singularity perfectly.
To put it in more concrete terms, I would add that it condenses both aspects of its nomadism. It has both a positive aspect (Gypsies work, usually as musicians or as travelling entertainers) and a negative aspect (they are beggars and delinquents who lead a precarious life and who are outside the law). And if we look at laws of history, we find a striking constant: the figurative kernel of their social representation has shown very little variation over 400 years. That is why I have chosen a historical example to demonstrate both the persistence of their social representation and a variant that extends it into modern society.
We are probably more familiar with the history of the dinosaurs, which we study because it fascinates us, than with that of a persecuted minority, which we ignore because it leaves us indifferent. We know, however, that the Gypsies came from Egypt and spread across Europe, most of them in the East and the rest in the West.
It should be added that these Tziganes or Bohemians were definitely not nomadic and that they were tied to the land, or to one area, either by slavery or by effective political stratagems. Despite the sufferings and vicissitudes they experienced in the 19th century, they immigrated to Western Europe and found echoes of a past and representations of their nomadic existence in Germany and France without having to look for them.
We get some idea of these events if we think about what happened at the time in France and especially in Italy after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the war in Serbia, when Gypsy communities crossed frontiers without any hesitation. I recall this well-known anecdote simply to illustrate what may have happened in France towards the middle of the 19th century, or in the modern bourgeois society where this story took place.
In this effervescent society, which settled its population in its factories, administrations and shops, the social and political majority was sedentary, or wished to see itself as sedentary. In order to establish the normal type and the representation of the sedentary life as the life-style of the majority, it had to invent the counter-type of a minority that wandered and drifted through the interstices of society.
There is nothing new about the conscious or unconscious invention of the representation of such a minority, but there is no need to emphasize the point. Be that as it may, this minority was, or had to be, made up of displaced persons, failures, foreigners, exiles and potential criminals who were either indifferent or hostile to the social order. You have probably heard of la bohème and la vie de bohème. And that name was enough to anchor the representation of Gypsies and to disseminate it throughout the whole of society, as Bohemia was the name of their place of settlement.
These bohemians established their ill-defined and composite society, which ‘resembled’ a Gypsy community, in Paris, the city that was at the time, according to Walter Benjamin, the capital of the world. They had their cafés, taverns, workshops, club houses, revolutionaries, newspapers and even their own argot. They were not just writers but bohemians, and Robert Michel, the great political sociologist of the day, described them as a ‘pariah class’ and as ‘intellectual Gypsies’.
We know that the figurative kernel of the social representation of Gypsies penetrated and became the kernel of a social representation of non-Gypsies. The Gypsies called them ‘gadgies’ [gajos], and their social representation influenced, to some extent, their history, their way of life and perhaps their mode of behaviour. There can be little doubt that the representation of la bohème, with Gypsies in the background, created the ‘flesh and blood’ bohème. I am convinced of that, but it would take much more work to prove it.
What is more significant, we once again see both aspects of the social representation. The innovative artists and musicians represent its positive aspect. Its negative aspect was represented by the revolutionaries and anarchists who flooded Paris and who met in their cafés and party headquarters, including that of the Ligue communiste, plotting against the Russian, Italian and German governments that had exiled them or forced them to flee.
They swelled the ranks ‘of the social milieu known in Paris as la bohème’, as Marx and Engels observed, in the taverns of the wine-merchants where conspirators met. They formed revolutionary Bohemias of proletarian origin, and were under police surveillance. Of all this, the most remarkable thing is the distinction that was made between, on the one hand, the occasional conspirators who led ordinary professional lives amongst the sedentary majority and, on the other, the professionals who devoted all their lives to plotting.
Louis-Auguste Blanqui was the model of the latter. It was, of course, the modern nomads who acted outside and against the law. Walter Benjamin cites them at length in his unfinished Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century. One hundred years later, these texts still give us food for thought, but we should also be thinking about what he has to say about his own experience of exile in his digressions about la bohème and ‘conspiratorial artists’. The latter formed what he called ‘the bourgeois intelligentsia’s reserve army’, who were involved in the army’s conspiracies; they then took part in workers’ insurrections. And, in a sense, they were precursors, revolutionaries and anarchists.
You must forgive me for taking this example, but social psychology is no stranger to the history of an emergent minority – artists, proletarians, revolutionaries – we find in the themata that helps to anchor the rejected but familiar minority. To illustrate this, we could do no better than cite the striking and celebrated example of Marx, who belonged to this bohème of exiles and revolutionaries. In 1922, Antonio Gramsci described Marx in the pages of a well-known newspaper as ‘both a man of science and a man of action, a critic and a sectarian and partisan demagogue, both God and Devil, both Apollo and the Gypsy king’ (Traverso, 2004: 51).
It goes without saying – but it still has to be said – that it was the social representation of the Gypsy minority that had put down roots in France that came to exemplify the nomadic existence and a life that was lived outside the law, that provided the basis for the representation of the bohemian minority, and not contacts with actual Gypsies, who were still described as wretched and dangerous creatures. Flaubert and the other writers of the day who were scandalized by Gypsies are testimony to that.
As I speak to you of these great events of the past – and the emergence of la bohème was a great event – ‘prejudices’ appear in the way that the painter Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades appeared. By adding his signature to ordinary objects such as a urinal or a chair, the artist displaced them into the aesthetic world, and turned them into objets d’art.
He did not need to create them out of selected raw material such as iron or ceramics, but simply chose them and added his name to them. That was enough to move an ordinary object from a shop into an art gallery, and to shift the public’s gaze. Perhaps our prejudices are ready-mades or mental gestures that transfigure certain of our judgements when either our common sense or the science of relations brings us into contact with a minority. This is certainly a question to which we will have to return if we wish to understand how familiar representations generate alien or even violent representations of the persecution of others.
6 Between assimilation and emancipation
I will not comment here on the violence and humiliation suffered by those persecuted communities. The findings of historical and political documents show that after the Second World War several programs were formed to assimilate Gypsy communities.
I do not need to comment on writings by sociologists and psychologists who did not believe that the outcome of these attempts was successful. I recall these attempts to mind because they recommend assimilation as a solution to the ongoing suffering of Gypsies, although, on the contrary, that was part of the problem.
The globalizations of Human Rights and the European Union’s directives on minority rights have had the same consequences for Gypsies as for the other minorities. There is now the legal protection of Gypsy families and groups, but this does not mean that the tragedy of evil has stopped. On the other hand, the creation of institutions, associations and official representations encourages individuals or groups to a creative search for answers to persisting evils. And more so, it encourages them to change the old solutions to the dilemma of the group.
In her book, Gina Philogène (1999) carries out a fine analysis of the emancipation of black movements in the United States, and she shows how important was the decision that the black communities re-described themselves by a new name: African American. I consider that a new nomination is a symptom of emancipation.
Insofar as it is also the symptom of change, ‘nomination’ is an expression both of an ideal social representation and a shared reference. The American philosophers Putnam and Kripke emphasize both aspects. For example, Kripke (1972: 97) writes that a name given to a person in ‘an initial baptism … [is] explained in terms either of fixing a reference by a description or ostention’. And ‘[w]hen the name is “passed from link to link”, the receiver of the name must, I think, intend when he learns it to use it with the same reference as the man from whom he heard it’ (p. 96).
Obviously, even though the baptism has started and even though the denomination ‘Roma’ has begun a new historical and moral career, the destiny of that people will not change overnight. As we can learn from the history of the nations of Europe, the internal obstacles, which require the sacrifice of a tradition, of language, or even a collective memory, are more formidable than the external obstacles.
Social psychology has devoted itself only to the study of the assimilation of passive and obedient minorities. Nowadays, minorities once upon a time passive have at present become active. Hence, emancipation has become an alternative solution that can put an end to customary persecution. Our hope to find an answer to these enduring questions has never been lost entirely.
Even during the most painful torments of my life, I have always remembered the last line of Paul Valéry’s (1922) poem Le Cimetière marin: ‘The wind is getting up! … We must try to live!’
Allport G (1954) The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Arendt H (1965) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Badiou A (2009) L’hypothèse communiste. Clamecy: Nouvelles Editions Lignes.
Bataille G (1957) La Littérature et le mal. Paris: Gallimard.
Bauman Z (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity.
Benedict R (1942 [1983]) Race and Racism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Benedict R (1959) Race: Science and Politics. New York: Viking Press.
Billig M (1988) Social representations, objectification and anchoring: A rhetorical analysis. Social Behaviour 3: 1–16.
Blass T (2004) The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books.
Borges JL (1967) Enquêtes. Paris: Gallimard, Folio.
Brown R (1986) Social Psychology. New York: The Free Press.
Flaubert G (1867) Letter to George Sand, 2 June 1867. In: The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1857–1880, ed. and transl. Steegmuller F (1982). Harvard: Harvard University Press, 105–107.
Jacob F (1981) Le Jeu des possibles. Paris: Fayard.
Jodelet D (1989) Madness and Social Representations, transl. Pownall T, ed. Duveen G (1991). London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Kojève A (2004) La Notion d’autorité. Paris: Gallimard.
Kripke S (1972) Naming and Necessity. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell.
Lévi-Strauss C (2009) Ce que je suis. Le Nouvel Observateur, Nov–Dec.
Milgram S (1967) Obedience to criminal orders: The compulsion to evil. Patterns of Prejudice: 3–7.
Milgram S (1974) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row.
Moscovici S (1961) Psychoanalysis: Its Image and Its Public, transl. Macey D, ed. Duveen G (2008). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Moscovici S (1988) La Machine à faire des dieux: Sociologie et psychologie. Paris: Fayard. Transl. Hall WD as The Invention of Society (1993). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Moscovici S (2002) Pensée stigmatique et pensée symbolique, deux formes élémentaires de la pensée sociale. In: Garnier C (ed.) Les Formes de la pensée sociale. Paris: PUF, 21–53.
Nietzsche F (1996) On the Genealogy of Morals, transl. Smith D. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.
Pascal B (1966) Pensées, transl. Krailsheimer AJ. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Pérez JA, Moscovici S, Chulvia B (2002) Nature and culture as principles for social classification: Anchorage of social representations on ethnical minorities. Revista de Psicologia Social 17: 51–67.
Philogène G (1999) From Black to African American. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Rüdin E (1942/1943) Zehn Jahre nationalsoziallistischer Staat. Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie 36: 321.
Taguieff PA (2007) Eric Voegelin, 1933: Un philosophe face à l’idée race et au racisme. In: Voegelin E (1933/2007) Race et Etat. Transl. Courtine-Denamy S. Paris: J Vrin, 7–88.
Tajfel H (1978) Differentiation between Social Groups. New York: Academic Press.
Todorov T (1999/2001) The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust, transl. Denner A. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Traverso E (2004) La Pensée dispersée. Paris: Lignes manifestes.
Valéry P (1922) Charmes. Paris: Gallimard.
Voegelin E (1933/2007) Race et Etat, transl. Courtine-Denamy S. Paris: J Vrin.
Weber M (2004) The Vocation Lectures., transl. Livingstone R. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.
Author biography
Serge Moscovici was born in Romania and since 1948 has lived in Paris. He is Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He has carried out research in the history of science and in social psychology. He has published several books, among them La Psychanalyse: Son image et son public (1961/1976), Essai sur l’histoire humaine de la nature (1968) and La machine à faire des Dieux (1988/1993). In 1962/63 he was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, USA; in 1968/69 a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences, Palo Alto, Stanford. He received the European Amalfi Prize for sociology and social theory in 1989; and the Balzan Prize for social psychology in 2003.

Dejar una respuesta