The Legacy of European Social Psychology

An online compendium of ideas, schools and people in the field of Social Psychology

Moscovici, Serge

Serge Moscovici (Source: Fondation Balzan, CC BY 4.0)

Born in 1925 in Braïla, on the banks of the Danube, in a family of grain merchants, he experienced the impact of anti-Semitic laws with his exclusion from school and the Bucharest pogrom. Drifting via Hungary, Austria and Italy through the "displaced persons camps" system, he arrived in Paris in 1948. He received in 1949 the recently created Bachelor degree in Psychology at the Sorbonne. Attracted by the course on "the psychology of social life" of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Daniel Lagache, he wrote his PhD thesis under his supervision. Alongside his study of psychoanalysis, he wrote his second thesis on a social and economic problem, industrial restructuring. In 1961, he defended his doctoral thesis, La psychanalyse, son image et son public. That same year he graduated from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE), under the direction of Alexandre Koyré, with a thesis published in 1967, on the Galilean mechanics. This work opened the door to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton as a Fellow (1962-63).

He was elected Directeur d’études at the EPHE in 1964. The same year, he became a member of the Transnational Committee on Social Psychology of the Social Sciences Research Council, whose fascinating history has been written up (Moscovici & Markova, The Making of Modern Social Psychology, 2006). He was one of the original founders of the EASP, its first President in 1965, and associate editor of the European Journal of Social Psychology (1969-74) alongside L. Festinger, J. Lanzetta, R. Rommetveit, and S. Schachter and, soon after, H. Tajfel, H. Kelley, M. Deutsch, among others.

Following a parallel intellectual direction, connecting both history of science and social psychology, he was again a resident at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford) between 1968-69. He publishes another monumental work, the Essay on human history of nature in 1968, the first of a trilogy (Society against nature, 1972, Domestic Man and Wild Man, 1974) which marks his “green period” – the part of his works least known part by social psychologists. His anthropological ideas about nature, feminism, and political ecology trace a new horizon for generations of young students and activists.

Regarding his theory of social representations, Moscovici’s aim was the study of the conversion of a form of scientific knowledge into a composite system of opinions and interpretation of reality (Le scandale de la pensée sociale, 2013). He theorized the dynamics of the formation of knowledge and social thinking through the communication and action of historically and culturally situated groups. In social psychology, Moscovici had to break with the prevailing North American behaviourist and individualist currents, which evacuated the reflective and symbolic dimension of human conduct in society. In the social sciences, the breakthrough was to grant scientific legitimacy to the study of common sense in a "thinking society”. In these early works, he developed two hypotheses that occupied much of the rest of his scientific career. He points the history of science to the study of the link between two essential areas of knowledge: science and common sense. For him, epistemology only glosses over the analysis of the relations between these two types of knowledge.

He remained, until the end, a leading advocate of the importance of the study of our culture in specific historical and political contexts (Raison et cultures, 2012). His dedication to social psychology coincided with the so-called ‘crisis’ of the discipline. Although this crisis was primarily about methodological issues, the question for him was more epistemological. This was to define the "matter" of this science. For him, this "matter" was common sense, in the same way that language is the matter for linguists, myths for anthropologists, dreams for psychoanalysts, cell life for biologists, or market for economists. In addition, he theorized the perspective of this discipline, the psychosocial perspective, offering a triple reading of phenomena and relationships in order to replace the dual relationship between subject and object, an interaction, that is a three-term relation (individual subject (ego) - social subject (alter) - object).

A constant interest in his works, and not just his social psychology research, is the study of innovation. In Social influence and social change (1976), he examines in depth all theories proposed in social psychology to account for social influence. He then comes to two major conclusions. On the one hand, theories confuse social influence and power: they reduce influence to the possession of some kind of power or authority (normative, informational, referent) which commands increased compliance and uniformity. His experience in the ecologist movement has taught him that social minorities are forceful social actors and that they can be innovative. His early experiences in this field aim to discover the existence of minority influence. This may appear a bit simple, but we must remember that for Moscovici experimentation should lead to discovery of phenomena, beyond the mere testing of hypotheses.

Among his essential contributions we should also include his reading anew and reinterpretations of the classics of the crowd psychology, for example, Le Bon, Tarde, Freud (The age of the crowd, 1985). He also returned to the source of the founders of the social sciences as Weber, Durkheim, Simmel (The invention of society, 1993), and more specifically of collective psychology, in defence of the inseparability of the social and the psychological.

For fifteen years (1980-95), he was a Visiting Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. In Paris, his two institutional "inventions", the Laboratoire de Psychologie Sociale de l’École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the Laboratoire Européen de Psychologie Sociale have hosted and influenced generations of researchers worldwide.

His work was recognised world-wide. Between 1980 and 2012, Moscovici is awarded sixteen honorary degrees, mostly in Europe, but also in Latin America and won six international awards honouring all aspects of his thinking.