Wolfgang Wagner (social psychologist)

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Wolfgang Wagner, Johannes Kepler University, Linz

Wolfgang Wagner (born in Vienna, Austria) is an Austrian social psychologist, currently professor at the Department of Social and Economic Psychology at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, and affiliated with the Department of Social Psychology and Methodology at the University of San Sebastián, Spain.


Wolfgang Wagner studied psychology, philosophy and cultural anthropology at the University of Vienna, Austria, where he received his PhD. He trained in sociology at the Vienna Institute for Advanced Studies and took the position of Assistant Professor at Johannes Kepler University in Linz 1979 where he also received his habilitation. Since 2002 he is teaching also in the Masters and Doctoral courses on Organizational and Social Psychology at the University of the Basque Country in San Sebastián. During his career he taught at various institutions, such as University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University, University of Tartu and University of Kyoto, among others. He is founding editor of Papers on Social Representations and presently co-editor and scientific board member of Public Understanding of Science, Asian Journal of Social Psychology, Culture & Psychology, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. As a social scientists he has several times been expert consultant to the European Union’s DG XII. He is renowned for his contribution to the Theory of Social Representations, Societal psychology, Public Understanding of Science and psychological essentialism.


In his professional publications, Wolfgang Wagner covers a wide range of social psychological topics that have to do with the interaction of individual and collective processes. Throughout his career Wagner explored the mechanisms involved in the individual vs. cultural vs. social interface in modern and in more traditional societies. In doing so he attempted to integrate Social Cognition, Social Constructionism, Discourse Theory, and Social Representations Theory.

Social Representation Theory[edit]

Social Representation Theory is an approach that bridges the traditional divide between the individual and the collective in psychology and the social sciences. The theory was first presented by Serge Moscovici in 1961.[1] Wagner took up this thread of ideas and illustrated the theory’s cornerstones in empirical studies. The theory and its development are summarized in Wagner & Hayes’ 2005 monograph.[2]

Wolfgang Wagner and Fran Elejabarrieta showed how the process of objectification, where a community elaborates a social issue into a social fact, can be modeled as a metaphorical process. Objectified representations are usually image related and iconic and not propositional by nature and they are promoted by school teaching and media discourse.[3][4][5]

With regard to knowledge systems Wagner theorizes that people have access to others’ representational systems to enable concerted interaction even and particularly in cases of conflict. Hence, he suggested the existence of a system of holomorphic representations that encompass not only an individual’s or a group’s representation of an issue but also bits and pieces of the adversary’s view of the world.[6][7] Ragini Sen and Wolfgang Wagner show how in violent conflict this interdependency between representations of opposed groups can take the form of „hetero-reference“, where one group’s representation in fact depends on the existence of the opponent group’s ideology or religion.[8][9]

In terms of representational structure Wolfgang Wagner, José Valencia and Fran Elejabarrieta showed that the existence of a well-structured representation crucially depends on an ongoing debate or discourse. Even though people do have lots of ideas about a vast range of objects, their ideas will not constitute a well-organized representation in the absence of a pressing situation that triggers extended discourse about a particular issue.[10]

A good part of Wolfgang Wagner’s contributions to Social Representation Theory are theoretical: As one of the first scholars he questioned the commonly assumed methodological idea that mental representations can be treated as the causes of behaviour and action. In his view, Representation Theory allows to unite both, thinking and action, in a social representation where neither action can be treated without reference to thinking and thinking cannot rightly be positioned before action in research designs.[11]

Another central tenet of Wagner’s thinking is the constructivist unity of a social representation and the social object it constructs. The object and the thinking and behaviour of a community about it cannot be separated on epistemological grounds. Without a representation, an object would just be a „something“ and it could not take its place in the life world of a community. Once an issue or object is part of a local world, it is intimately linked with the behaviour and ways of thinking of the people sharing in its representation, such that the object, at the end, is the representation.[12][13]

Culture Change and Cognitive Polyphasia[edit]

Together with Gerard Duveen, Matthias Themel and Jyoti Verma, Wagner showed how modern scientific knowledge ever so slowly penetrates traditional and culture-bound knowledge in developing societies. This „modernization“, however, does not erase the old stock of thinking, but produces a kind of cognitive polyphasia, first postulated by Serge Moscovici.[14] The authors show that both, the modern and the traditional ways of thinking and talking co-exist and are being applied in different situations and settings: The traditional terminology and ideas are used primarily in private family contexts and the more modern and scientific stock of ideas primarily in the public. This split between domains and logically contradictory systems of representations is by no means restricted to traditional or modernizing societies and cultures, but can easily be observed in highly developed and industrialized countries as well.[15][16]

Cultural Metrics[edit]

Wagner’s work on culture change and representational systems brought him to appreciate the complexities of cross-cultural methodology. He suggested a Theory of Cultural Metrics that presupposes that neither words and concepts nor entire questionnaire items, even if properly translated, can be directly compared in statistical terms, e.g. by calculating the mean. Before doing the statistics it is necessary to show that an items that are supposed to measure the same issue across cultures take a similar position within the structure of all assessed questionnaire items in each of the cultural samples. This test can usually be done with non-parametric structural statistics.[17][18]

Theory of Collective Symbolic Coping in Popularizing Science and Technology[edit]

In the field of public understanding of science, Wolfgang Wagner and Nicole Kronberger contributed to the understanding of media and representation interactions. Much of his empirical research is on people’s understanding of biotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology.[19][20][21][22] The data provided evidence for a Theory of Collective Symbolic Coping that describes how media activity and discourse about technological innovation intersect. Based on his earlier work on the importance of media discourse for social representations[23] the theory shows that without ongoing media reporting on a novel technological issue in a country, large portions of the public are free to express their ignorance in the form of „don’t know“ responses in surveys. Once, however, an issue catches the medias’ attention resulting in a hype, large sections of the public adopt and finally share a common understanding that allows them to participate in discourse and conversations. At the same time the frequency of don’t know responses drops sharply, showing that self-ascribed ignorance is no longer an option in a situation of public discourse. The understanding people attained, however, has little to do with a more or less scientifically correct representation, but takes the form of sometimes fantastic images and metaphorical ideas.[24][25]

Psychological Essentialism and a Theory of Hybrids in the natural domain[edit]

Wolfgang Wagner, together with Nicole Kronberger and Peter Holtz, extended the framework of Social Representation Theory by including Psychological Essentialism as a hitherto overlooked representational tool in thinking about natural organisms and social groups. As an outcome of their research on genetic engineering, the authors showed that thinking in terms of essence, that is by attributing animals a species-specific essence, has the curious consequence that genetic hybrids are perceived as lacking identity and a clear belonging to a natural kind. The hybrid’s lack of belonging makes respondents judge them as close to being monsters; a straight continuation of the cultural interpretation of monsters signalling a category confusion. Their Essentialist Theory of Hybrids gives an easy explanation of the frequently observed „yuk-factor“ with regard to genetically modified organisms.[26][27]

Racism, Prejudice, Social Identity and Essence Politics[edit]

Wagner and Holtz extended this essentialist theory to intra- and inter-group processes by showing that ethnically and racially mixed mating is more often than not perceived as producing hybrids that are met with disgust by extreme right-wing individuals and high essentializers.[28][29] A further insight is that essentialized identities are not an unchangeable given but subject to discursive negotiation and identity politics in history. While the feminist movement engages in de-essentializing the biological sexes making them more or less „arbitrary“ gender categories in public discourse, the largely defunct European nobility is interested in preserving and strengthening their essentialized “blue blood” identity that makes them different from the common man and woman.[30][31][32]

Responses to Wagner’s Work[edit]

Wolfgang Wagner’s unorthodox but integrative approach to the theories of Social Cognition, Social Constructivism, Discourse and Social Representations brought about critical as well as supportive responses.[33] Partial critique met his discussion of the mental-action causality.[34][35][36][37] Katsuya Yamori discussed Wagner’s constructivist approach in the Japanese social psychological community.[38] Verheggen and Baerveldt criticised his approach on the grounds that representations cannot be shared but only enacted in the view of Radical Constructivism,[39][40] which was rejected by a group of authors in a highly elaborated discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of Social Representation Theory.[41]


  1. ^ Moscovici, S. (1961). La psychanalyse son image et son public. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  2. ^ Wagner, W. & Hayes, N. (2005). Everyday Discourse and Common-Sense—The Theory of Social Representation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. ^ Wagner, W., Elejabarrieta, F., & Lahnsteiner, I. (1995). How the Sperm Dominates the Ovum – Objectification by Metaphor in the Social Representation of Conception. European Journal of Social Psychology, 25, 671-688.
  4. ^ Wagner, W. (2007). Vernacular science knowledge: Its role in everyday life communication. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 1, 7-22.
  5. ^ Wagner, W., Duveen, G., Farr, R., Jovchelovitch, S., et al. (1999). Theory and Method of Social Representations. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2, 95-125.
  6. ^ Wagner, W. & Hayes, N. (2005). Everyday Discourse and Common-Sense—The Theory of Social Representation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  7. ^ Wagner, W. (1995). Social representations, group affiliation, and projection: Knowing the limits of validity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 25, 125-140.
  8. ^ Sen, R. & Wagner, W. (2005). History, emotions and hetero-referential representations in inter-group conflict: The Example of Hindu-Muslim Relations in India. Papers on Social Representations, 14, 2.1-2.23.
  9. ^ Sen, R. & Wagner, W. (2009). Cultural mechanics of fundamentalism—Religion as ideology, divided identities and violence in post-Gandhi India. Culture and Psychology, 15(3), 299-326.
  10. ^ Wagner, W., Valencia, J. & Elejabarrieta, F. (1996). Relevance, discourse and the "hot" stable core of social representations—A structural analysis of word associations. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 331-352.
  11. ^ Wagner, W. (1994). The fallacy of misplaced intentionality in social representation research. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 24, 243-266.
  12. ^ Wagner, W. (1996). Queries about social representation and construction. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 26, 95-120.
  13. ^ Wagner, W. (1998). Social representations and beyond—Brute facts, symbolic coping and domesticated worlds. Culture and Psychology, 4, 297-329.
  14. ^ Moscovici, S. (1961). La psychanalyse son image et son public. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  15. ^ Wagner, W., Duveen, G., Themel, M. & Verma, J. (1999). The modernisation of tradition: Thinking about madness in Patna, India. Culture and Psychology, 5, 413-446.
  16. ^ Wagner, W., Duveen, G., Verma, J. & Themel, M. (2000). "I have some faith and at the same time I don't believe in it" - Cognitive polyphasia and culture change. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 10, 301-314.
  17. ^ Wagner, W. & Yamori, K. (1999). Can Culture Be a Variable? Dispositional explanation and cultural metrics. In T. Sugiman et al. (Eds.), Progress in Asian Social Psychology, Vol. 2. Seoul: Kyoyook-Kwahak-Sa Publishers.
  18. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., Valencia, J. & Duarte Pereira, M. L. (2006). Quantitative and qualitative cross-cultural comparison: The role of cultural metrics. In J. Straub, C. Kölbl, D. Weidemann and B. Zielke (Eds), Pursuit of Meaning. Theoretical and Methodological Advances Cultural and Cross-Cultural Psychology. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.
  19. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., Gaskell, G., Allum, N., Allansdottir, A., et al. (2001). Nature in disorder: The troubled public of biotechnology. In G. Gaskell & M. Bauer (Eds.), Biotechnology 1996-2000: The years of controversy. London: The National Museum of Science and Industry.
  20. ^ Gaskell, G., Allum, N., Wagner, W., Nielsen, T. H., Jelsø, E., et al. (2001). In the public eye: Representations of biotechnology in Europe. In G. Gaskell & M. Bauer (Eds.), Biotechnology 1996-2000: The years of controversy. London: The National Museum of Science and Industry.
  21. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., Allum, N., De Cheveigné, S., et al. (2002). Pandora’s genes - images of genes and nature. In M. Bauer & G. Gaskell (Eds.), Biotechnology - the Making of a Global Controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  22. ^ Kronberger, N., Holtz, P., Kerbe, W., Strasser, E., & Wagner, W. (2009). Communicating Synthetic Biology: from the lab via the media to the broader public. Systems and Synthetic Biology, 3, 4, 19-26.
  23. ^ Wagner, W., Valencia, J. & Elejabarrieta, F. (1996). Relevance, discourse and the "hot" stable core of social representations—A structural analysis of word associations. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 331-352.
  24. ^ Wagner, W. (2007). Vernacular science knowledge: Its role in everyday life communication. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 1, 7-22.
  25. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N. & Seifert, F. (2002). Collective symbolic coping with new technology: Knowledge, images and public discourse. British Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 323-343.
  26. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., Berg, S. & Torgersen, H. (2006). The monster in the public imagination. In G. Gaskell & M. Bauer (Eds.), Genomics and Society: Legal, ethical and social dimensions. London: Earthscan.
  27. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., Nagata, M., Sen, R., et al. (2010). Essentialist Theory of 'Hybrids': From Animal Kinds to Ethnic Categories and Race. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13(4), 232-246.
  28. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., Nagata, M., Sen, R., et al. (2010). Essentialist Theory of 'Hybrids': From Animal Kinds to Ethnic Categories and Race. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13(4), 232-246.
  29. ^ Holtz, P. & Wagner, W. (2009). Essentialism and Attribution of Monstrosity in Racist Discourse: Right-Wing Internet Postings about Africans and Jews. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 19, 6, 411-425.
  30. ^ Wagner, W., Holtz, P. & Kashima, Y. (2009). Construction and Deconstruction of Essence in Representing Social Groups: Identity Projects, Stereotyping, and Racism. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 39(3), 363-383.
  31. ^ Raudsepp, M. & Wagner, W. (in press). The Essentially Other—Representational Processes that Divide Groups. In Marková, I., Linell, P., Gillespie, A., Hosking, G. & Scarantino, L. (Eds), Trust and Distrust between Groups: Interaction and Representations.
  32. ^ Holtz, P. & Wagner, W. (2010). Dehumanization, Infrahumanization, and Naturalization. In D. J. Christie (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology. New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell.
  33. ^ Potter, J., & Edwards, D. (1999). Social representations and discursive psychology: From cognition to action. Culture & Psychology, 5(4), 447-458.
  34. ^ Echebarría Echabe, A. (1994). Social representations, social practices and causality-a reply to W. Wagner. Papers on Social Representations, 3, 195-200.
  35. ^ von Cranach, M. (1995). Social representations and individual actions: Misunderstandings, omissions, and different premises: A reply to Wolfgang Wagner. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 25(3), 285-293.
  36. ^ Duveen, G. (1994). Unanalysed residues: Representations and behaviours-a comment on w. Wagner. Papers on Social Representations, 3, 207-212.
  37. ^ Wagner, W. (1995). Everyday folk-politics, sensibleness and the explanation of action-an answer to cranach. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 25.
  38. ^ Yamori, K. (2001). Social representation theory and social constructionism: Critical comments on Wagner's view. Japanese Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(2), 95-114.
  39. ^ Verheggen, T., & Baerveldt, C. (2001). From shared representations to consensually coordinated actions: Towards an intrinsically social psychology. In J. R. Morss, N. Stephenson, & H. v. Rappard (Eds.), Theoretical Issues in Psychology-Proceedings of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology 1999 Conference. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  40. ^ Verheggen, T., & Baerveldt, C. (2007). We don't share! The social representation approach, enactivism and the ground for an intrinsically social psychology. Culture & Psychology, 13(1), 5-27.
  41. ^ Alison, C., Dashtipour, P., Keshet, S., Righi, C., Sammut, G., & Sartawi, M. (2009). We don’t share! The social representation approach, enactivism and the fundamental incompatibilities between the two. Culture and Psychology, 15(1), 83-95.

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