Wolfgang Wagner (social psychologist)

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Wolfgang Wagner (born 1949 in Vienna, Austria) is an Austrian social psychologist, currently professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Tartu, Estonia. Formerly he was at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, and affiliated with the Department of Social Psychology and Methodology at the University of San Sebastián, Spain.

Portrait of Wolfgang Wagner in 2017.jpg


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. He has two children, Joy Pamela who is a politician in Austria, and Joscha David, an engineer. His brother, Günter Paul, is an Evolutionary Biologist. Since 2018 he is professor of psychology at the University of Tartu, Estonia. He is a keen hiker and mountaineer.

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 board member of several scholarly journals. As a social scientists he has been expert consultant to the European Union’s DG XII and panel member for European Research Council. 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]

Wagner's contributions relate to social representations' objectification processes by metaphorical process.[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 or meta-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]

In terms of representational structure Wolfgang Wagner and colleagues 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.[8]

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.[9]

Another central tenet of Wagner's thinking is the constructivist unity of a social representation and the social object it constructs.[10]

Public Understanding of Science and the Theory of Collective Symbolic Coping[edit]

Serge Moscovici's research on how psychoanalytic theory was received in the French public was an early approach to Public Understanding of Science. Together with George Gaskell, Martin Bauer, Nicole Kronberger and others Wagner worked on how the European public responded to the introduction of genetically modified organisms, which resulted in a number of key publications [11][12]

The data provided evidence for a Theory of Collective Symbolic Coping that describes how media activity and discourse about technological innovation intersect. Based on Wagner's earlier work on the importance of media discourse for social representations the theory shows how sections of the public develop a popular understanding of new technology such as genetic engineering that changes the feeling of ignorance to a hunch of knowing what is the case.[13][14]

Intergroup Psychology[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 living beings 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.[15][16] This work received the Misumi Award

Other contributions of Wolfgang Wagner are about processes of culture change, Cognitive polyphasia [17] and culture change [18]

Self-essentialising processes have implications for how to conceptualize the construction of social identity and the stereotypical perception of outgroups. Identity issues are also involved in current debates on Muslim women's wearing the veil and face-covering attire when living in Europe [19][20]

Recently, Wagner together with Katrin Kello engaged in inquiries about the political functions and uses of history teaching for intergroup and majority-minority relationships.[21][22]

Wagner's cross-cultural work 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 by calculating the mean.[23][24]


  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. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Wagner, W. (2015). Representation in action. In G. Sammut, E. Andreouli, G. Gaskell, & J. Valsiner (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Social Representations (pp. 12-28). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ Wagner, W., Kello, K., & Rämmer, A. (2018). Making social objects: The theory of social representation. In A. Rosa & J. Valsiner (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Sociocultural Psychology (2nd edition) (pp. 130-147). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  11. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., Gaskell, G., Allum, N., Allansdottir, A., Cheveigné, S. 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.
  12. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., Allum, N., De Cheveigné, S., Diego, C., Gaskell, G. et al. (2002). Pandora’s genes - images of genes and nature. In M. Bauer & G. Gaskell (Eds.), Biotechnology - the Making of a Global Controversy (pp. 244-276). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  13. ^ Wagner, W., Kronberger, N., & Seifert, F. (2002). Collective symbolic coping with new technology: Knowledge, images and public discourse. British Journal of Social Psychology, 41(3), 323-343.
  14. ^ Wagner, W. (2007). Vernacular science knowledge: its role in everyday life communication. Public Understanding of Science, 16(1), 7-22.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Holtz, P., & Wagner, W. (2009). Essentialism and attribution of monstrosity in racist discourse: Right-wing internet postings about Africans and Jews. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 19(6), 411-425.
  17. ^ Wagner, W., Duveen, G., Verma, J., & Themel, M. (2000). “I have some faith and at the same time I don’t believe”--cognitive polyphasia and cultural change in India. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 10(4), 301-314.
  18. ^ Wagner, W., Duveen, G., Themel, M., & Verma, J. (1999). The modernisation of tradition: Thinking about madness in Patna, India. Culture and Psychology, 5(4), 413-446.
  19. ^ Wagner, W., Sen, R., Permanadeli, R., & Howarth, C. S. (2012). The veil and Muslim women’s identity: Cultural pressures and resistance to stereotyping. Culture & Psychology, 18(4), 521-541.
  20. ^ Baerveldt, C. (2015). The veil and the search for the self: From identity politics to cultural expression. Culture & Psychology, 21(4), 532-545
  21. ^ Kello, K., & Wagner, W. (2017). History teaching as ‘propaganda’? Teachers’ communication styles in post-transition societies. In C. Psaltis, M. Carretero, & S. Cehajic-Clancy (Eds.), History Education and Conflict Transformation: Social Psychological Theories, History Teaching and Reconciliation (pp. 201-229). London: Palgrave.
  22. ^ Wagner, W., Kello, K., & Sakki, I. (2018). Politics, identity and perspectives in history textbooks. In K. van Nieuwenhuyse & J. Pires Valentim (Eds.), The Colonial Past in History Textbooks - Historical and Social Psychological Perspectives (pp. 31-50). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishers.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Wagner, W., Hansen, K., & Kronberger, N. (2014). Quantitative and qualitative research across cultures and languages: Cultural metrics and their application. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, 48(4), 418-434.

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