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Themata, a Visible Presence within Social Representations.

In the 70s, G. Holton, a well known specialist in the history and philosophy of natural sciences, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, developed the concept of thematic analysis [1;2]. The core of the newly created concept is the idea according to which the development of theories with a scientific character is determined by the existence of opposing antinomies which are essential to human thinking and communication. More than that, G. Holton says that their significance should not be reduced to terms (in literature, or music, linguistics and anthropology) like theme (singular) and themes (plural), thema (singular) and themata (plural). This time, meanings aoccur in a more special light: by thema (singular) and themata (plural) it is to be understood the preconceptions in science which imply dyads or triads of the type: atoms/continuum, simplicity/complexity, evolution/involution, analysis/synthesis or steadfastness/evolution, catastrophic change. According to G. Holton, such an approach seems to be in the adequate relationship with the dialectics of the scientific process, a dialectics which, in all times, "was looking for the consensus between the two or more themata in antithetic ways."

As we have already pointed out, G. Holton, being a well known specialist in the history and philosophy of natural sciences, carrying out some case studies, developed his theory about themata exploring some life tracks and scientific discoveries of the most important European astronomers and phisicians. Here are some of these case studies:--themata, the main topic in N. Copernicus 'work (1473-1543), the one who discovered and promoted the heliocentric theory of Solar System, consists of simplicity and complexity; it is this fact that helped, to the greatest extent, the mutual acceptance of the theory and data in the work of the great Polish astronomer and cosmologist (otherwise, under different conditions, the old hypothesis about heliocentric extraction might not have been possible to take it over the old hypothesis of helicocentric extraction- a hypothesis much studied by Pythagorean philosophers and, as a consequence, there were not described the three types of movements of the Earth: rotation around its axsis "rotation"), the movement around the Sun ("revolution") and the one in relation with the eliptical plan (postulating the existence of a vast space between the seventh sphere of Saturn and the eighth sphere of the fix stars); N.Bohr (1885-1962), the Danish physician, who had an essential contribution to the elaboration of the atomic model and of the quantic mechanics, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922, supported constantly the principle of complementarity based on the ancient Chinese antinomy yin/yang; A. Einstein (1879-1955), the scientists who invented the famous theory of relativity, explained, for the first time, the photoelectric effect (for which he was awarded the Noble Prize for Physics in 1921), being interested in another themata, this one regarding the continuity and atomic discrete distribution; but, "A. Einstein's preoccupation on the continuum-was not overcome by any other themata, maybe, only with the exception of symmetry and invariation (that is, "relativity" itself), as a result of the influence exerted by the linguist from Aarau. (1)

It is G. Holton's conviction that themata guides, reshapes and invigorates the scientific thinking. The imagination of those preoccupied by the "study of nature by means of observation and reasoning" seems to be definitely influenced by the "implicit fidelity towards one or several themata".

Some time later[3;4], inspired by G. Holton's work, S. Moscovici says that themata is deeply rooted not only in the sphere of scientific thinking, but also in that of the common sense. As "common sense is by its nature strongly antinomic, and the antinomies, that make up people's mental activities like the creation of concepts, meanings in language and images, can exist in human thinking for a very long period of time". Examples of antinomies in the common sense are we/they, freedom/opression, human/antihuman or fear/hope. After all, as the famous French psychosociologist pointed out, themata should be perceived in the variant of taxonomies of an oppositional nature, which influence in the most direct way both scientific thinking and the non scientific/ naive/street thinking, opening or blocking their evolution. Being sure that themata designates "sourceideas" having the role of foundations in creating and guiding the common sense, S.

Moscovici wants to speak, in the context, about social representations or- more precisely-about the fact that even social representations, like eloquent expressions of common sense thinking, are born and develop, at their turn, under the influence of contrasting antinomies. In the vison of the quoted author, social representations belong to the framework of preexistent thinking, existing in a system of beliefs rooted in values, norms, tradition and in a large range of antithetic constructions. In relation to these, "social representations are meant to clarify (to provide meanings), to create integration(incorporation of unknown elements into familiar frameworks) and sharing(assuming, colective recognition of the new meanings)". Therefore, the life of a social representation exists under the umbrella of certain superordinate structures, oraganised as themata.

In time, S. Moscovici's ideas were supported by the most important specialists in this domain. For example, in C. Flament and M.-L Rouquette' work there are excerpts in which themata is considered to be "a preestablished epistemic format" or--more extensive--"a preoccupation with immemorial origins which gives practical conscience a framework of existence and texture of its organization" [5]. They say that, the bipolar character of themata, the fact that it appears most of the time in the form of spontaneous oppositions, creates that conditio sine qua non which is indispensable to the process of structuring the world experience and to the development process of all kinds of speculations related to this experience. One of the fundamental binar oppositions, that between the real object and the ideal object, should be approached as a themata in which any phenomenon or social fact is represented. The two French researchers consider the themata under discussion to be deeply rooted in social thinking. At the same time, the issue which has in view the contrast real/ideal " has a significance for the individuals and groups belonging to a society, which will objectify it according to their wishes, in this way, making up different repersentations."

Staring from the assumption that leaders as" forces capable to mobilize, organize and guide any type of society", be it democratic and pluralistic or totalitarian and despotic, can be taken as an object of social representation, we noticed some time ago (2), that themata real versus ideal can be totally applied to them, and thus illustrate the possibility to develop sui generis collective theories referring to power and its exponential forms. When asked to give their opinion regarding the profile of their leader, the populations, included in the investigation group (students, retired people, teenagers, prisoners), gave a representation of a leader corresponding to their expectations (= ideal leader) in contrast to the leader they meet every day (=real leader). In such a context, to be powerful, responsible, incorruptible, attachable, firm or impozing express, in fact, the good/desired features in opposition to being weak, iresponsible, corruptible, non attachable, hesitating or nonimposing. (2)

Following the ideas of S. Moscovici, C. Flament, M.-L. Rouquette and other researchers in the social field, several years ago, I. Markova [6] tried to demonstrate how a certain oppositional taxonomy can become athema and, once developed, it starts to influence thinking of common sense and, implicitly, the process of developing social representations. If thinking, by its nature, is antinomic and if thematareflects the antinomies of common sense, the author asks herself, if starting the investigation would not imply that all thinking antinomies are themata. The final answer demonstrates that not all thinking antinomies make up themata. Why? The comment given by the well known professor of social psychology from Stirling University (Scotland) has the following content[7]:

"Although thinking is by its nature antinomic, antinomies from thinking are not always evident. Antinomies from thinking of common sense can be latent. Being integrated into thinking of common sense, they are transmitted from generation to generation as part of cultural communication, without having a reflection upon them. Implicitly, we perceive thinking in oppositions and antinomies. For example, a child being born in a certain culture learns naturally to make discriminations and differences as, for example, between things he can eat and things he must not eat." Under what conditions antinomies of thinking of common sense can become themata? This fact, I. Marcova mentions [8], can occur whenever "during certain social and historical events, for example, or political, economic, religious etc., they become problematic (-M.S) and become the centre of attention in society, being a source of tension and conflict (-M.S)". During such events," antinomies turn into themata: they enter the public discourse, developing as problematic ideatic and oppositional constructions, and afterwards, start to generate social representations about the respective phenomena." Going further with her example of the child, who being born in a certain culture, learns in a natural way to make discriminations and distinctions regarding food, I. Markova points out that" people belonging to a certain culture do not eat living creatures, like oysters, while for others this thing is not only acceptable but it is a delicacy". Avoiding meat or certain types of meat in diet" demonstrates the fundamental importance of the antinomy edible/non edible in everyday life, a fact determined by cultural and historical elements". When a crisis occurs," the antinomy edible/non edible will modify its limits, changing dialogically." The disaster from Chernobil, the mad cow disease, pollution of food for animals, as I. Markova exemplified, led to "rapid changes in the content of things considered to be edible or nonedible." In extreme situations, urine and feces can become edible in the absence of any other type of food and if not eating such things, which normally are not edible, can lead to death. It is clear, says I. Markova, that in conditions of great difficulties (economical, political, social etc.), "even the antinomy can lead to discussions, disputes and public controversies". As a consequence, it can "become a themata out of which social representations of phenomena as food, animal, health, misery, life or death can occur" [9].

Understanding that taxonomies of an oppositional nature stand out in their quality of foundation of common sense thinking and, implicitly, in the process of social representation, I. Markova gives as an the example--social representation of AIDS. Here are her explanations regarding the type of perceiving the reality [10]:

In the history of mankind, illness and death have been surrounded by myths linked to morality/immorality. In ancient societies, illness was represented in a collective way as being the result of the activity of supranatural forces. It was believed that the violation of social taboos resulted in diseases, and that was the social hallmark of the limits of the accepted behavior. Although morality/immorality thema has always existed in all cultures, the ways in which it was perceived as representing problematic ideational and oppositional constructions have been unique in specific societies and cultures. In the last decades, antinomy morality/immorality has been one of the most important themata generating social representations about AIDS. In the 80s, the epidemic of the "new" deadly disease, AIDS, has spread fast in the world. The disease caused by the virus of immune suppressed deficiency results in loss of immunity, leading to various types of affections as cancer, lung problems, exhaustion, which lead to the death of the patient. In the first stage of the epidemic, in the 80s, the disease affected mainly homosexuals and drug addicts, which make the public associate it with immorality, "improper behavior", sin and punishment. The results of the research regarding the social representations about AIDS, as well as the analyses of public speeches and those in mass media have led to a fundamental thema: morality/immorality. "Morality is again in fashion" asserts the newspaper Daily Expresson02.02.1987. "Church declares war on AIDS, considering it to be immoral" was published in the Daily Mail on 17.06.1987. The government campaign in Great Britain focused on sexual education with the slogan "Do not die from ignorance", was under attack for encouraging promiscuity and immorality. Other titles from newspaper pointed out that AIDS victims were proscribed persons who did not deserve to live: "a patient with AIDS tried to commit suicide after a doctor told him: Cut off your veins!" (Daily Express, 06.03.1987).

Nevertheless, as a result of the active and consistent behavioral styles in the communities of homosexuals, thema morality/immorality was questioned. Consequently, the antinomy morality/immorality continued to be discussed. The terminology that initially was designated as SIH disease (Immune Syndrome of Homosexuals) was changed to AIDS (Acquired ImmuneDeficiency Syndrome).

Newspaper articles that associated AIDS with morality/immorality and punishment disappeared one by one. Today, it would be inconceivable for such articles to appear in mass media. Social representations about AIDS have been continuously changing. Social representations are rarely associated with a single thema. In the case of AIDS, themata of the antinomy morality/immorality is associated with themata of the values of the general public regarding sexuality, promiscuity, discrimination of minorities, as well as social recognition, among others. Although the antinomy morality/immorality per se is not questioned, its content, context and its limits have been taken over in the framework of the change of social representations."


It is evident, that the process of social representation, as a specific form of common sense thinking, is undoubtedly related the themataphenomenon in the public discourse. Essentially, this process includes, according to I. Markova[11], what is in the centre of the social life and of the daily realities, be they political, ecological, medical or of any other origin. Its strength is manifested where people see that something fundamental takes place, occurring disruptions or even changes in the existing routine, and not where it is less probable for tensions and conflicts to occur.


The authors state that there are no declared conflicts in interest regarding this paper.


(1.) Holton G. On the role of themata in scientific thought // Science.--1975.--No. 188.--P. 328-334.

(2.) Holton G. The scientific Imagination: Case Studies.--Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

(3.) Moscovici S. Introductory Address at the First International Conference on Social Representations (Ravello, Italy, 1992) // Papers on Social Representations.--1993.--Vol. 2 (3).--P. 1- 11.

(4.) Moscovici S., Vignaux G. Le concept de themata // C. Guimelli (ed.). Structures et transformations des representations sociales. - Lausanne: Delachaux et Niestle, 1994.--P. 25-72, retiparit in: Moscovici S., Duveen G. (eds.). Social Representations.

(5.) Explorations in Social Psychology.--Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.--P. 156-183.

(6.) Flament C., Rouquette M.-L. Anatomie des idees ordinaires.--Paris: Armand Colin, 2003.--P. 19-20.

(7.) Markova I. Dialogicality and Social Representations: The Dynamics of Mind.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2003.P. 250-268 (in versiunea romaneasca: Markova I. Dialogistica si reprezentarile sociale / Argument de A. Neculau; traducere din engleza de M. Talpalaru.Iasi: Editura Polirom, 2004.--P. 254-272).

(8.) Markova I. Dialogicality and Social Representations: The Dynamics of Mind.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2003 p. 255.

(9.) Markova I. Dialogicality and Social Representations: The Dynamics of Mind.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2003

(10.) Markova I. Dialogicality and Social Representations: The Dynamics of Mind.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2003 p. 256.

(11.) Markova I. Dialogicality and Social Representations: The Dynamics of Mind.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2003 p. 266-267.

(12.) Markova I. Dialogicality and Social Representations: The Dynamics of Mind.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2003 p. 281.


Mihai Sleahtitchi, PhD in Psychology, PhD in Pedagogy, Associate Professor, Chisinau, Moldova,

Submission: 28 sep 2018

Acceptance: 01 nov 2018

Mihai Sleahtitchi--PhD in Psychology, PhD in Pedagogy, Associate Professor, Chisinau, Moldova

(1) After failing in the entrance examination at the Federal Institute of Tin Zurich, the young A. Einstein studied in Aarau, the capital of the Swiss canton, for one year. While in Aarau, he was a tenant in the house of J. Winteler, a linguist, who, while was working on his dissertation, tried to make the distinction between the "accidental features" in language (= the variability of the language) and its "essential properties" (the invariability of the language). A. Einstein was influenced by this phenomenological approach, later on declaring that the "core of the theories he was going to develop further on was already to be present in the reflections regarding the paradoxes that inspired him while in Aarau". For confirmation and other details, see Jakobson R. Verbal Communication//S. Rudy (ed). Roman Jakobson Selected Writing. Vol. VIII- Mouton-Berlin-New York-Amsterdam, 1972/1985.- P.81-92; Jakobson R. Einstein and the Science of language//S.Rudy(ed). Roman Jakobson Selecting Writing. Vol. VIII. Mouton-Berlin-New York-Amsterdam, 1972/1985.--P.8192;Jakobson R. Einstein and the Science of Language//S.Rudy(ed). Roman jakobson Selected Writing.-Vol.VII.-Mouton-Berlin-New York- Amsterdam, 1960/1985.-P.254-264 or/and Markova I. Dialogicality and Social Representations: The Dynamics of MindCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.-P.248249[ in the Romanian version: Markova I. Dialogistica si reprezentarile sociale/ Argument by A. Nicolau; translated from English byM. Talpalaru- Iasi: Polirom Publishing House, 2004.-P.253-254.

(2) See Sleahtitchi M. Leaders- Chisinau, Stiinta Publishing House, 1998, pp.97-169 or /and Sleahtitchi M. Essay upon representation of power. The case of the leaders.-Chisinau: Stiinta Publishinh House, 1998, pp. 173-240.
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Title Annotation:Multidisciplinary Contributions
Author:Sleahtitchi, Mihai
Publication:Bulletin of Integrative Psychiatry
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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