meanings and practices:
Contributions from the Social Representation approach
Department of Communication and Social Research
University of Rome, La Sapienza
Community Informatics (CI) is at the crossroads of many traditions of research; Gurstein (2007) identified at least seven antecedents of this area, each of them emphasising specific features, for example the design, project or implementation of information systems. According to Gurstein (2007), social activism and community development especially brought to the foreground inter-individual interactions and the dialectical relationship between actors with different power capabilities; in other terms, two main features of CI: agency and empowerment of communities.
The active role of communities is made explicit by authors who acknowledge that CI “sees lived-in and situated communities not as passive recipients of technological opportunities, but as actors engaged in the comprehension and ‘doing’ of community problem solving directed to social progress.” (Stillman & Linger, 2009, p.256). This is just one of the many possible perspectives adopted by CI and strictly connects CI to one of the well-established tradition of research in social psychology: the social representation approach. In this paper, I will summarise some examples of research conducted in Italy from the social representation perspective and I will discuss some of the reasons why this approach may provide an useful framework for doing research in CI.
Prior to presenting the social representation perspective, it may be useful to summarise three points that differentiate it from the main strands of psychological research on ICTs and that parallel the premises of CI.
First, a psychological research that treats ICTs as new worlds with which to test psychological processes already identified in the ‘ordinary world’. Drawing upon a parallel with cross-cultural research, we may say that these investigations adopt an etic approach (Pike, 1954) to ICTs, and mainly to the Internet. That is, they look at technological spaces from the outside, trying to identify a restricted number of attributes and psychological features of these new contexts (Anolli, 2006). As in cross-cultural psychology, the first goal of the researchers is “to identify cultural regions within which cultures are more or less alike” (Triandis, 1996, p.408); the second goal is then to compare psychological processes occurring in different ICTs environment and between different ICTs users. The aim is often to define if and how ICTs act as interfering variables that influence, mediate or moderate classical processes such as intergroup discrimination (see Spears, Lea & Lee, 1990, for a classical example).
A second ensemble of research looks at the impact that new technologies have on communities and individuals. Intense debates concern, for example, the positive or negative effects of the ICTs on the participation of youth to society, on the performance of work teams, on social movements, on individual and social well being and so forth (for examples see Amichai-Hamburger, 2009; Brunstig & Postmes, 2002; Gibson & Cohen, 2003; Hujanen & Pietikäinen, 2004). The impact metaphor is also used to describe the effects of ICTs on processes assessed at an individual level, such as memory. Researchers, for example, reflect on new visions of human remembering that could help to overcome the traditional memory-as-archive metaphor (Brockmeier, 2010). It is worth noting that, even if this research considers ICTs as brand new sources of change, they are strictly linked with a secular tradition that looks at the impact of new technologies on humans. For example - as reported by Simone (2000) – even Plato in The Phaedrus expressed concerns on the “new technology” of writing:
“this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” (275a – Perseus digital library).
Finally, a third group of investigations is concerned on how to use ICTs, and again the internet in particular, from the perspective of `positivist researchers: detached from the data and the participants. For example, Buchanan and Smith summarised the major advantages: easy access to large numbers participants with the most different personal characteristics (this is particularly relevant since the majority of psychological research is still done with university students), limited expenses, the possibility to let the study run by itself, the automatic inputting of data and, in some cases, also the possibility to have real time and automatic analyses (Buchanan & Smith, 2000).
These three - roughly sketched - perspectives treat ICTs as independent variables. Technological advances are considered as a kind of ‘natural category’ that has entered and that may dramatically change our cognitive processes, our well being, or our ways of doing research. In a word, these three approaches tend to answer to the how question: ‘how do ICTs affect our world’? From these points of view, the unexpected is an unpredicted outcome of a previously identified process: a divergence from the usual psychosocial mechanism.
Even if these are fundamental approaches, they tend to give little attention to the meaning associated with the technologies and to the situations in which ICTs enter everyday life. Investigations conducted within the social representation framework, instead, are interested in studying situated communities and in understanding culture adopting an emic approach (Pike, 1954): that is they focus on the ways in which communities actively define, re-interpret and use technological novelties, how researchers interact with participants in real-life settings and contribute to the meaning-making processes. Paraphrasing Lorenzi Cioldi (2001) social representation researchers investigate when and why the unexpected happens. In order to answer this question they explore the meanings attached to ICTs, or, in other words, the social construction processes through which the sense and the practices associated to new technologies are continuously created and re-created by different communities.
The social representation approach offers a well-established theoretical framework to interpret the way in which ICTs are socially constructed, the anchoring of different meanings in society and the practice of use of Information and Communication Technology.
Social Representations Approach
The social representations approach was first developed to understand how French society made sense of one of the scientific novelties of the 20th century: psychoanalysis (Moscovici, 1961/1976). In his seminal work Moscovici drew upon different theoretical traditions (Moscovici & Markova, 1998). A first root goes back to Durkheim’s distinction between individual and collective representations, from this tradition Moscovici draws the concept of representations: systems of meanings, concepts, images that transcend the individual level of analysis. Differently from Durkheim’s collective representations, however, the concept of social representations emphasise the continuous process of construction and reconstruction of meaning: social representations are negotiated and fluid. Social representations emerge in de-traditionalized societies: “a social arena characterized by the mobility, […] the diversity of social groups, a high degree of reflexivity, […] the massive and widespread circulation of information through the development of mass media” (Jovchelovitch, 2001, p.171).
A second root of the theory is in structuralist anthropology and in Piaget’s distinction between childish operative thinking and adult formal thinking. From these theoretical traditions, the social representation approach argues that people do not necessarily adopt rational thinking (in the sixties, this concept was not so obvious within social psychological mainstream). Just as in ‘primitive’ cultures and in operative thinking social representations are not created following logical rules: their shared construction answers to the needs that specific communities have when facing novelties. As a result, the links between the contents of social representations are not strictly rational, and may even be incongruent with one another. This apparent contradiction, named cognitive polyphasia, serves to adapt representations without completely disrupting them, especially in times of change: see for example the researches by Wagner on the coexistence of traditional and western medicine in Indian communities (Wagner, Duveen, Verma & Themel, 2000). Finally, a third root of social representation approach is in phenomenology and particularly in the attention to the everyday shared knowledge, to the often implicit meanings and interpretations that allow individuals and communities to communicate and to behave in meaningful ways.
Drawing on these premises, Moscovici defined a dynamic semiotic triangle Ego–Alter–Object (Figure1) that characterise social representations as a space in between. Social representations “are at the crossroad between individual and society, representations are a space-in-between, a medium linking object, subject and activities” (Bauer & Gaskell, 1999, p. 167).
From this perspective, socially constructed meanings (Ego-Alter link) mediate the access to ‘reality’ and shape the ways objects are perceived and understood. A social representation is thus defined as a “socially elaborated and shared form of knowledge that has a practical goal and builds a reality that is common to a social set” (Jodelet, 1989, p.48). They are forms of common sense, emotionally loaded, originated by debates within communities. Moreover, social representations include reference to cultural dimensions and to behavioural enactments of meanings: social representations “combine a semantic knowledge and a belief that is rooted in the culture together with the practices people live by” (Moscovici, 2001, p. 24).
The Social representation approach can thus be considered a social constructivist approach (Contarello & Mazzara, 2000).
Figure 1. Social Representations: the self-other-object triangle.
Origin of social representations in communities
In summary, social representations originate when communities are pushed to cope with novelties (Jovchelovitch, 2007). Two basic processes, close to Piaget’s models, are hypothesised by the theory: anchoring and objectification. Anchoring serves to make the unfamiliar familiar: through this mechanism novelties are related to previous knowledge so to be intelligible. Objectification, instead, serves to substitute the inaccessible ‘real object’ with a ‘tangible’ representation of the object that can be manipulated according to needs and goals of individuals and communities. That is, objectification consists in the elaboration of “an icon, metaphor or trope, which comes to stand for the new phenomenon” (Wagner et al., 1999, p.99). Once they are established – even if they continue to be negotiated - representations provide communities’ members with shared systems of knowledge within which attitudes can develop, and communications and behaviours become meaningful (Moscovici, 1992; Wagner & Hayes, 2005).
Social Representations and ICTs
From a theoretical point of view (Farr & Moscovici, 1984), ICTs have the basic features that allow social representations to be developed:
- ICTs are problematic, they are multifaceted and their pros and cons rise continuous debates and sidings;
- The meanings of ICTs are context dependent and are often linked to history and socio-cultural backgrounds;
- The relevance of ICTs in everyday life exerts pressure on communities, that are asked to interpret and to cope with technological advances.
Consequently, the social representation approach appears to be suitable for the study of ICTs. Additionally, it enables us to connect different studies on the social construction of technologies to other research conducted within this broader theoretical framework. Finally, the social representation approach provides analytical means of understanding the discrepancy between scientific knowledge and laypeople’s knowledge (Moscovici & Marcova, 1998).
Within the social representation approach, several studies addressed the social construction of ICTs. In this section, results from some of the research conducted in Italy in the last fifteen years will be presented to exemplify how different groups of respondents – e.g. adolescents, elderly, citizens or respondents from rural areas, participants characterised by different levels of social well-being – view and use ICTs in unexpected ways.
A first example is provided by a research conducted with data collected in 1996 with a representative sample of people over 14 years of age (Fortunati & Manganelli, 2008). This data represents a baseline for later studies: suffice here to say the fax was included that among the investigated ICTs. In synthesis, the results indicate that the representational field of 1996 ICTs was organised around few major dimensions. In particular, the dimension of writing was separate from that of listening/reading: only fax, telephone, mobile phone and computer were considered proper telecommunication technologies thanks to the reciprocal communication that they enabled; television, newspaper and radio were instead grouped as a mass-media. Moreover, mass media were further differentiated into information carrier (newspapers and television) and music/amusement carrier (radio and stereo).
Interestingly, as the authors point out, this representation may help to explain why, still today, the introduction of the internet via television encounters some difficulties. A medium which is based on interaction, in fact, can hardly be reduced to the information carrier features of traditional television. On the contrary the blurring of classic broadcasting and individual communication online (e.g. YouTube) fits with the representation of TV as information carrier, with the listening-reading characteristics of the screen, and with the writing feature that is central to the social representation of means of communication.
A second example is provided by a research on the beliefs about the internet conducted in 1999 in Italy, just before the second wave of mass diffusion of the internet usually recognised in 2001 (Capozza, Falvo, Robusto & Orlando, 2003). The research, which aimed at presenting a new methodological approach, provides some interesting cues on the underlying meanings that may lead to develop a positive attitude toward the World Wide Web. University students, at that time the vanguard of occasional users, organised the representational field - that is the structured ensemble of the elements that constitute a representation - through the principle of quality of life. At the beginning of the internet era, when social networks were largely unknown, youth already recognised the link between being online and increasing both social relations and opportunities for self-expression (both at a professional and personal level). These two goals, together with the opportunity to increase personal knowledge, contribute to achieve an improvement of the quality of life. In other terms, internet was already conceived as a tool of self-expression rather than as a traditional media; the superficial and more evident opportunities of gathering information represented just a premise for the ultimate goal of the net: private enhancement trough self-expression. The authors concluded “such an image is interesting for a technology of recent diffusion” (p. 12); more than ten years later we may wonder if those results anticipated the spread of blogs, forums and of social network, that are perfectly included in that representation. We may wonder if the recent increase in web2.0 users is just a major epiphenomenona of that previous representation, in this case their unexpected spread would become perfectly understandable by referring to a ten years old social representation.
More recently, adopting a socio-dynamic perspective (Doise, Clémence & Lorenzi-Cioldi, 1993) a research project has been carried out on the social representations of ICTS analysing the free associations elicited by stimuli such as the Internet, Mobile Phone, Computer and New Technologies (Contarello & Fortunati, 2006; Contarello, Fortunati, Gomez Fernandez, Mante-Meijer, Vershinskaya & Volovici, 2008; Contarello, Fortunati & Sarrica, 2007; Contarello & Sarrica, 2007) .
The aim of this research program was: a) to explore the symbolic and emotional features linked with ICTs; b) to investigate the relationships with ideals of fashion, with representations of mobility and with the human body; c) to measure attitudes towards Internet, the Mobile, and the Computer; d) to examine the role played by different levels of use and by different practices; e) to monitor the relationship with well-being.
The key results revealed rich and ambivalent representations, in which multifaceted positive features merged with negative ones. The Internet representation seemed to be governed by three main underlying principles: an inward versus outwards perspective; space versus time extension; function versus experience. Of particular interest is the first dichotomy which emphasises two possible approaches to the net: a contained and protected place where to meet friends or a boundless frightening or challenging space where it is possible to enter in touch with others. In the first case the Internet was represented as a room of one’s own, and practices reflected the tendency to go online to meet with ‘offline’ friends; in the second case, the web was used to explore novelties, to look at the world as from an open window. Interestingly, these two main features of the internet are partially coherent with the 1999 representation of the net, signalling a shift towards more intimate use of the web.
The representation of mobile phone merges usefulness, convenience and fashion (which appeared for the first time in the 1996 representation), with negative elements, such as uselessness, limitation, pollution, anxiety and annoyance. Along time (2001-2003) worries and concerns, regarding interpersonal and social relations and health risks due to electro-waves pollution leave their place to physical, structural and functional descriptions. In this case, the representation evolved following a curve: from the communicative features of the ‘old telephone’ to the attractive-but-dangerous representation of the mobile at the beginning of 2000, back to the material and functional description of 2003. In other terms, once the mobile became an everyday tool of communication, as the ‘old telephone’, the functional aspects of its representation became hegemonic, i.e. the everyday common sense attributed to the mobile, and left in the background worries and concerns. Finally, the effects of ICTs on social well-being show the same trend: in our first studies Internet users reported an increase in general levels of well-being counterbalanced by a decrease in social acceptance and openness towards the others; more recently, the relation between ICTs use and social well-being appears to be less relevant.
A last example provides some empirical data on how different representations of ICTs, which become manifest in their use practices, are linked with ideals of citizenship. In particular, research unexpectedly showed that especially those who use internet frequently endorse a restricted and partisan representation of citizenship (Sarrica, Grimaldi & Nencini, 2010). Those who mainly search for information on ICTs do not promote a new representation of citizenship: Internet users do not refer to floating words (Gergen, 2003) nor to new imagined communities (Appadurai, 1990); on the contrary, they refer to a conservative representation of citizenship, more akin to the XIX century partisan citizen than to the ‘new humanity’ advocated by the public rhetoric of internet. This myth seems to be endorsed more by those who experienced the transition to the digital world than to new users (cf. Domingo, 2008). As for mobile phones in the 2003 research, the Internet risks becoming just a mean of information among many others “it is not the most favourite and it does not seem as influential as traditional media or face-to-face communications”. In this context, this apparent lack of openness shown by ICTs users refers back to the ambivalent representation of the Internet experience “bound to a diminished trust in people outside, counterbalanced by help and comfort from one’s own ingroup” (Contarello & Sarrica, 2007, p. 1030). An alternative explanation, for this and results that point in the same direction – and underlined by the cultural citizenship approaches (Hermes, 2006; Jones, 2006) – is that other narratives in the web play a more relevant role for young people than the informational model.
In a recent paper, Romm and Taylor highlighted the issues that have attracted research in community informatics. The authors organised their review trying to answer a limited number of fundamental questions, among which: What makes CI effective in some communities, and what factor can interfere with the successful diffusion of IT within communities? Their analytical answer identified six main themes that interact with the success of IT projects: Technology, Motivation, Task, Environment, Politics and Culture. As the authors state, culture has to be compatible with the goal of the project. “From a practitioner’s perspective, this would suggest a “culture analysis” of both the community values and the values embedded in the IT to be diffused (Romm & Taylor, 2000, p.591).
In a similar vein, Williamson noticed that the primary aim of CI project is to guarantee the effective use of ICTs and concluded that “determinants of effectiveness are more than technological, and both the cultural and political environments must also be considered in determining the effectiveness of any initiative” (Williamson, 2010, p. 322; see also Mälkiä & Anttiroiko, 2004 ).
What is culture, however, and how to assess it remains a major problem for social sciences and humanities.
The present contribution started from a slightly different perspective. Rather than describing cultures as a set of predefined dimensions and assessing ICTs as external variables that interact with them, it adopted an internal perspective. It implicitly referred to the emic approach (Pike, 1954) and looked at cultures as sets of shared knowledge, socially constructed that allow communication between members of specific communities and mediate with technological novelties. The present contribution suggested adopting a content-focused approach, and pointed out that relevant insight to CI may come from the social representations approach. ICTs have been considered having the basic features that allow social representations to be developed (Farr & Moscovici, 1984). ICTs were considered problematic and multifaceted issues, with intertwined pros and cons; their meanings were linked to history and socio-cultural backgrounds; and their relevance in everyday life led us to hypothesise that communities were in need to interpret and to cope with technological advances.
What are the connections with Community Informatics?
Connections with CI still have to be explored in detail, but many elements suggest that the social representations approach can positively contribute to this field. At a theoretical and epistemological level, the social representation approach and community informatics share the same look to power dynamics and social activism (Gurstein, 2007). Both approaches focus on inter-individual interaction, they look at communication dynamics as a whole, different than the sum of the parts and consider that the social level of analysis give access to specific research dimensions that can hardly be reduced to individualistic features. Moreover, the two perspectives look at communities as actors engaged in the making of social reality (Stillman & Linger, 2009). Finally, doing research is not conceived as a detached measurement of subjects, but rather as a shared process of confrontation with participants and communities, often involving a pragmatic goal of positive transformation and development of communities. Given these premises, a dialogical encounter between social representation theory and community informatics might bring positive insights for researchers interested in the relationships between ICTs and communities.
What perspectives for future investigations?
As the research that have been sketched show, the social representation approach allowed to explore the way in which new technologies were received and socially constructed by communities. Moreover, results provided useful forecasts on the link between mobile and fashion, on the use of internet as a mean of self expression rather than of information gathering, and on the more recent defensive approach to the overwhelming vastness of the net. In sum, the social representations approach enabled to monitor the evolution of the shared meaning attributed to ICTs, and indicated possible reasons of the different approaches and uses of new technologies. In a few years ICTs entered everyday life and more and more ceased to be treated as a widely shared social issue. This shift is reflected by social representations contents, where abstract images have been gradually replaced by the description of parts and functions of the devices. The lack of debates seems to indicate that hegemonic representations are now widely shared by laypeople. Future investigation may be directed toward the assessment of apparent contradiction, that is the unexpected: from a social representation approach, the coexistence of apparently contradictory contents is named polyphasia, it is a mechanism through which shared representations can be adapted to rapid societal changes. By allowing inconsistencies, polyphasia adapts representations without completely disrupting them (Wagner, Duveen, Verma & Themel, 2000). Can we interpret the unexpected as a fruit of cognitive polyphasia? Or is it the signal that new representations are being elaborated by subgroups that coexist within the same community? The next step will be to investigate if and how new representations of ICTs, developed by minorities interested in specific features (e.g. communities of 2nd generation immigrants), will be able to challenge the hegemony and to introduce new meanings in the representational field. Moreover, further research is needed to investigate how the shared representations are enacted in different local contexts (e.g. at home, with grandparents, at work) and different societal environments (e.g. in technologically advanced countries, in broadband societies or in marginalised communities) and how they guide the acquisition of new technologies.
On these and other issues, social representation approach and community informatics have many insights to offer, yet efforts are still needed to bridge these two perspectives systematically.
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