Relevance, discourse and the ‘hot’ stable core social representations—A structural analysis of word associations


Institut für Psychologie, Universität, 4040 Linz, Austria


This paper presents an investigation of the structure of word associations dependent on the context in which they are assessed. Respondents from Spain and Nicaragua produced free associations about war and peace. Word associations about each of the two stimulus words were produced either spontaneously or within the context of a distracting priming condition in contrast to the association task. The semantic space for each stimulus word (war, peace) is analysed to find substructures of words which remain stable across contexts. These substructures or stable cores are taken to indicate a well-structured social representation as opposed to a loosely organized knowledge domain. Such cores were found for associations about war in both countries, but for peace in the Nicaraguan sample only. This finding is interpreted as a consequence of public discourse and symbolic coping with relevant or threatening objects or phenomena. Stable cores were found to consist primarily of ‘hot’ words, i.e. words which are proximal to an individual's experience. More intellectual and distant (‘cold’) words did not enter the stable core. Results are discussed in terms of the central core theory of social representations and of numerical consensus being an insufficient criterion for social representations.