The fall of Communism in 1989 presented a unique opportunity for social psychology to contribute to the understanding of these historic events. Through the framework of the theory of social representations, lay meanings and understanding of terms such as â€˜democracyâ€™, â€˜the individualâ€™ and â€˜the communityâ€™ were examined in Slovakia and in Scotland. Lay representations of complex concepts are likely to be formed, maintained and changed by both implicit and explicit processes. Some features of representations may be deep-seated and transmitted across generations and across cultures, relatively resistant to change. Others are shaped by already existing thinking schemata and reflect more current social practices. Questions asked where, what were the effects of 40 years of Soviet totalitarianism on the meaning of these terms in Slovakia compared to Scotland, a stable democracy. What aspects of meaning are shared, what aspects vary and reflect the specific political, economic and social histories of these two nations.
Data were collected over various phases from 1992 to 1996. The primary methods used were word associations and the rating of single terms through the use of various rating scales. Some interview data were also used.
Results indicate that aspects of the meaning of democracy was relatively stable and shared between Slovaks and Scots. For both samples, democracy was conceived primarily in relation to freedom and to value terms such as rights, justice and equality. Compared to the Scottish sample, the meaning of democracy in the Slovaks revealed a highly emotive aspect which reflected the inter-relationship between the current political and social climate with that of their more recent past. For meanings attached to the terms â€˜the individualâ€™ and â€˜the communityâ€™, results varied depending on the method. Conceived of as separate terms, the overall content of meaning of both â€˜the individualâ€™ and â€˜the communityâ€™ were not largely shared by the Slovaks and Scots, lending some support to the dominant view that Soviet totalitarianism destroyed or distorted naturally occurring communities. Taking a more holistic approach and viewing the individual/community as a relational whole, shared aspects of meaning could be identified which were more deep-seated and enduring over histories and cultures, other aspects, in Slovaks, reflected more their recent past.
These results are discussed in terms of a structural approach to social representations, which emphasis both stability and change in how meaning is formed, maintained and changed, as well as the multi-layered nature of meaning.