Social Representations between Greeks and Jordanians: A comparative study

Khaleel Al-Said
Vassilios Makrakis
Pella Calogiannakis
Nelly Kostoulas-Makrakis
Theodora De Baz

The present paper refers to a comparative study of Social Representations (SRs) for a sample of 1207 Greek and Jordanians primary school pupils (653 from Rethymnon city of Greece and 554 from Zarka city of Jordan). The data were collected through an open-ended questionnaire. Conceptually, three directions of images or social representations were formulated; positive, neutral and negative. The results clearly show that the direction of images for both samples was moved towards neutral SRs, as depicted by the quantity of statements. The study also revealed that the main source of information about their social representations to each other was the school for the Jordanian pupils and television for the Greek pupils.
Keywords: Arab, Greek, Social Representations (SRs), Media, Education

The concept of Social Representations (SRs) has been advanced in France in the ‘60s by Moscovici, who has defined SRs as a multifaceted concept focusing on systems of values, ideas, images and practices that have a two-fold function: 1) establishing an order which will enable individuals to orient themselves and 2) facilitating communication among members of a community through a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world (Moscovici, 1961). In this sense, the concept of “social representations” refers to interpretations we all use in everyday life, in groups, in the media and in public debates to give a meaning to reality (Moscovici, 1984). In other words, SRs are models that enable us to frame social reality and that every SR associates a meaning with an image. This implies that they are widely communicated and are shared to a greater or lesser extent among various socio-cultural groups (Farr & Moscovici, 1984). SRs may also be considered similar to schemas (Fiske & Taylor, 1991), but their societal origin gives them more importance. SRs can be transformed through interaction and communication and can have a symbolic, a logical and a dynamic nature (Moscovici, 1984b). The symbolic nature of SRs emerges in the process of social interaction and communication, while the logical one is related to the rationality of science (Moscovici, 1984a). They may be seen irrational and illogical (Huguet & Latané, 1996). The dynamic nature of SRs concerns with evolving, transforming… and not only communicating and interacting in making new representations (Purkhardt, 1991). SRs are thus referring more to social and cultural entities, rather than being considered as mere symbolic personal productions.

Picture 1: A selected page about Arabs from the Greek textbook for the primary school

An important research dimension for the study of SRs concerns the sources that contribute to their formation and consolidation in people’s minds. Previous research shows that media and family do play an important role in developing and shaping people’s SRs. Peterson et al., (2006) found that the cartoon narrative was found to be a useful medium for informing the development and diffusion of health-enhancing social representations that shape the potential for health-related behavior change. In a study by Donlon, Ashman & Levy (2005), all participants showed a correspondence between greater television exposure and more negative images of aging. In general, the study of young learners’ social representations becomes an important research issue as it can reveal knowledge which may have particular implications for the school curriculum and teaching methods. The rationality behind the present comparative study partly exposed in this paper lies in that the two participating countries represent two different socio-cultural systems, although they are situated in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and both countries are exposed to significant geopolitical influences. It should thus be interested to investigate the images that these two groups hold to each other and draw their implications to education.

Picture 2: A selected page about Greek from the Jordan textbook for the primary school

Data collection
The research data for this study is elicited from a sample of 1067 primary school pupils in the area of Rethymnon Crete, Greece and the area of Zarka, in Jordan. Both samples are representative in terms of the characteristics ascribed to their populations and can be comparable due to that there are no big differences in terms of their size (653 from Rethymnon and 554 from Zarka). The data have been collected by using an open-ended questionnaire. Two versions of the questionnaire were produced; one in the Greek language and the other in the Arabic language. The content validity, for both versions, has been assessed before using the questionnaire for data collection. The questionnaire was thus piloted by a number of experts in both countries. Their comments helped build the final version of the instrument.
Data analysis, results and implications
The Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS version 14.0) was used to analyse the data. Frequency distribution, cross tabulation and 2 analyses were performed. The results of the open question that addressed pupils’ SRs or images for the “other” were subjected to processes of coding, categorization; analysis and interpretation (see Kostoulas-Makrakis, 2005; 2006). For the purpose of interpretation, three directions of SRs were formulated: positive, neutral and negative. We considered a positive direction when images expressed through words or phrases were neither negative nor positive to the groups of study. Positive statements were considered those who gave higher status to the group and negative statements when they were considered as lowering the status of the group. It has to be born in mind that positive directions if not interpreted properly might have negative connotations.

Table 1: The direction of images among Greek and Jordanian Pupils
table 1.JPG

Table 1 shows the direction of images/social representations among Greek and Jordanian pupils. It is clearly shown that the respondents’ social representations are directed towards the neutral scale (82% for Greeks and 66% for Jordanians). The trend towards neutrality might indicate a transition towards a positive direction that is less stereotypical, provided that certain measures are taken. This result is in contrast with international research (e.g., Kostoulas-Makrakis, 2005; Karić, 2002; Prince El Hassan Bin Talal, 2000; Suleiman, 1999) which shows that the Arab world, Arabs and Muslims have been ascribed to dangerous misunderstanding and stereotypical perceptions, especially after the 9/11th incident. In general, Westerners tend to view Arabs and Muslims as underdeveloped, backward people and on the other hand Arabs/Muslims tend to have negative feelings towards the West by way of response. There is also a popular Western assumption that Islam is referred to whatever is irrational, extreme and violent in this world (Taji-Farouki, 2000) and the presence of Muslims is identified as an expression of extreme “otherness” (Moreras, 2002).

Table 2: The sources of information about Greek among Jordanian pupils and vice versa
table 2.JPG

The results in Table 2 show that for the Jordanian primary school pupils the school (69%) figures as the main source of information regarding their images or SRs, while for the Greek primary school pupils, television (49%) was indicated as the most used source of information. Research on school textbooks and the media seems to be critical in that it may reveal whether cross-cultural understanding and inter-religious relationships are depicted in their content. In general, the school and television have been the most reported sources for the respondents’ SRs and the strongest (p< 0.001) statistically significant difference between the two groups was found in the school domain as a source of information about the respondents’ SRs. A statistical significant difference at the p<0.05 level between the two groups was also revealed in the case of the family as a source of SRs, with Greek pupils indicating a slightly higher rate than the corresponding Jordanian group. Research shows that schools, family and the media are the major agents influencing children’s perceptions of other countries. Indeed, the impact that mass media exert on shaping and reinforcing stereotypical perceptions about the other has been continuously documented by international research (Kostoulas-Makrakis, 2006; Haque, 2001; Suleiman, 1999; Tanner, 1996).
Some of the measures that might turn the respondents’ neutral SRs into positive are the following. First, strengthening inter-cultural dialogue at individual and global level is critical (Gupta and Govindarajan, 2004; Erez and Gati, 2004). To bridge the gap between the Arab and European world, it is important to establish a close cooperation between the Arab and European mass delivery media such as television, radio, publishing houses, academia, cultural centers, school textbooks, as well as student and youth associations and tourism. Based on our knowledge, some form of this cooperation has been already established, but it should be sustained and fortified with more in-depth and mutual cooperation. The necessity of establishing school camps and clubs hosted in both Jordan and Greece especially in summer might contribute significantly towards cross-cultural understanding.
Second, there is need to develop curricula and content that ensures the positive portayal of other cultural groups, especially those represented in the host society. This is especially important for subjects such as literature, social studies, geography, and history. Along with content, the adoption and development of teaching strategies that encourage children to focus on topics and issues concerning diversity and culturally diverse groups in their school assignments should also be considered. It is also crucial to provide opportunities for students to understand the causes and effects of all forms of stereotyping, racial discrimination, its relevance to society, and to the students' everyday life.
Third, the school and families should play a higher role in developing cross-cultural friendships and encourage children to choose friends based on their integrity rather than on cultural or religious background. Indeed, it seems critical to encourage children to be associated with other cultural groups in the school and the community, especially through parents’ encouragement and involvement. This is very important, because the family as a socializing institution did not play any significant role among the Greek and Jordanian pupils that participated in this study. Families should also encourage their children to take part in holidays and events celebrated by other cultural groups both at school and in the community. They should also encourage their children to read multicultural books and books that promote cross-cultural understanding.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that in certain cases besides negative stereotypes, positive stereotypes might also be harmful. So, this issue should be brought both at school, the family and the media as well. In this context, it is critical to develop children’s skills to assess critically the transferring of social stereotyping through mass media, especially textbooks and television. Also, more in-depth studies are needed to develop cross-cultural understanding through an examination of students’ own attitudes, values and beliefs, and the attitudes, values and beliefs of others towards them.

The financial support provided by the Greek State Scholarship Foundation (IKY) to Khaleel AL-Said is highly acknowledged. Thanks for the reviewers’ comments.

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