"Mama always said life is like a box of chocolate. You never know what you're gonna get." It's a corny film quote, but Forest Gump knew it. The many varieties in chocolate are a useful metaphor for describing the different forces at work in the world. Even scientists use chocolate images in their studies. So I discovered this week during a social psychology course at the London School of Economics.
In professor Sandra Jovchelovitch's class I learned, to my own surprise, that I'm a Toblerone bar. Before you start giggling thinking you're probably more like a Godiva truffle; you're not. You're also a Toblerone. More than that, life turns out to be a battle of Toblerones.
In 1999, two psychologists named Martin Bauer and George Gaskell published a paper in which they had developed 'the Toblerone model of social representation'. Social representation - a field of study within social psychology - refers to the values, behaviour, and ideas a group of people live by. Those ingredients together form a triangle; minimum two persons or subjects (S) who are concerned with an object or idea (O).
You can find the whole study online, but to simplify things it's enough to know that a triangle stands for an attitude of a group of people towards an object or idea. Within the triangle different dynamics are at work. To this basic triangle a time dimension is also added, the past and the future, because we might change our beliefs over time. The whole 'pack' of Toblerone demonstrates that we are not just part of one group, but of different groups at the same time.
"This model is being used by many people in marketing who study audiences", said Professor Jovchelovitch, who also directs the master in social psychology. "And by designers who want to understand how people use an object, so they can redesign it and make it more user friendly."
But could triangular chocolates also help us to understand where the Occupy movement was going? Or what the London riots last summer were really about? "Whenever you want to understand how social movements are shaped, this is a useful model", said the Professor.
She explained that the Occupy movement, or the Arab Spring, often get criticised because the protesters can't exactly express a list of their wants. On top of that, the enduring economic crisis was putting us in a state of chaos without a strong alternative. That's all scary, but according to the professor it was exactly how social movements have always emerged in the past. It's what happens when different groups with different values clash. It's what happens when Toblerones fight. "Protesters have never had a new manifesto immediately ready. They're only very unhappy with the present. The Toblerone model helps us understand that a new set of values and opinions gets produced along the way. You see that process if you would freeze a movement at different moments in time. It's about naming, adjusting, categorising."
A crisis is a war of Toblerones, then? And order is the victory of the strongest triangle? The Professor confirmed. Right now we were seeing many groups of new social actors, and their actions, without a clear set of representations, pushing old Toblerones and the old leaders. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, she said, we're definitely leaving behind the world view created at the end of the 20th century. The old actors see this newness emerging, and find it very unfamiliar compared to what they know and want. "That's for example why the 'Occupy Toblerone' here in London clashed around Christmas with the 'Toblerone of the church of England'. The protesters were camping around St Paul's cathedral and one bishop wanted them to leave. But they're still there."
Today's changes are about the future making function of Toblerones, explained Jovchelovitch. It always requires a battle. And it takes time. "But it's extremely energising to realise and witness what's happening. Young people are asking big questions again. Our children will live in different structures."
The Professor could go on forever. Comparing Toblerones to volcanos, and how social movements of the 21st century differed from those of the 20th century because they lacked clear centres of eruption. Or about Chinese and North Korean Toblerones. Or the fact that each person is always part of different Toblerone bars at the same time. "We always relate to different people and objects simultaneously, forming triangles with them. As a Professor, I'm passionate about teaching and research. But I also love gardening, baking, or fashion."
After class I couldn't help but seeing Toblerones all over London. On the bus, on their bikes, at the sushi shop. I wanted to ask people how their Toblerone exactly looked like. That would have been the weirdest pick-up line ever.
Elke Lahousse is a belgian journalist, currently living in London. She works for Knack Weekend, the leading lifestyle magazine in Belgium. She introduced Project In-Between for The School of Life, read the previous posts here, here, here, and here.
Illustration by Sarah Vanbelle www.sarahvanbelle.be