As a cultural historian studying stereotyped representations of national characters (‘imagology’) I am often asked by my social-scientific or social-historical colleagues how I can determine the representativity of the literary material I study. If, in studying the English image of Italy, I draw on George Eliot and E.M. Foster, is that not a very restricted and rarefied data sample, almost a random stab in the dark? What wider conclusions could possibly be drawn from such a minute sample regarding ‘the’ image of Italy in England, or attitudes generally vis-à-vis Italy as current in England?
That ‘representativity’ challenge mistakes the cultural and social meanings of the word. A representation in the cultural sense is a symbolical construct (usually verbal or visual) aiming to give a mimetic simulacrum of the real world; a social representation is a certain actor or portion of society acting on behalf of others. To justify the word in its former meaning in terms of its latter meaning is misleading and irrelevant.[....]