Collective Memory Research Paper Starter

Collective Memory

(Research Starters)

The study of collective memory is relatively new and interdisciplinary. The term collective memory is used to refer to several related things: the process whereby groups solidify individual memories into a shared narrative; the content of such stories; or the material culture associated with such narratives, such as monuments and memorials. The relationship changes between history and memory. The modern view had been to see the two as opposites until scholars began analyzing history and memory as mutually influencing. Collective memory is important to groups because it provides a sense of identity and unifies group members. Conversely, it can also be used to sustain hegemonic power.

Keywords: Collective Memory; Collective Remembering; Heritage; Historiography; Imagined Communities; Institutions; Official Memory; Vernacular Memory


The study of collective memory was pioneered by Maurice Halbwachs, who in a series of essays and books written between 1925 and 1950 explored the relationship between individual memory and the memory of groups. Halbwachs grounded his theories of memory on the earlier work of Emile Durkheim, one of sociology's founders. Durkheim explored how collective rituals unify a society. This exploration of group unity based on common rituals and symbols provided the basis for Halbwachs' theories of the nature and functions of group memories. Halbwachs' work has gradually risen in prominence and since the 1980s there has been a surge of memory studies in many fields. The relative youth of collective memory as a field of study means that its definition, subject matter, and methods are in flux.

Defining Collective Memory

It is difficult to define collective memory because the concept is used in sociology, history, literary theory, anthropology, geography, political science and other disciplines, each of which puts its own particular spin on the definition. For example, Kammen (1997) says that the collective memory is "the publicly presented past: … speeches and sermons, editorials and school textbooks, museum exhibitions, historic sites, and widely noticed historical art, ranging from oil paintings to public sculpture and commemorative monuments" (p. xii). He locates collective memory in material objects external to the individual, not in individual, internal memories, believing that collective memory is memory that is shared through these objects. In contrast, Bodnar (1992, 1994) believes that the collective memory is a society's official (institutional/governmental) memory merged with its vernacular (local/folk) memory. Wertsch and Roediger (2008) distinguish between these competing definitions by calling the former approach collective memory and the latter collective remembering. Other theorists choose to treat both concepts together.

Many other approaches and definitions exist. Schwartz (2008) says collective memory "refers to the social distribution of beliefs, feelings, and moral judgments about the past" (p. 76). Young (1993) prefers the term "collected memory" to "collective memory" because he says that it better reflects the reality of memorials. Memorials collect people's memories into a place of memory and then present them in a unified fashion. When people gather at the places of memory, they have a sense that they share a past. This is of course an illusion in one sense — they have their own individual memories that do not overlap and may even contradict each other — but these illusions can still be unifying, however briefly.

Theoretical Perspectives

Specific topics, theoretical stances, and methodological approaches vary across the field of collective memory studies. Research topics include commemoration, rituals, holidays, textbooks, photographs, family histories, group memories, and traumatic experiences, capturing memories ranging from the Holocaust to the US Civil War, local celebrations, the trauma of slavery, and memory projects in the former Soviet Union. Collective memory encompasses many concepts, including "family memory, interactive group memory, and social, political, national, and cultural memory" (Assmann, 2008, p. 55).

Some sociologists view collective memory through the lens of conflict theory, emphasizing how memory can be used by the powerful to shape public agendas for their benefit. Loewen's (1996, 1999) studies of history textbooks and roadside memorials across the United States show how the past is often reconstructed to legitimate inequality. Others take a more functionalist approach, examining how collective memory can unify disparate groups into a community. Coser (1992) explains how, as a young immigrant to the United States, he had trouble understanding classmates because he did not share the same memories they did, such as memories of American sports teams and great baseball players, of historical events like Pearl Harbor, or references from popular culture. Vinitzky-Seroussi (2002) examines how mourning rituals and memorials helped both supporters and detractors of Yitzhak Rabin negotiate understanding after his assassination. Both sociologists emphasize the unifying aspect of shared memories.

The field has been expanding into new areas, such as the commodification of memory. For example, Meyers (2009) suggests that the use of collective memory by advertisers should be investigated more. Studies of advertising focus on how messages are interpreted by consumers. Collective memory studies could spend more time looking at how messages are interpreted, not just at how they are produced.

Further Insights

How Can Memory Be Collective?

Because societies do not have memories in the usual sense of the word, there are theorists such as Susan Sontag who argue that the idea of collective memory is misnamed, that what is labeled "memory" is actually just an instruction to the collectivity to single out one particular explanation of the past to believe. Collective memory in this view becomes a new name for ideology (Assmann, 2008).

This viewpoint is countered by theorists in the field with arguments that individual memory is never strictly individual because it is fundamentally supported by the group. Halbwachs (1980) points out that even the most individual memories are collective in a sense — they are memories of people who live in a society, memories that are shaped by a society's language, culture, and symbols. Memory is social. Social occasions call forth memories (sometimes ritually) and culture shapes how memories are recalled and presented to others. When a person belongs to a group, he or she learns about the group's past; this involves not just a rote memorization but also a willingness to claim and share in that past, and to participate in the rituals used by the group to commemorate that past, like holidays and memorials (Schudson, 1992; Wertsch & Roediger, 2008).

Also, memories are collective and social because they are preserved in the institutions of society. Laws, stories, rituals, rules, traditions — anything not created on the spot today is, in a sense, the institutionalized memory of yesterday. Sometimes the past is overtly institutionalized when it is embedded in monuments and historical markers. Institutionalized memory is no longer individual; it becomes a synthesis that is more than the sum of its parts. It is the collectivity that keeps the past alive when all other traces of it have vanished. Collective memory can last as long as there is a group or a social context that transmits it (Hutton, 1993; Lowenthal, 1985).

Memory versus History

Wertsch and Roediger (2008) distinguish history from memory by claiming that history's goal is the discovery of the facts of the past, while memory's goal is identity. History prioritizes truth while memory is content to rearrange the past to serve its projects. They cite Assmann's comparison of Moses and Akhenaten to illustrate the distinction. Moses is an important part of the collective memory of Judaism and Christianity, but there is little to no historical evidence for him. He is important to the collective memory of the group as a unifying image. In contrast, Akhenaton, disgraced, was banished from the collective memory of his time and forgotten until historians and archeologists rediscovered him and restored him to the historical record. He was not handed down over the centuries as a symbol used to unify a group.

While this is a useful distinction, it is also an ideal type. Historians have facts and truth as a goal, but the historical record is also open to the same distortions that are woven into collective memory. Many historical inaccuracies have been institutionalized in forms from history books to public monuments.

In yet another view, Schwartz (2008) sees history as an adjunct of memory:

The primary vehicles of collective memory are history — the establishing and propagating of facts about the past through research monographs, textbooks, museums, and mass media — and commemoration: the process of selecting from the historical record those facts most...

(The entire section is 4027 words.)