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Collective Memory
Culture > Collective Memory

Table of Contents
Abstract
Keywords

Overview
Defining Collective Memory
Theoretical Perspectives

Further Insights
How Can Memory be Collective?
Memory versus History
World War II

Viewpoints
Why Does the Collective Memory of the Past
Matter?
Commemoration & Places of Memory

Terms & Concepts


Bibliography
Suggested Reading

Abstract
The study of collective memory is 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 has been to see the two as opposites; but recently scholars have analyzed 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.

Overview
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 sociologys 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 the past few decades have
seen 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 still 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 societys official
(institutional/governmental) memory merged with its vernacular (local/folk) memory. Wertsch & 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).

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Collective Memory

Keywords
Collective Memory
Collective Remembering
Heritage

Essay by Katherine Walker, Ph.D.

tion 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 how
they are produced.

Historiography

Further Insights

Imagined Communities

How Can Memory be Collective?

Institutions

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).

Official Memory
Vernacular Memory
Young (1993) prefers the term collected memory to collective memory because he says that it better reflects the reality of
memorials. Memorials collect peoples 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 sensethey have their
own individual memories which 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.
Recent 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 USSR. 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. Loewens
(1996, 1999) studies of history textbooks and roadside memorials across the U.S. 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 is expanding into new areas, such as the commodifica-

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)
pointed out that even the most individual memories are collective
in a sensethey are memories of people who live in a society,
memories that are shaped by a societys 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 groups past, and 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 historys goal is the discovery of the facts of the
past, while memorys goal is identity. History prioritizes truth
while memory is content to rearrange the past to serve its projects. They cite Assmanns 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

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Collective Memory

Essay by Katherine Walker, Ph.D.

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.

group against the enemy. In wars aftermath, the group creates


a narrative explaining the causes and outcome of the event, and
commemorates the heroism of the citizens and soldiers and the
loss of the dead through memorials, holidays, and public rituals.

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.

World War II was a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale.


Historians believe that a minimum of 60 million people died in
the war. Cities were razed and atrocities were widespread. The
aftermath of the war is staggering; it reconfigured the political
structure of the entire world. Since the war happened within the
past century, it was better documented than any previous war.
The official narratives of the war found in history textbooks
show how the distinct collective memories of groups shape how
they present history, even when the facts are not in dispute.

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 mediaand commemoration: the process of
selecting from the historical record those facts most
relevant to societys ideals and symbolizing them by
iconography, monuments, shrines, place-names, and
ritual observance (p. 76).
There are other terms referring to ways people experience the
past. One popular such term is heritage. History and memory
are both seen as less subjective than heritage. Heritage carries
an implication of a partisan or biased take on the past, implying
a loyalty to a specific version of the past rather than an honest
reckoning with the facts (Lowenthal, 1998).
Further complicating the question about the difference between
history and memory is the fact that this relationship itself has
changed. History and memory used to be almost synonymous,
before modern standards of history as impartial truth and scholarship evolved. Beginning in the late Renaissance, and gaining
speed over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the older
idea of history (a form of memory shaped to support a specific
group identity) was replaced with a new image of history and
memory as opposites. History became seen as neutral, verifiable,
and evidence-based; this approach is referred to as historiography. Memory was seen as inaccurate and biased.
World War II
Recently, this opposition has faded as social scientists explore the
ways history and memory interact (Assmann, 2008). For example, in history textbooks, history and national memory are often
one and the same. When awkward facts emerge, history has to
keep memory honest. Sometimes, though, the counter-memories
of groups who lacked power when official histories were written
force historians to reevaluate the dominant narrative.
This tension between history and memory can be seen in the
study of the collective memory of war. In their horror and brutality, wars provide important events for studying collective
memory. In a study of how World War II is presented in textbooks
in England, France, Germany, China and the U.S., Crawford and
Foster (2008) point out that wars necessitate an intense evocation of group identity and loyalty. The boundaries between us
and them are never as important as in a time of war. Propaganda relies on collective memory for images that unite the

Crawford and Foster found that the content of Holocaust history


is remarkably similar in England and Germany; what differs is
how textbooks in each nation apply lessons of the Holocaust to
the present. In England it is presented as another history modulealbeit an important one. Yet in Germany, textbooks tend
to relate the events as still an important part of German identity. German textbooks connect the Holocaust to contemporary,
similar cases of human rights abuses and genocide. The same
historical facts, then, have different implications for different
groups, and can be used in the shaping of quite different collective memories (Crawford & Foster, 2008).

Viewpoints
Why Does the Collective Memory of the Past Matter?
In the most basic sense, the events of today would not be possible without the events of yesterday. The past shapes the present,
since it causes todays effects. But additionally, people act as if
the past matters. People accord weight to tradition, upholding the
laws, rules and procedures inherited from yesterday, and sometimes look to the past for guidance (Schudson, 1992).
People who share a common past use it to create bonds. In the
modern world, this shared past is usually imagined, and people
form what Anderson (1983) calls an imagined community
(imagined, since most of its members will never actually meet
each other) based on the idea that they share a common past.
Without memory, there can be no identitythis is true for both
individuals and collectives. Maier (1988) states that Memory
is certainly a prerequisite of identity, which rests on an awareness of continuity through time.memory (or a history) seems
to constitute much of identity, such that individual or collective personality need not be created anew every instant (pp.
149-150). There is a circular relationship between memory and
identity. Memory is a component of identity, yet identity helps
determine what will be remembered and what will be forgotten
(Gillis, 1994; Glassberg, 1996).
Collective memory is important also because public versions of
history can be used as a hegemonic tool, embodying the ideals of
the ruling class to support its power. There is an old saying that
history is written by the victors. This refers not only to what version of history is told in history booksit also means that when

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Collective Memory

a group has power, it can use that power to present its version of
the past in monuments, laws, rules, ceremonies, holidays and
through many other institutions. Collective memory also can be
used to heal a group from past trauma, make sense of confusing
events, and to provide guidance for the future (Qi, 2008).
Collective memory does not always present a clear and complete picture of what actually happened in the past. Present needs
shape how the past is understood, what is remembered and forgotten, and the morals drawn from past events (Hutton, 1993;
Schwartz, 1991). The past provides values in addition to providing identity. At the same time that people shape the past, they are
also shaped by it. For example, Schwartz (1991) tracks mentions
of Washington in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature to
analyze how and why different groups of people present George
Washington in distinct ways. Earlier descriptions of Washington
present him as aristocratic; later works emphasize his democratic
qualities. The later democratic image came about because the
countrys ideological views shifted and democratic values were
more valued in leaders. These qualities of Washingtons werent
invented by anyonethey just were not emphasized in earlier
works. The aristocratic qualities of Washington likewise were
never downplayed entirely. This shows that people reshape their
interpretations of the past to suit the needs of the present, but
they often do so by reinterpreting events and qualities already
lodged in the public memory. The shaping of Washington was
a two-way process; after his image became more democratic, it
supported the push toward the expansion of democracy in the U.S.
Schuman and Scott (1989) find that there are generational effects
to memory and to deciding what past events are important.
People tend to remember and prioritize events that happened in
their youth as being the most memorable.
Commemoration & Places of Memory

Essay by Katherine Walker, Ph.D.

(p. 7). People are obsessed with the past because it is so distinct
from the present. Cultures that feel connected with their past do
not feel the same need to institutionalize it in memorial forms and
places. As people around the world begin to question the received
history that they have taken for granted, and as social upheavals
cause people to create new collectivities in the service of forging
new nations and alliances, the study of how collective memory
is created and how it affects society will continue to thrive.

Terms & Concepts


Collected Memory: Youngs term for individual memories
unified publicly by a commemorative object.
Heritage: History in a glorified form. Often used to imply a
relationship with the past that is antithetical to historiography.
Historiography: An examination of how history is created;
the critical, source-based writing of history.
Imagined Communities: Andersons term for nations which
are imagined because most of the citizens will never see or know
each other, yet they picture themselves as bonded.
Institutions: Patterns of behavior that are regular, repeated
and that have significance in social structure. Institutionalizing
memory means embedding it in the patternsplacing narratives in textbooks, or placing a statue of a hero on the courthouse
steps.
Lieux de Memoires (places of memory): Noras term for
commemorative sites.
Official Memory: The institutionalized memory of the ruling
political groups. In Bodnars work, it stands in opposition to the
vernacular memory.

A great deal of work on collective memory has studied how


groups create monuments and memorials as an attempt to affix
a version of the past onto material culture. According to Young
(1993), providing a place for ritualized remembering gives the
illusion that memories are collective as well as collected. An
example of this process is found in the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington D.C. The monument memorialwith its dark
color and low lineswas controversial when it was chosen,
because detractors thought it implied shame. It has proved to be
popular with the public, though, and a few additions have been
made to the site; a flag and a statue of soldiers have been added
to the original design. Placing the more instantly comprehensible
statue with the original, unusual monumenta black wall, covered with the names of the war dead, polished so that it reflects
the faces of viewersmeans that just about anyonewhether
they supported the war or were opposed to itcan find a message in the memorial that resonates with their personal feelings
(Wagner-Pacifici & Schwartz, 1991). The memorial is an example of a site that collects memories.

Vernacular Memory: The local memory of small groups. in


Bodnars work, it undermines and opposes the official memory.

Nora (1989) believes that modern societies build lieux des memoires (places of memory) because they do not live surrounded by
memories, in what he calls environments of memory anymore

Bodnar, J. (1994). Public memory in an American city:


Commemoration in Cleveland. In John R. Gillis, Ed.
Commemorations: The politics of national identity. 74-89.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Collective Memory

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Essay by Katherine Walker, Ph.D.

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Collective Memory

Young, J. (1998). The Holocaust as vicarious past: Art


Spiegelman Maus and the afterimages of history. Critical
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Essay by Katherine Walker, Ph.D.

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Cambridge University Press.

Suggested Reading

Griffin, L., & Bollen, K. (2009). What do these memories do?


Civil rights remembrance and racial attitudes. American
Sociological Review, 74(4), 594-614. Retrieved February
2, 2010 from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with
Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr
ue&db=sih&AN=43540280&site=ehost-live

Alexander, J., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B., Smelser, N. &


Sztompka, P. Eds. (2004). Cultural trauma and collective
identity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Linenethal, E. T. & Englehardt, T., editors. (1996). History


wars: The Enola Gay and other battles for the American
past. New York: Henry Holt.

Young, J. (1993). The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials


and meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Brundage, W. F., ed. (2000). Where these memories grow:


History, memory and southern identity. Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press.

Essay by Katherine Walker, Ph.D.


Katherine Walker received a Doctorate in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and currently teaches in the University College at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her current research concerns race, memory, and controversial commemoration,
and she is wrapping up a study of public debates over Confederate memorials. She has also studied the impact of the Internet on identity
and relationships.
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