Sociology Collective Memory
by
Christina Simko
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0215

Introduction

Collective memory encompasses both the shared frameworks that shape and filter ostensibly “individual” or “personal” memories and representations of the past sui generis, including official texts, commemorative ceremonies, and physical symbols such as monuments and memorials. Sociological work on collective memory traces its origins to Émile Durkheim and his student, Maurice Halbwachs. In the United States, the contemporary sociology of memory coalesced in the 1980s and 1990s, after Barry Schwartz brought renewed attention to Durkheim’s focus on commemoration as well as Halbwachs’s interest in how the past is reconstructed in the present, in the service of present needs, interests, and desires. Though this line of research initially emphasized heroic pasts—particularly national commemorations that bolstered state legitimacy with reference to triumphant episodes—scholars quickly began to address the ways that collectivities grapple with “difficult pasts,” or episodes that evoke shame, regret, and/or dissensus, and that threaten to “spoil” national identity. What is the relationship between memory and forgetting, and related concepts such as silence and denial? Can the increasingly pervasive language of “trauma” help us understand the current preoccupation with difficult pasts in both scholarly literature and public culture? More recently, scholars have critiqued the field’s overwhelming focus on national memory from two angles. First, studies of micro-level memories have revived Halbwachs’s initial interest in the social frameworks that structure (seemingly) individual memories. Second, globalization facilitates connectedness and identification beyond and/or outside of national frames of reference, and thus scholars have pointed to the emergence of “cosmopolitan” memories that create community and solidarity beyond and outside formal political borders.

Classic Works

Although Durkheim never used the term “collective memory” explicitly, he clearly provided the groundwork for the concept, detailing the social significance of commemoration in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Subsequently, Halbwachs 1992 introduced the term in sociological discourse and imbued it with theoretical significance, using it to refer not only to the collective representations that commanded Durkheim’s attention, but also to capture the social frameworks shaping all memories, including even our most private reveries. In retrospect, it is also clear that a number of other early sociologists and sociologically relevant philosophers provided crucial theoretical foundations for the sociology of memory as it stands today, most notably Marx 1978, Nietzsche 1997, Freud 1967, Mannheim 1952, and Mead 1932.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1995. The elementary forms of religious life. Translated by Karen E. Fields. New York: Free Press.

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    Originally published in 1912. Durkheim provided firm foundations for the contemporary sociology of memory, though not the term “collective memory” itself. In particular, Durkheim captured the social power of commemorative rites, which sustain social solidarity by continually revivifying the beliefs at the core of the collective conscience. Even piacular rites—rituals that arise in times of grief and uncertainty—evoke common emotions and serve to reconstitute the social body.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1967. Moses and monotheism. Translated by Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage Books.

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    Originally published in 1939. On the surface, Moses and Monotheism presents the strange thesis that at the core of Jewish identity is a repressed memory of patricide—specifically, the murder of Moses. Yet the book also articulates a much more general sociological problem that memory scholars have yet to fully address: Is repression a useful metaphor for certain forms of forgetting or denial at the collective level? If so, how are collective memories “stored” during a “latency period,” in which they lurk beneath the surface, unacknowledged?

  • Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On collective memory. Edited and translated by Lewis Coser. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Halbwachs opened the way for the sociology of memory with his argument that remembering is thoroughly social rather than psychological: our memories are formed and re-formed in social contexts, especially groups such as families, religions, and social classes. While clearly drawing from Durkheim, Halbwachs emphasized the divergence of multiple collective memories rather than an overarching collective conscience. His “presentist” approach, the idea that collective memories represent the past in accordance with present needs, remains influential.

  • Mannheim, Karl. 1952. The sociological problem of generations. In Essays on the sociology of knowledge. Translated by Paul Kecskemeti, 286–320. London: Routledge.

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    Originally published in 1923. Mannheim conceptualized generation in social rather than biological terms. According to Mannheim, generations form through the experience of major historical events; we generally attribute significance to events that occurred during our own late adolescence and early adulthood. Crucially, Mannheim’s thesis is simultaneously a theory concerning the relationship between generation and memory and a call to consider generation as a distinct sociological variable in its own right.

  • Marx, Karl. 1978. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In The Marx-Engels reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker, 594–617. New York: W. W. Norton.

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    Originally published in 1852. Without explicitly invoking the language of “collective memory,” Marx’s treatment of the December 1851 coup of Louis Napoleon underscored the powerful weight that the past exerts in the present, often behind the very backs of historical actors who remain unaware that “[t]he tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (p. 595).

  • Mead, George Herbert. 1932. The philosophy of the present. LaSalle, IL: Open Court Press.

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    Like Halbwachs, Mead emphasized that the past is a tool for addressing contemporary dilemmas, providing support for a presentist approach to memory. What is sociologically significant, Mead’s view suggests, is not the past as such—some objective or unmediated sense of history—but the way that the past is reconstructed in response to present concerns.

  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1997. On the uses and disadvantages of history for life. In Untimely meditations. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, 57–124. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Originally published 1874. Like Marx, Nietzsche paid particular attention to the weight of the past in the present. Especially influential is his argument for a balance between memory and forgetting, in both individual and collective life. His corresponding claim that too much memory can “become the gravedigger of the present” (p. 62) frequently resurfaces in critiques of the contemporary preoccupation with commemoration and the “rush” to memorialize collective losses.

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