In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Collective Memory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Conceptual and Methodological Questions
  • Journals and Conferences

Political Science Collective Memory
Félix Krawatzek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0301


Scholarship on collective memory from an explicit political science perspective has expanded over the last decade. This growth speaks to political dynamics unfolding across the world, as history has once again become part of political confrontations. The ongoing dispute about an acceptable name for Macedonia, the role of truth commissions in post-conflict societies, and the international tensions stemming from the memories of Japanese aggression on the Asian continent during the Asia-Pacific War illustrate that political science needs to include questions of collective memory in its analysis. Although political science’s focus on collective memory is new, it would be erroneous to believe that memory has started to shape politics only recently. The study of the societal significance of present-day representations of past narratives has a long history. Its intellectual forebears can be found notably in late-19th-century French sociology, and the topic has gained in prominence in the humanities and sociology since the 1980s and is now marching into the political sciences. This latter expansion also changes the methods and research strategies that scholarship on collective memory employs. Nevertheless, studying collective memory will remain an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor and uniquely integrates the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. Given the field’s quick shifts, a number of central conceptual tools retain an elasticity less common in other branches of the discipline. Meanwhile, the number of topics that can be approached through the prism of collective memory is inexhaustible. The field is therefore held together primarily by its underlying conceptual apparatus. Conceptual clarity is thus particularly relevant for a dialogue within and across the disciplines, and also to integrate the insights related to collective memory generated in political and social theory. The state of the scholarship illustrates, however, that studies of collective memory have overwhelmingly been motivated by empirical puzzles and at times continue to analyze memory as being a tangible phenomenon. While not necessarily shortcomings, many of the empirical contributions have thereby shied away from a more thorough theoretical investigation.

General Overviews

There are no general overviews from a specific political science perspective. However, excellent starting points are Olick, et al. 2011 and the similar precursor Rossington and Whitehead 2007. The latter is less detailed but includes a number of classical and early modern texts that might be of interest (Plato, Cicero, Hume, Hegel). Olick, et al. 2011 contextualizes key writings on collective memory alongside a substantive introduction. Readers get a sense of the sociopolitical and economic transformations of the 19th century that have contributed to the emergence of research on memory. Such early memory studies saw collective memory not as alien to 19th-century natural science approaches to memory, but rather as an extension of them. It was Maurice Halbwachs (see Theoretical Foundations of Collective Memory) in the early 20th century who consciously tried to emancipate collective memory from its natural science habitat. Starting from the perspective of contemporary scholarship on collective memory—rather than the field’s classics—is Erll and Nünning 2010, which includes texts by leading scholars. They introduce sites of memory across the world, more theoretical reflections on the relationship between memory and cultural history, and perspectives from a number of disciplines, including sociology, psychology and cognitive sciences, literature, and media studies. Erll and Nünning 2010 does not incorporate an explicit political science focus, which speaks to the authors’ disciplinary orientation but also illustrates how limited research in political science remains. More recently, Tota and Hagen 2016 covers a wide range of theoretical perspectives, including practices of commemoration and forgetting, the relationship between memory and public discourse, technologies of memory, the long shadow of difficult past events, and memories that emerge from ecosystems and bodies. Kattago 2016, meanwhile, offers more of a cultural historian perspective and covers questions of identity and memory (as well as conceptual and methodological issues), concluding with several case studies. The chapters reflect on the intellectual “companions” that have shaped each author’s own journey through memory studies, thereby discussing in an accessible manner such figures as Bakhtin, Benjamin, Heidegger, Warburg, and Yates. Radstone and Schwarz 2010 is also a useful starting point and provides a historical overview of conceptualizations of memory as well as a range of perspectives on the functioning of memory alongside a set of case studies.

  • Erll, Astrid, and Ansgar Nünning, eds. A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010.

    Perspectives by present scholars on theoretical aspects of cultural memory and a set of different disciplinary perspectives, of which those by sociologists will be of most direct relevance for political scientists.

  • Kattago, Siobhan, ed. The Ashgate Research Companion to Memory Studies. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016.

    Illustrates the links between current scholarship and thinkers of the past by providing reflections on how particular individuals—conceptual companions—have shaped their own thinking. Four parts cover issues of (a) historical consciousness and the experience of time; (b) disciplinary perspectives, including sociology, psychology, and cultural studies; (c) realms and places of memory; and (d) the intersection between memory of the past and political imaginations of the future.

  • Olick, Jeffrey K., Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy. The Collective Memory Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A comprehensive introduction to the historical development of memory studies and an anthology of short theoretical texts. Includes classics since the 18th century that gravitate around the topic of collective memory even if they do not explicitly use that language. Texts cover different disciplines (sociology, political theory and philosophy, psychology, Egyptology, literature studies, etc.). Each of the volume’s five parts opens with a brief contextualization that links the different theoretical texts.

  • Radstone, Susannah, and Bill Schwarz, eds. Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010.

    Looks at how various disciplines use collective memory. Focuses on the history of the concept; brief on premodern and more extensive on modern memory and intellectuals that remain of significance for today’s conceptualization. A second part covers the functioning of memory as seen from different angles, both disciplinary and thematic; a third part presents case studies where political conflicts are the most visible (post-apartheid South Africa, Soviet memories, slavery).

  • Rossington, Michael, and Anne Whitehead, eds. Theories of Memories: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

    Precursor to Olick, et al. 2011, the Reader provides a more extensive collection of texts from the premodern period.

  • Tota, Anna Lisa, and Trever Hagen, eds. Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016.

    Discusses memory studies in different national contexts and illustrates the scope for comparative and transnational work. Assembles more than forty scholars, many of them sociologists, with the aim of further consolidating memory studies as a distinct discipline.

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