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

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Collective Memory and National Trauma
  • Global Collective Memory

Communication Communication and Collective Memory
Jill Edy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0126


The term “collective memory” refers to the shared meaning a group of people gives the past. Research on the phenomenon is highly interdisciplinary; collective memory is studied in at least five major academic disciplines: communication, sociology, psychology, history, and anthropology. It is also studied around the globe, with major research literatures in French, German, and Hebrew as well as in English, and case studies ranging across an even greater diversity of communities. The literature’s richness has given rise to several terms referring to essentially the same phenomenon: shared memory, public memory, social memory, and cultural memory. What distinguishes work on collective memory and communication is its emphasis on the production and circulation of shared meaning rather than the specific discipline in which the work is produced. Scholarship in collective memory usually adopts a social-constructionist perspective. Meanings assigned to the past are dynamic and commonly influenced by current circumstances. Scholars explore the limits of social construction in the context of past events that actually occurred, debate the ethics of representation, and theorize the social and technological forces affecting the production and circulation of shared meaning. However, critiques of representation grounded solely in their historical inaccuracies have largely been abandoned as theoretically unproductive. This article offers an overview of the field’s richness rather than an exhaustive listing of all the research that has been done. It is not limited to work produced by communication scholars but instead includes research generated in a variety of disciplines that speaks to the ways we develop and convey shared meanings for the past. Thus, it identifies literature flowing from differing conceptualizations of collective memory and considers the communicative aspects of a variety of social objects and practices, from film and journalism to memorials and museums. It also includes work on how collective memory functions in social life. Embracing the global nature of scholarship on collective memory, studies conducted in communities around the world are included. However, only work available in English is included, which means some evolving European approaches to communication and collective memory may be absent or referred to in secondary sources.

Foundational Works

Many scholars consider Halbwachs 1992 foundational to the study of memories said to be shared, social, cultural, or collective. Maurice Halbwachs argued that individual memories are situated in a collective context. Disruptions of community life, such as migration or conflict, disrupt memories. Although it considers individual memories rather than collective memory, Bartlett 1932 also offers important insights to the field. Frederick Bartlett argued that memory is not rote but associative and so links memory studies to more modern concepts in cognitive psychology. The work in Mead 1929 on the past (as opposed to memory) offers some leverage on the relationship between the real past and the remembered past. Maines, et al. 1983 offers a somewhat more approachable introduction to George Mead’s ideas. The herculean Les lieux de memoire, translated as Realms of Memory (Nora 1996), argues that it is modernity that disrupts community life, moving people from holistic, shared memory that generated identity to fragmentary sites of memory preserving what little of the shared past that remains. Olick, et al. 2011 is a well-edited anthology of classic works on collective memory curated from a sociological perspective.

  • Bartlett, Frederick C. 1932. Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    In a radical departure from the scholarship of his time, Bartlett argued that memory was more associative than rote. What and how individuals remember is influenced by the social context in which they engage in the act of remembering. Thus, remembering is a social as well as a psychological phenomenon. Reprinted as recently as 2003.

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

    Halbwachs argued that all memory is collective, grounded in the life of the community. Transformations of the community result in transformations of memory. This insight raises fundamental questions that occupy scholars of collective memory: the dynamics of collective memory as social circumstances change, and the relationship between collective memory and social power.

  • Maines, David R., Noreen M. Sugrue, and Michael A. Katovich. 1983. The sociological import of G. H. Mead’s theory of the past. American Sociological Review 48.2: 161–173.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095102

    Mead’s work can be somewhat unapproachable and abstract. Maines, Sugrue, and Katovich develop his argument in ways that make it easier to integrate into conceptualizations of collective memory.

  • Mead, George H. 1929. The nature of the past. In Essays in honor of John Dewey, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, October 20, 1929. Edited by John J. Coss, 235–242. New York: Henry Holt.

    Mead explores the limits of social constructions in accounting for the past. History leaves empirical traces that must be explained in socially constructed collective memories. Thus, while memories may be malleable, they interact with and may be constrained by the physical traces left by the past.

  • Nora, Pierre. 1996. Realms of memory: The construction of the French past. 3 vols. Edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    In three edited volumes, Nora analyzes the memorial elements of French culture, explaining how they function and why they are needed. Contrasting modernity to a somewhat romanticized premodern era, he argues that the fragmentary remains of the past have been institutionalized as modernity has swept away communities’ memories.

  • Olick, Jeffrey K., Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, eds. 2011. The collective memory reader. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This volume outlines the intellectual history of collective memory studies and includes essays and excerpts about memory from giants of Western thought such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Theodor Adorno. It also collects theoretical essays from prominent thinkers in the field of memory studies.

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