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

  • Introduction
  • Canonical Theories from Individual Memory to Social-Collective Memory
  • Memory as Cultural System
  • The Historization of Memory
  • From National Particular History to the Universalization and Globalization of Memory
  • Traumatic Memory
  • Intergenerationally Transmitted Traumatic Memory
  • Anthropological and Transcultural Psychiatric Critique of Traumatic Memory Theory
  • Anthropology of Genocide Memory
  • Anthropology of Embodied Memory: Performances and Practices of Collective and Personal Remembering
  • Lived and Dead Memory at Sites of Collective and Personal Memory
  • From Represented Absence to Material Presence in the Present and Future
  • Post-memory

Anthropology Memory
Carol A. Kidron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0155


In order to explore anthropological perspectives on memory, it is necessary to begin with a review of canonical sociological studies on social and cultural memory. Anthropology’s entry into the academic dialog on memory has been relatively recent. It was only in the 1990s that anthropologists began making a unique and significant contribution to the field of memory studies ethnographically exploring the everyday lived experience of personal, collective, national, and global memory work as grounded, embodied and at times resistant practice. Nevertheless, as will be outlined below, the cultural semiotics of memory permeated canonical sociological theories pertaining to memory and commemoration. Despite their differing methodologies, both sociology and anthropology set out to explore the intricacies of human social and cultural behavior as it relates to memory and commemoration. Scholars of memory, unlike historians, do not document recollected events but rather trace the discourse, practices, and sites in which and through which the past is made present and meaningful—and at times the way that past is selectively enlisted to serve political and ideological agendas or strategically “forgotten.” The first section of the overview will present foundational sociological conceptualizations of personal and collective memory, while the second half of the overview will turn to anthropology of memory, focusing extensively on contemporary mainstream and deconstructionist perspectives in the subfields of traumatic memory and genocide memory. The final sections will examine 21st-century reconceptualizations of memory as embodied, practiced, and inscribed presence rather than semiotic representation of the past. Rather than focus on the remembering and transmission of authentic origins, the past is postulated as evolving in the present and future in bodies, materiality, and place. In keeping with the more “presentist” perspective, concepts such as post-memory and prosthetic memory shift attention to new forms of person-centered empathic experience of the afterlife of the past in the present and future.

Canonical Theories from Individual Memory to Social-Collective Memory

The basic premise of the epistemological paradigm of collective memory is that memory extends beyond the realm of the individual mind and its private recollections of the past and may be understood as a perpetually evolving collective social artifact (Halbwachs 1992, Connerton 1989). Individual memory and social or collective memory become intertwined as Halbwachs 1992 asserts that “no memory is possible outside the framework used by people in society to determine and retrieve their recollections” (Halbwachs 1992, p. 43). Contrary to turn-of-20th-century conceptions of racial, biologically inherited memory, the above approach conceives of memory as culturally constructed, mediated, and framed via social institutions and cultural artifacts. Cultural forms and institutions embed, frame, interpret, and disseminate memory of the past located within laws, national archives, commemorative markers and monuments (Assman and Czaplicka 1995; Schudson 1997). Culture-specific symbols, myths, commemorative rituals, and grand narratives are also memory repositories, semiotically representing a socially constructed and engineered past (Schwartz 1996, Zerubavel 1996). Individual memory may then “piggyback” on the mnemonic resources of the above institutions and artifacts, without having to have “lived” and experienced past events. Even when located in the individual mind, as autobiographical recollections, memory remains social as it is often shared by occupational groups or generational cohorts. As collective “property,” individual memory once again undergoes a process of streamlining, reconstructed to create a coherent “unity of outlooks” (Halbwachs 1992, p. 182). Individual memory remains social also as it operates through the cultural construction of language and is activated via social stimulation, rehearsal, and culturally structured patterns of recall (Schudson 1997). Assman and Czaplicka 1995 critically deconstruct the above concept of social/collective memory, calling for a more precise distinction between what they term “communicative” and “cultural memory.” According to Assman and Czaplicka 1995, communicative memory refers to everyday communications pertaining to the “lived” past, and therefore it is temporally limited. Cultural memory refers to texts, images, monuments, and rituals that transfer and sustain a society’s self-image over time and enable the constitutive role of historical foundational events. Although Assman and Czaplicka’s (Assman and Czaplicka 1995) proposed distinction certainly resonates with Halbwachs’ (Halbwachs 1992) distinction between “lived memory” and social or collective memory, they remain critical of the erroneous conflation between socially constructed collective or “cultural memory,” which in their view does not involve actual processes of personal “firsthand” communication (or “lived memory”).

  • Assman, Jan, and John Czaplicka. 1995. Collective memory and cultural identity. New German Critique 65:125–133.

    A critical perspective highlighting the distinction between firsthand communicated memory as compared to second-hand transmission of cultural memory.

  • Connerton, Paul. 1989. How societies remember. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511628061

    A canonical source providing an extensive review of theories and concepts related to social and cultural remembering.

  • Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. The collective memory. New York: Harper Colophson.

    The foundational text in memory studies outlining the theoretical proposition that all memory is social rather than personal. Also presenting a historical genealogy of collective memory.

  • Schudson, Michael. 1997. Dynamics of distortion in collective memory. In Memory distortion: How minds, brains, and societies reconstruct the past. Edited by D. L. Schacter 346–364. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Sociological analysis of the social construction of memory, proposing a clear typology of forms of construction, including historical examples.

  • Schwartz, Barry. 1996. Introduction: The expanding past. Qualitative Sociology 19:275–281.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02393272

    A basic introduction to collective memory studies presenting a succinct outline of basic terms of the emergent subfield of sociology of memory.

  • Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1996. Social memories: Steps to an ecology of the past. Qualitative Sociology 19:283–308.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02393273

    Broad sociological overview of canonical theories in memory studies.

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