Anthropology Of Nostalgia Research Paper

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Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be, laments the title of actress Simone Signoret’s autobiography (1978). The title reflects that sense of nostalgia that periodically accompanies feelings that life does not seem quite as vivid, or quite as good, as it did in an earlier, more golden time. Signoret’s title epitomizes this nostalgic sense, by suggesting that even the present’s poignant pangs of sentimental longing for the past seem neither quite so romantic, nor quite so melancholic as they once did.

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The individual experience of nostalgia involves a sentimentalized longing for the past. Most often, however, this is a combination of a remembered, an imagined, and a reinterpreted past, which in memory seems more benevolent, loving, and problem-free than the actual past was. Individual nostalgia typically involves recreated memories of childhood as a time of innocence, when life seemed to follow a set course, and one felt embraced by family and community in a nexus of human and humane relationships, rather than encumbered by legalistic and bureaucratic ones. Childhood is, thus, often recaptured in nostalgic memory as unproblematic, when it was likely fraught with its own problems and tensions. The anthropology of nostalgia attempts to understand how such flushes of romanticized longing for the past that individuals periodically feel, become part of the collective imagination. It seeks to explain why nations, communities, or other collectivities of people seem to experience widespread cycles of nostalgic reminiscing for a presumed shared past.

1. Uncertainty And The Collective Imagination

The anthropology of nostalgia suggests that collective nostalgia seems to arise in times of transition or uncertainty. Surging nostalgic sentiment frequently underlies a collective identity crisis indicating a sense of confusion or uncertainty surrounding a proclaimed cultural or national identity. Increasing urbanization, technological changes, or globalization, all of which can cause swift changes in local lifestyles, can also give rise to collective nostalgia. Even among people seeking change, a seemingly contradictory combination of the rhetoric of progress, with a pronounced increase in the rhetoric of nostalgia is frequently noted. The anthropology of nostalgia suggests that this apparent contradiction is really a corollary response, indicating a fundamental ambivalence to sudden change and socalled modernization. Some anthropologists, such as Ivy (1988, 1995), contend that the contemporary condition of postmodernism, typified by rapidly changing lifestyles accompanied by the pronounced sense that life is shifting and uncertain, induces collective nostalgia.

The sense that life is shifting and uncertain can also be associated with the feeling that one no longer has strong emotional bonds to other humans. In his treatise on the sociology of nostalgia, Davis (1979, p. 141) contends that collective nostalgia is often a response to cultural transitions that leave masses of people with feelings of loneliness and estrangement. According to Davis, such nostalgia is part of a ‘collective search for identity’ which ‘looks backward rather than forward, for the familiar rather than the novel, for certainty rather than discovery’ (Davis 1979, pp. 107–8). Smith (1982, p. 128) notes that the ‘past will always seem more stable than the present.’ Therefore, images of the past are invoked to offset the perceived threat of cultural change or identity loss. These tend to be highly romanticized images of the past. Tuan points out ‘the cult of the past calls for illusion rather than authenticity’ (1977, p. 194).

Nostalgic projections of a sentimentalized past involve what Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) call ‘invented traditions.’ This term does not necessarily mean such traditions are false, but rather recognizes that the past is constantly undergoing recreation and reinvention by those in the present, in response to present needs.

2. Country, Community; Childlike, Calendric: The Place And Time Of Nostalgia

Anthropologists working in different areas of the world have noted that collective nostalgia frequently romanticizes rural areas, a sense of community, childhood, and calendric rituals. Romanticization of the countryside or rural life is common in collective nostalgia. Increasing urbanization often draws people away from small towns and villages where they belonged to networks of relationships, into the anonymity of city life. This influx of population into cities can also break down existing urban communities. Concomitantly, increasing industrialization and technological development change not only the methods humans employ in productive work activities, but the relationships constructed via these activities. The gemeinschaft involvement thought to characterize preindustrial communities, in which life and work found meaning within a network of social relationships, is replaced by gesellschaft society, in which human interactions are more purely economic or business exchanges (Toennies 1957). Romanticization of rural areas can result from urban anomie, or from frustrations with a perceived gesellschaft lifestyle.

Romanticization of rural life frequently is noted in areas that have undergone rapid urbanization and industrialization. In Western Europe, industrialization created a romanticized image of the preindustrial countryside. Twentieth-century North America saw periodic flushes of nostalgia for small town life. Some Asian countries have experienced nostalgia for agrarian village life after periods of rapid industrial or economic growth.

Such romanticization of rural life suggests a desire to negate feelings of estrangement, by imagining a place of belonging. The particular images of rural life vary in each area noted, but all suggest a desire to return to a closer bond with nature, and to the nexus of reciprocal human relationships idealistically projected as typifying ‘home town’ or ‘home village’ life. Affirmations of a rural centrality, of the countryside, or of a ‘back-to-nature’ lifestyle, proffer the hope that a return to the presumed virtues of the past, can offset the negative consequences of industrialization and technological development. The nostalgic emulation of deeply embedded human relationships thought to characterize rural areas, and ‘natural’ lifestyles, involve a quest for community and the desire to affirm a collective identity.

‘Community’ is a powerful, multivocal symbol in many cultures. Despite variations in its particular ideal constructions, generally it speaks to a desire for belongingness, to an essential need for human interaction in order to lead meaningful lives. Modern nostalgia, as a response to widespread feelings of homelessness and feared cultural loss, projects symbolically mediated images of a past rural existence to address the threat of estrangement by embracing an ideal of collective belongingness that represents ‘community,’ the ‘good life,’ ‘wholesomeness,’ and moral virtue.

For many individuals nostalgic projections of a home town, or home village past, represent what Bellah calls ‘communities of memory,’ rural areas or home town communities where they actually did grow up. According to Bellah (1985, p. 154), people who grew up in ‘communities of memory’ know the stories of a community’s past, share its ideal values, and understand what it means to participate in the ritual, aesthetic, and seasonal practices that defined the community as a way of life. However, such imagery can invoke intense nostalgia even among those who did not grow up in such communities through the construction of ‘communities of imagination.’

Nostalgia for a past way of life, which rural imagery suggests, is associated with nostalgia for the personal past, or childhood. Sentimentalized projections of community and of childhood both reflect a desire to find a ‘place’ where one belongs and feels secure. In mass nostalgic longings, there is a tendency to collapse geographical and temporal dimensions. Rural areas are geographical places that exist contemporaneously with urban areas. However, in the collective landscape of nostalgia, rural areas become symbols of an earlier existence. Childhood is a time in people’s lives. However, in the nostalgic imagination, this time becomes a place. Childhood becomes that place where one felt sheltered and secure. Reflecting this emphasis on childhood, nostalgic imagery frequently projects maternal tropes. Both ‘mother’ and ‘community’ suggest intimate places of nurturance. For the young child, mother is not just a person who provides love and warmth, but the child’s primary ‘place,’ a ‘haven of stability’ where ‘fundamental needs are heeded and cared for without a fuss’ (Tuan 1977, pp. 137–8). The idealized past community is likewise that ‘place’ where one can belong, where one has obligations to others, and can depend on others.

Calendric rituals and holidays are also a profound focus of collective nostalgia. Cultural calendars punctuate experience with special days laden with symbolic meanings that have the capacity, in Zerubavel’s (1981, p. 46) terms, to ‘synchronize the sentiments of a large number of people’ by creating ‘emotional rhythms that affect large collectivities.’ Special calendric events integrate community life. They also play important symbolic and affective roles in both the nostalgic remembrance of community, and the nostalgic imagination of community. For example, in an analysis of English Victorian life, Gillis (1989) contends that Christmas offered a nostalgic spiritual pilgrimage, a symbolic journey of return and reunion to home, community, and ‘mother.’ In Japan, Gyoji are the annual cycle of calendric festival events, emotionally situated in seasonal associations, that formerly orchestrated life in agrarian villages. Creighton (1998) describes how the nostalgia-driven ‘retro-boom’ prompted collective revivals of this traditional calendar of gyoji events, in rural and urban areas.

3. Nostalgia And Nationalism

Anthropologists have pointed out that nostalgia is used to promote nationalism, through the projection of emotionally laden images which are then linked to a national way of life. This can involve a positive affirmation of a proud collective identity for a nation, or conversely, a negative and dangerous fostering of ultranationalism. In his famous treatise on nationalism and invented communities, Anderson says all national communities are imagined. He further stresses the importance of understanding ‘the style in which they are imagined’ (1985, p. 15).

The nostalgic invocation of a presumed pristine past, and sentimental reaffirmations of nostalgic holidays, are part of the stylistic imagination of national communities. Anderson claims that Christmas in modern Western nations functions as a calendric event which helps perpetuate ‘that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern times.’ Despite its appeal in different Western nations, its sentimentally loaded symbolic associations with growing up in a particular place, allow it to be associated with an imagined national community. Likewise in many Asian countries, New Year festivit-ies frequently are used to reaffirm national identity, even though the holiday exists and is celebrated in different forms in other places.

Nostalgic associations with childhood experience are also used to promote nationalistic sentiment. ‘Motherhood’ frequently becomes a dominant, multivocal symbol used in the promotion of nationalism in diverse nation states. Creighton (1991) explores the irony of motherhood as a nationalistic symbol. ‘Mother’ as a symbol could suggest a universal or shared humanity, since everyone presumably had a mother. However, mother symbolism is frequently used to emphasize a nationalistic identity and the exclusion of outsiders, by projections of a culturally specific mother prototype that is then linked to national identity.

In times of political, social, or economic strain, global or regional uncertainty, such uses of nostalgia in the promotion of nationalism can usurp grass roots attempts to reinvigorate bonds among people in local communities. At the other end of the spectrum, nationalistic uses of nostalgia can obviate against attempts to build associations that foster closer ties among human beings that go beyond national boundaries. Nationalistic nostalgia offers a sense of belonging to an imagined national community, but it is a form of belongingness which frequently requires the exclusion and even repudiation of nonmembers.

4. Conclusions

The anthropology of nostalgia attempts to understand why there appear to be periods of mass nostalgia. Anthropologists have noted that collective nostalgia frequently accompanies or follows periods of change, uncertainty, or alienation.

The collective landscape of nostalgia is typically rural in nature, reflecting an apparent collapse of time and place in the human imagination. Rural areas exist in present time, but are romantically envisioned as representing a past, more pristine way of life. In this collective nostalgic romanticization, place has been confused with time. Significant people of childhood, such as mother, and calendric holidays of a given culture that are emotively experienced during childhood, have strong nostalgia-inducing capacity. In this collective nostalgic romanticization time—the time of childhood—has become a place, a place where security and belongingness seemed assured.

Nostalgia can be channelled to promote nationalism through the projection of emotionally laden symbolism which is then asserted to represent ‘our way of life,’ making the nation–state into an ‘imagined community.’ Anthropologists call this an ‘imagined community’ because in real communities the ties that bind people are created through actual, on-going, personal interactions. The use of nostalgia to promote nationalistic sentiment can have positive consequences in creating a positive collective identity, or negative consequences in fostering ultranationalism.

Collective nostalgia can involve a melancholic longing for the past that prevents people from moving forward. However, many anthropologists suggest that collective nostalgia can also have positive effects. Nostalgic recreations of the past can inspire people to attempt to create deeper human relationships, and a stronger sense of community in their present lives. Nostalgia for the past can be part of a constructive process that allows people to deal with the uncertainty of the present in order to move forward. Collective romanticized sentiments help create a nostalgically imagined assertive linking of the present with the past, and thus with the future. Images of a presumed past in which life seems to have been more stable and loving often help people to offset the threats of insecurity and alienation in the present, allowing them to move forward into an uncertain future with renewed assurance that there is a continuity between past, present, and future, and that the human values they associate with the past still do and will continue to exist.


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  2. Bellah R N, Madsen R, Sullivan W M, Swidler A, Tipton S M (eds.) 1985 Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  3. Creighton M R 1991 Maintaining cultural boundaries in retailing: How Japanese department stores domesticate ‘things foreign.’ Modern Asian Studies 25(4): 675–709
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  6. Gillis J R 1989 Ritualization of middle-class family life in nineteenth century Britain. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 3(3): 213–35
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  9. Ivy M 1995 Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  10. Signoret S 1978 Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London
  11. Smith M E 1982 The process of sociocultural continuity. Current Anthropology 23(2): 127–42
  12. Toennies F 1957 Community and Society [Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft]. Michigan State University Press, Lansing, MI
  13. Tuan Y-F 1977 Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN
  14. Zerubavel E 1981 Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life. University of Chicago Press, Chicago


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