Psychology Of Collective Memory Research Paper

Academic Writing Service

Sample Psychology Of Collective Memory Research Paper. Browse other research paper examples and check the list of research paper topics for more inspiration. iResearchNet offers academic assignment help for students all over the world: writing from scratch, editing, proofreading, problem solving, from essays to dissertations, from humanities to STEM. We offer full confidentiality, safe payment, originality, and money-back guarantee. Secure your academic success with our risk-free services.

1. Introduction

Collective memory is a sociological concept, though shot through with psychological presumptions. Its most important theorist is Maurice Hawlbachs, a second-generation student of Emile Durkheim, who wrote Les Cadres sociaux de la memoire (The Social Frameworks of Memory 1992) and La Memoire Collective (Collective Memory) ([1950], 1992). Hawlbachs and those working in the collective memory tradition posit that not only do individuals remember, but collectivities as well. Just as there is great interest among psychologists, psychoanalysts, and neuroscientists to discover, describe, and specify the processes through which individuals remember—how, what, when, and why remembering occurs—so too do social scientists—sociologists, historians, anthropologists, political scientists—attend to the social processes through which collectivities—families, groups, nations—recover the past, conceptualize it through narrative structures, and memorialize it through memorials, museums, rites, and other commemorative forms.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

Hawlbachs’ essay was first published in English in 1980 with an introduction by Mary Douglas, herself a neo-Durkheimian. In her introduction, Douglas drew the link between Hawlbachs’ concept and the research of the British psychologist, Sir Frederick Bartlett who, in Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (1932), contextualized memory by arguing that what is remembered of the past depends upon frameworks or schemas of understanding imposed upon it from the present. Since the publication of Hawlbachs’ writings in English, the interest in collective memory has greatly accelerated the development of the themes defined by Hawlbachs, Bartlett and Douglas and their influence on disparate academic fields. In the last decades of the twentieth century, collective memory generated a large literature focusing on the relation between the past and the present, raising questions especially about how the present influences the reconstruction of the past and the ways in which historical events and circumstances impinge or intrude on the present. These issues have often been addressed through empirical studies of particular rites, festivals, commemorations, and memorials in different national and historical settings.

What follows is a discussion of the sources of convergence and divergence in the psychology of collective memory as expressed in the academic literature and as it impacts on these broader politics of memory. There is widespread agreement concerning both the reality of collective memory as well as its malleability, i.e., memory’s susceptibility to revision, manipulation, etc. However, differences among scholars exist as well, focusing particularly on the question of the motives and interests that lie beneath the phenomenon and determine its form. A neo-Durkheimian framework will be characterized where the past is understood as a symbolic resource often employed to reduce tensions and strains presently confronting the collectivity; collective memory is understood as a complex social process—including instrumental and symbolic struggles by various members of the group over the definition of the past—to strengthen the ties that bind individual members together within the collectivity. Others adopt a neo-Freudian perspective where tensions and strains within a present day collectivity are largely understood as deriving from the unavoidable intrusion of a traumatic past. The past is the source, rather than a resource, of challenges confronting a present-day collectivity. Collective memory, here, is often seen as an impressive impediment to the establishment of a healthy, post-traumatic community.

2. Individual And Collective Memory: Convergence And Consensus

Students of collective memory, like researchers on individual memory studies, understand memory to be a constitutive feature of the present. In both, memory is distinguished from history; the former describes a process of reconstruction, occurring ex post facto and possibly bearing little relation to the historical past being remembered. Nonetheless, an understanding of oneself in relation to an ‘as if it were true’ past is believed to be an essential feature of individual life. Personal identity depends on locating oneself in a particular past in which the present is bounded and made meaningful through history. The person experiences him or herself in a continuous, comprehensible relation to a past; an orientation toward the present and the future is only coherent if in relation, in part, to an understood past. Collective memory similarly appreciates the temporal dimension of social life, where sociality depends on a past to support and give continuity and meaning to a present. No collectivity can function without a sense of its own traditions and its own continuity with the past (Shils 1983, Elias 1994). Where no such past exists—as in new collectivities, for example—traditions, as Eric Hobsbawm has argued, are ‘invented.’ ‘The invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm 1983) is a social process in which memory is confabulated on behalf of a present requiring a history, for the purpose of creating a collective or national identity. But if collective memory emphasizes the diachronic relation between a present that requires a past, it also underscores the fundamentally social and synchronous character of memory formation. Collective memory concerns itself with dialogical, discursive processes occurring as a result of communication between various groups and institutions comprising the collectivity.

Just as the autobiographical memory of the individual is not identical to the history being recalled —always subject to reformulation, reconstitution, and distortion as a result of the temporal distance between remembering and what is remembered (Schachter 1995, Loftus and Ketcham 1994)—so, too, is collective (or historical) memory vulnerable to similar possibilities of confabulation, revision, and remodeling (Kammen 1995, Schudson 1995). Remembering, whether individually or collectively, always involves the representation after the fact of past events or experiences, never the return to the actual past. Freud himself described this parallel process between individual and collectivity when he wrote

If we do not wish to go astray in our judgment of their historical reality, we must above all bear in mind that people’s ‘childhood memories’ are only consolidated at a later period, usually at the age of puberty; and that this involves a complicated process of remodeling, analogous in every way to the process by which a nation constructs legends about its early history. (1913, p. 206n)

Particular memories, rather than being an enduringly stable feature of either individual or group life, are continually susceptible to instability and disruption. However, temporal distance is not the only explanation for the breach between history and memory. Interest and/or affect—present-day requirements of the individual or the collectivity—dictate the need for remembering. The imperatives of the present are decisive, it is believed, in the nature and character of remembering that occurs. As those present-day needs change, or are altered by circumstance, so too are memories altered. While there is probably not complete alteration, memory researchers are impressed by the capacity for substantial revision to occur.

3. The Neo-Durkheimian Perspective: The Embeddedness Of Collective Memory

American sociology of collective memory has been dominated by a ‘presentist’ psychology, building upon, refining, and revising elements of Hawlbachs’ insight concerning the present’s contribution to the recovery of the past. Here, research has focused on the relation between memory as a mechanism of response and contemporary strains in the collectivity and other social practices similarly related to responding to tensions within the social fabric. The unifying idea behind this research rests on the importance of a common ‘collective consciousness’ to social solidarity and cohesion—as originally defined by Durkheim (1997)—and the important role that memory plays in constituting that consciousness. Memory, it is argued, is ‘embedded’ (Prager 1998) in ‘mnemonic communities,’ (Zerubavel 1996) meaning that it is constituted, elaborated, and altered in response to social processes and practices occurring in a collectivity at any given point in time. Armed with an uncontested under-standing of the past, collective consciousness is strengthened because of a shared identity with the past; divergent memories, in contrast, express disunity and challenges to social solidarity.

3.1 Rites And Sites Of Remembrance

Collective consciousness is heavily structured through historical referents and the practices of rituals, rites, and commemorations in part serve to strengthen a common sense of the collectivity through shared history. Shils and Young (1953, see also Cannadine 1983) writing about the British coronation ceremonies and Ozouf (1991) describing ritual forms of per-formative remembering of the French Revolution identify the social significance of these forms of political practices and, through careful readings of both the content and the form of commemoration, describe the symbolic process of historical recovery on behalf of present-day political and ideological needs and interests (Connerton 1989). While it has been noted by Bakhtin (1968) and others that commemorations, like other moments of liminality (Turner), have the potential to take on a life-of-their own (e.g., Davis (1977) by either anticipating the restructuring of the collective consciousness or promoting social division, collective memory research has largely concerned itself with the particular stabilizing effects of past events remembered (e.g., Olick 1999, Schwartz 1996, Wagner-Pacifici 1991, Zelizer 1992) and its contribution to the collective consciousness. Nora (1989) calls attention to les lieux de memoire, or sites of memory, highlighting the necessity in the modern world to locate special sites for memory to occur. Because of the discontinuity in modern societies between memory and history—in contrast to traditional societies where ‘real environments of memory’ exist—memory sites occupy sacred ground self-consciously constructed to mark the present’s continued link with its past and to combat forgetting.

3.2 Frameworks Of Remembering

Contemporary researchers have identified narrative, discursive, and other semantic features of collective memory to demonstrate the socially embedded, constructivist, and presentist quality of collective memory. In Presenting the Past, Prager (1998) describes how individual memory relies upon available cultural narratives to provide context and meaning to what otherwise would be relatively meaningless and random events in an individual’s life (see also Schudson 1995). These narratives—for example, a tale of victimization or of physical or sexual abuse—speak to contemporary understandings of the ways in which the past informs or frames the present. Collective memory, too, relies on culturally provided narratives coding the past so as to make it meaningful and available to the present. The past can only be remembered discursively and rhetorically, as part of a dialogical process between social members or organizations collectively remembering (Middleton and Edwards 1990, Douglas 1986, Shotter 1990).

3.3 History As Constraint

‘The past in the present versus the present in the past’ (Schudson 1989) captures one important emendation to Hawlbach’s presentism, arguing against a too strong unmooring of the present from the past. Seeking to explicate the ways in which history imposes certain constraints upon what can be remembered, researchers have sought to restrict an unbridled social constructivism seemingly encouraged by Hawlbachs and others. Collective memory, despite its role as a resource for legitimation, cannot completely override history. As Schudson argues, the past imposes itself on memory (a) through the strength of prior remembrances that cannot be contested, e.g., the institution of slavery in American history, but instead are part of an obdurate historical reality that cannot be ignored, and (b) because the process of historical reconstruction occurs through a ‘politics of memory’ in which various groups within the collectivity offer differing versions of the past, are debated and socially negotiated, and form ‘the rhetorical structure of social organization’ (see Schudson 1992). A third constraint that elevates history in relation to memory, according to Schudson, is the role of individual trauma, a topic that will be returned to shortly. In a similar vein, Schwartz (1996) argues against a radical presentism that fails to recognize the importance to the collectivity of continuity and coherence with the past. He suggests that the reinterpretation of the past de no o is inhibited by counteracting social imperatives to understand the present as continuous with and coherent to what has preceded it. Finally, Olick (1999) strikes a similar cautionary note by emphasizing the ways in which earlier commemorations of historical events them-selves serve as constraining influences on current memory. He refers to the dialogue between current memorializations and prior ones as constituting ‘genre memories,’ in which the present is discursively steeped in these mediated pasts.

4. Neo-Freudianism: Trauma And The Embodiment Of The Past In The Present

Neo-Durkheimian approaches to collective memory emphasize the continuity of the present to the past, underscoring the important role that remembering plays in the constitution of the present. A neo-Freudian perspective, in contrast, insists that collective memory is a social process in response to social ruptures, or discontinuities, that have occurred in the past that, because not fully assimilated in conscious experience, subsequently interfere with the smooth functioning of collective life. The title of Friedlander’s autobiographical work, When Memory Comes (1991), an account of his discovery of his Jewish roots in pre-Holocaust Czechoslovakia, captures this idea that memory is an imperative, driven from the past, intruding upon and interfering with the present. Memory, as the title suggests, will come. Memory and Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’ are complementary concepts: together they define the present as always susceptible to intrusions from the past. Collective memory expresses not merely social practices but rather processes driven by psychological law. Friedlander (1992) acknowledges the large debt that scholars of the Holocaust owe to Freud when they invoke his ideas to the remembering and understanding of this event. The study of the Holocaust, it should be noted, has emerged as the paradigmatic literature for those researchers studying the phenomenon of collective memory in various world settings and who approach it in relation to past social ruptures. The past, it is argued, persists as a kind of ‘haunting’ presence in the present, hovering but intangible.

The endurance of ‘traumatic disruptions’ occupy, for the neo-Freudians, comparable conceptual terrain to that of collective consciousness for the neo-Durkheimians. But in the latter, the past finds expression in the present: trauma dictates that the past survives as if it were the present. Caruth (1996) defines trauma as wounds inflicted on the individual too overwhelming to be fully absorbed and available to consciousness. The consequence is that trauma lives on unconsciously—latently—but ultimately finds a voice in the present. A traumatic moment becomes ‘embodied’ (Prager 1998) or engraved on the person and, in time, intrudes upon later experiences in the present (Van Der Kolk and Van Der Hart 1996). Yet if this process describes the persistence of the past in individual experience, similar processes are also believed to shape collective experience, in which collective memory is characterized as the mediated process of remembering earlier collective or cultural trauma.

Moses and Monotheism (1939) serves as a foundational text, in which Freud describes how trauma transforms the present as repetition of a prior traumatic moment. He characterizes the Jewish murder of their leader, Moses, as a traumatic reliving of the earlier murder of the primal father and thus captures the way in which traumatic guilt, for a time buried, finds expression in an unconscious reenactment of the past in the present. As Caruth asserts about Freud’s argument, traumatic history helps explain not the practices that help reinforce the collective consciousness, but the overwhelming traumatic history that shapes the culture. Collective memory articulates the relation of a particular present for a group to its traumatic history that helped constitute it; in Moses and Monotheism, Freud attempts to capture the historical origins of both a particular Jewish culture, and the Christian response to it. Building upon this theme but extending it, Asman (1997) asserts that an original traumatic assault on an early period of Egyptian monotheism, long before Moses, continued to serve as a ‘stabilizer of memory,’ repetitively creating a religious enemy, long after the ‘real’ memory no longer possessed any carriers. While this early brutal assault on the first monotheists did not survive in memory, its real impact nonetheless led to the Egyptian experience of the Jew as a symbol of danger and crystallized into Western anti-Semitism, which continues to this day to shape Western political culture. Here, trauma knows no closure—even after the events are long forgotten and the victims no longer survive, it shapes and molds subsequent history in the image of the traumatic past.

Profound social disruptions—like slavery and the Civil War, the Vietnam War, and political assassinations in the United States (Neal 1998), the dictatorships and the ‘disappeared’ in the Southern Cone of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s (Hollander 1997), the European Holocaust, the rise and fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, ethnic conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe—have contributed to the prolific production of neo-Freudian scholarship on post-traumatic collective memory. Unlike neo-Durkheimian perspectives that tend to downplay the reality of historical experience and its impact upon the collectivity in favor of an appreciation of constructivism, a neo-Freudian approach takes seriously the materiality of terror and oppression and seeks to understand its enduring consequences after the fact on the collectivity. The lasting effects of the past on the present rely on the ideas of the persistence of unconscious guilt, transference, and projection. Despite the appeal, this perspective holds because it seriously confronts historical realities and its insistence that social institutions and individuals are irrevocably transformed as a result of these experiences, these concepts nonetheless seem inadequate analytic tools to provide a psychological justification for the survival of trauma long after its victims have disappeared. A more robust theory of the transmission of trauma across generations, or across eons, is necessary, if one is not to think that ultimately history, however traumatic, in time finds closure in spite of the enormity of the crime, the disruption, the terror.

5. Conclusion

Collective memory is of more than passing academic interest. Hannah Arendt (1951, p. 423) defines totalitarianism as a system that forbids grief and remembrance; it severs an individual’s or a group’s relation to a continuous past. This obliteration of the past, for Arendt, is synonymous with the death of moral man. Today, political elites throughout the world appreciate the constructed nature of a national memory and seek, through it, to shape their own political cultures. Similarly, there is often recognition of traumatic pasts that threaten to overshadow present experience and their need to proactively respond. As many nation-states in Eastern Europe, Southern Africa, and Latin America have attempted to recover or institutionalize democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, the challenge to incorporate the past into current politics—either by defining the polity in relation to the past or by insisting upon its transcendence—relies on both politics and psychology of collective memory. The Tribunal of Truth and Reconciliation, for example, in the Re-public of South Africa, not only acknowledges collective memory as a political reality, but also endorses a psychology that recognizes the heuristic effects of remembering to overcome the legacy of apartheid and to promote national unity. Other nations, still cognizant of the importance of collective memory, rather than promoting reconciliation between past and present, have implemented a politics of ‘for-getting,’ taking the position that the present can serve to refashion the past. The psychology of collective memory has emerged as a central point of political and intellectual controversy in various democratic states, and the politics of memory a central feature of post-dictatorial states.


  1. Arendt H 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Brace, New York
  2. Asman J 1997 Moses the Egyptian, The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  3. Bakhtin M 1968 Rabelais and His World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  4. Bartlett F C 1932 Remembering. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  5. Cannadine D 1983 The context, performance and meaning of ritual: The British monarchy and the ‘invention of tradition,’ c. 1820–1977. In: Hobsbawm E, Ranger T (eds.) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  6. Caruth C 1996 Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  7. Connerton P 1989 How Societies Remember. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  8. Davis N 1977 The abbeys of misrule. In: Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  9. Douglas M 1986 How Institutions Think. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY
  10. Durkheim E 1997 The Division of Labor in Society. The FreePress, New York
  11. Elias N 1994 The Civilizing Process. Blackwell Publishers, New York
  12. Freud S 1913 Notes on a Case of Obsessional Neuroses, standard edn. Norton Press, New York, Vol. 10
  13. Freud S 1939 Moses and Monotheism, standard edn. Norton Press, New York, Vol. 23
  14. Friedlander S 1991 When Memory Comes. Noonday Press, New York
  15. Friedlander S 1992 Trauma, transference, and ‘working through’ in writing the history of the Shoah. History and Memory 4: 39–59
  16. Hawlbachs M On Collective Memory. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  17. Hobsbawm E 1983 On inventing traditions. In: Hobsbawm E, Ranger T (eds.) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  18. Hollander N 1997 Love in a Time of Hate: Liberation Psychology in Latin America. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ
  19. Kammen M 1995 Some patterns and meanings of memory distortion in American history. In: Schachter D (ed.) Memory Distortion. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  20. Loftus E, Ketcham K 1994 The Myth of Repressed Memory. St. Martin’s Press, New York
  21. Middleton D, Edwards D 1990 Conversational remembering: A social psychological approach. In: Middleton D, Edwards D (eds.) Collective Remembering. Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 23–45
  22. Neal A 1998 National Trauma and Collective Memory. M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY
  23. Nora P 1989 Between memory and history: Les lieux de memoire. Representations 26: 7–25
  24. Olick J 1999 Genre memories and memory genres: A dialogical analysis of May 8, 1945. American Sociological Review 64: 391–402
  25. Ozouf M 1991 Festivals and the French Revolution. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  26. Prager J 1998 Presenting the Past, Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  27. Schacter D 1995 Memory distortion: History and current status. In: Schacter D (ed.) Memory Distortion. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  28. Schudson M 1989 The present in the past versus the past in the present. Communication 11: 105–13
  29. Schudson M 1992 Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget and Reconstruct the Past
  30. Schudson M 1995 Dynamics of distortion in collective memory. In: Schacter D (ed.) Memory Distortion. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  31. Schwartz B 1996 The expanding past. Qualitative Sociology I 9: 275–82
  32. Shils E 1983 Tradition. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  33. Shils E, Young M 1953 The meaning of the coronation. Sociological Review 1: 5–23
  34. Shotter J 1990 The social construction of remembering and forgetting. In: Middleton D, Edwards D (eds.) Collective Remembering. Sage Publications, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 120–38
  35. Turner V 1975 Drama, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  36. Van Der Kolk B, Van Der Hart O 1995 The intrusive past: The flexibility of memory and the engraving of trauma. In: Caruth C (ed.) Trauma, Explorations in Memory. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD
  37. Wagner-Pacifici R 1996 Memories in the making: Shapes of things that went. Qualitative Sociology 19: 301–321
  38. Zelizer B 1992 Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  39. Zerubavel E 1996 Social memories: Steps to a sociology of the past. Qualitative Sociology 19: 283–300
Community Environmental Psychology Research Paper


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get 10% off with the 24START discount code!