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Collective memory refers to the shared pool of memories, knowledge and information of a social group that is significantly associated with the group's identity. The English phrase "collective memory" and the equivalent French phrase "la mémoire collective" appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century. The philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs analyzed and advanced the concept of the collective memory in the book La mémoire collective (1950). Collective memory can be constructed, shared, and passed on by large and small social groups. Examples of these groups can include nations, generations, communities among others. Collective memory has been a topic of interest and research across a number of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, history, philosophy and anthropology.
- 1 Conceptualization of Collective Memory
- 2 Collective Memory and Psychological Research
- 3 Collective Memory, Culture and the Public Sphere
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Conceptualization of Collective Memory
Attributes of Collective Memory
Collective memory has been conceptualized in several ways and proposed to have certain attributes. For instance, collective memory can refer to a shared body of knowledge (e.g., memory of a nation’s past leaders or presidents); the image, narrative, values and ideas of a social group; or the continuous process by which collective memories of events change.
History versus Collective Memory
The difference between history and collective memory is best understood when comparing the aims and characteristics of each. A goal of history broadly is to provide a comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased portrayal of past events. This often includes the representation and comparison of multiple perspectives and the integration of these perspectives and details to provide a complete and accurate account. In contrast, collective memory focuses on a single perspective, for instance, the perspective of one social group, nation, or community. Consequently, collective memory represents past events as associated with the values, narratives and biases specific to that group.
Studies have found that people from different nations can have major differences in their recollections of the past. In one study where American and Russian students were instructed to recall significant events from World War II and these lists of events were compared, the majority of events recalled by the American and Russian students were not shared. Differences in the events recalled and emotional views towards the Civil War, World War II and the Iraq War have also been found in a study comparing collective memory between generations of Americans.
Perspectives on Collective Memory
The concept of collective memory, initially developed by Halbwachs, has been explored and expanded from various angles – a few of these are introduced below.
James E. Young has introduced the notion of 'collected memory' (opposed to collective memory), marking memory's inherently fragmented, collected and individual character, while Jan Assmann develops the notion of 'communicative memory', a variety of collective memory based on everyday communication. This form of memory is similar to the exchanges in an oral culture or the memories collected (and made collective) through oral history. As another subform of collective memories Assmann mentions forms detached from the everyday, it can be particular materialized and fixed points as, e.g. texts and monuments.
The theory of collective memory was also discussed by former Hiroshima resident and atomic bomb survivor, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, in his tour of the United States as an attempt to rally support and funding for the reconstruction of his Memorial Methodist Church in Hiroshima. He theorized that the use of the atomic bomb had forever been added to the world's collective memory and would serve in the future as a warning against such devices. See John Hersey's Hiroshima novel.
The idea was also discussed more recently in The Celestine Prophecy and subsequent novels written by James Redfield as a continuing process leading to the eventual transcendence of this plane of existence. The idea that a futuristic development of the collective unconscious and collective memories of society allowing for a medium with which one can transcend ones existence is an idea expressed in certain variations of new age religions.
Collective Memory and Psychological Research
Though traditionally a topic studied in the humanities, collective memory has become an area of interest in psychology. Common approaches taken in psychology to study collective memory have included investigating the cognitive mechanisms involved in the formation and transmission of collective memory; and comparing the social representations of history between social groups.
Social Representations of History
Research on collective memory have taken the approach to compare how different social groups form their own representations of history and how such collective memories can impact ideals, values, behaviors and vice versa. Developing social identity and evaluating the past in order to prevent past patterns of conflict and errors are proposed functions of why groups form social representations of history. This research has focused on surveying different groups or comparing differences in recollections of historical events, such as the examples given earlier when comparing history and collective memory.
Differences in collective memories between social groups, such as nations or states, have been attributed to collective narcissism and egocentric/ethnocentric bias. In one related study where participants from 35 countries were questioned about their country’s contribution to world history and provided a percentage estimation from 0% to 100%, evidence for collective narcissism was found as many countries gave responses exaggerating their country’s contribution. In another study where American’s from the 50 states were asked similar questions regarding their state’s contribution to the history of the United States, patterns of overestimation and collective narcissism were also found.
Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying Collaborative Recall
Certain cognitive mechanisms involved during group recall and the interactions between these mechanisms have been suggested to contribute to the formation of collective memory. Below are some mechanisms involved during when groups of individuals recall collaboratively.
Collaborative Inhibition and Retrieval Disruption. When groups collaborate to recall information, they experience collaborative inhibition, a decrease in performance compared to the pooled memory recall of an equal number of individuals. Weldon and Bellinger (1997) and Basden, Basden, Bryner, and Thomas (1997) provided evidence that retrieval interference underlies collaborative inhibition, as hearing other members' thoughts and discussion about the topic at hand interferes with one's own organization of thoughts and impairs memory.
The main theoretical account for collaborative inhibition is retrieval disruption. During the encoding of information, individuals form their own idiosyncratic organization of the information. This organization is later used when trying to recall the information. In a group setting as members exchange information, the information recalled by group members disrupts the idiosyncratic organization one had developed. As each member’s organization is disrupted, this results in the less information recalled by the group compared to the pooled recall of participants who had individually recalled (an equal number of participants as in the group).
Despite the problem of collaborative inhibition, working in groups may benefit an individual's memory in the long run, as group discussion exposes one to many different ideas over time. Working alone initially prior to collaboration seems to be the optimal way to increase memory.
Early speculations about collaborative inhibition have included explanations, such as diminished personal accountability, social loafing and the diffusion of responsibility, however retrieval disruption remains the leading explanation. Studies have found that collective inhibition to sources other than social loafing, as offering a monetary incentive have been evidenced to fail to produce an increase in memory for groups. Further evidence from this study suggest something other than social loafing is at work, as reducing evaluation apprehension – the focus on one's performance amongst other people – assisted in individuals' memories but did not produce a gain in memory for groups. Personal accountability – drawing attention to one's own performance and contribution in a group – also did not reduce collaborative inhibition. Therefore, group members' motivation to overcome the interference of group recall cannot be achieved by several motivational factors.
Cross-cueing. Information exchange among group members often helps individuals to remember things that they would not have remembered had they been working alone. In other words, the information provided by Person A may 'cue' memories in Person B. This phenomenon results in enhanced recall.
Error Pruning. Compared to recalling individually, group members can provide opportunities for error prune during recall to detect errors that would otherwise be uncorrected by an individual.
Social Contagion Errors. Group settings can also provide opportunities to exposure of erroneous information that may be mistaken to be correct or previously studied.
Rexposure effects. Listening to group members recall the previously encoded information can enhance memory as it provides a second exposure opportunity to the information.
Forgetting. Studies have shown that information forgotten and excluded during group recall can promote the forgetting of related information compared to information unrelated to that which was excluded during group recall. Selective forgetting has been suggested to be a critical mechanism involved in the formation of collective memories and what details are ultimately included and excluded by group members. This mechanism has been studied using the socially shared retrieval induced forgetting paradigm, a variation of the retrieval induced forgetting method with individuals.
Synchronization of memories (from dyads to networks).
Bottom-up approaches to the formation of collective memories investigate how cognitive-level phenomena allow for people to synchronize their memories following conversational remembering. Due to the malleability of human memory, talking with one another about the past results in memory changes that increase the similarity between the interactional partners' memories  When these dyadic interactions occur in a social network, one can understand how large communities converge on a similar memory of the past.[further explanation needed] Research on larger interactions show that collective memory in larger social networks can emerge due to cognitive mechanisms involved in small group interactions.
Collective Memory, Culture and the Public Sphere
Memorialization of Collective Memory
The collective memory of a nation is represented in part by the memorials it chooses to erect. Public memory is enshrined in memorials from the Holocaust memorial in Berlin to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. Whatever a nation chooses to memorialize in physical monument, or perhaps more significantly, what not to memorialize, is an indicator of the collective memory.
Collective memory is also sustained through a continuous production of representational forms. In the media age – and maybe particularly during the last decade of increasing digitization – this generates a flow of, and production of, second hand memories (see James E. Young below). Particular narratives and images are reproduced and reframed, yet also questioned and contested through new images and so forth. Collective memory today differs much from the collective memories of an oral culture, where no printing technique or transportation contributed to the production of imagined communities (see Imagined Communities) where we come to share a sense of heritage and commonality with many human beings we have never met – as in the manner a citizen may feel a sort of 'kinship' with people of his nation, region or city.
Mass Media and Collective Memory
Film and Television
The arrival of film created many images, film scenes, news scenes, photographs, quotes, and songs, which became very familiar to regular moviegoers and remained in their collective memory. Images of particular movie stars became part of collective memory. During cinema visits, people could watch newsreels of news stories from around the world. For the first time in history a mass audience was able to view certain stories, events, and scenes, all at the same time. They could all view how for instance the Hindenburg disaster was caught on camera and see and remember these scenes all at once.
When television became a global mass entertainment medium in the 1950s and 1960s the collective memory of former cinema visitors increased when various films could be repeated endlessly and worldwide on television broadcasts. For example, old films like The Wizard of Oz, King Kong and cartoons like the Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry have been shown internationally and remained on television, through syndication. Hereby particular film scenes have become well-known, even to people who had not seen these films on their original cinematic release. The same applies for television shows like I Love Lucy which have been repeated so often over the decades that certain episodes and scenes have become ingrained in the public's collective memory.
When newsreels in the cinema gradually made place for television news broadcasting, it became a habit for mass audiences to watch the daily news on television. Worldwide this led to a new kind of collective memory where various news events could be shown much quicker than with the cinema News Reels. Therefore, certain filmed news stories could be shown on the same day they happened and even live during the broadcast itself. Millions of people have viewed the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the landing of Apollo 11 in 1969, the Wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana (1981), the death of Princess Diana, and the September 11 attacks on their television. In fact, certain questions like "What were you doing when.... happened?", usually referring to a large, heavily mediatized event, have become a very important question in the history of the development of the collective memory.
Many people can remember what they were doing when certain internationally big media events occurred and these type of questions are usually used as a sort of milestone in individual people's life. For example, "What were you doing when you heard that John Lennon was shot?". Due to television repeats, these moments could be relived even long after the actual event happened. The introduction of video stores and video recorders in the 1980s, the internet in the 1990s and the DVD player and YouTube in the 2000s even increased the opportunity to view and check out famous and infamous movie and TV scenes.
Thanks to all these innovations certain scenes have become part of audiences' collective memory. This makes it easy for journalists, comedians, advertisers, politicians, etc. to make references to these scenes, knowing that a large audience will recognise and understand them without further explanation. For example, when president Ronald Reagan concluded a speech on March 13, 1985 against the increase of taxes he said "Make my day". Most people in the audience and TV viewers understood the reference to the Clint Eastwood film Sudden Impact and laughed and cheered as a consequence of that. The dance moves from Michael Jackson's music video for "Thriller" have been repeatedly shown on TV so much that they are instantly recognizable and therefore imitated frequently for comedic effect in films, TV shows, commercials, etc.
Whenever a comedy show or film features a scene where someone is killed or threatened in a shower, most people understand it as a parody of Psycho. Various cartoons from Bugs Bunny to Shrek have spoofed famous fairy tales, knowing that everybody is familiar with the original stories and will immediately laugh at every deviation. The roar of movie monster Godzilla and Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan yell have become instantly recognizable and easy to put into a context, even without the images.
Numerous TV shows and films such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, Scary Movie, the Shrek films, and the films of Mel Brooks, have referenced, parodied, imitated and recreated these famous scenes, often to the point of overkill. Certain observers, like Kenneth Tynan in a quote from his diaries from October 19, 1975 have noted that due to the heavy rotation and repeats of all these famous film scenes, often even without their original context, they have become part of the cultural consciousness. He wrote: "Nobody took into account the tremendous impact that would be made by the fact that films are permanent and easily accessible from childhood onward. As the sheer number of films piles up, their influence will increase, until we have a civilization entirely molded by cinematic values and behavior patterns." (Quoted from Tynan, Kenneth, The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, Bloomsbury, 2001, page 66).
The influence of television scenes on collective memory has been noticeable with children who are able to quote lines and songs from commercials, films and television shows they have watched regularly. Some young children who have watched a large amount of television have been known to react in an unnatural way to certain situations, comparable with overacting, because they recreate scenes they remember seeing in similar situations on television. There have been cases reported of people who've compared their own life too much with the romanticized, idealized life depicted in films and television series. They try to recreate the happy families and perfect love relationships they remember seeing on television or in movies.
Not all scenes that were once collective memory are remembered as well today. Certain shows, commercials and films that were popular in one decade are shown less frequently on television in the next. Thus, certain scenes do not rest in the collective memory of the next generation. Many references in old Bugs Bunny cartoons to Hollywood stars and radio shows who were famous in the 1940s, are almost obscure to modern viewers. On the other hand, certain scenes have remained in the collective memory, due to being constantly repeated in other media and are well known even for those unfamiliar with the original. For example, even people who never saw the film King Kong know that there is a scene in which the large ape climbs the Empire State Building with a human girl in his hand. This could be a negative side effect of the multi-referential nature films and television shows.
Younger audiences, unfamiliar with the original subject being referenced in a contemporary film or TV series, do not recognize the reference and assume that, for instance a Twilight Zone plot reference in The Simpsons has been thought up by the creators of The Simpsons instead of the other way around. In some cases, references or parodies of older movies in contemporary films and TV shows are almost comparable to plagiarism since they just mimic or imitate a famous scene frame-by-frame instead of adding a funny new element.
In a more general and global perspective, the work of Jeffrey Andrew Barash emphasizes the ways in which the mass media select, articulate and transmit reported events and thus endow them with public significance. Mass media representation of communicated events configures them in accord with spatio-temporal patterns and a logic that are not simple replicas of the order of everyday experience, since disseminated information is charged with an autonomous symbolic sense through which public awareness is channeled and sedimented in collective memory. This autonomous symbolic sense draws its potency from an uncanny ability to simulate direct experience while dissimulating the gap which separates it from the immediate life world in which it originates. The potency of the mass media format appears in a particularly clear light in examples such as the televised Romanian revolution, media representation of the Balkan wars, and the mediatized O. J. Simpson trial in the United States
This notion of collective memory overflows into the music and film world. Certain references and songs have permeated through culture and invoke certain reactions in a wide social group. This makes it easy to make references to these scenes and songs, knowing that a large audience will recognize and understand them without further explanation.[further explanation needed]
Soundtracks have been instrumental to cinema and television as a subtler form of expression and identity. Music, and more specifically soundtracks, can be utilized as an outlet for hope, possibility and resistance for everyday people. In Time Passages, George Lipsitz acknowledged that “dominant ideology triumphed on television in the 1950s, just as it did in political and social life” (Lipsitz, 67).  However, recently movies and television shows like Insecure, Super Fly, Waiting to Exhale, and more, have been able to incorporate music to spread “other” culture and foster a community feel. The music not only grounds itself in time but also helps personify the complex characters. The combination of new and classic songs helps promote these ideals. Sharing music and exchanging songs and in turn facilitating a collective memory also connects a person to their larger community. In "Record and Hold," Jose Van Dijck looked at how this “Shared listening, exchanging songs, and talking about music create a sense of belonging, and connect a person’s sense of self to a larger community and generation” (Van Dijck, 357). The same song can elicit different memories and emotions from different people – but they remain a sign of their time and location. Collective memory highlights the power of television and popular culture to influence politics and offer a glimpse into other people’s social realities. The music incorporated in popular television and film culture can also play a role in young people’s development of their identities. Van Dijck wrote, “Recorded music also has a formative function: young people in particular construct their identities while figuring out their musical taste” (Van Dijck 359). Television and movies can have just as big of an impact on cultural identities as any history book.[further explanation needed]
- Collective consciousness
- Collective intelligence, Distributed cognition
- Collective unconscious
- Digital preservation, Web archiving
- Les Lieux de Mémoire
- National memory
- Selective omission – biases to taboo some elements of a collective memory.
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- For a Sociology of Collective Memory short discussion with bibliography of French works by Marie-Claire Lavabre, Research Director at CNRS – Centre Marc Bloch (CEVIPOF)
- Interdisciplinary Study of Memory Site by John Sutton, Philosophy Department, Macquarie University, Sydney. Links to many bibliographies
- "History in the Public Sphere: Analyzing Collective Memory" course by Harold Marcuse, History Department, University of California, Santa Barbara. With bibliography and links to readings.