Collective memory refers to the shared memories and experiences that help define a group or community’s identity.
By maintaining group connections with stories and myths about their past, groups can continue to evolve without losing sight of where they came from.
One prime example of this phenomenon is seen in war memories. Stories about national heroes who have fought in wars are passed down through families and communities for generations in order to instil a sense of pride in a nation’s strength and values.
Ongoing conversations about a culture’s past can help shape the culture’s understanding of their history while also informing contemporary attitudes toward group identity and belonging.
Other illustrations highlighting the importance of collective memory can include US national holidays like Independence Day or the influence of historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.
However, the interpretation of collective memory is not fixed or static. It is constantly evolving as societies experience new events, reinterpret past events, and undergo generational and cultural changes. (We see this, for example, in the movement to take down statues of confederate soldiers in the USA, where myth-making about the past is being changed and challenged).
Definition of Collective Memory
In psychology, collective memory has been studied extensively by scholars interested in how people form group identities and how these identities affect social behavior.
The concept of collective memory refers to how groups within a culture retain and exchange information amongst themselves.
It is something that allows groups of individuals to hold onto familiar experiences across generations. It includes shared memories, values, beliefs, narratives, and cultural heritage collectively held by a group or society (Wertsch, 2008).
As stated by Roediger (2021),
“…collective memory refers to the memories that individuals have as members of the groups to which they belong, whether small (family, school) or large (political party, nation)” (p. 1388).
Individuals acquire knowledge about their past and present through their interactions with society and others. In particular, the hidden curriculum of the school is often instrumental in instilling a collective memory and patriotic identity among citizens of a nation.
This knowledge includes events they have experienced personally as well as events that are part of the larger history or cultural narrative of their community.
How Cognitive Psychology Explains Collective Memory
The process of encoding this information into memory involves attentional processes and semantic elaboration. However, in their research, Barber and colleagues (2014) found out that “collaborative encoding did not significantly shape collective memories” (p. 131). Instead, they claim that retrieval processes and social influence shape collective memories more than encoding (Barber et al., 2014). Information stored in collective memory can be retrieved through various mechanisms, including storytelling, rituals, symbols, traditions, language patterns, or other social practices that help establish shared meaning within a community.
10 Examples of Collective Memory
- National holidays: National holidays, such as Independence Day or Thanksgiving, reinforce the importance of historical events and help to create shared meanings about the past.
- Songs and anthems: National anthems and patriotic songs also contribute to collective memory by serving as a reminder of key moments and values in national history.
- Monuments and memorials: Public monuments, statues, and memorials commemorate significant people or events in the past, providing physical reminders that help to maintain collective memory over time.
- Family traditions: Cultural practices passed down from generation to generation within families contribute to collective memory. For example, recipes, holiday traditions, and folktales.
- Oral histories: Personal stories passed on through family members or community elders can provide details about historical events that might not be captured in official history books.
- Folklore & legends: Stories that explain unusual cultural beliefs or describe imaginary events often have their roots in historical experiences. For example, a story about a dragon protecting a village could contain elements of real-life struggles for autonomy in the past.
- Museums & artifacts: Museums and exhibits showcasing artifacts from the past also serve as reminders of significant moments or objects from history. So, if you go to the Museum of Natural History, for instance, you can get a better understanding of the history of humanity.
- Language & proverbs: Particular language dialects and proverbs can depict cultural heritage by capturing an accumulated knowledge base related to a particular group’s experiences over time. If Hungarians say “hogy van” instead of “How are you?”, it is a way to remember the past.
- Place-names & landmarks: Place-names, landmarks, and other geographic features can also be reminders of collective memory tied to a certain location. A sound example is the megalithic tombs in Ireland, known as cairns, which help us remember ancient traditions.
- National sports: Olympic games, Cricket World Cup, and other international events are often seen as a representation of national identity and pride, which are shaped by collective memory. So, if you watch the Olympics, you can experience the collective memory of the history of Ancient Greece.
History of the Concept of Collective Memory
From ancient Greece until now, there has been a longstanding belief about the connection between individual memory experience with a broader community’s remembrance, known as collective memory.
The concept of collective memory started to gain traction more towards the 19th century in social and philosophical thought.
One figure at the forefront of this discourse is French philosopher Emile Durkheim, whose work emphasized how societies form their own collective representations using shared practices & values (Misztal, 2003).
Durkheim also believes that individuals have cultural schemas from being part of different societal cohorts, which help them interpret life events by fitting them into relevant contexts (Misztal, 2003).
In the mid-20th century, Maurice Halbwachs expanded on Durkheim’s work by focusing on how memories were socially constructed and influenced by group identity (Russell, 2006).
In the latter half of the 20th century, several scholars made significant contributions to the study of collective memory.
Yael Zerubavel (1995), for instance, studied how nations construct specific narratives about their pasts, which can impact their overall identity and representation in the modern world.
Meanwhile, Andrew Hoskins (2011) emphasized using cultural forms like media to shape public consciousness through various historical interpretations reinforced by news articles, opinion pieces, and other mediums.
Recently, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have provided insights into how individuals interact and perceive collective memory.
It allows for a better understanding of how shared emotional experiences such as trauma or celebration can impact personal emotions stored in the brain’s structure.
Types of Collective Memory
According to Candia (2023), there are two types of collective memory: communicative memory, which includes memories sustained through socialization, and cultural memory, which involves memories maintained by access to records.
Let’s have a look at each of them:
1. Communicative Memory
This type of collective memory refers to the memories that are sustained by acts of socialization.
It is also known as “living” or “oral” memory because it is transmitted from one generation to another through social interactions, language, and storytelling (Candia, 2023).
Communicative memory is mostly implicit and informal, and it often involves personal experiences and emotions linked with historical events.
Examples of communicative memory include family traditions, oral histories, songs, proverbs, folklore, legends, place names & landmarks.
2. Cultural Memory
Cultural memory refers to the memories maintained by access to records or other forms of external sources present in a particular culture, like books, journals, archival documents, museum accounts, etc.
It is also called “historical” or “documentary” memory because it relies on permanent artifacts such as written documents like books or journals and visual representations such as photographs or films.
Unlike communicative memory, which is more informal in nature, cultural memories are formalized. Still, the importance can vary among regions depending upon context and its impact on society (Candia, 2023).
An example is national holidays celebrated formally at a national level.
Overall both forms of collective memory complement each other since they impart significant events related to past experiences and bring richness in awareness about different cultures and their histories.
Importance of Collective Memory for Cultural Groups
From transmitting cultural heritage to promoting resilience, collective memory is important in reinforcing social values and encouraging people to come together.
Here are some of the points that illustrate its importance:
- Transmits cultural heritage: Collective memory transmits the knowledge, experiences, values, and traditions of one generation to another, which helps to ensure that culture and history are preserved.
- Creates group identity: By sharing memories and narratives with others in their community or group, individuals create a sense of belonging and share identity that helps build social cohesion.
- Helps promote understanding: Collective memory helps better understand the past and its legacies in society’s current state. This knowledge draws lessons from the events that shaped them to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
- Helps in conflict resolution: Collectively remembering past conflicts can help resolve differences between groups by identifying commonalities and creating a sense of mutual understanding.
- Promotes resilience: By preserving memories about difficult times such as natural calamities, wars, pandemics, etc., collective memory can foster resilience for those who endure these challenges again & again by using previously acquired knowledge embedded in the culture.
Collective memory is a social construct that reflects a group or society’s collective experiences, knowledge, and values. People create a narrative that expresses their past and present identity by sharing memories, stories, traditions, and artifacts.
From patriotic songs that unite a nation to family traditions passed down through generations- every culture has a rich tapestry of collective memories woven into its fabric.
These narratives give context to our experiences and shape our identities as individuals and as members of communities.
More than just storytelling or recounting events of the past, it has become an interdisciplinary field of study that contributes significantly to understanding human cognition and behavior.
Barber, S. J., Rajaram, S., & Fox, E. B. (2012). Learning and remembering with others: The key role of retrieval in shaping group recall and collective memory. Social Cognition, 30(1), 121–132. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2012.30.1.121
Candia, C. (2023). Quantifying collective memories. In Handbook of computational social science. Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd. https://arxiv.org/pdf/2203.05627.pdf
Del Giudice, M., Carayannis, E. G., & Rosaria, M. (2012). Cross-cultural knowledge management: Fostering innovation and collaboration inside the multicultural enterprise. Springer.
Hoskins, A. (2011). From collective memory to a new memory ecology. On Media Memory, 278–288. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230307070_21
Misztal, B. A. (2003). Durkheim on collective memory. Journal of Classical Sociology, 3(2), 123–143. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468795×030032002
Roediger, H. L. (2021). Three facets of collective memory. American Psychologist, 76(9), 1388–1400. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000938
Russell, N. (2006). Collective memory before and after Halbwachs. The French Review, 79(4), 792–804. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25480359
Wertsch, J. V. (2008). The narrative organization of collective memory. Ethos, 36(1), 120–135. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20486564
Zerubavel, Y. (1995). Recovered roots. University of Chicago Press.