9 May 2009

Collective memory as social representations

Studies of collective memory in sociology (Connerton, 1989; Jelin, 1995, 2001, 2002; Halbwachs, 1992; Levy 1999; Levy & Szaider, 2005, 2006; Misztal, 2003; Nora, 1996; Olick & Robins, 1998; Olick, 1999, 2003; Sarlo, 2005) investigate how social differentation and political power shape narratives of the past. Sociologists have been interested in the role performed by the media, politicians and cultural artefacts such as memorials, rituals, etc. in the processes of legitimisation of certain collective memories in detriment to others. Collective memories are not the sum of individual memories or the outcome of sharing autobiographical memories in a specific social setting. They are social representations which live “in the world” (Hirst & Manier, 2008), rather than in people’s minds. This perspective is focussed on exploring social processes which form and legitimate public representations of the past. In other words, collective memories can be thought of as a group of ideas, images and feelings relating to the past which are not stored in the minds of individuals, but in the cultural resources that they share. This approach supports the view that the narratives of the past are maintained through “sites of memory” (Nora, 1996), which basically consist of discourses, rituals, memorials and institutional practices. The place for memory, therefore, is the place of political struggle, which is commonly represented as a struggle against forgetting due to fact that societies which remember their mistakes in the past tend not to commit the same errors in the present or in the future. Memory, as opposed to silence or forgetting, obscures what is actually a contest between rival memories, each with their own oblivions. This underlies a struggle between competing memories, rather than a struggle against forgetting. This is why collective memory performs a central role at time of defining social identities (Jelin, 2002). This feature is crucial after periods of mass violence such as dictatorships involving mass political repression towards dissidents. In these social contexts, collective memories form social identities whose cohesión – most of time- is based on only one goal: the search for reparative justice (Levy 1999; Levy & Szaider, 2005, 2006).

Several scholars (Halbswachs, 1992; Jelin,2002) who locate collective memory “in the world” do not deny that individuals are responsible for retrieving those memories. However, they argue that those memories are always shaped and re-shaped through social frameworks that allow the emergence of some memories, leaving others in the dark. Moreover, within this approach there are scholars (Connerton, 1989; Olick & Robbins 1998; Olick, 2003, 2008a) who locate collective memories in cultural artefacts and social practices because it is there that they are. In other words, collective memories would be located in culture, understood as a symbolic system. For this approach, what matters most is to analyse both the way in which societies use their cultural resources of memory –narratives of the past, rituals, memorials, etc.- and the processes that make collective memories generate, legitimate, convey and transform the society.

No comments: