Inspired by Vygotsky (1978, 1986) and Luria (1976), Wertsch (2002, 2008, 2009) claims that textual resources (e.g. narratives in textbooks about a collective past) function as mediators between the historical events and our understanding of those events. These narrative resources are schematic templates deeply embedded in socio-cultural frameworks. These schematic templates function to organize specific narratives according to abstract categories. Hence, abstract structures can underlie an entire set of specific narratives, each of which has a particular setting, cast of characters, dates, and so forth (Wertsch, 2009:129). The schematic narrative templates are specific to particular narrative traditions which can be expected to differ from one socio-cultural setting to another (Wertsch, 2009: 129). For this perspective, human action implies a tension between actors and cultural tools such as language and narrative texts. Therefore, cultural tools do not mechanically determine people’s behavior, although it is crucial to acknowledge the strong influence that they have.
Wertsch (2002) claims that individual and collective memories are distributed between social actors and texts. This leads us to focus on the way in which social actors and cultural tools interact in a specific social context, rather than on examining how cultural tools, such as textbooks, construct discursive representations of the past or, on the other hand, the way in which people perform the same action. In contrast to other approaches in collective memory (Jelin, 2002; Olick, 2008), which mainly focus on public and collective representations of the past, the interaction between cultural tools and individuals indicates how important individuals are as memory carriers. Nation states are not the only entities responsible for supplying the modern world with collective memories. However, it should be pointed out that they do play a central role in shaping what should be remembered and what is it better to be forget due to their power and the amount of resources devoted to this issue.
Wertsch (2000, 2008) examined the production and the appropriation of narratives templates about the Russian Civil War of 1918-20 and World War II by different generations of Russians. These studies, based on a content analysis of the narratives collected argued that schematic narrative templates that shape collective memory are tools used to organize and reconstruct an account of the past in practices of collective remembering. Instead of functioning as receptacles of precise and permanent information, these narrative templates function by indicating what should be said by an individual or group in the community. On the other hand, these studies have some limitations at the time of providing detailed evidence on how templates form, consolidate and transform memories at community levels. Although Wertsch (2000, 2008) draws conclusions about collective memory directly from actual narratives, this approach lacks a linguistic theory guiding the analyses or accounts for the contextual influence determining the ‘appropriateness’ of such narratives.
Collective remembering can be thought of as a mediated action, which implies the interaction between social actors and cultural tools. It is not an action performed only by isolated individuals, or only by cultural tools. Both elements must be related to each other, always taking into consideration that perhaps that relation is in tension. This process has some implications, perhaps the most important are that cultural tools reflect a sociocultural setting and mediated remembering is situated in a socio-cultural context.
Moreover, it should be borne in mind that collective memory is distributed and in flux between individuals and cultural tools. To conclude, Wertsch (2002) proposes an interesting distinction between collective memory and collective knowledge of the past (e.g. history), which I believe can be extremely useful for social scientists and historians to draw a line between those two fields. Wertsch (2002) argues, firstly, that collective memory belongs to an identity project which is often used by members of social groups and communities to display a picture of heroism, victimhood, etc. Moreover, these social groups and communities carrying such collective memories in form of narrative templates are usually impatient with ambiguity, ignoring counterevidence in order to preserve the established narrative and, thereby, main group cohesion. On the other hand, Wertsch points out that the main actors (e.g. government, political leaders and historians) shaping the collective knowledge of the past, aspire to arrive at an objective truth, regardless of the consequences. Thus, they recognize complexity and ambiguity by revising existing narratives in light of new evidence (e.g. truth commissions).
Jelin, E. (2002). Los Trabajos de la Memoria. Madrid/Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.
Olick, J. (2008). From collective memory to the sociology of mnemonic practices and products. In A. Erll & A. Nunning (eds.), Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (pp.151-161). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (edited by Michael Cole). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1986). Thought and Language (edited by Alex Kosulin). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wertsch, J. (2000). Narratives as cultural tools in sociocultural analysis: official history in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia. Ethos 28 (4), 511-533.
Wertsch, J. (2002). Voices of Collective Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wertsch, J. (2008). The narrative organization of collective memory. Ethos 36 (1), 120-135.
Wertsch, J. (2009). Collective memory. In P. Boyer & J. Wertsch (eds.) Memory in Mind and Culture (pp.117-137). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.