Social Memory

Traditionally, human memory has been seen as an archive from which specific items can be retrieved in the process of remembering. In order not to forget, people would create mnemonics, as part of what Frances Yates has called the "art of memory" (1966). This perspective was described by Augustine (X.viii(12); 1991: 185):

"I come to the fields and vast palaces of memory, where are the treasuries of innumerable images of all kinds of objects brought in by sense-perception. Hidden there is whatever we think about ,... and whatever else has been deposited and placed on reserve and has not been swallowed up and buried in oblivion. When I am in this storehouse, I ask that it produce what I want to recall, and immediately certain things come out; some things require a longer search, and have to be drawn out as it were from more recondite receptacles .... until what I want is freed of mist and emerges from its hiding places."

It has however long been recognised that, in fact, human memory does not behave like the hard disk of your computer; it is not always accurate and reliable. Human memory can fail completely or it can be influenced by a variety of different factors, and the past can thus be altered (Lowenthal 1985: 193–210).

One important group of such factors, as Maurice Halbwachs argued (1980), derives from the social arena, which people always inhabit when they remember. He therefore introduced the term 'collective memory' (mémoire collective). Halbwachs stressed how strongly social processes influence not only people's personal memories of their own lifetimes, but also a community's shared memories of the past (Kohli-Kunz 1973: 39–42; see also Shils 1981: 50f.). Such collective memories are crucial for the identity of groups such as families, believers of a religion, or social classes (Halbwachs 1992). James Young reminded us, however, that societies cannot remember in any other way than through their constituents' memories. He suggested therefore that we speak of 'collected memory' rather than 'collective memory' (Young 1993: XI).

Interestingly, Halbwachs excepts the academic study of history from such social influences and thus maintains a strong division between history and memory. According to Halbwachs, it would, in principle, be possible to distill accurate memories of the past by removing the social layers of individual accounts, thus bringing to light the originally archived item (see also Thompson 1988: 110–117, 150).

Going far beyond Halbwachs's argument, cognitive psychologists, brain specialists, and sociologists have recently proposed that human memory works radically differently from the traditional archive model and is in fact constructed in the human brain (e.g. Bolles 1988 and the view of Radical Constructivism). Likewise, scholars in the humanities have argued that memory of the past is not only influenced but constituted by social contexts of the present (Kohli-Kunz 1973: 31–54; Middleton and Edwards 1990; Fentress and Wickham 1992; Samuel 1994: introduction). This position is expressed by David Bakhurst who claims (1990: 219f.), referring to the work of the Soviet theorist of language V.N.Voloshinov that

"to remember is always to give a reading of the past, a reading which requires linguistic skills derived from the traditions of explanation and story-telling within a culture and which [presents] issues in a narrative that owes its meaning ultimately to the interpretative practices of a community of speakers. This is true even when what is remembered is one's own past experience... [The] mental image of the past ... becomes a phenomenon of consciousness only when clothed with words, and these owe their meaning to social practices of communication".

Such reasoning questions the separation of past and present in a fundamental way. As a consequence it becomes fruitless to discuss whether or not a particular event or process remembered corresponds to the actual past: all that matters are the specific conditions under which such memory is constructed as well as the personal and social implications of memories held (Berger 1963: chapter 3; Thelen 1989: 1125; Fentress and Wickham 1992: XI). This insight has become the basis for recent work in Oral History (e.g. Popular Memory Group 1982; but cf. Thompson 1988). The distinction between individual and cultural memory is thus not necessarily a sharp one. Both reflect first and foremost the conditions of the present in which they originat (Geary 1994: 10-12, 19-20).

Ancient monuments are places where people who grew up in the neighbourhood remember their childhood (Holtorf 1993). But these memories were not passively stored in those people's minds until they came back into the open, e.g. by association. Monuments, like other artefacts, lead people to create a past through active remembrances within the social context in which they live. Such memories can be important in defining both personal and collective identities (Radley 1990; Tjebbe 1998).


Augustine [Saint Augustine] (1991) Confessions. Translation, introduction, and notes by Henry Chack. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bakhurst, David (1990) Social Memory in Soviet Thought. In: D.Middleton and D.Edwards (eds) Collective Remembering, pp. 203-226. London: Sage.

Berger, Peter L. (1963) Invitation to Sociology. A Humanistic Perspective. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Bolles, Edmund B. (1988) Remembering and Forgetting. An Inquiry into the Nature of Memory. New York: Walker & Co.

Fentress, James and Chris Wickham (1992) Social Memory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Geary, Patrick (1994) Phantoms of Remembrance. Memory and Oblivion at the end of the first millennium. Princeton: Preinceton University Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice (1980) The Collective Memory [1951]. New York and London: Harper and Row.

Halbwachs, Maurice (1992) On Collective Memory. Edited, translated, and introduced by L. A. Coser. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Holtorf, Cornelius J. (forthcoming) Landscapes of Monuments as Landscapes of the Mind. The Contemporary Meanings of Megalithic Monuments. In: J.Nordbladh (ed.) Megaliths and Landscape. Göteborg.

Kohli-Kunz, Alice (1973) Erinnern und Vergessen. Das Gegenwärtigsein des Vergangenen als Grundproblem historischer Wissenschaft. Erfahrung und Denken, vol. 40. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Lowenthal, David (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Middleton, David and Derek Edwards (eds) (1990) Collective Remembering. London: Sage.

Popular Memory Group (1982) Popular memory: theory, politics, method. In: R. Johnson, G. McLennan, B. Schwarz, and D. Sutton (eds) Making Histories. Studies in history-writing and politics, pp. 205-252. London etc.: Hutchinson.

Radley, Alan (1990) Artefacts, Memory and a Sense of the Past. In: D.Middleton and D.Edwards (eds) Collective Remembering, pp. 46-59. London: Sage.

Samuel, Raphael (1994) Theatres of Memory, vol. 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. London: Verso.

Shils, Edward (1981) Tradition. London: Faber and Faber.

Thelen, David (1989) Memory and American History. The Journal of American History 75, 1117-1129.

Thompson, Paul (1988) The Voice of the Past. Oral History. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Tijen, Tjebbe (1998) The Arts of Oneself. Twenty-six short tales on personal memorabilia.

Yates, Frances (1966) The Art of Memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Young, James E. (1993) The Texture of Memory. Holocaust, Memorials and Meaning. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

© Cornelius Holtorf