The primary source being explored for my blog entry is The Collective Memory by Maurice Halbwachs (1992). This book and its author are often cited as foundation for the collective or social memory theory which has had an impact on several disciplines of the social science including, anthropology, sociology and psychology.
Maurice Halbwachs was born during 1877 in Reims, France. Growing up, Halbwachs was an astute student who, in his early 20’s, was able to secure enrollment at the prestigious school the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (Russell, 2006). After completing his education in Paris, Halbwachs spent the next few years teaching and traveling between France and Germany. During 1905, Halbwachs met Émile Durkheim who inspired Halbwachs’ interest in society and social processes. Over the next few years, Halbwachs taught sociology in Germany while he refined and developed his approach to understand social processes like how culture is transmitted across time and space. By 1925, Halbwachs had completed Les Cadres Sociaux de la Memoir (The Social Frameworks of Memory) in which he first coined the term collective memory (Ibid., 2006).
The outbreak of World War 2 had dire consequences for Halbwachs. Following the protest of the detention of a Jewish relative, Halbwachs was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. The conditions at Buchenwald were very harsh as poor sanitation, starvation and disease were rampant throughout the camp. When Halbwachs was sent to Buchenwald, he was in his late 60’s and soon after his arrival at Buchenwald, Halbwachs contracted dysentery and died (Ibid., 2006). Five years later, Halbwachs’ La Mémoire collective (The Collective Memory) which contained his most important contribution to the social sciences was published posthumously.
What is the term/concept/approach?
A cursory understanding of memory could lead one to perceive memory as an inert recording of the past. However, a more in-depth examination of memory reveals that memories have the ability to shape how we perceive the present and what we expect from the future (Kansteiner, 2002). Humans rely on at least two distinct forms of memory. The first form is personal memories which can be understood as a psychological process that encodes information from the environment as patterns of neurological signals, which are then stored for later retrieval. The second distinct form of memory is collective memory which consists of the grand sum of knowledge and information known by a social group as a whole (Halbwachs & Coser, 1992). Generally, collective memories are embodied in cultural materials like objects, buildings, places and texts. However, collective memories are not limited to physical material and can include other cultural products like concepts, ideas, and norms.
One of the major functions of collective memory is to help establish a shared identity amongst a social group (Assmann & Czaplicka, 1995). Identity is understood as characteristics, qualities, behaviours and beliefs that differentiates one social group or person from another. Collective memory provides content and a framework for individuals to assemble a narrative of the past that can be recognized or shared amongst their social group. People use the narrative that they have constructed with collective memory to gain a sense of historical context for their lives and to incorporate elements of societies past into their personal identity (Ibid., 1995). In addition, individuals use past events drawn from both their personal memory and the collective memory as an example of potential outcomes to current or future events. Memory has a large impact on an individual’s perceptions and reactions to particular scenarios because past events are used as examples of potential outcomes of present and future events (Rose-Redwood, Alderman & Azaryahu, 2008).
The collective memory of a social group goes beyond what a society chooses to remember. What a society chooses to forget about the past is just as important (Shackel, 2001). Often, if historical facts do not fit with the popular narrative, they can be omitted or forgotten from the collective memory. An example of historical facts not fitting the narrative can be seen in downtown Philadelphia, at Independence National Historical Park (Salisbury & Saffron, 2002). At this park is housed a historical symbol of American freedom, the Liberty Bell. The bell was cast in the 18th century with the inscribed words “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,”, however, in the past on this site that celebrates American values of freedom and independence, it is speculated that George Washington once kept slaves. In an act of crafting the historical narrative, Park Service, the governing body over the site, refused to study the site and instead, built a multimillion dollar visitor pavilion for the Liberty Bell.
How does it fit in this course?
This course, the archaeology of space and place, shares a lot of core concerns and has similar pursuits as other archeological courses. The concept of collective memory is a major underlying concept in all archeological courses and endeavours. Archaeology, as a discipline, is primarily concerned with establishing a historical narrative that is used to add the depth of time and broaden the human identity (Shackel, 2001). In many ways, archeological sites and historical places can be understood as repositories of culturally bound collective memory. From the collective memory approach, space and place are seen as cultural products that primarily function to help construct the historical narrative that is shared by a particular society. Moreover, the cultural meaning of space and place are incorporated into an individual’s identity (Anderson, 2004). In turn, identity shapes people’s perceptions of themselves and imparts cultural values, like norms, ideals or even esthetics. The values that people hold, influence their behaviour and determine how cultural resources like space are used.
What is its’ legacy in archaeological approaches to space and place?
The legacy of the collective memory approach has been widespread throughout the social sciences. The collective memory approach has provided an avenue for anthropology, sociology and psychology to gain valuable insights into how culture shapes identity which in turn influences behaviour and other culturally constrained elements of human existence (Confino, 1997). In particular, the collective memory approach has been very useful for understanding the latent functions of a wide range of cultural materials. As an example, monuments can be understood as material designed to transmit the historical narrative of a particular culture across time and space in order to propagate the culture represented by the monument. The ability of cultures to share the collective memory through material culture have led some proponents of the collective memory approach to label culturally significant objects, space and place, as “memory factories” (Dietler, 1998). In addition, the use of the collective memory approach highlights how cultural materials are an aspect used by the societal elite to control the masses. Influencing the historical narrative by emphasizing certain elements of a culture through the production of shared symbols and other culturally charged elements, like monuments or institutions, can manipulate individuals understandings of themselves and others.,
What are the limitations?
A major limitation of the collective memory approach to archaeology is the lack of descriptive ability. Collective memory is more oriented toward explaining social and historical phenomena rather than describing them (Kansteiner, 2002). In particular, the collective memory approach excels at tying the past to the present and explaining how culture can be passed from one generation to another. Moreover, collective memory can help explain the emergence of particular aspects of a society’s’ cultural identity and can help explain a historical context for present day events. However, beyond the aforementioned strengths, collective memory approach is fairly limited (Ibid., 2002).
Anderson, J. (2004). Talking whilst walking: a geographical archaeology of knowledge. Area, 36(3), 254-261.
Assmann, J., & Czaplicka, J. (1995). Collective memory and cultural identity. New German Critique, (65), 125-133.
Confino, A. (1997). Collective memory and cultural history: problems of method. The American historical review, 102(5), 1386-1403.
Dietler, M. (1998). A tale of three sites: the monumentalization of Celtic oppida and the politics of collective memory and identity. World archaeology,30(1), 72-89.
Halbwachs, M., & Coser, L. A. (1992). On collective memory. University of Chicago Press. Chicago
Kansteiner, W. (2002). Finding meaning in memory: A methodological critique of collective memory studies. History and theory, 41(2), 179-197.
Rose-Redwood, R., Alderman, D., & Azaryahu, M. (2008). Collective memory and the politics of urban space: an introduction. GeoJournal, 73(3), 161-164.
Russell, N. (2006). Collective Memory before and after Halbwachs. The French Review, 792-804.
Salisbury, S. & Saffron, I. (2002) Echoes of slavery at Liberty Bell site. Philadelphia Inquirer.
Shackel, P. A. (2001). Public memory and the search for power in American historical archaeology. American anthropologist, 103(3), 655-670.