Collective Memory: The Content and Form of Your Memories are Influenced by Culture

collective-memorySince we humans construct our narratives and memories socially, we could ask, “Do we have a collective memory?” Frederic Bartlett, often called the first experimental psychologist, criticized the concept, since “collective memory” seems to suggest a group brain. Societies don’t have brains. We must understand group memory, then, as distributed in the minds of individuals, in discourse, and in symbolic records. “Collective memory” is just a metaphor and taking it too literally is sign of narrative madness.

Even though he challenged the concept of group memory, Bartlett argued that social context strongly influences recall. He maintained that “social organisation gives a persistent framework into which all detailed recall must fit, and it very powerfully influences both the manner and matter of recall” (Bartlett 121). Whenever we store something in our memory, we utilize narrative structures that significantly affect both content and form. Moreover, we use these forms in an “unreflective, unanalytical and unwitting manner” (Bartlett 45). Our storytelling habits are so deeply ingrained that we are not even aware of them.

These narrative structures are not passive frameworks, like shelves in a pantry. They shape perception and meaning. Says  sociocultural anthropologist James V. Wertsch in “The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory” (2008), our narrative forms “impose a structure, a compelling reality on what we experience, even a philosophical stance” (122).

To illustrate how structure influences experience, memory and attitude, consider a meeting between American and Japanese businesspeople. When laying out an argument in the West, we open with our main idea, offer reasoning and evidence, and then reaffirm our point. Our aim is to convince. In the East, they traditionally give evidence first and then offer a tentative conclusion. The goal is to build consensus. After attending a joint meeting, what would each group recall? Americans would remember a wandering, unproductive and inconclusive meeting, while the Japanese would remember pushy Americans who do not have the courtesy to listen attentively.

Although the concept is still controversial, Wertsch explains that collective memory, and similar notions such as shared memory and public memory, have recently reappeared in academic disciplines as varied as anthropology, sociology, psychology and history (120). Focusing on history, he asserts that inhabitants of each country share specific historical narratives and “schematic narrative templates.” When discussing the past, a populace tends to tell the same stories according to set patterns.

To demonstrate this, he examined accounts of World War II by three generations of Russians. He chose Russia because the country “has witnessed a transition from strict, centralized control over collective memory to open, if not chaotic public debate and disagreement, and the result is that it provides examples of an unusually wide range of collective memory forms” (Wertsch 124). Not surprisingly, given the historical changes, he found some alterations in content and interpretation between the generations. The surprising part is that most of the events described were the same and the narratives followed the same basic pattern, a pattern that differs greatly from a description of the war by North Americans. For instance, none of the Russians mentioned Pearl Harbor, which would figure prominently in any American account.

Not only do we inherit structures influencing content and meaning, most of our narratives were begun long before we entered the scene. We are born into a tangled mass of stories. The plot lines of our countries, communities and families are well established and difficult to change. Should we rebel against the narratives of our forebears, we do so using their language and their conventions. We may add to or alter our inherited tales, but we can never escape them.

(An extract of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at or on Amazon.)

 Works Cited

Bartlett, Frederic C. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.

Wertsch, James V. “The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory.” Ethos 36.1 (2008): 120 – 135. JSTOR. PDF.

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