On Collective Memory (Heritage of Sociology Series) Paperback – 1 Sep 1992
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I do think it's a good work to read if you're interested in memory and how it relates to the past and how we use memory to live our lives but it's only for the very patient who are willing to sit through it and can grasp the main arguements amist very long paragraphs. Reccommended for graduate students or professional scholars. (I am an anthropology major and the course I read this for is an upper level undergraduate but I think it should have been reserved for a graduate level class.)
Memory reconstructs images from the past in the context of our social present. Maurice Halbwachs' important work on the formation of collective memory insists that any recalled events fundamentally exist as a function of group endeavour. These memories, and the different behaviours they sustain, rise from a selective process shaped by associations with classes, religions, and families. These social frameworks, he contends, provide the means to express memory through shared language and discourse. As such, all reconstructed pasts must draw on common conventions of beliefs and meanings. This stability accounts for the persistent strength of traditions, but also for changes to society that must first forge connections to past ways of understanding, in order to succeed.
Beginning with family, Halbwachs examines the social contexts that determine collective memory. Although the wider meaning of family structure comes from society in general, the individual experiences within a family play a crucial role in forming memories through association. Traditions, legends, and proverbs, as well as emotional connections to places, allow the family unit to penetrate into the meanings the individual constructs in all other areas of life. The narrative and logic of family life, derived and adapted from societal norms, thus influence the forms that memory can take. Looking at religion, Halbwachs contends that formal doctrine represents a collective memory composed of rites and beliefs. He finds in religions a historical narrative of major historical events, manifested in more or less symbolic forms. Focusing on the Catholic Church, he demonstrates how a collective memory can adapt to new interpretations while retaining great internal stability and persistence of vision. He then turns to social classes, which he sees as something akin to Weberian status groups. He examines the workings of class traditions and legitimacy in the transitions between old and nouveau riche elites, arguing that while function defines class groups, meanings and assigned qualities come from the wider social relationships in which they participate. As societal hierarchies experience change, he argues, presentist justifications draw from traditions to construct a new collective memory where the new structure seems stable and acceptable.
Evocative and thought provoking, Halbwachs' work offers an interesting approach to memory and its social construction. Similar to Hayden White's later argument of meta-narrative, he argues strongly, yet without much direct evidence, for the ubiquitous presence of societal pressures on individual creativity and personal spaces. Pierre Nora's work on memory in public history, and Eric Hobsbawm's on invention of traditions, further suggests the great influence of and legacy of Halbwachs. Nevertheless, several weak points stand out especially from the historian's perspective. In generalizing about religions, the annaliste-influenced author relies solely on evidence from a French author more conversant in Indo-Chinese Theravada traditions than in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, and his argument then fails in wider application. Similarly, other historical cases lack specific evidence or detail and show a pronounced Eurocentric bias. For example, feudalism appears as the essential institution from which social classes emerge, yet this does not then explain how classes formed in the non-European world that did not experience the feudal structure. Yet criticizing a sociologist for writing bad history only goes so far, as on the whole he succeeds in presenting a useful model for understanding memories changing over time.
From a philosophical and psychological approach, Halbwachs offers scholars a persuasive argument on the collective nature of memory and the recollection of the past as shaped by the present. Weak on history, he nonetheless provides important social considerations for investigating cultural memory. Halbwachs emphasizes the familial, class, and religious roots of individual knowledge of the past, and successfully explains how we select the images associated with historical events.