Unstable materials. Part 2: Memory – individual, collective and cultural

For a discussion of oral history and memory see Unstable materials. Part 1.

Memories (and how they are recounted) change with time. Personal narratives and identities constructed through memory are fluid, for a multitude of reasons. People change, their goals and priorities change, and as they do, they re-construct their own stories, revise, reimagine and retell their autobiographies.

“We must be aware…that what is significant to an individual may change over time and this what is remembered and how it is remembered will also change.” (Abrams 2010, 103).

Why is memory subject to such change? Individual perspectives, how someone views and interprets the events of the past undoubtedly change as time passes, and this is one reason why the meaning of events (and therefore the memory of them) changes. So too the prevalent ideas and mores of society at large change over time, and these changes have an impact on the way that individuals remember and recall memories. For the French sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs, individual memory was part of group memory:

“…the recollection of an individual will always be framed by collective memory and the articulation of it. So that, while memory appears to be a matter of personal recollection, it is framed and re-framed over time as the way that society makes sense of things changes” (Weedon and Jordan 2012, 144).

Halbwachs explored the concept of collective memory in detail and showed that memory was dependant not just on individuals but on social context and on communication, suggesting that “memory can be analyzed as a function of our social life.” (J. Assman 2008, 109). This is relevant for oral historians who deal with personal memories, since these are constantly being interplayed with collective memories (Abrams 2010, 99).

For Halbwachs, collective memory was not institutional. Instead, memory institutions such as archives house cultural memory, which is a form of collective memory  “….. in the sense that it is shared by a number of people and that it conveys to these people a collective, that is, cultural, identity.” (J. Assman 2008, 110). Occasionally the terms collective and cultrual memory can be used interchangeably. So, while Assman argues that:

“… groups which, of course, do not ‘have’ a memory tend to ‘make’ themselves one by means of things meant as reminders such as monuments, museums, libraries, archives, and other mnemonic institutions. This is what we call cultural memory…” (J. Assman 2008, 111).

Others define collective memory as meaningful and empowering stories of past experiences “constituted by and on behalf of specific groups” (Weedon and Jordan 2012, 143) with source material for the construction of collective memory including institutionally sanctioned narratives, e.g. from libraries, archives and museums as well as the information from monuments. It can also include materials from books, radio, television and films (both reportage and from literary and visual culture) as well as family memorabilia and oral testimonies. New media has also facilitated the spread of marginalised collective memory (Weedon and Jordan 2012, 144 – 145). For Assman, following Halbwachs, this is cultural memory, which “unlike communicative memory, exists …. in disembodied form and requires institutions of preservation and reembodiment” (J. Assman 2008, 111).

According to Assman, oral history stands in contrast to cultural memory, with its attendant institutions: communicative memories of the recent past are those that individuals share with their contemporaries – what Halbwachs called “collective memory” – and it is these types of memories that oral history is made of:

“All studies in oral history confirm that even in literate societies living memory goes no further back than eighty years after which, separated by the floating gap, come, instead of myths of origin, the dates from schoolbooks and monuments.” (Assman 2008, 112 -113).

But what happens when oral history itself becomes institutionalised and collected in an archive?

Update (January 2015)
There are follow-up posts to “Unstable materials. Part 2”. See Part 3Part 4 and Part 5.



Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.

Assman, J. (2008). Communicative and cultural memory, pp. 109-118 in Eril, A. and Nünning, A. (Eds.), Cultural Memory Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Berlin, New York.

Weedon, C. and Jordan, G. (2012). Collective memory: theory and politics, Social Semiotics, 22:2, 143-153, DOI: 10.1080/10350330.2012.664969