Collective Memory: Definition, History & Theory

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Collective memory is the term for the memories of a group of people who have collected them through shared social experiences. This lesson discusses the origins of collective memory and the theory.

Tradition and Memory

Smell the cinnamon and clove and see the evergreen tree in your house, decorated and brightly lit. You likely can recall images like this of your holidays growing up, and the smells of the baked goods your family would make. Do you hear music, too? What kind? These strong memories are collective memories, ones that have been contributed to and shared by others.

The History of the Theory of Collective Memory

The theory of collective memory went through a step-by-step process of development. Although one person coined the term, others contributed ideas that built up over time into a widely accepted definition of collective memory. The three largest contributors to this idea are:

  • Carl Jung - Carl Jung proposed a theory of collective unconscious. He believed that universal human leanings like fear of fire or desire for social status all spring from a collective unconscious each of us carries within us. It contains memories of how life was for past generations; for instance, fire was a way to get rid of predators. As Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Sonoma State University Victor Daniels says, Jung believed the unconscious contained ''the whole history of the human race.'' from the origins of life to present day. However, Carl Jung never called this collective memory, and his theory was controversial.
  • Emile Durkheim - Emile Durkheim also didn't coin the term collective memory but did discuss how each new generation is connected to the past; as they are taught about history, memories carry forward. Durkheim focused more on social memory. He also asserted that as a people we needed to have a connection to prior generations, and that we seek to repeat previous actions in order to relate to the past. For example, one repetitive social practice is religion as people continue to follow the same belief structures over time, worshipping in similar ways.
  • Maurice Halbwachs - Maurice Halbwachs was a sociologist and a student of Durkheim. He coined the term collective memory. He said that all of our personal memories are recorded through the filter of our collective and social memories. For example, we remember taking our children to the park through the lens of our family taking us to the park and how other parents behaved with their children there. Collective memory is further enhanced because we conserve history. For instance, religious symbols, historical buildings, and books are all references tying us to past generations and influencing our memory.

Collective Memory

Collective memory is the theory that a people - whether by race, family, or culture - gather memories which influences how we see our lives. Also called ''societal remembrance'', collective memory refers to how we remember things through a social lens. Some are basic such as shared lessons learned growing up, how to make a bed, take shower, or brush our hair. We naturally pass these lessons down as we learned them.

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