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Social Memory: Definition & Concept

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

Social memory is the way people perceive themselves in response to a sense of belonging within a group with a common culture. Learn more about social memory and how the concept can influence the everyday lives of people and their perceptions. Updated: 02/04/2022


What social groups do you identify with? Perhaps your parents are Irish immigrants, or your family has been in North America since before the U.S. was even born. Social groups are more than just ethnicity, however, and chances are you are or were part of a sports team or activities club: you considered yourself a football or volleyball athlete, or a member of the chess club. These groups we use to categorize ourselves often come with certain identities attached. Immigrants - regardless of their country of origin - are often fleeing hardship or persecution in their homeland, while certain connotations and identities are attached to other social groups. For instance, chess clubbers are generally assumed to be smarter than their average classmate, while football players are usually considered to be the opposite.

The groups in which we define ourselves and, most importantly, the shared history that shapes our perception of ourselves as part of those groups are called social memory.

Why Is Social Memory Important?

The study of social memory as a sub-discipline in history is a relatively new concept. For the majority of the history of historical study (called historiography), historians have considered the personal history of individuals and groups - whether real or conjured - to be of little use to historians. With human memory's inherent flaws and constant doctoring of events to fit one's own self-image, historians have preferred what they considered to be more concrete versions of events: court documents, eyewitness testimonies, personal journals, and so on. Historians cared very little, for example, what today's white supremacists thought were the causes behind the Civil War; they could get a clearer picture of those events through examining congressional documents and the era's economic indicators.

These feelings have changed recently, as historians have begun to explore different topics within history and used different approaches. The accepted, shared histories of social groups are no longer considered off limits as folkloric justifications for a group's own existence, but rather as important parts to understand if historians are to truly grasp how a social group views itself. By gaining knowledge and piecing together a group's social memory, historians can often deduce the underlying emotions and societal change that were the impetus for the group's coalescence.


Let's take a hypothetical basketball team as a basic case study of how understanding a group's social memory can help historians understand far more than if they simply took a group's characteristics at face value.

This team, based on their record, is not very good. In fact, they haven't won a game in years. They don't dispute this fact, but they believe they often come very close to winning games. To hear them tell it, they are often right with the other team until the closing minutes, when their opponents inevitably slip away. The guards model their play on the great Lakers' point man, Magic Johnson, while the small forward sees himself as the heir to Michael Jordan. The power forward and center see themselves as Tim Duncan and Bill Russell, respectively. Considering their evaluation of their own talent, it's surprising that their average loss is by twenty points.

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