April 23, 2012

Collective Memories

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Memories seem like one of the most personal aspects of who we are. What we remember, what triggers memories, and how we remember things help define our identities. But memories are more than just personal. They can be something we share collectively too.

Sociologists who study collective memory focus on how groups share information about the past and construct meanings about the past together. This can be done through the creation of monuments and storytelling, which serves not only to remind members of events but also defines the group in the process.

The recent centennial anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking brought this issue to mind. While many ships sank over the centuries, and many passengers were killed, the Titanic has taken on a role in our collective memory for a number of reasons. The Titanic story continues to lurk in our collective memory because the ship was meant to be unsinkable, a feat of modern technology in the industrial age. That it sunk, and took the lives of people across class lines down with it, serves as a reminder of the limits of conquering nature.

The story lives on in films (sixteen according to this site), including the second-highest grossing film of all time, directed by James Cameron and recently re-released in 3D. It has been the topic of countless television programs and songs, including this song I was taught at camp as a kid:

If you listen to this version of the song “Titanic (It Was Sad When that Great Ship Went Down),” there is a very clear message about class and status (“the rich refused to associate with the poor/so they put them down below/ and they were first to go”).

When I was a child, we sang the song in a more upbeat tempo, and class wasn’t much of a focus at my summer camp’s version of the song. I remember it ended with a different message: “the moral of the story, as you can plainly see/is to wear a life preserver whenever you go to sea,” invoking the idea of personal responsibility rather than one of inequality as in this version on YouTube.

Collective memories can have multiple meanings, as this one clearly does. The 1997 film depicts a tragic love story with the message that romance can transcend economic differences. Other Titanic films highlight the alleged recklessness of the crew for traveling so fast near icebergs, emphasizing the danger that can come with hubris, a common theme in literature.

Events that become part of collective memory generally reflect major struggles or concerns within any given society. Memories of the Kennedy Assassination are not just about the murder of the president, but anxieties about conspiracy, secrecy, and other Cold War era issues of spies and concerns about American vulnerability. In many ways John F. Kennedy himself represented the promise of the twentieth century, a young, handsome leader during the early years of our modern-day celebrity era. Possibly the first celebrity president, Kennedy and his photogenic family were featured in fan magazines alongside movie stars during his brief presidency.

Other collective memories are about survival. As engineer and disaster researcher José Holguín-Veras recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, residents of a fishing village in Japan largely escaped the deadly 2011 tsunami thanks to collective memory of an event around a thousand years earlier. As with the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, stories from the past told over centuries meant that villagers knew to immediately seek higher ground after the earthquake.

Some collective memories serve as warnings. Detailed in journalist Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, countless African Americans had been used as subjects of medical research without consent throughout much of the twentieth century, leading to a profound mistrust of the medical establishment.

Stories of people kidnapped off the streets to become the subjects of medical experiments at Johns Hopkins University permeated African American communities in Baltimore, for instance. As the story of Henrietta Lacks details, patients were frequently part of medical research without their knowledge or consent at the time.

Collective memories are specific to the experiences of social groups; because of this, we might not fully understand the perspectives of groups we are not a part of. It might be difficult to understand the mistrust of doctors if you didn’t grow up hearing these kinds of stories, if the collective memories of the group you are part of are different.

Families can have collective memories too. In my family—and likely millions of others—we grew up hearing immigrant stories, particularly of my grandmother’s family’s escape from ethnic violence. In this story, the struggles they faced in Europe culminate in a happy ending with their arrival in America. Growing up we heard how wonderful it was to be able to enjoy little things we take for granted here, like eating hot dogs or fresh fruit whenever you want them. The takeaway message was that our ancestors were far less fortunate than we are today, and we should appreciate all that we have now. If this sounds familiar, this is part of the broader collective memory of the meaning of America, especially for those of European ancestry: a memory of America as a place of freedom and prosperity.

What other collective memories can you think of that we share as a society, within smaller groups or your family?


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i thought this was a great blog. i have a hard time remeberiing most things mut i seem to only remember the things thatmean the most to me no matter what happens.

Many thanks for including my rendition of 'They built the ship Titanic'.The article is very well written and has made me look at things from a different perspective.

I wrote a thesis about memory of the Holocaust - a memory that exists collectively in America, even though it was a European event. Your analysis in this post made me think about what larger struggles are reflected in this memory. Perhaps, it is fear of control, lapse of democracy, fascism, or maybe it's the memory of American liberators that people hold on to. Really interesting!

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