Collective Memory and Stories from Our Grandparents

April 9, 2018

Some stories deserve to be shared. From the beginning of time, stories have passed down from generation to generation. It’s how we share our memories and interpretations of things from the past. “Collective memory” is the transmission of these stories: memories that we share from generation to generation.

But what are these stories? Stories are just representations of the past that we put together into narratives. The plots have well-defined beginnings and ends, with sequential and causal consistency. In addition, the narrative includes events that are considered to be the most important. When a group adopts a certain narrative as an interpretation of the past, it becomes part of their collective memory.

 

Man reading a book representing collective memory

Biases in collective memory

Collective memory is not a objective or neutral version of things from the past. These shared narratives are selective. In other words, they remember what they want to remember, which means they’re biased.

In fact, collective memory often includes an element of justification. Especially in oral collective memory, each generation adds more biases to the original story, adapting it to the latest ways of thinking.

When our grandparents tell us about some big historical event from earlier in their life, they tell us about the events they remember most. Things that left the biggest mark on them. They also choose sides, and it shows in how they tell the story.

 

A man teaching, representing collective memory

Types of collective memory

We’ve mentioned oral collective memory, but there are other ways of passing on stories. The kinds of memories that make up collective memory are:

  • Popular memory: These are representations of the past created by society members. We see popular memory in public opinion surveys.
  • Official memory: This is when public or governmental institutions adopt a certain interpretation of the past. For example, this is what you might see in national museums and textbooks approved for the educational system.
  • Autobiographical memory: The memory of people who directly experienced historical events. This is what we hear from our grandparents. In fact, it is a primary resource for knowledge of the past.
  • Historical memoryThe way the scientific community explains the past.
  • Cultural memory: The way society sees its past through journalism, commemorations, monuments, films and buildings, among other things.

 

woman at movies representing collective memory

Collective memory: war and conflicts

When narratives are about a war or conflict, they are almost always selective and biased. They reveal a self-centered, simplistic perspective of the events.

In general, these narratives touch on at least four main themes:

  • Delegitimatizing the rival.
  • Presenting a positive image of the group telling the narrative.
  • Presenting one’s group as the only victim or most important victim.
  • Justifying the start of the conflict.

These narratives play two important roles in conflicts. The first is internal. When a group adopts these narratives, they become part of popular memory. As a result, these narrations influence the psychological reactions of the people in the group, and — consequently — their actions. As such, there is a high probability that they will have a negative perspective of their rival and a positive perspective of themselves.

photographer representing collective memory

Consequences of collective memory

Narratives that make up collective memory of a conflict usually act as roadblocks to any peaceful resolution or reconciliation. They discourage group members from coming to a peace agreement with a rival that they think of negatively and untrustworthy. To sum up, biased narratives get in the way of negotiations.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”.

-Epictetus-

In most cases, collective memory is self-centered and biased. We should instead take all perspectives into account. Listening to all of the narratives, including those that go against our collective memory, will help us understand the past.