What is Collective Memory?

A social group’s identity is constructed with narratives and traditions that are created to give its members a sense of an community.  The social group may be a small, cohesive unit (like a family) whose members are all known. The social group may be an Andersonian “imaginary community” that is based on nationalism. Regardless of the size and complexity of the social group, the group needs to construct and maintain an identity that unites its members. I use the term ‘collective memory’ to describe the stories, artifacts, food and drink, symbols, traditions, images, and music that form the ties that bind members together.

Collective memory discourse began with the work of Emile Durkheim. Although never using the term “collective memory”, Durkheim noted that societies require continuity and connection with the past to preserve social unity and cohesion.  His study of traditional religious traditions suggested that rituals transmitted traditional beliefs, values and norms and that shared rituals provided a sense of “collective effervescence”, a transcendence of the individual and the profane into a united sacred group. Durkheim stated that collective thought required individuals to physically join together to create a common experience that was shared by the group. Since the collective effervescence experience required the physical gathering of the community, it was important for groups to devise methods of extending that unity when the group disbanded. He believed that totems, natural items that have been deemed sacred, held immense power and suggested that they provided individuals with a device to individually remember the unity of the effervescent group experience. Although Durkheim claimed that the collective effervescence provided the transmittal of the past to the present, his emphasis on collective thought was based upon individual memory and the celebrations and totems that triggered those memories.

Although Durkheim’s work examined traditional societies, it is interesting to consider the events following the attacks of September 11, 2001 in this context.  Spontaneous memorial activities erupted throughout the United States. People gathered throughout the day and night, held candlelight vigils and marked the area with flowers, candles, posters, chalk drawings, and flags.  Numerous participants discussed the sense of community that existed among the diverse individuals. Across the country, individuals left spontaneous groups and needed a totemic object to maintain the sense of solidarity and unity. The American flag became a collective totemic object that provided a connection to the collective effervescent experiences, symbolizing the solidarity of the “American clan”.

Maurice Halbwachs, a student of Durkheim, is the first sociologist to use the term “collective memory” and his work is considered the foundational framework for the study of societal remembrance. Halbwachs suggested that all individual memory was constructed within social structures and institutions. He claimed that individual private memory is understood only through a group context; these groups may include families, organizations, and nation-states. Halbwachs argued that the only individual memories that are not constructed through the group context are images from dreams. He believed that dreams are different from virtually every other human thought because they lack structure and organization.  Individuals organize and understand events and concepts within a social context, thus they then remember them in a way that “rationally” orders and organizes them through that same social construction. Halbwachs stated that every collective memory depends upon specific groups that are delineated by space and time; the group constructs the memory and the individuals do the work of remembering.

Halbwachs further developed the Durkheimian concept of maintenance of effervescence during periods of group isolation and social calm. Durkheim stated that totems provided a continual reminder of effervescence to members of the group.  Halbwachs expanded the idea of totems to include commemorative events that serve as reminders of a collective memory. Halbwachs suggested commemorative events were important to reinforce autobiographical memories that he believed faded with time without periodic memory reinforcement. The annual anniversary commemorations of September 11th, gatherings of the survivors, bereaved and other people who did not directly experience the attacks, provide continued memory reinforcement with the roll call of the dead, bagpipes, recitations and floral offerings.

Finally, Halbwachs departs from a Durkheimian approach by adopting an instrumental presentist approach to collective memory. A presentist approach states that social constructions of memory are influenced by the needs of the present. Halbwachs stated that collective memory is shaped by present issues and understandings. Groups select different memories to explain current issues and concerns.  In order to explain the present, leaders of a group reconstruct a past using rationalization to choose which events are remembered, those that are eliminated, and rearrange events to conform to the social narrative .

Pierre Nora expands upon Halbwachs’ instrumental presentism by stating that collective memory is used by groups to interpret a past, and yet these memories become detached from the past.  Nora further claimed that groups select certain dates and people to commemorate, deliberately eliminate others from representation (collective amnesia), and invent traditions to support the collective memory. He noted that the representations of collective memory are those that have been selected by those in power; collective memory is both a tool and an object of power. Nora claimed that as modernity emerged, traditions lost social meaning and significance. As a consequence, he posits that elites in the society produced “simulations of natural memory” that supported emerging nation-states.

Eric Hobsbawm’s “invention of tradition”  is an expansion upon Nora’s interpretation of collective memory in modernity. Hobsbawm suggests that the social changes that occurred as a result of modernity destroyed customs and required the establishment and modification of new traditions for the purpose of establishing authority, social control and solidarity. These invented traditions imprint certain values, beliefs and norms that suggest a continuity of a nonexistent past and create social identity and the rituals and symbols are used to unite and energize modern society.

Both Halbwachs and Nora suggest that the “collective memory” of any group is actually a manipulated construction of those who maintain the power and status to define those memories. David Lowenthal joins the chorus of instrumental presentists. He suggests that national histories are constructed to address present interests and cites the development and commodification of a heritage and nostalgia industry in the British heritage sites as examples of this social construction. Foucault also suggested that the postmodern desacralization of tradition has created a social void that has been filled with commemorative activity that is used as a tool of those in political power.

John Bodnar carries instrumental presentism even farther than Halbwachs.  Bodnar states that public memory is not an accurate representation of the past, but is focused upon the needs of both the present and the anticipated future. The inclusion of the future to the present/past debate substantiates the premise of memory as a contested social construction that protects the power of the status quo. Bodnar differentiates between vernacular and official representation. Vernacular memories originate from the people and are used to explain those events that most immediately impact the masses. Official memory is created for a purpose of stabilization of the status quo. The sanctification of the official memory suggests that a memory has been selected by some group that has obtained the power to represent and interpret these memories.

Over the past twenty years, memory studies have been used to explore the relationship between memory and trauma. Kenneth Foote , a cultural geographer, has examined how physical space is impacted by tragic and violent American events. He states that there are four possible ways that societies alter landscapes that are sites of violence and/or tragedy:  sanctification, designation, rectification and obliteration. Sites of violent tragedy are sanctified when society transforms a previously profane site to sacred status. A sanctified site is a public place that is reserved for the memory of a specific person or group of people; there is typically a durable marker that has been officially ordained during some form of dedication ceremony. These locations are geographically separated and are maintained for long periods of time.  Sites of designation are marked as special sites, but do not have a connotation of consecrated space. These sites are “unveiled, rather than dedicated” (p.18).  Foote states that designated sites typically are sites that may over time become consecrated, essentially these are ‘memorials in progress.’ Sites representing minority causes or ‘once in a lifetime’ freak events may also become designated sites.  Sites may also be rectified; these repaired sites remove evidence of the violence/tragedy and are returned to their previous public use. Obliteration, usually reserved for violent tragedies that induce community shame, removes the sites from public use; the buildings and landmarks associated with the site are eliminated and there is no official mention or marker identifying the site. Foote’s work is supported by examination of memorials dedicated to those lost to terrorism since 1988.  There are obvious examples of sanctification, dedication, and rectification at the sites of the bombing of Pan Am 103, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.


Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition. New York: Verso

Bodnar, John. 1993. Remaking America. Princeton NY:  Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, Emile. [1912] 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. by Karen Fields. New York: The Free Press.

Foote, Kenneth. 1993. Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

Foucault, M. 1977.  Language, Counter-Memory, Practice:  Selected Essays and Interviews, trans. DF Bouchard, S. Simon. Ithaca NY:  Cornell University Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice 1992 [1952]. On Collective Memory, ed. and trans. Lewis Coser. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger. 1992.  Invention of Tradition.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lowenthal, David. 1985. The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Nora, Pierre, 1996. “The Era of Commemorations”, Realms of Memory: the Construction of the French Past, Volume III, Lawrence Kritzman ed., trans.by Arthur Goldhammer, New York: Columbia University Press.

3 thoughts on “What is Collective Memory?”

  1. I found this helpful – thank you

  2. Melissa said:

    Thank you very much .. very useful !

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