Sunday, March 11, 2012

Maurice Halbwachs – "Historical Memory and Collective Memory" – summary and review

Maurice Halbwachs – "Historical Memory and Collective Memory" – summary and review - part 1 (part 2)

French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, one of Emile Durkheim's notable students, is most famous for introducing the term "collective memory". In his book The collective Memory he discusses society's relation to time and the past and introduces the concept of collective memory as a memory which is mutual the members of society.

Halbachs devotes a chapter titled "Historical Memory and Collective Memory" which elaborates on the difference between historical and collective memory. What Halbachs is after is the simple question of how we remember the past, finding out how the past is represented in an individual's and society's consciousness, and what are the mechanisms which shape memory.  

Halbwachs suggests three practices for organizing knowledge of the past in a manner compatible with contemporary society's need: 1. Autobiographical memory which contains personally experienced events. 2. Collective memory which contains events that were rendered to an individual by other members of society and 3. Historical memory which shapes the past through the work of historians. Halbwachs's chapter, "Historical Memory and Collective Memory", is devoted to discussing relational patterns between these memory practices.

Autobiographical memory and collective memory demonstrate the individual's role in shaping the past – first as a first hand accumulator of autobiographical memory and second as a retainer and distributer of collective memory. For Halbwachs, collective memory stands apart from autobiographical memory in that that it concerns all or many members of the group. Historical memory only concerns professionals (that is, historians) but it does have a function in limiting and shaping the scope of both autobiographical and collective memory.

Halbwachs additionaly argues that autobiographical memory is very limited in its ability to be completely personal. Although it seems that personal experiences and memories populate our memory, Halbwachs argues that these are often times mediated by our social surroundings. Collective memory, for Halbwachs, is a type of framework on which we can locate, understand and contextualize our own memories that gain significance only in relation, and through, collective memory.