The Social Functions of Memory. A Literature Review

Essay, 2012

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The Social Functions of Memory

As it refers to a rather abstract notion, the term memory is highly difficult to define or describe. The first idea which might come to mind is that “memory refers to the processes that are used to acquire, store, retain and later retrieve information” (Cherry). Further research on the topic shows, however, that there is much more to say about it. Memory is not only the object of psychology but also of the field of humanities, in particular philosophy, social studies and cultural studies.

This paper will situate the concept of memory into a social and cultural context: It will show how individual memory and cultural memory influence and depend on each other, and that thereby, a cultural identity is formed. Also, it will depict the effects of cultural memory on society and politics.

In order to understand the concept of cultural memory, one should start off with individual memory. First of all, remembering denotes “a cognitive process which takes place in individual brains” (Erll 4). Taking into consideration the constructivist approach to memory and remembrance by Siegfried J. Schmidt, we can add to this rather simple definition that “the function of the brain does not consist in storing past events […]. Instead, it evaluates the relevance of all cognitive processes on the basis of previous experiences” (Erll 192). Therefore, our memory is very selective, a fact which we might not be aware of. By the help of certain background knowledge, it sequences selected perceptions, which shows that memory “does not represent but rather constructs reality” (Erll 192). This is especially important for the autobiographic memory: in order to create an up-to-date plausible life story, information concerning past events is structured, preserved, or abandoned1 (cf. Echterhoff 4). Apparently, our brain seeks to compose a continuous story: it makes use of narrative schemata, just like “narrations aim at constructing coherent stories which are accepted by the audience” (Erll 193). As a consequence, when one is dealing with one’s own life story based on memories, one is building up one’s identity at the same time. Schmidt states that “narrating is closely connected with the construction of identity” (Erll 193). In turn, yet more important factors are necessary to create identity than just the autobiographic memory.

A great part of our identity is made up by the belonging to several social groups, as it is widely known that human beings are not destined to live alone. Halbwachs, who introduced the term “collective memory” (Erll 3), illustrates this by the example of the collective memory of the family. He states that “[f]amily recollections […] develop […] in the consciousness of various members of the domestic group” (Halbwachs 54). Of course, the members of a family are all individuals and have unique personalities, but “[d]espite the distances among them […], they all shared the same daily life” (54). This also means that family members share a certain kind of thinking, certain attitudes, and Halbwachs claims that it is not possible, when remembering an event of our family, “to eliminate from it these ideas and traditional judgments which define the mind of the family” (Halbwachs 59). If we apply the example of a family to other social groups, we can assume that individual memory depends on social memory. Halbwachs affirms this by asserting that “the past is not really preserved in the individual memory. ‘Fragments’ persist there, but not complete recollections. What makes them true memories are collective representations” (Erll 142). We can also find evidence of this assumption in the introduction of Cultural Memory Studies by Astrid Erll, where she says that “no memory is ever purely individual, but always inherently shaped by collective contexts. From the people we live with and from the media we use, we acquire schemata which help us recall the past and encode new experience. […] In short, we remember in socio-cultural contexts” (Erll 5). Our social environment determines our memory. There is no individual memory isolated from a social context, and social memory does not exist without individuals who permanently add material to it. Concerning the interaction between individual and social memory, Erll emphasizes that collective memory is not simply detached from individual minds, but that “a ‘memory’ which is represented by media and institutions must be actualized by individuals, by members or a community of remembrance” (Erll 5).

Liliane Weissberg illustrates the transition from collective to cultural memory, when she says that “[…] although Halbwachs described memory as a ‘collective’ undertaking, it soon metamorphosed into a cultural one, following a shift in stress from the social group to its modes of production” (Ben-Amos 15). Jan Assmann has developed Halbwachs’ ideas further by examining how cultural memory is actually memorized. He depicts cultural memory as a solution to the problem of how to permanently preserve a culture, being a “collective concept for all knowledge that directs behavior and experience in the interactive framework of a society” (Assmann 126). First of all, he distinguishes between communicative and cultural memory. Communicative memory covers all everyday communication within a social group, since “[e]very individual memory constitutes itself in communication with others” (Assmann 127). The information drawn from there is disorganized and needs to be structured in order to be conserved. For the structure, Assmann proposes “a fixed point” (127), arguing that “[s]uch fixity can only be achieved through a cultural formation and therefore lies outside of informal everyday memory” (127). So, a “transition” (128) has to take place, namely from “the area of everyday communication […] [to] the area of objectivized culture” (128). The result of this transition is cultural memory, which is related to “fixed points” (129). Such fixed points “are fateful events of the past whose memory is maintained through cultural formation (texts, rites, monuments) and institutional communication (recitation, practice, observance)” (129). Cultural memory can therefore be described as a collection of all the material that carries memories (i.e. that activates the process of remembering, cf. Erll 192) which are of importance to a certain group. By nature, groups do not have a psychological memory as do individuals, but they “tend to ‘make’ themselves one by means of things meant as reminders such as monuments, museums, libraries, archives […]” (Erll 111). For example, Pierre Nora has written a “history of French culture though a recovery of sites of memory” (Ben-Amos 18), which highly influenced the studies on cultural memory. Ann Rigney from the University of Utrecht, who has also studied Halbwachs’, Nora’s and Assmann’s ideas, draws the following conclusion: cultural memory is a “’working memory’2 that is constructed and reconstructed in public acts of remembrance and evolves according to distinctly cultural mechanisms” (Rigney 1) Related to cultural memories, this collection also contains rules for the ways of thinking and modes of behavior of a group. Assmann points out “obligation” (131) as being one of the most important characteristics of cultural memory and thereby identifies it as a “clear system of values and differentiations in importance which structure the cultural supply of knowledge and symbols” (131, emphasis by the author).

This system belongs to a certain community, and within this community the communality is created by the exchange of memories (Rigney 4). Here we can refer back to the idea of identity, assuming that cultural memory helps create a cultural identity. Assmann mentions another important characteristic of cultural memory, which he calls “the concretion of identity” (130). He explains that “[c]ultural memory preserves the store of knowledge from which a group derives an awareness of its unity and peculiarity” (130). More evidence for the close link between memory and identity is provided by John Locke, who observed that “there is no such thing as an essential identity, but that identities have to be constructed and reconstructed by acts of memory, by remembering who one was and by setting this past Self in relation to the present Self” (Erll 6).


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The Social Functions of Memory. A Literature Review
University of Tubingen
Übung: Written Communication II
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ISBN (eBook)
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memory, society, politics, cognitive, information, assmann, erll, halbwachs
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Michaela Caputo (Author), 2012, The Social Functions of Memory. A Literature Review, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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