Collective memory refers to the shared pool of memories, knowledge, and information of a social group that is significantly associated with the group’s identity.

The English phrase “collective memory” and the equivalent French phrase “la mémoire collective” appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs analyzed and advanced the concept of collective memory in the book La mémoire collective (1950).

Collective memory can be constructed, shared, and passed on by large and small social groups. Examples of these groups can include nations, generations, communities among others.

Collective memory has been a topic of interest and research across a number of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, history, philosophy, and anthropology.

Attributes of Collective Memory

Collective memory has been conceptualized in several ways and proposed to have certain attributes. For instance, collective memory can refer to a shared body of knowledge, the image, narrative, values, and ideas of a social group; or the continuous process by which collective memories of events change.

History versus Collective Memory

The difference between history and collective memory is best understood when comparing the aims and characteristics of each.

A goal of history broadly is to provide a comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased portrayal of past events. This often includes the representation and comparison of multiple perspectives and the integration of these perspectives and details to provide a complete and accurate account.

In contrast, collective memory focuses on a single perspective, for instance, the perspective of one social group, nation, or community. Consequently, collective memory represents past events as associated with the values, narratives, and biases specific to that group.

Studies have found that people from different nations can have major differences in their recollections of the past. In one study where American and Russian students were instructed to recall significant events from World War II and these lists of events were compared, the majority of events recalled by the American and Russian students were not shared.

Differences in the events recalled and emotional views towards the Civil War, World War II, and the Iraq War have also been found in a study comparing collective memory between generations of Americans.

Perspectives on Collective Memory

The concept of collective memory, initially developed by Halbwachs, has been explored and expanded from various angles – a few of these are introduced below.

James E. Young has introduced the notion of ‘collected memory‘ (opposed to collective memory), marking memory’s inherently fragmented, collected and individual character, while Jan Assmann develops the notion of ‘communicative memory‘, a variety of collective memory based on everyday communication.

This form of memory is similar to the exchanges in an oral culture or the memories collected (and made collective) through oral history.

As another subform of collective memories Assmann mentions forms detached from every day, it can be particular materialized and fixed points as, e.g. texts and monuments.

The theory of collective memory was also discussed by former Hiroshima resident and atomic bomb survivor, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, in his tour of the United States as an attempt to rally support and funding for the reconstruction of his Memorial Methodist Church in Hiroshima.

He theorized that the use of the atomic bomb had forever been added to the world’s collective memory and would serve in the future as a warning against such devices. See John Hersey’s Hiroshima novel.

The idea was also discussed more recently in The Celestine Prophecy and subsequent novels written by James Redfield as a continuing process leading to the eventual transcendence of this plane of existence.

The idea that a futuristic development of the collective unconscious and collective memories of society allowing for a medium with which one can transcend one’s existence is an idea expressed in certain variations of new age religions.

The historian Guy Beiner, an authority on memory and history on Ireland, has criticized the unreflective use of the adjective “collective” in many studies of memory:

“The problem is with crude concepts of collectivity, which assume a homogeneity that is rarely, if ever, present, and maintain that, since memory is constructed, it is entirely subject to the manipulations of those invested in its maintenance, denying that there can be limits to the malleability of memory or to the extent to which artificial constructions of memory can be inculcated. In practice, the construction of completely collective memory is at best an aspiration of politicians, which is never entirely fulfilled and is always subject to contestations”.

In its place, Beiner has promoted the term “social memory” and has also demonstrated its limitations by developing a related concept of “social forgetting”.

Collective Memory and Psychological Research

Though traditionally a topic studied in the humanities, collective memory has become an area of interest in psychology.

Common approaches taken in psychology to study collective memory have included investigating the cognitive mechanisms involved in the formation and transmission of collective memory and comparing the social representations of history between social groups.

Memorialization of Collective Memory

The collective memory of a nation is represented in part by the memorials it chooses to erect. Public memory is enshrined in memorials from the Holocaust memorial in Berlin to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.

Whatever a nation chooses to memorialize in the physical monument, or perhaps more significantly, what not to memorialize, is an indicator of the collective memory.

It is also sustained through a continuous production of representational forms. In the media age – and maybe particularly during the last decade of increasing digitization – this generates a flow of, and production of, second-hand memories.

Particular narratives and images are reproduced and reframed, yet also questioned and contested through new images and so forth.

Collective memory today differs much from the collective memories of an oral culture, where no printing technique or transportation contributed to the production of imagined communities where we come to share a sense of heritage and commonality with many human beings we have never met – as in the manner a citizen may feel a sort of ‘kinship‘ with people of his nation, region or city.


This notion of collective memory overflows into the music and film world. Certain references and songs have permeated through culture and invoke certain reactions in a wide social group.

This makes it easy to make references to these scenes and songs, knowing that a large audience will recognize and understand them without further explanation.

Soundtracks have been instrumental to cinema and television as a subtler form of expression and identity. Music, and more specifically soundtracks, can be utilized as an outlet for hope, possibility, and resistance for everyday people.

In Time Passages, George Lipsitz acknowledged that:

“dominant ideology triumphed on television in the 1950s, just as it did in political and social life” (Lipsitz, 67).

However, recent movies and television shows like Insecure, Super Fly, Waiting to Exhale, and more, have been able to incorporate music to spread “other” culture and foster a community feel.

The music not only grounds itself in time but also helps personify the complex characters. The combination of new and classic songs helps promote these ideals.

Sharing music and exchanging songs and in turn facilitating a collective memory also connects a person to their larger community. In “Record and Hold,” Jose Van Dijck looked at how this:

“Shared listening, exchanging songs, and talking about music create a sense of belonging and connect a person’s sense of self to a larger community and generation” (Van Dijk, 357).

The same song can elicit different memories and emotions from different people – but they remain a sign of their time and location.

Collective memory highlights the power of television and popular culture to influence politics and offer a glimpse into other people’s social realities.

The music incorporated in popular television and film culture can also play a role in young people’s development of their identities. Van Dijck wrote:

“Recorded music also has a formative function: young people, in particular, construct their identities while figuring out their musical taste” (Van Dijck 359).

Television and movies can have just as big of an impact on cultural identities as any history book.


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