Why “Memory” Matters:

Collective Memory, Representation, and A Call for Understanding

Ashley V. Reichelmann, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Published on: June 28, 2021

Photo: A wall covered in polaroid pictures.

In the digital media age, our individual experiences often become digital memories at the moment they are plastered across social media sites. As representations, there exists a politics behind them: the angle of our bodies, who and what is in the frame, the caption we use to explain the experience, and so on. It is often easy to see how these memories affect both us and onlookers. For instance, when we review the photos and share stories with others, we experience a range of emotions depending upon how we remember the event. However, what happens when the memories are not necessarily “ours?” For instance, what if they belong to our direct ancestors, such as during their immigration, or a group we identify with, such as the Stonewall Riots in NYC or a genocidal event in one of the innumerable places where they have occurred. These memories are frequently referred to as collective memories—a socially constructed framework of meaning utilizing past experiences of a group—and they have profound effects on our modern identities through the ways they are represented.

Anecdotally and empirically, we know that collective memory deeply shapes our current social world. One primary way we engage with collective memory is through historical symbols. Through these historical symbols we engage with questions of “intense conflict and debate” about our identity. It is easy to understand how such symbols can become sites of contestation: (1) more than one memory can exist for a group; (2) memory holds a tension between the past and the present; and (3) memory is an act and a process of making sense of the past, rather than an omnipresent objective fact. For these reasons, representations—just as the memories they represent—do not necessarily have shared meanings but instead depend on “who is looking.” From a social level, this helps us understand why memory and its representation is such a volatile issue today.

In addition, such representations are often rooted in collective traumas—“traumas that become collective…if they are conceived as wounds to social identity.” Representations of trauma impact and potentially shift modern identity (i.e. views of the self and group), because they operate as locations where individuals can experience past trauma in the present. Representations then shift from “historical objects” to social constructs that further frame a generational group narrative. Consider representations of past violence, such as monuments to war heroes or memorials to victims of a tragedy, which are built into our public landscapes: these sites are often described as historical representations, and yet they are frequently also locations where collective memory is both transmitted and contested due to the identity contestations that take place.

While such memorials are frequently assumed to contribute to healing, and statues are framed as innocuous, there is actually limited research on the topic. However, what is there demonstrates that such representations have complex and sometimes contradictory effects. For instance, from a social psychological understanding, memorialization can deepen “self-love” or in-group favoritism for both victim and perpetrator groups, and there is an ongoing debate concerning how “self-love” is related to “out-group hate.” From a sociological understanding, we know far less about the social effects of such representations, although research is up and coming. Experimental work demonstrates how the framing of certain events, such as slavery and white privilege, affects white Americans’ feelings about their own involvement and their perceptions of out-groups. In addition, survey work reveals that memorial tourism affects not only those who visit, but also local residents’ perceptions of tourism and its effects on resident satisfaction with community institutions, as well as environmental and cultural attitudes. However, there is far less that focuses on how the built representations of collective memory and their placement in the landscape, both directly and indirectly, affects residents’ perceptions of themselves and social functions of the community, such as levels of crime (save very recent work on newly constructed memorials), as well as its impact on intergroup relations.

So why should we care? There has been a fierce debate over visual representations of racial violence on US public land. Over the past five years, the United States memoryscape has exploded: construction of sites that represent and reframe pride and tragedy in the lives of Black Americans—including the Museum of African American History and Culture, 2016, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, 2018—stand in the same cities as renderings to the Confederacy and the Civil War. One of the most symbolic representations of this tension currently lies on the bust of Robert E. Lee’s Statue in Richmond, Virginia, where activists have used graffiti and projection to turn this monument of a Confederate hero into a memorial to victims of police brutality. These tensions demonstrate why collective memories matter, and why we as social researchers need to focus more on understanding their effects on modern day life vis-à-vis identity, attitude, and group interaction.

Ashley V. Reichelmann is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Virginia Tech. She is also the Associate Director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. Her research focuses on collective memory and violence as a cause and consequence of contemporary violence and prejudice.