This is a reference to the philosopher Alain. When teaching at the Lycée Henri IV, Alain asked his students to close their eyes and recall the Panthéon, a building which, given its location just behind the school, they saw every day. He then asked them to count the columns!
Collective memory and the production of the new
Article first published online: 18 JAN 2012
© UNESCO 2012
International Social Science Journal
Volume 62, Issue 203-204, pages 79–87, March–June 2011
How to Cite
Péquignot, B. (2011), Collective memory and the production of the new. International Social Science Journal, 62: 79–87. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2451.2011.01795.x
- Issue published online: 18 JAN 2012
- Article first published online: 18 JAN 2012
The question of the possibility, or rather the comprehension, of social processes which facilitate the emergence of something new in social life arises frequently in sociology, notably in the theoretical currents known in some quarters as “holistic”, although it would be more appropriate to describe them as simply determinist. From Marx to Durkheim to Bourdieu, determinist currents have generally been characterised by anti-individualism; they do not regard the individual as the source of society or, in the case of Auguste Comte, as its constitutive atom. Moreover, they are often anti-liberal in the sense that they regard liberty not as a quality natural to human beings, but as a historical “experience” at best, the result of a process of struggle in which knowledge, and especially scientific knowledge, although other forms can be effective, plays a leading role. From this perspective, the social sciences certainly occupy a singular position in the body of scientific endeavour.
Despite their differences and sometimes radical divergences, these theoretical currents have given rise to numerous similar questions and objections. The question of the freedom of the individual, which ultimately encompasses issues of social and moral responsibility, is one example. But this question, which is often the first to emerge, is but one of many, and what interests me here is the possibility (to pose the problem in somewhat philosophical terms) and comprehension of the advent of new elements in social life. If there is such a phenomenon as social determination, it is the past, whatever we choose to call it (memory, history, tradition, or even ideology) that influences and steers our actions in the present. If such action is determined by the accumulation of past events, how is it possible to produce something which has not already been inscribed or programmed and is therefore foreseeable given our knowledge of this past, a factor which surely diminishes its novelty?
I have examined the question of the new in the context of research into the sociology of the arts. One of the fundamental aspects of what we call “modernity” in the arts (whether its emergence dates back to the nineteenth century, the Renaissance or, as I have argued, to the juncture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) is the requirement, indeed the imperative, to constantly create something new, whereas at the beginning of the Middle Ages (in the East as well as the western world), it was firmly believed that artistic production should always follow the ancient model, and that by challenging established criteria, the new was bad or even evil. But knowing whether it is possible to produce something new has little meaning in sociology, given that its existence is approached empirically. It is therefore important to understand the process of its emergence and, in the course of this analysis, to identify true novelty in what is presented as such, and to distinguish it from what is not actually new at all.
Halbwachs and collective memory
- Top of page
- Halbwachs and collective memory
- The question of the new
- Memory and innovation
Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory seems to provide some interesting pathways to an understanding of the social processes at work in the advent of the new, for in the course of its development he encountered the question of the new and attempted to explain it.
We shall review the theory in order to see how he constructs his argument. For Halbwachs, memory is always collective and recollection is the effect of our inclusion in the groups which provide it with “frameworks”. Collective memory is a function of these frameworks, which enable its existence and the processes of mobilising recollections:
It is in this sense that there exists a collective memory and social frameworks for memory; it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in these frameworks and participates in this memory that it is capable of the act of recollection. ([1925 1992, pp.vi/38)
At this point, we should note the conditional nature of the argument he advances in the Preface to The social frameworks of memory. The project is scientifically rigorous and must remain conditional until the hypothesis in question has been demonstrated, hence: “But it is necessary to show that, outside of dreams, in reality the past does not recur as such, that everything seems to indicate that the past is not preserved but it is reconstructed on the basis of the present” ([1925 1992, pp.viii/39–40). The first essential element, which ran counter to certain contemporary theories of memory (including that proposed by Bergson, under whom Halbwachs had studied), is that the process which produces recollection is always activated by the present. Moreover, it is always a reconstruction of the past, never an exact reproduction.1 He continues:
It is necessary to show, besides, that the collective frameworks of memory are not constituted after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections, coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. ([1925 1992] 1994: pp.viii/40)
Thus we have entered the field of non-individualist sociology: society, or the collective, is not the “combination” of individual elements; it is a specific process which provides a framework for the production of a recollection which, while experienced at individual level, is in fact collective. The definition of this position had been clearly set out by Durkheim.
The past, therefore, is always a reconstruction determined by the present and by what is predominant in that present. The predominant ideas of a society organise the reconstruction of the past. The determinist nature of the theory is apparent here. Halbwachs goes on to stress the importance of language in this process, drawing on the work of the linguist Meillet (who contributed, along with Halbwachs, to l'Année sociologique, the journal founded by Emile Durkheim).
People living in society use words that they find intelligible: this is the precondition for collective thought. But each word (that is understood) is accompanied by recollections. There are no recollections to which words cannot be made to correspond. We speak of our recollections before calling them to mind. It is language, and the whole system of social conventions attached to it, that allows us at every moment to reconstruct our past. ([1925 1992, pp.279/173)
We cannot recollect an “image” (like a photograph that we have stored somewhere); we can only recollect what has been verbalised during its contemplation. Words convey and transmit an impression which memory then reproduces with a greater or lesser degree of fidelity. Words are never as precise or as rich as images.2 As Alain demonstrated to his students, we cannot “count” the number of columns on a building unless we counted them when we actually looked at it.
Therefore, the process of remembering involves sorting or selecting in accordance with present-day criteria. The questions and problems of the present enable us, through language, to produce, rather than reproduce, a particular past that is adapted to our needs.
But, then, it is not the past in its totality that exerts pressure on us in order to penetrate our consciousness. It is not a matter of a chronological succession of previous states that supposedly faithfully reproduces the events of the past. The events that reappear are restricted to those which correspond to our current preoccupations. The reason for their reappearance is not contained within them, but in their relation to our current ideas and perceptions: therefore our starting point is not the events, but these relations. (1925 1992, pp.141–142)
The association of this idea of the relationship between present and past with what we recalled earlier, that language is the essential instrument of the process, explains that for Halbwachs the reconstruction of the past constitutes a system. In fact the process bears a marked resemblance to the association of ideas and words, and indeed to wordplay (it is clear that Halbwachs and Freud were pursuing a similar line of inquiry; both were interested in aphasia and often quoted the same sources).
In reality, it is correct that recollections appear in the form of a system. That is because they are associated in the mind that summons them, and because one set enables the reconstruction of another. But these diverse modes of the association of recollections are products of the diverse ways in which people form associations. ([1925 1992, p.144)
One recollection will invariably summon another associated recollection; associations of ideas and words are a function of the mode of association which constitutes human groups and thus determine the possibility not only of memory, through the provision of a framework and a resource (language), but also of associative models.
Remembering, therefore, is part of the reasoning process. Thought, like language, is a collective experience; it belongs to the social sphere. Both Ferdinand de Saussure and Antoine Meillet regarded linguistics as one of the social sciences, and Halbwachs would have agreed. Halbwachs thus proposes a theory of the relations between memory and perception which is important for the development of my argument:
There are no recollections which can be said to be purely interior, that is, which can be preserved only within individual memory. Indeed, from the moment that a recollection reproduces a collective perception, it can itself only be collective; and it would be impossible for the individual to represent to himself anew, using only his forces, that which he could not represent to himself previously – unless he has recourse to the thought of his group. ([1925 1992, pp.275/169)
The modalities of registering a piece of information by means of language, and our capacity to reproduce it in the form of a recollection, are therefore closely linked. Perception is a function of the factor that determines all our thought – the group and its language. We comprehend only what we have learned to perceive, and perception itself is possible only when we are capable of mobilising a memory which endows our perception with meaning. But as Halbwachs himself stressed, our perceptive capacity is linked to our ability to distinguish the past from the present.
To the contrary, he remembers all the better and reproduces his past in forms that are so much more precise and concrete that he can better differentiate the past from the present. That is, he himself lives in the present, when his mind turns toward exterior objects and toward other people, in other words, when he goes out of himself. ([1925 1992, pp.275/169)
At this point, we are required to take into account the pressure the present itself exerts on our intellectual functions. Halbwachs argues that as a consequence of the relationship between memory/society and the present, what we perceive in the present determines what we are able to recall from the past. Now society evolves, it changes, it is always in the throes of transformation, and therefore modifies the conditions governing the exercise of memory:
But forgetting, or the deformation of certain recollections, is also explained by the fact that these frameworks change from one period to another. Depending on its circumstances and point in time, society represents the past to itself in different ways: it modifies its conventions. As every one of its members accepts these conventions, they inflect their recollections in the direction in which collective memory evolves. ([1925 1992, pp.279/172–173)
The changes imposed on memory (and on the process of forgetting) are responsible for the deformation of our recollections, and will occur in accordance with whatever reinforces social relations, an essential point for Halbwachs but one which is of less relevance to the present discussion.
Before we approach the question of the new, we should note one last point with regard to the evolution, and indeed the transformations, of a society:
But I have shown that memory is a collective function. Let us then place ourselves in the perspective of the group. If recollections reappear, this is because at each moment society possesses the necessary means to reproduce them. We might perhaps be led to distinguish two kinds of activities within social thought: on the one hand a memory, that is, a framework made out of notions that serve as landmarks for us and that refer exclusively to the past; on the other hand a rational activity that takes its point of departure in the conditions in which the society at the moment finds itself, in other words, in the present. This memory functions only when under the control of this reason. When a society abandons or modifies its traditions, is it not in order to satisfy rational needs, and at the very moment in which they appear? ([1925 1992, pp.279/183)
In my view, the meaning of this final sentence, this question, is crucial. Society utilises its memory and recollections to adapt the forces of social cohesion to rational needs arising from its evolution. The forces capable of opposing those of the present are no more than equal to what they oppose, and must therefore draw inspiration and energy from another memory which has been formed by other social groups and, to a certain extent, constitutes another tradition.
Even greater collective forces would be needed to oppose these collective forces. But present-day ideas extend over a much shorter duration. Whence do such ideas gain the energy and the collective substance needed to resist traditions? There is only one possible explanation. If the ideas of today are capable of being opposed to recollections and of prevailing over them to the extent of transforming them, this is because such ideas correspond to a collective experience, if not as ancient, at least much larger. Such ideas (like traditions) held in common not only by the members of the group under consideration, but also by other contemporary groups. Reason is opposed to tradition as an extended society is to a narrow one. ([1925 1992, pp.291/184)
Halbwachs presents us with an initial argument here: “new” ideas acquire their force not only because they also belong to a tradition (which may be shorter), but because they are based on broader social experiences. We shall see what he means by this shortly, but we should bear in mind the initial argument that collective representations draw their strength not only from their roots in a particular history, but also from an extended social environment. Halbwachs continues:
In addition, present-day ideas are truly new only for the members of the group which they permeate. Wherever they do not clash with traditions, such ideas have been able to develop freely and to take the form of traditions themselves. What a group opposes to its past is not its present; it is rather the past (perhaps the more recent, but no matter) of other groups with whom it tends to identify itself. ([1925 1992, pp.291/184)
The question of the new
- Top of page
- Halbwachs and collective memory
- The question of the new
- Memory and innovation
The Halbwachsian examples I employ in this section clearly demonstrate that ideas are new only for groups which have not produced them. In other words, all ideas and representations are always produced within a collective memory, within a tradition (even a relatively young tradition), and therefore cannot be regarded as new if they stem from that context. But when, through evolution and social transformation, certain groups begin foregrounding or even imposing their tradition and collective memory on another group, usually one which had previously enjoyed a dominant position, these representations and ideas can indeed be regarded as new. In fact, we are dealing here with a schema of social transformation in which a dominant group is threatened by another group which itself aspires to domination and will proceed by means of ideas arising from a tradition unfamiliar to the dominant group, a group which has “freely”, according to Halbwachs, forged ahead and constituted itself as a social force strong enough to confront a tradition that, while still dominant, is losing its energy due to the fact of social evolution. Both groups, each in its own way, will have contributed to this evolution.
It is significant that Halbwachs, a socialist but not a Marxist, was interested in the economic dimension of this transformation. The example he used was the arrival of a new economic bourgeoisie to replace the old bourgeois class, which had been overtaken by the evolution of capitalism. We should bear in mind that Halbwachs did not, strictly speaking, develop a theory of capitalism (Verret 2010). But his interest in the working class and research into economic sociology, together with his membership of the French section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), led to an intense focus on the transformation that capitalism was undergoing at the turn of the century, when the economic power of craftsmen, engineers, and the old landowning classes was being steadily usurped by financial capitalism, by the power of the banks. This transformation, which Marx had predicted, involved a process of substitution that affected not only the structure of economic organisation, but also the individuals which embodied it. The impact on individuals was of particular interest to Halbwachs in relation to his research into collective memory, and this is what we shall now review. The economic innovation embodied by this “new bourgeoisie” did not draw its rationale and strength from the tradition which had enabled the old guard to achieve and maintain its dominance.
Returning to The social frameworks of memory, we find that
… above all, the conservative bourgeois do not realise that modes of production, ideas and customs that become introduced at a certain moment into a society or into a class are only superficially novel, that they exist and are developed in a neighbouring society or classes, and that they too are based on traditions that happen to be the traditions of other groups. ([1925 1992, pp.260/156)
As we have already seen, the renewal of modes of production does not come from within a tradition, but from another tradition which has developed unnoticed alongside the predominant tradition.
A society can hardly adapt itself to new conditions without redesigning its structure either by modifying the hierarchy and the relations among its various parts or by amalgamating, in whole or part, with neighbouring societies. ([1925 1992, pp.260/156)
The renewal of modes of production provokes more or less profound transformations: the structure is reorganised, hierarchies are overturned; the elements that make up a society are reconstituted. It is not a matter of simply adding a new element to a pre-existing ensemble. To some extent, Halbwachs is at this point defending a “prestructuralist” position: the introduction of a new element or the transformation of an existing element has consequences for the system as a whole, through the normal interplay of the structural laws that define it.
Sometimes the collective memory of the bourgeois class does not provide, or is incapable of providing, a response to questions that it encounters for the first time. An individual who does not find in his memory the remembrance of a case similar to the one that is the source of confusion would look to the people in his midst, or, no longer counting on his memory, would try to use reason. ([1925 1992, pp.260/156)
The new always arises from the fact that the collective memory has no response when the present confronts the group with a question. We could say that as long as tradition is capable of resolving whatever problems emerge, we might as well carry on as before. We search the collective memory for facts, for circumstances analogous to those we are confronted with. Or rather, given what has been suggested above, circumstances demand, prompt or favour a resort to the collective memory, which then reconstitutes the past in accordance with the situation. When that fails to work, we are obliged to find another procedure to deal with the present: the resort to other groups and their traditions, or to reason. When faced with something unusual, we stop functioning “automatically” and are “forced” to think. As Wittgenstein observed, we begin to think when we no longer recognise our surroundings.
But for Halbwachs, what holds true for the individual also holds true for society, a fact he considered of great interest:
Society does the same thing: it addresses itself to other groups, or to those of its members who enjoy close connection with other groups. Society consults other collective memories. It is in this way that the majority of new methods that revolutionise industry and commerce are introduced from the outside. An improved technology is discovered by the industrialists who had contact with scholars or with engineers who are more preoccupied with research than with application, and by intrepid industrialists who have learned to become so through frequenting businessmen. Sometimes an industry is inspired through the example of other industries and a country borrows ideas from abroad. Modern capitalism may perhaps consist in the growing infiltration of financial methods within industry and commerce. Where the artisan and commercial tradition does not indicate how to adapt to modern industrial conditions, an appeal is made to the experience of bankers or to intermediary circles located between finance and industry which combine the traditions and the methods of both. ([1925 1992, pp.260/156)
Halbwachs highlights a set of resources which explain transformations in the system of production: financiers and banks can provide industry with what artisans and small businesses cannot. It is interesting to note the precision of his argument. He is not content to say that industry looks to banks for solutions and methods in order to cope with the evolution of the capitalist system, but shows how the transfer takes place, through the mediation of marginal individuals who have contacts in various sectors, who inhabit the interface between two worlds and can thus incorporate, combine, and articulate different traditions in order to forge new methods of production from heterogeneous elements.
He concludes this long passage with some emphatic questions:
How could it be otherwise? In a society dominated by old customs, how did newer ones, contrary to their predecessors, arise? How is it that all the necessarily individual attempts in this direction were not quickly suppressed? ([1925 1992, pp.260/156)
Halbwachs is making two very important points. On the one hand, this process is necessary for the advent of the new; in other words, a tradition has no internal solutions; it cannot overtake the process and eventually abolish the rules. The new does not originate from within the old. On the other hand individuals, despite their efforts, are powerless in the face of tradition. As we have seen, forces at least equal to those of a tradition are essential in order to overcome the inertia of a tradition that has become obsolete because it no longer responds to the internal evolution of society. The individual is powerless; only the collective can transform a collective. Halbwachs also maintains that this process is possible only because the predominant collective remains unaware that a new collective has developed:
Because society does not immediately perceive the applications that can be made in an area in which it tends to change nothing, it allows these ideas and methods to be developed within circles whose activities seem too far removed from its own for society to be able to worry about contagion from their example. ([1925 1992, pp.261/156–157)
For Halbwachs, society is fundamentally conservative. The structure exists to maintain the status quo that keeps the dominant class in power. He provides some insights into the nature of social permanence: society protects itself against whatever threatens to disturb, destabilise, or challenge the rules by which it functions. But even so, this is not enough to thwart the development of new modes. It does not concern itself with the problems that may arise in other societies, in sectors remote from its core, its fundamental domain, and therefore does nothing to prevent their development.
Memory and innovation
- Top of page
- Halbwachs and collective memory
- The question of the new
- Memory and innovation
We can now turn to the “circles” the dominant bourgeois class tends to ignore despite the fact that they are the source of new ideas. Before discussing Halbwachs’ propositions we should bear in mind that The social frameworks of memory was published 1925, and that for the bourgeoisie of the time the circles in question were in fact marginal, whereas they are much more important today. One striking example concerns my own experience of the press. When I began reading Le Monde more than forty years ago it did not have a sports section, and its sports coverage was barely noticeable. The paper now devotes at least one page a day, sometimes more, to sport, plus several pages covering the events of the weekend and special supplements of up to eight pages for major events such as world championships, the Olympic Games, etc. Besides the main sports results, we are now offered long pieces of commentary. Anyone who took Le Monde in 1960 and suddenly rediscovered it in 2010 would find it unrecognisable: the entire structure of the paper has changed, not just its dimensions and typography – the hierarchy of information has been emphatically overturned. And it is hard to imagine an article on a rock concert or an analysis of a rap record appearing in the columns of Le Monde as it existed in 1960.
They [the new bourgeois] carried within themselves ideas and habits taken from contexts in which bourgeois conceptions were not in command: groups of artists, political groups, the world of the theatre, the stock exchange, newspapers, sports, collectivities that were more open and more diverse, in which, as in a neutral terrain, people of every background lived side by side. (Halbwachs [1925 1992, pp.264/158)
Given their loose structure, these different contexts were more accessible than the closed world of the predominant class. In fact, artists, sportsmen, political activists, and journalists (especially at a time when there was no university training in these fields), came not from the predominant bourgeois class but from other social classes; they were workers, peasants, employees, people from intermediary classes and inter-class worlds. They sought by means of these “new” professions to progress in society, to discover or open up new pathways to promotion and social elevation. People have always looked to fields that demand more than inherited status in the hope of progressing, of “rising above one's condition”. The French Revolutionary Army, for example, was a notable means of social promotion. Writing, the stage, the stock market and sport offered similar opportunities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and continue to do so. Novelists began examining this process (Balzac's Rastignac, Stendhal's Julien Sorel) long before it attracted the attention of sociologists, and often with greater acuity. This undoubtedly explains Marx's interest in Alexandre Dumas and Balzac, although both authors were staunch conservatives. Howard Hughes was also an avid reader of novels (and, according to Becker (1998), was particularly fascinated by The man without qualities). Bourdieu was another avid novel reader,3 as was Becker himself, who said that he devoured novels when he was a child and knew they provided pertinent information on the organiSation and functioning of society (Becker 2007).
Thus the collision between newcomers and settled elements is at least partly a function of an evolutionary process in which the introduction of innovations, whether technological, managerial, or concerned with power, represents a “cultural” shock, to use Weber's term; the clash of different collective memories for Halbwachs, as opposed to the clash of different value systems posited by Weber.
Before creating the first railroads, constructing international canals, speculating in real estate in the major cities, and developing banks, it was through contacts with philosophers, scholars, artists and people representing the popular classes that the thoughts of these industrialists became accustomed to vast projects and to complex methods corresponding to a more evolved type of society that undoubtedly was more extensive than the western world of their time. ([1925 1992, pp.263/158)
The differences between the modes of thought employed by newcomers and incumbents are shaped in the world of representations and ideas. On this point, it is interesting to note that the two previous quotations refer to the notion of “habit”, which clearly demonstrates that innovation is not opposed to tradition but, as we have seen, arises as one tradition replaces another. “Habits” of thought are essential if newcomers are to oppose and replace incumbents. They may assimilate something from the latter, but their habitual approach will have been forged and therefore acquired elsewhere and in other ways. The habits and traditions of newcomers, their collective memory, derive from a set of innovations developed not in the economic sphere but, according to Halbwachs, in philosophy, in the arts, sciences, and sport, and in relations with other groups, particularly from the lower strata of society. It is clearly this expansion of the “ideal” (Godelier 1984) thought base of economic actors which extends their representations of their fields of social activity. The thought stemming from a broader base of representations and ideas affords them the possibility of thinking, acting, and intervening in a wider and henceforth more accessible world, assuming they have had the opportunity to envisage it in the closed intellectual system of the incumbents.
Thus for Halbwachs, influences, notably those of works of art, do not simply transform the ways in which we see and hear. They lead to structural changes in the way we think, and by doing so foster the emergence of social groups which are able to think and act in new ways. They challenge the habitual thought patterns of predominant groups, which themselves had once enabled the achievement of a dominant position in society, but which, as Halbwachs notes, have lost their ability to respond to the questions posed by the present. This is a form of historical repetition, a “cyclical” process (to reprise a term often employed by Marx); the replacement of one predominant group by another which is more dynamic and draws intellectual succour from those it dominates. In a sense, this justifies the suspicions harboured by upholders of the status quo, not only authoritarian regimes but also utopians with their dreams of an unalterably perfect world. Artistic innovation may constitute a threat to regimes that insist on copying old models in order to strengthen their power, and also to assumed perfection. The prototype of these two conceptions of politics can be found in Plato's Republic.
Halbwachs highlights the social influence, and therefore the social function, of innovators such as artists and scholars:
The great scholar, the genial artist, just like the famous boxing champion and the movie star, will be able to bring to the attention of the public for the time being a theory, a form of talent, a performance or a film image but what society above all values in them is that one succeeds the other, that each provides some nourishment for a superficial curiosity so that their very diversity allows society to enlarge indefinitely the field of its attention. Society values the fact that their multiplicity obliges its members to perform increasingly difficult gymnastics and establishes an increasingly accelerated rhythm of social life. ([1925 1992, pp.262/157)
This passage contains all the social “worlds” (Becker) we encountered earlier – science, art, sport, the theatre – and also a highly significant observation: what influences social life is not so much the ideas and representations these worlds offer, but the rapidity of their emergence and renewal. The pace and proliferation of these representations engages society in a process of self-examination that determines its evolution. Thus society is in fact “forced” to adapt itself by incorporating every manifestation of the new.
The imposition of the value of whatever is new, which defines modernity, is apparent from the acceleration of social life and therefore from the formation by social groups of representations that undergo constant renewal, the condition sine qua non if they are to avoid being “overtaken” by developments and run the risk of losing their dominant position. Groups of newcomers are characterised by a greater ability to absorb the modes of thought, modes of action, and innovative representations of other social groups when innovation is a matter of survival. There is an interesting dialectic at work here: strength becomes weakness and weakness becomes strength. The forces of predominant groups with an interest in maintaining the status quo become weaknesses when faced with the evolution of society. Conversely, the weakness of the newcomers, who are permanently destabilised by the constant stream of new representation, becomes a force in the process of social transformation.
This brings us back to our starting point, the presentation of Maurice Halbwachs as a participant in a determinist, prestructuralist current of sociological thought. From the Halbwachsian perspective, society is a structured, cohesive totality that is prone to transformation through innovation. Society is always the arena for the formation, transformation, diffusion, and transmission of the ideas and representations that inform and transform the actions and behaviour of social groups and the individuals who compose them.
It is within society that we become accustomed to perceiving and valuing the personal qualities of actions, words, and characteristics. Within society we find rules of sufficient complexity to be able to classify these values and to reason about them. The role of these social contexts is precisely to retain such values, and to foster such a mind-set, by any means: those of education and family tradition, those of conversation, of intellectual relations and relations based on feeling, of the intersection of ideas and experiences borrowed from various historical periods and from various social regions and categories, in mundane reunions, and finally those of the theatre and literature among cultivated groups who are inclined to read. ([1925 1992, pp.247/143)
Thus, Halbwachs provides us with a theory of social evolution in which the combination and interaction of ideas and patterns of behaviour, and their export from their field of production, sideline or render obsolete traditions that have become exhausted and can no longer respond to the needs and challenges of the present. Rather than establish an opposition between tradition and innovation, the theory of collective memory teaches us that every pattern of behaviour and every new idea and representation contributes to the transformation of society as identified by Maurice Halbwachs.
Translated from French
Becker notes: “This is where the idea of using photographs to illustrate or even replace text comes from … Let us say for the moment that photographs have the ability to make us see what things look like; they provide a mass of visual details which resemble what we would see if we were there to see it … We find it difficult to imagine the paragraphs of text that would be needed to transmit what a single image transmits” (2009, pp.115–116).
Bourdieu wrote: “I could see very clearly the extent to which the histories of literary life that ethnologists and sociologists liked so much were artificial, and I now find the apparently extremely formal research conducted by Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce, or Claude Simon much more “realistic” (if that word means anything), more anthropologically true, much closer to the truth of the temporal experience, than the linear narratives we have become accustomed to through our reading of conventional novels” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992 1992, p.179).
- Top of page
- Halbwachs and collective memory
- The question of the new
- Memory and innovation
Additional references common to Memory Studies can be found at the end of this dossier in the selected bibliography, pp.197–202.
- 1998. Tricks of the trade: how to think about your research while you're doing it. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press ,
- 2007. Telling about society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ,
- 1992. Réponses. Pour une anthropologie réflexive. Paris: Seuil. [An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992]. and ,
- 1984. L'idéel et le matériel: pensée, économies, sociétés. Paris: Fayard. ,
- 1925] 1994. Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire. Paris: Albin Michel [The social frameworks of memory. In: M. Halbwachs . On collective memory, 37–189, 1992]. , [
- 2010. Lectures sociologiques. Paris: L'Harmattan. ,