“Collective memory” is a term that appears frequently in the media and everyday conversation. We use it when talking about the causes of ethnic violence and geopolitical miscalculation, political leaders invoke it in times of crisis, and it is behind massive expenditures on museums and holidays. In general, it is hard to go more than a few days without encountering the notion somewhere, but when we try to say just what collective memory is, we realize how little we understand about its workings.
Despite – or perhaps because of – this conceptual muddle, a renewed “memory industry” (Klein, 2000) has sprung up over the past two decades. The open-ended nature of this enterprise is reflected in the plethora of terms that can be found in writings on the topic, terms such as “public memory” (Bodnar, 1992), “social memory” (Burke, 1989; Connerton, 1989), “cultural memory” (Berliner, 2005), “bodily memory” (Young, 1996), “historical consciousness” (Seixas, 2004), and “mnemonic battles” (Zerubavel, 2003).
Part of the difficulty in bringing together all these strands of inquiry stems from the number of disciplines involves. The list includes anthropology (Berliner, 2005; Cole, 2001), history (Novick, 1999), psychology (Pennebaker, Paez, & Rimé, 1997), and sociology (e.g., Schuman, Schwartz, & D'Arcy, 2005). Further complications arise from the fact that collective memory can be at the center of debates – often quite heated – in the public arena and popular media where little attention is given to clear definitions.