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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 528-530 ( 22 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/wertsch.html

Book Review

Voices of Collective Remembering 
by James Wertsch
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0 521 81050 7 (hardback), 0 521 00880 8 (paperback)

Reviewed by Nigel Hunt, Senior Lecturer, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, Burton Street, Nottingham, NG1 4BU, United Kingdom.

Memory is a complex topic which does not lend itself to simplistic explanation. Unfortunately, many psychologists over the years have studied it as an individual phenomenon, without incorporating social and cultural contexts. For this reason, even though memory research has been extensively funded and is represented in hundreds of textbooks and thousands of learned articles, psychologists have failed to extend our understanding of the subject. Much research has simply focused on the study of the individual, the mundane, the context-free, and hence the essentially meaningless. We are not programmed to remember lists of numbers or nonwords, presented in isolation via a tachistoscope or a computer screen – the favoured method of “studying memory” in the 1960s and 1970s. The understanding of memory used in concepts such as “working memory”, “long-term memory”, “episodic and semantic memories” are readily described by young children, who have no knowledge of the latest cognitive psychology text.

The problem is, when focusing on memory as an individual function, studies fail to take account of the fact that we live in a social world, that memory will always have social elements. A further oversimplification of memory is that it is not simply a function of “encode – store – retrieve”. This misses the subtlety of memory, the transformations that occur because of our own understandings, our own life histories, personality, and desires, all impact on encoding, storage, and retrieval.

There are notable exceptions. Neisser in his seminal work on memory in the 1970s and 1980s detailed the alternative view about memory, that it depends on context, and that memory representations can be influenced by social characteristics. This did have a profound impact on many psychologists, and has led to a change in thinking. Many psychologists do now try and understand the nuances of memory, the value of the social context, and that life history or autobiographical memories are important and impinge on the construction of the self.

But are these ideas so radical? They were clearly described by Bartlett in his book Remembering in 1932, who himself was reacting against the oversimplicity of the approaches taken by people like Ebbinghaus. Furthermore, insights into memory that might be obtained from the study of other disciplines, disciplines which also examine human nature, are missed because there is a view that other disciplines have little to contribute.

Wertsch’s new book on collective remembering should be an essential read for anyone interested in memory research. Wertsch, a professor of Arts and Sciences (a useful combination!) at Washington University in St Louis, USA, has produced many books and articles relating to the individual, culture and society.

Wertsch recognises that while most psychologists have focused on individual memory, examining accuracy at the expense of validity, sociologists have tended to focus on the more social and cultural aspects. We need both.

If we are going to examine collective memory, we have to determine what is meant by the term. An extreme view is that memories can be genuinely collective, that they exist outside the individual (perhaps in some semi-analogous way to Jungian collective unconscious). A less extreme view is that memories are only collective in the sense that some are shared by individuals within society. He compares individuals in society to the crew of a ship. The sailors all have different but overlapping jobs to do in order to make the ship functional. It is the same with society, we all have individual memories, but these overlap to some extent and society functions well because we have both memories in common and memories that are individual.

Just because memories are shared it does not mean they are necessarily in agreement regarding what happened in the past. We may have very different, often conflicting viewpoints about events. This may be because we had a different personal viewpoint, or it may mean we have different interpretations built up since the event. At worst, these disagreements may lead to conflict; at best, intellectual and social progress through debate and discussion.

The way memory is used in modern society is very different to the past. We now use our individual internal memories less and external memories – in the form of texts – much more. Many of our collective memories are in the form of texts, such as books, letters, the media, or the internet.

Wertsch recognises that if we are externalising collective memory, we will have to account for differences between collective memory and history. People have recognised there are differences between subjective (collective memory) and objective (history) representations of the past. This is rather a narrow distinction, and Wertsch draws on the writings of Halbwachs – the original collective memory researcher – who differentiates the two with collective memory being concerned with stability over time, and history concerned with change over time. Halbwachs believed that we could aim at a universal history, an objective understanding of the past. Most people now would not agree with this. History is interpretative and subjective, analytical and open to debate. It is recognised now that both collective memory and historical analyses change over time in relation to the “needs and desires” of society.

All memories, whether held by the individual or in a textual form, are narratives. All our memories make some sort of sense, are interpreted in some way. Wertsch discusses the ways in which narratives are produced and consumed; and how narratives change over time. He uses the example of how collective memories have changed in the transition from Soviet Russia to post-Soviet Russia. The ideas are expounded in the latter half of the book.

One example is the transition of history books in Russia. During the Soviet years the Civil War was seen as entirely separate from the 1917 revolutions, an attempt by anti-Bolshevik reactionaries and their foreign allies to undermine the Bolshevik Revolution. In a history book written in 1995 Civil War is now seen as extending from the time of the November revolution in 1917 through to the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1921. In this way collective memories are changed.

Memory is an interplay between events, time, society and the individual. Memories are manipulated to fit our life history, our own views about ourselves. They are also manipulated by society, by the ways in which external information is transmitted to us. In these days of reduced internal memory, we need to be aware of the ways in which information can be used (e.g. media, history, propaganda) to impact on how we perceive the world. Unfortunately Wertsch does not show us this side of the story, the daily “spin” by politicians and media people.

A good example of the role of collective memory in different societies is that of Sasha, described at the start of the book. Sasha is a Russian who, when asked about the contribution of the USA in the Second World War, suggests that the USA only got seriously involved when they thought Russia could win the war alone. Sasha was 16 years old. His memory of the war was not his own, but a collective one, one which most Russians – but not most Americans - would probably agree with. For my part, I have seen US war memorials which describe the Second World War 1941-45, dates that as an English person I find difficult to write without adding several exclamation marks!!!

The point is that none of these interpretations of the past are objectively true. They are true for individuals, and for groups of people within a given society. But then memory is not about truth, it is about interpretation. In order to understand memory we must understand the interplay between individual and collective memory, how our own narratives (memories) develop through this interplay. Wertsch’s book is well-written, thought-provoking, and should be recommended to all students of memory.

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© Nigel Hunt.


Hunt, N. (2002). Review of Voices of Collective Remembering by James Wertsch. Human Nature Review. 2: 528-530.

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