For a Sociology of Collective Memory


Marie-Claire Lavabre

The concept of memory has a history, in particular in France. Leaving aside the landmark work by Maurice Halbwachs on Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire [The social frameworks of memory] (1925), this concept really emerged in the mid seventies, essentially carried by the tide of thought of historians on the relativity of knowledge in history and on the conflict of interpretations. In this context, the actual definition of “memory” and in particular of “collective memory” is of less importance than the “strategic use” of the concept in “the transformation of historiography” (Pierre Nora, 1978). But the immediate success of the concept points more probably to a context marked by great social and political upheaval, to the passing of generations, and to an interest tinged with nostalgia for worlds – in particular the workers’ and peasants’ worlds – that were being watered down, in short to the question of remembrance and of handing down memories.

The definition proposed by historians choosing “the history of memory” as the subject of the definition, based on the distinction between history (criticism) and memory – thinking that is usually measured by the yardstick of the Nation (memory is said to be “collective” because it is national) – was however to dominate largely, overshadowing in part the issues specific to the sociology of memory, and particularly those regarding the production of collective memories, able to be raised by Halbwachs and Bastide. Because the concept of collective memory stresses less the institutional and political uses of the past – the memory “policies” and strategies – than the socially shared representations of the past, which are effects of the present identities that they feed in part in return. The question then becomes: how do we go from the multiplicity of experiences and recollections to the unity of a “collective” memory? How, not conversely but rather in the same vein, does a memory that is described as “collective” because it is carried by groups, parties, associations, and other authorized spokespersons, act upon individual representations?

In order to work towards answering these questions, it is necessary to address the various realities that can be taken on by the word “memory,” such as commemoration, monument, political or even controversial or strategic use of the past, or remembrance of personal or handed-down experience.

While the concept of memory is largely polysemous, or even metaphoric in its principle when it covers all forms of the presence of the past, collective memory is perhaps less equivocal in its definition. Collective memory can be defined as an interaction between the memory policies – also referred to as “historical memory” – and the recollections – “common memory,” of what has been experienced in common. It lies at the point where individual meets collective, and psychic meets social.
In other words, collective memories are built up in the work of homogenizing representations of the past and of reducing the diversity of recollections, possibly taking place in the “events of communication” between individuals and in handing down memories (Marc Bloch); in the “inter-individual relationships” that constitute the reality of social groups as “structured” entities (Roger Bastide), within “affective communities;” or “intermediate groups” between the individual and the Nation (Maurice Halbwachs); or else groups defined as “symbolic reality” founded in history (Anselm Strauss, Miroirs et masques).

Whether memory is defined as being an effect of the present or an effect of the past, a choice or a weight of the past, it cannot be decreed, any more than forgetting can; the most recent developments of the “Vichy syndrome” (Henry Rousso, 1986) bear witness to this.

Memory policies can merely be a prescription to no effect, and go unheeded. The empirical example of the French Communist Party, which, prior to the great changes in Eastern Europe, was supposed to be capable of promoting and of controlling a “collective memory,” illustrates this (cf Marie-claire Lavabre, , 1994).

Marie-Claire Lavabre
Séléction sur le thème de la mémoire

Le fil rouge. Sociologie de la mémoire communiste, Presses de La FNSP, 1994, 319 p.
Les mouvements de 1968, en coll. Avec Henri Rey, Casterman-Giunti, 1998.

Collective works
" Du poids et du choix du passé : lecture critique du syndrome de Vichy ", in Histoire politique et sciences sociales, D. Peschanski, H. Rousso et M. Pollack (dir.), Complexe, 1991, p.265-278.
" Les communistes et De Gaulle, une mémoire polémique ", in De Gaulle en son siècle, I, Dans la mémoire des hommes et des peuples, Plon/La Documentation française, Paris, 1991, p. 564-572.
Article " mémoire ", in Dictionnaire encyclopédique de théorie et de sociologie du droit, André-Jean Arnaud et alii (dir.), LGDJ ed., Paris, 1993, p. 366-367.
" Entre histoire et mémoire à la recherche d'une méthode ", in La guerre civile entre histoire et mémoire, Jean-Clément Martin (dir), Ouest Editions, Nantes, 1995, p.39-48. (texte traduit en bulgare)
" Préface ", in Maurice Halbwachs, La mémoire collective, trad. Bulgare,1997.
" Stalin’s Second Death ", in Mourning Monuments and Experience of the Lost at the End of the Century, Peter Homans dir, sous presse, University Press of Virginia, 2000.
" De la notion de mémoire à la production des mémoires collectives ", in Cultures politiques, Daniel Cefaï dir, PUF, à paraître, PUF, 2000.

In collaboration with Denis Peschanski, " L'histoire pour Boussole ? Note sur l'historiographie communiste, 1977-1982 ", Communisme n° 4, janvier 1984, p. 105-113.
En coll. avec Marc Lazar, " Se rassembler à sa ressemblance, lectures de quelques autobiographies de militants ", Communisme n° 4, janvier 1984, p. 114-121.
En collaboration avec Denis Peschanski, " L'image de l'URSS diffusée par le Parti communiste français: 60 ans d'Almanachs ", Revue des études slaves, Tome LVII, n °4, 1985, p. 637-647.
" Sociologie du communisme français : état des travaux ", Communisme n ° 7, 1985, p. 63-83.
" La collection des Almanachs édités par le Parti communiste français : un exemple de tradition ",
Pouvoirs, PUF, n°42, 1987, p105-115.
" La Révolution française dans la mémoire des militants communistes français ", Communisme, n° 20-21, 1989, p 111-127.
" Au parti des ouvriers ", Autrement, janvier 1992, p161-172.
" Usages du passé, usages de la mémoire ", Revue française de science politique, juin 1994.
" L’identité française est-elle en crise ? " French Politics and Society, 1996.
" Maurice Halbwachs et la sociologie de la mémoire ", Raison présente, septembre 1998.

Contact :

Marie-Claire Lavabre
Research Director at CNRS
CNRS - Centre Marc Bloch (CEVIPOF)
Tel.: +33 1 45 49 51 05 or 72 97 (CEVIPOF - Paris)
Tel.: +49 30 30 87 42 95 (Centre Marc Bloch - Berlin)