Oral traditions as collective memories: Implications for a general theory of individual and collective memory

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© Cambridge University Press 2009 and 2010. Historians are interested in sites of memory, understood as places where groups of people engage in public activity through which they express “a collective shared knowledge … of the past, on which a group's sense of unity and individuality is based” (Assmann, 1995). The group that goes to such sites inherits earlier meanings attached to the event, as well as adding new meanings. Their activity is crucial to the presentation and preservation of commemorative sites. When such groups disperse or disappear, sites of memory lose their initial force, and may fade away entirely. Thus, historians are more interested in remembrance as a cultural practice than in memory as an individual's capacity to recall or reconfigure the past. The term, sites of memory, abumbrated in a seven-volume study edited by Pierre Nora (n.d.) has been extended to many different texts, from legends, to stories, to concepts. In this brief essay, I define the term more narrowly to mean physical sites where commemorative acts take place. In the twentieth century, most such sites marked the loss of life in war. It is these sites that have attracted the attention of entire battalions of historians in the past twenty-five years. What makes such sites of memory attractive for historical research is their character as topoi with a life history. They have an initial, creative phase, when they are constructed or adapted to particular commemorative purposes. Then follows a period of institutionalization and routinization of their use.






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David C. Rubin

Juanita M. Kreps Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

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My main research interest has been in long-term memory, especially for complex (or "real-world") stimuli. This work includes the study of autobiographical memory and oral traditions, as well as prose. I have also studied memory as it is more commonly done in experimental psychology laboratories using lists. In addition to this purely behavioral research, which I plan to continue, I work on memory in clinical populations with the aid of a National Institute of Mental Health grant to study PTSD and on the underlying neural basis of memory the aid of a National Institute of Aging grant to study autobiographical memory using fMRI.

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