Thursday, May 9, 2013

Historical Memories

by Matthew Spears

What are the political implications of people’s memories about history? Although Theodore Gerber’s talk on February 21, 2013, “New Directions in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia—Divided Historical Memory among Youth in Estonia: Sources of Ideational Cleavage,” didn’t focus on this question, the lecture did make me wonder how people’s perceptions of the past influence their political attitudes in the present. For instance, people who associate negative memories to past historical events such as wars (e.g. World War II or, more recently, the Vietnam War) are probably less likely to support new wars than are people who remember past wars in a positive light.

There seems to be something missing, however. Gerber was quick to note that his study—and, likely, all studies about historical memories—does not tell a causal story. It is very likely that some underlying factor causes, or at least predisposes, people to positively remember past wars and to support future wars (or the opposite). Related to this point, I wonder if it is possible for historical memories to change over time, both within an individual and across society. It certainly must be possible for change over time—otherwise, historical revisionists would be out of a job and we would be unable to integrate new information about the past into our overall understanding of that past.

But how do these memories change? It would seem that media frames, elite discourse, new textbooks—i.e. a cultural shift of sorts—would be necessary for historical memories at a societal level to change. At the individual level, I imagine that some people are more stubbornly attached to what they think they know than others, thus making their “memories” resistant to change. In both cases, it appears that the ability of an historical memory to evolve is dependent on conditions that make it impossible to delineate the political implications of these memories.

If we wish to observe memory’s implications in a casual manner, we would need to observe how changes in memory affect changes in political attitudes. Yet, because changes in historical memory are brought about as a result of a cultural shift or due to individual predispositions to update their beliefs, the task is impossible.

It is unlikely that historical memory has any effect on politics. In fact, changes in political attitudes are probably a precondition for the cultural shifts that one might otherwise assume brings about a change in historical memory and people’s preconditions to change their beliefs may be correlated to their political leanings as well. This is not to say that historical memories are not politically relevant. Perhaps, though, these memories should be conceptualized as expressions of political attitudes and beliefs. It is then up to researchers of historical memory to explicate precisely what these expressions can teach us about individuals’ political behavior.

Matthew Spears is a 5th-year graduate student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research examines how people’s perceptions of others influence their support for economic redistribution. His research has been funded, in part, through EU Center travel grants, and he is currently studying Turkish as an EUC FLAS fellow.

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