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Uses of the Past: History as a Resource for the Present


Collective memory has become an increasingly important topic in social and human sciences over the past thirty years. Beyond the interest for how we understand history, collective memory research has explored how the past has been used to defend certain understandings of the world (for instance nationalist ideologies), political actions (as in the case of intractable conflicts), or collective identities (particularly when they are seen as reflecting the historical ‘essence’ of a national group). That is, how the history is used as a resource for the present. However, theoretical conceptualisations have more directly focused on how collective memory is produced, and less so on how it is mobilised for the present. In this paper, we propose to review the main conceptualisation of collective memory in psychology – as social thinking, as social identity, and as sense-making – and how they more or less implicitly understand the relations between past and present. In a final section, we argue that representations of history have mainly been seen, in collective memory research, as a source of meaning for the present or as a way to position oneself in the current social field. In conclusion, we propose a third way of understanding the relations between past and present, considering collective memory to be both transformative of the present and prospective for the future.

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Constance de Saint-Laurent has received funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant P400PS_180686).

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Correspondence to Constance de Saint-Laurent.

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de Saint-Laurent, C., Obradović, S. Uses of the Past: History as a Resource for the Present. Integr. psych. behav. 53, 1–13 (2019).

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  • Collective memory
  • Social thinking
  • Social identity
  • Meaning-making
  • Prospective memory