My Memory, Myself: The Role of Culture in Memory and Self-Identity

Article excerpt

Qi Wang, an assistant professor of human development, is breaking new ground at the interface of social and cognitive development by revealing the diverse paths by which children acquire memories and develop self-identity. Her research compares the development of memory in Chinese and European American children and draws conclusions about how memory shapes, and is shaped by, concepts of the self in the context of culture.

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Wang is particularly interested in the influence of cultural norms on the emergence and development of autobiographical memory, which she defines as memory of significant personal experiences from an individual's life and thus an integral part of one's self and identity. "Our research has shown systematic differences in the ways that young children in different cultures remember their personal experiences and describe themselves. These differences indicate that the framework of culture is embodied in the construction of memory and self from the very beginning," explains Wang. "The development of memory and self is not merely a cognitive achievement, nor is it solely constrained by an individual's immediate social setting. Differing cultural values and beliefs that are embedded in everyday activities shared between parents and children play a crucial role in shaping the mode in which memory and self-identity are established and maintained."

A study Wang published in Developmental Psychology in 2004 is among the first to look at young children's first memories. Ninety-three European American children from Ithaca, New York, and 87 Chinese children from Beijing, China, participated. The children ranged in age from four to eight years, and all came from middle-class backgrounds. In addition to asking the children to reconstruct memories from the past, Wang's interviewers also asked the children to describe themselves.

Each child was interviewed at school in two stages. Before beginning the project, the interviewer spent time in the classrooms to allow the children to become familiar with them. After an initial warm-up exchange between the interviewer and the child, each child was asked four open-ended questions related to remembered events and assured that there were no right or wrong answers. The children were asked to describe how they spent their last birthday, to recall a time when their mother or father scolded them for something, to talk about one thing they had done recently that was special and fun, and to identify the first thing that they could remember.

In the second part of the interview, the interviewer used two open-ended techniques to get the children to describe themselves. The interviewer told the child: "I would like to write about you, to write something that will tell about you. What is the first thing I should put in what I write about you?" After each response, the interviewer encouraged the children to continue describing themselves until the children indicated that they were finished. The other part of this query was to ask the children to complete sentences beginning with "I am." Again, the children were prompted to continue until they indicated that they were finished.

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Wang's data revealed significant differences between the responses of European American and Chinese children. American children's accounts of remembered events were longer, more detailed, and more emotional. They also tended to focus on themselves, the roles they played, their actions, and their personal opinions about whether they liked or disliked events. Chinese children provided less detailed and less emotional accounts of past experiences than their American peers, and their accounts often focused on daily routines. Instead of focusing on their own roles or predilections, they emphasized social interactions and frequently referred to their relationships to other people. While both groups of children placed their autobiographical accounts in an interpersonal context, American children perceived themselves as the central character in these accounts, whereas Chinese children tended to see themselves acting within a group. …