Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory

Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory

Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory

Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory


Stories told within institutions play a powerful role, helping to define not only the institution itself, but also its individual members. How do institutions use stories? How do those stories both preserve the past and shape the future? To what extent does narrative construct both collective and individual identity?

Charlotte Linde's unique and far-reaching study addresses these questions by looking at the interplay of narratives, memory, and identity in a large insurance company. Her detailed ethnography looks at the role of stories within the institution and how they are employed by its members in both private and group settings. Analyzing the re-telling of certain key stories, she shows how the formation of "core" stories and their multiple re-tellings and modifications provide a means of formulating and promoting a cohesive group identity -- which in turn shapes the stories and identities of the individuals within the collective. Linde also looks at silences, and how stories not told also convey their version of the past.

Working the Pastshows how stories that might otherwise be seen as part of mundane daily life are in fact utterly essential to the formation and maintenance of individual and group identity. Her original research will appeal to those interested in narrative studies, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and institutional memory.


I want to tell you a story about how institutions work their pasts: specifically how institutions and their members use narrative to remember. and in remembering, how they work and rework, present and represent the past for the purposes of the present and the projection of a future. Individuals and groups may have a variety of purposes for recalling and representing the past. These include using the past to establish legitimacy of authority, to claim ownership, to claim political or intellectual priority, to establish stability, to indicate the working out of divine purpose in history, to compare the past with the present to show that things are getting either better or worse. All of these are ways of working the past: invoking and retelling parts of the past for present purposes. in the case study that forms the center of this book, a large insurance company works its past in order to construct a stable narrative of identity, that is, to show that who We are and how We are is consistent with how We have always been.

And why should you care? As careful studies of narrative have shown us, the basic challenge for any storyteller is to avoid the challenge “So what?” (Labov 1972). Perhaps I could scheherazade you into listening, using sheer charm of narration. a narrative challenge indeed, for a story whose protagonist is an insurance company, but possible. Yet there are good reasons why the use of narratives in institutions is important to understand beyond the single story told here.

Narration is one very important way that institutions construct their presentation of who they are and what they have done in the past, and they use these pasts in . . .

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