In the past two decades social scientists have increasingly turned their attention to the process by which members of societies and societal subgroups think about and remember their pasts. Particularly influential in this regard was the translation of Maurice Halbwachs’s (1980;1992) writings into English, leading to a focus on collective memories (Lang and Lang 1990; Schwartz 1987). In the words of Benedict Anderson (1983), societies constitute “imagined communities.” Societal histories and narratives are central to this imagination. This approach suggests that the politics of memory is central to the development of a state or community’s consciousness: What we believe that we were shapes how we continue to think about ourselves in a mnemonic process (Olick and Robbins 1998; Zerubavel 1997).
However, in practice, history consists not primarily of ideas but of stories. These stories have their own dramatic personae. In a sense, history consists of a sequential pageant of individuals, each defined as being “the cause” or engine of events. These great personages of history constitute one of the key mnemonics by which we recall the past. Historical narrative is comprised of a set of linked reputations.
Two fundamental questions organize how sociologists think of reputation. First is the Durkheimian question: What do reputations do? Or, put another way, what roles do reputations play—as collective representations—for the society that embraces them? Second is the Goffmanian question: How do reputations come about? Whose interest do they serve within the micropolitics of social organization?