On the Potential of Norbert Elias's Approach in the Social Memory Research in Central and Eastern Europe

By Bucholc, Marta | Polish Sociological Review, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

On the Potential of Norbert Elias's Approach in the Social Memory Research in Central and Eastern Europe


Bucholc, Marta, Polish Sociological Review


Norbert Elias's theory is hardly ever referenced in the scholarship on collective memory, despite prominent exceptions such as Jeffrey Olick's Politics of Regret (2007: 85ff). It is deplorable, but hardly surprising. First of all, Elias never studied collective memory in itself. Life-long reluctance to risk a relapse into the trap of homo clausus anthropology (Merz-Benz 1996: 45) undoubtedly contributed to his taking a somewhat undiscerning stance towards memory as it used to be conceptualized in social sciences. As a result Elias's work is underrepresented in social memory research, despite its status of a standard (though controversial) reference in social history and cultural studies (van Dulmen 1996: 264).

I am convinced that following Elias in deliberately overlooking the refined distinctions between communicational, semiotic, cognitive, psychological and sociological approaches in memory research, we may upkeep what was probably most precious in his thinking, namely its openness to different applications. Thus we would gain footing to attack the gap between agency and structure in memory research from a new angle.

This is particularly vital for the researchers coping with the problems of Central and Eastern Europe, where complex paths of memory call for an extra input of innovativeness and thinking out of the box. I will come back to this issue in the final part of my paper, after having discussed the basic tenets of Elias's approach to social memory. After an introductory presentation of Elias's symbol theory I will focus on his concept of forgetting as collective communicational activity, which in my view lies in the very centre of both his theory of memory and of the difficulties we encounter in memory research in Central and Eastern Europe.

Climbing the Tower-Cooperation, Accumulation, Reflexivity

The title of this section refers to the image used by Elias in order to illustrate the development of human self-consciousness, including the scientific one (Elias 1994: 135). Elias puts it to us that humanity is a population of nomads climbing the stairs of a high tower. While we proceed, our view gradually becomes broader, thus subjecting our previous perspectives to reflection, which in turn allows us to distance ourselves from our former way of living on lower floors and move on to a fuller and more coherent picture of our own condition, recalling the lengths we have already covered. Elias uses this parable to draw our attention to the interdependence of knowledge, self-consciousness and their social context. However, the infinite steep climb is just as apt an illustration of the growth of knowledge.

Sociological approach to memory has shared the fate of many phenomena which become methodological artifacts long before they have even entered the field of research, forcing many generations of scholars to painstakingly undo the conceptual work of their predecessors in order to get nearer the thing itself. As a result, studying memory from sociological point of view much resembles the biblical house built on sand; a sublime theoretical framework is supported by a huge corpus of empirical findings ultimately resting on a very shaky delimitation of research object. This condition of memory studies is in my opinion a result of tension between the striving for conceptual precision on the one hand and the respect for the complexity of acutely imprecise human representations of reality on the other.

Norbert Elias was one of the first ever to remark on the uselessness of hypostasizing quasi-positivist conceptual distinctions for the sake of conceptual transparency and the first to defend humanity against the imperialism of social sciences. The greatest difficulty of understanding social life he saw in the invariantly situated nature of all human cognition (thus its relational character) as set against the universalist and objectivist claims of social science. This is in fact the problem of gaze (in the Lacanian sense ante litteram, meaning the focus of interest related to a certain perspective, see Bal 2002, chapter 1). …

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