On the Creation and Maintenance of Collective Memories: History as Social Psychology
James W. Pennebaker
Southern Methodist University
Becky L. Banasik
University of Chicago
In 1973, Kenneth Gergen ushered the deconstruction movement into social psychology by arguing that the theories and findings within social psychology were dependent to a large degree on the prevailing culture. Further, because the field was generating culture- and time-dependent scientific results, these findings should be considered as historical data points or records. Social psychology, in his view, was a form of history. At the time, Gergen implied that history itself was an impartial truth with social psychological findings serving as archival reminders of the ways people thought and behaved at the time the studies were conducted. Although this chapter agrees with many of Gergen's assumptions, it is important to appreciate that history itself is highly contextual. Indeed, social psychological processes help to define history. The ways people talk and think about recent and distant events is determined by current needs and desires (see also Tetlock, Peterson, McGuire, Chang, & Feld, 1992). Just as the key to the future is the past, the key to the past is the present.
In the United States over the last half century, most adults would agree that a relatively small number of national events have profoundly affected Americans' collective memories: World War II, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the peace movement/anti-Vietnam/ Woodstock period, Watergate, and, perhaps, the explosion of the Challenger space craft. This is not to say that other extremely important events did not occur--such as the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, the election of Ronald Reagan, and the Persian Gulf War. However, this second group simply did not have