May 17, 2019

Collective Remembering across Generations and across Cultures: Evidence for National Narrative Templates, Developmental Variants, and Global Anchors

James Liu, Massey University, New Zealand

What is universal, what is characteristic of national political culture, and what is regionally influenced in the “living memory” of national history for people around the world? Selected data a reported from a massive multi-generational adult sample (N>27000) collected online in 2018-19, representative of 42 societies around the world). In responding to the question “Name 3 historic events that have occurred during the lifetime of people you know (or have known) that have had the greatest impact on your country”, historical foreshortening (i.e., nominating very recent events like the last election) was more common than generational differences. World War II was not nearly as dominant as in previous studies where events in world history were nominated, with 9/11 forming an alternative anchor for living memory in the United States. This passing away of WWII from living memory may weaken the soft power of the United States in other parts of the world. Points of difference between societies were far more salient than the few commonly shared global events, but there were some structural features shared in the collective remembering of developing societies around the world (e.g., from colonization to independence and reform). Prospects for convergence, divergence, and mutual friction are discussed, focusing on the Great Powers of China, Russia, the United States; as well as countries in the European Union, and Islamic societies. A new measure of historical consciousness is proposed and used to examine the shape of national historical narratives, between individuals and across cultures. Degree of historical consciousness may be treated as an individual difference, consisting of both ability to recall collective events and openness to societal influences like mass media or the state. Different clusters of historical events informed different narratives of national identity within a given country, and these were systematically associated with important features of political psychology, like predispositions for prejudice versus for system justification, and the propensity to trust others and institutions in society. Living memory appears to be temporally malleable, as it is highly responsive to immediate crises facing society, but it is also anchored to foundational events spanning three generations.

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