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Critical Review of Aleida Assmann’s ‘Transformations between History and Memory’

In the relatively nascent field of memory studies, cultural anthropologist Aleida Assmann is a prominent figure. Considered to be an expert in cultural and collective memory, Assmann published the article Transformations between History and Memory in the Social Research journal in 2008.[1] That Assmann’s article is often quoted by others in the field makes it an important source to consult for anyone seeking to research the relation between history, memory and collective identity. With this in mind, this critical review will specifically analyse Assmann’s article in the context of the following questions: What theoretical frameworks surround the study of history and memory? How does collective memory act as a link between history and collective identity? What can the study of collective memory reveal about the implications of identity construction in contemporary Europe?

        Aleida Assmann’s article serves two principle purposes. Firstly, to provide a comprehensive overview and explanation of theoretical frameworks in the field of collective memory, as a reference for other academics to build upon. Secondly, to serve as a review of the existing literature, suggesting research gaps that require further investigation and seeking to guide the direction of future research.

         The article provides a critical overview of key concepts, terms and theories, it details the field’s historical evolution, explains how history has been used through time to promote a certain collective memory or identity, and finally discusses the current status of research in this field. To do so, Assmann draws from a wide range of well-known and recognisable sources, both academic (Friedrich Nietzsche, Edward Said) and non-academic (Susan Sontag, Margaret Atwood), to lend her arguments credibility. She also takes care to balance her critical evaluation of existing theories and literature with others’ counter-arguments, her treatment of which attests to her extensive knowledge and actually strengthens her own arguments, by demonstrating her confidence in them. Such a thorough and well-balanced overview makes this article an excellent springboard to start from and a suitable introduction to the topic of collective memory.

         The author’s principle objective is to assert that collective memory needs to be approached differently in academia, in order to analyse the role it plays in representations of the past, and the consequences of this for collective identity. To support her objective, Assmann presents four main arguments. Firstly, that collective memory is created by institutions and governments through a top-down process of selection and exclusion, resulting in a network of symbols, texts, images, rites, ceremonies, places and monuments that nations use to construct a collective identity. Secondly, that collective memory comprises the subcategories of social, political and cultural memory, which are transformed into five distinct forms in order to be transmitted transgenerationally. Thirdly, that history and memory interact in complementary ways, resulting in a new branch of mnemohistory studies. Fourthly, that academics and historians should approach collective memory differently and analyse the links with identity formation. Overall it is clear that Assmann’s intended readership is other academics and researchers, and that she seeks to persuade and convince them to approach the subject from the angle she has adopted.

            On one hand, as a theoretical overview which primarily targets other memory researchers and historians, who are already familiar with the extensive sources she refers to, Assmann’s article achieves an appropriate balance of critique of her own, others’ and previous theories, providing a well-balanced review of the current research. On the other hand however, from the angle of a researcher who is new to the field of collective memory, the sheer quantity of concepts, theories and other sources introduced can conceal Assmann’s key argument and appear less convincing as a result. Furthermore, while the theoretical frameworks presented are on the whole thoroughly explained, when observed by a non-expert, certain arguments require more evidence and tangible historical examples to back them up. Despite this article’s drawbacks for non-experts, its succinct overview of several theories of collective memory make it an informative introduction to any researcher of contemporary Europe, for whom an understanding of the role of history in national identity formation and narrative construction is essential.

          Overall, Assmann’s article provides a robust theoretical overview of collective memory studies to date and identifies the research gaps that need to be addressed next. In terms of the specific questions asked in this review, both the first and second are clearly satisfied: there is convincing explanation of the theoretical frameworks surrounding collective memory and the connection between history and identity through collective memory is well presented. Regarding the third specific question of what collective memory studies reveal about the implications of identity construction on society, Assmann recognises that this question needs answering, but she only partially attempts this herself, instead calling on others to tackle these research gaps as well. Her request invites further research that empirically tests and builds upon the theoretical foundation set out in this article, and she reassuringly validates the relevance and importance of such research.

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This critical review was written in January 2017 for an academic skills course called ‘Eurocompetence I’, completed as part of the University of Groningen’s Master’s degree in Euroculture: European Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context.

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[1] Aleida Assmann, “Transformations between history and memory,” Social Research 75, no. 1 (2008): 49-72.

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