Rethinking function, self and culture in ‘difficult’ Autobiographical Memories

Brown, Steven D. and Reavey, Paula (2018). Rethinking function, self and culture in ‘difficult’ Autobiographical Memories. In: Wagoner, Brady ed. Handbook of Culture and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 159–181.



The psychology of memory appears to be entering a phase of transformation, with regards to autobiographical memory (AM), at least. The role of others, of the cultural landscape, is no longer confined to the peculiar interests of the social psychologist, cultural theorist, or anthropologist. And in contemporary AM work, the individual and culture are now to become ever more conceptually and empirically unified (Boyer & Wertsch, 2009), and there are now greater numbers of psychologists wishing to conceptually and empirically demonstrate the link between private mentatation and the collective cultural landscape out of which such memorial activities emerge (Nelson & Fivush, 2004, Conway & Jobson, 2012).

As social psychologists, it is perhaps unsurprising that we welcome this move towards examining remembering in cultural context, with unreserved enthusiasm. Understanding the social and cultural processes that ‘make’ remembering, is at the centre of our work on how people expreience, and make sense of, difficult memories (e.g. sexual, physical and emotional abuse, adoption, incarceration, disasters) (Brown & Reavey, 2015). It is with these ‘vital memories’ (in that we argue they are ‘vital’ to a sense of self in the present) in mind that our aim in this chapter is to open up a dialogue, regarding the manner in which certain key aspects of autobiographical memory have been conceptualised. In particular, we provide an alternative way in which to conceptualise three key elements – memory function, culture and self. More specifically, we draw on the idea of what we call the expanded model of memory (Brown & Reavey, 2014; 2015), to explore how memory function, culture and self, require situating beyond the boundaries of private mentations (even if influenced by culture), and are threaded into, and afforded by, the material world (see Ingold, 1996; 2013). We also wish to explore the idea that discrepancies or ambiguities in memory can serve productive purposes for the ongoing negotiation of self, as it unfolds in the present. The self, thus, is never fully complete, but involved in constant negotation and meaning making. This approach will, we hope, assist in illustrating further the productive links between memory function, culture and self that currently circulate in the autobiographical memory literature.

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