Mapping Social Memory

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Nigel Williams 
London: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer2021, pp 200. £31.99 

Mapping Social Memory by Nigel Williams develops a multi-generational understanding of social memory. It maps how this finds expression in what we remember both as individuals and as a society, and emphasises the influence of silences, forgettings and hauntings in individual and communal memory. The latter is often the product of traumas that cannot be easily talked about by an affected generation, but its absence is still life-shaping for families and communities in subsequent generations. The severance of social linkages or loss of a language is transmitted to the next generation in a way that then lacks a generational voice in thinking and learning from the loss. 

Oral history privileges history from below, with a focus on listening to and gathering the voices of the marginalised. But in interpreting these stories, it is also influenced by other disciplines such as political economy, social sciences and philosophies of knowledge. This is especially true in terms of oral history’s central methodological precepts, such as the understanding that the listener or researcher taking part in any narrative conversation also shapes what is being said. Williams’ new book on mapping social memory is grounded in a psychotherapeutic and psychosocial understanding of states of disintegration and hauntings, alongside an ethic of care and an important sense of the potential for reintegration, learning and creative development within social memory work. 

The relevant literatures and contested understandings of social memory are discussed in a very accessible and readable way. A key typology is the difference between shorter-term and longer-term memory. The former is defined as intergenerational memory connecting individuals and families, and the experiences of parents and grandparents. This has physical elements of transmission via genetics, molecular biology and epigenetics, as well as cultural elements of transmission via certain behavioursgroup processes, social contagions or interventions. Longer-term transmission, or transgenerational memory, relies on cultural and social memory via groups and organisations, symbolic systems and embodied memory in nature and place. 

The book results from a research study involving fifty-six interviewees who volunteered to take part in the project because of their interest in multigenerational memory. Reference is also made to First Nations memories and to definitions of ancestral relationships, drawing on millennia-old memories retained in the culture of First Nations people. Nigel Williams also describes his own experience of discovering a German ancestry of which he was quite unaware (p14), and how this was followed by ‘unexpected meetings with living relatives, ancestors and descendants of some of their friends’ (xv). He writes how this subsequently prompted the use of his ‘sociological imagination’ (xvi) to think theoretically about social memory, which has resulted in this book. 

The theme of the book is especially relevant to oral history work with communities in the UK who have directly experienced emigration, forced migration, civil wars, and day-to-day struggles to settle and survive, with many of the interviewees whose narratives Williams engages with falling into this category. While societal awareness of racism and an understanding of the historical impact of empire is increasingly acknowledged in Britain, to some extent, there is still a limited sharing of the hidden traumatic experiences of loss and change experience by migrants. Unequal citizenship can also be hidden in plain sight, as recently revealed in a cricket culture sustaining the social othering of the south Asian community in Yorkshire after a scandal involving racist abuse of non-white players by white players at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Very different stories and silences exist within and between communities: Liverpool is different to Bristol, just as Bradford is different from Leicester, and London boroughs all have their distinct demographics and oral histories.

In summary, Mapping Social Memory is a helpful psychosocial introduction to the role of intergenerational and transgenerational memory in oral history work. It emphasises the role of the spoken word but also awareness of the hauntings and the unspoken in social memory, as well as the current academic background to history ‘from below’ and the role of unconscious processes in social life.

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