Our inaugural blogpost is an edited transcript of an interview between DRAOI co-founder Stephen Goulding and Collective Memory-Work Practitioner, Dr Robert Hamm. The interview covers potential intersections between discourse research and Collective Memory-Work, with a specific focus on critical discourse analysis.
Welcome, Robert Hamm, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by DRAOI. The purpose of today is for us to have a discussion about our own academic backgrounds and areas of study in terms of Collective Memory-Work and discourse research. Perhaps to begin, could I ask you maybe to talk a bit about yourself? And how you came to become a practitioner of Collective Memory-Work?
What is termed Collective Memory-Work was established in practices that date back to the late 1970s, early 1980s. The first publications were published by a group around Frigga Haug in Berlin and Hamburg.
They published a series of books that depicted their own work with their own memories. The topics that they researched through the method of Collective Memory-Work were all related to questions of gender equality and the roles of women in society. The discussions they had were closely related to political discussions in the feminist movement mainly in West Germany with connections also to America and Western Europe. But the group was based in Hamburg and in Berlin. Therefore, the main focus points were always developments in German society.
My partner at the time had a selection of these publications in her bookshelf. Initially I didn’t touch them, which speaks something about my own ignorance at the time! From time to time then, I would pull one out of the bookshelf and say “ohh yeah, that’s probably interesting; but, I won’t read it now, I’ll read it later.” And it was only in the 1990s that I eventually looked closer at it. A topic for research for me at the time was the concept of performance at work, and the German Leistung ideology, which is the performance in the abstract – that’s a typical German concept that people have ingrained in their minds, and in their bodies, in fact. And one of the volumes of the group that had done Collective Memory-Work dealt with female perspectives on the concept of Leistung.
I was reading that piece and I thought, “well, that’s really interesting how they do that and what they get out of it.” But it was still not the point where I would have used this method in any way for myself or with others. It was only when I came to Ireland that I realized that it might be an interesting method also to tackle something that I brought as another topic. This is a second strand that is also a bit biographical, but it has more to do also with my current situation.
In Germany I was trained as an educator. For me, education was, in very blunt and short terms, always a political venture. It was something that I would understand as a practice that is on the one hand dealing with particular persons and, in my case being an educator, often in preschool settings and with early childcare settings, particularly with children and families; but at the same time, I would also have understood it as a political project. Therefore, not only the practice that I have with this particular child is important, but it is also important in the sense of dealing with questions of educational frameworks, curricula, things like relationships that are established between supposed educators and supposed ‘educatees’. It always concerns social structures, including the family structures that are in the background of the education system.
When I started working as an educator in institutions, I found that there were an incredible amount of everyday, routine practices that I found completely useless, and as not having any purpose beyond showing people their status, in particular showing children their status. At one point I did a study on the phenomenon of lining up children. You will know that if you’re from Britain or Ireland, children in school line up at various occasions in Irish schools. It’s quite common to line up for roll call or after break to be brought in and out of school. You line up
when you are on an outing to a GAA match and after the match. Or you line up when you go to the communion, or in rural primary schools, where you cross the road, where a car never actually happens to drive unless it’s pickup time. Other than that, there’s the odd tractor but nothing else. But still you line up. So the stated purpose for lining up was always meant to be safety, as in the children need to be kept safe. But I thought that was complete rubbish, because when school is over they are in the same location, you’d have a massacre if the safety argument was in any way applicable.
So I did that study on the lining up, and the most interesting thing at the end of the study
for me was that it was not possible to discuss this practice with the practitioners. Once you start to discuss it with a teacher or another preschool educator, a colleague, probably, you hit a wall. It was a bit like discussing school uniforms with a principal in school. You have a number of set arguments and they stand in opposite to each other. And that’s the end of the discussion. There’s no way to break down this barrier of supposedly utilitarian type arguments, and to say, “but hold on a second, that’s not right, if you look at it in clear terms.” So that was my experience and I thought about ways how that can be cracked up: how can you get over that barrier and that point?
Here I thought Collective Memory-Work might be an option to bring practitioners to the point where they discuss and reflect on their practice in a way that they normally don’t do, where they allow themselves to open up to a more self-critical way, where they allow themselves to see their own share in producing exactly what they say is produced without a producer, if that makes sense.
Yes, for sure. A lot of what you said resonated with my own childhood. In particular, the idea of lining up as a routinized part of everyday practice that you don’t necessarily think about. And it was quite interesting looking at the bookshelf behind you to see a copy of Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life. And that seems to be what you used Collective Memory-Work for: to bridge the divide between theoretical critique and the practitioners who abide by and engender these utilitarian arguments. How did you find the response when you did use the method? And indeed, how did you first utilize it to bring practitioners together? Was it simply getting people you knew from education in a room together, or was there a bit more to it?
At the time when I wanted to use that method, I started a research project about reflections of primary school teachers on rituals in schools. Collective Memory-Work was only one aspect in that project. It was meant to be tested, if you like, as a method to allow teachers to do critical reflection. Because I had not yet used Collective Memory-Work myself and I had not been part of a group or a movement where the method would have been used – like in the women’s groups in the 1980s and 90s in Germany – I had to find some access route. So I established a pilot group with people who I knew from primary school: a few teachers, a few parents. We did a pilot project using Collective Memory-Work along the lines of the descriptions that were accessible at the time about the practical ways to conduct the method.
On that basis we experimented with the different steps of the method. We found some difficulty in the way the method was accessible through the descriptions, which led to looking at the method in a deeper way. But we had great fun with these experiments and with the method. That encouraged me to use the method with teachers in a local Education Centre. These are institutions in which further education and professional development courses are offered, mostly to teachers, educators, early childhood educators, sometimes also for parents. There I could establish a group of teachers who used Collective Memory-Work to look at rituals in school through the lenses of their own practice and through the lenses of their own remembered stories. And that worked quite well. But at the time when I did the study on the rituals, it was kind of episodic because it was only one part of the overall project on the rituals.
Yet, my interest in Collective Memory-Work was definitely increased and enhanced through this experience. After finishing the project on the rituals in schools, I was adamant to keep on doing something with Collective Memory-Work. And I decided to use the method itself as my focus and look at what exactly do we know about the method? How is it used? I aimed at doing an international comparison of applications of its adaptations to produce a kind of genealogy of the method.
But then, would anybody read it? Is it interesting to follow the way things are disseminated because a person goes from A to B and brings it from B to C and so on? Frigga Haug kept together these groups in Germany. And she was invited as guest lecturer at universities in the United States, Canada, Australia, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. Wherever she went, she always brought Collective Memory-Work with her and initiated projects in those locations. She brought these seeds and spread them all around the world. And you can see how the people who locally picked up the method bring in their own ideas and adapt the method to their own circumstances. But it is also their world of thought and their ideas of how to conduct research. And there are actually differences in the details of the use of the method through a more global lens, but at the same time, there is this overarching term of Collective Memory-Work.
What was really interesting for me was to see how that worked out. And what I have done is basically writing, if you like, a manual for Collective Memory-Work that brings different traditions into the cover of one book, which normally is not the case. So I have brought a lot of that together and I have written it up with a focus on Collective Memory-Work as a method of learning and how it is applied and adapted.
It was quite interesting to hear you talk about the different variations and how Frigga Haug sowed the seeds which eventually took root in different contexts. Could you perhaps give a unified articulation of the general methods? So in terms of method and methodology, how would a typical Collective Memory-Work session unfold and what are its general theoretical underpinnings?
The first thing to address is a common misunderstanding that we need to get out of the way. People who come from sociology, cultural studies or history studies often think of Collective Memory-Work in terms of the big celebrations, like the 170 years since the Famine, or the 2016 celebrations of the centenary of the 1916 Rising, or the commemorations of the Civil War during the early parts of the 1920s. So here’s a form of collective memory ‘work’ that is done in a way where a lot of celebrations happen, memorial plaques are erected, and the aim is to keep the memory of a certain event alive in the collective. Whereby the collective here is understood as society at large.
Collective Memory-Work as a distinct method, and that’s what I am discussing here, is something where individual people come together as a group, and thereby form a collective. This is where we get the term ‘collective’. They work as a group collectively with memories of their own individual life. And here you have all three terms: they work collectively with memories. These are memories of events that happened to them individually. So, you don’t deal with memories that would not be part of your own life, or events that would not be part of your own life.
You see, I was born in Germany in 1962. When I grew up in the 1970s, and later in the 1980s in Germany, a lot of this other type of collective memory work happened. German society began to acknowledge that it was time to open up the archives and do collective memory work on the history of fascism in Germany. What is the history of the war, what is the history of the Holocaust, etcetera, etcetera. That was very prevalent and it still is. But given the fact that people only have a certain number of years to live, you will find it very hard to get anyone who can give witness from their own experiences from the time around 1945 in Germany, or in the case of Ireland from the Civil War in the 1920s. When you talk about it in 2023, this is about 100 years ago now. So that doesn’t work.
But this type of engagement with collective memory, or cultural memory if you prefer the term, is different to the application of Collective Memory-Work in the small collective groups. Here, individual memories refer to experiences that people in the group
or ‘collective’ have had on their own outside of the framework of the group. Then each group, in order to be established, needs a topic. The women who designed the method initially for example started off dealing with questions of their own socialization, or they also spoke of sexualization, the whole issue of developing a gender identity and a sexual identity.
So each group needs a topic. This is what the memories will refer to. Let me give you an example from a project that runs at the moment. One of the groups deals with the issue of styling yourself, or in German ‘Selbstgestaltung’, which like the term Gestalt implies that something always has to have a form, that you put yourself into a certain form, or even format. This group works at the moment on self-styling in relation to teaching experiences. As a lecturer, before you go into your lecture theater or before you go into the university on a given day and you know you will present a lecture, you will do something to style yourself. It may start with brushing your teeth. You style your hair. You paint your eyebrows. You put on some rouge. You dress in a certain way, all of that self-styling sort of thing. And in our group, we write stories of our own self-styling practices in a certain way.
So, what we do in Collective Memory-Work is, we pick a topic, and we create a trigger for writing a story from our own experiences. In this case, the trigger was: ‘In front of the mirror on a day when I gave a lecture’. These all are very mundane and everyday type of activities. So, it’s not one of those high-flying, traumatic or dramatic experiences, epiphanies, the first time I ever climbed Mount Everest or my first bungee jumping experience (which was also my last!). No, we’re talking about the mundane everyday experiences.
These experiences are then cast into a writing project. Every person in the group writes a memory of such an experience, and we have a certain format for this writing. The written records then are the material that is used by the group to be dissected, deconstructed, and analyzed, according to certain questions that the group has developed either prior to writing the stories or while you go. In the case with the self-styling for instance, we take as our starting point the concepts of generational engrams, body experiences, neo-liberal success orientation, solidarity, and how they are moulded into concrete lived practices by ourselves, how we deal with the tensions between contradicting demands.
So effectively the group does a text analytic deconstruction of the written material. According to the number of participants in a given project, it is possible to either work with all texts or with a selection of texts. If you have a group of 12 people and you have only four meetings scheduled, you can’t work with 12 texts, that’s too much. But if you have a group of five people and you have five meetings, you can work with each text in one meeting and in that case you work your way through an analytic process from text to text to text according to the questions in relation to your topic and while you go along, you always refer back to your topical introduction.
That is, prior to writing the stories, you need to have a discussion to define your topic. You come up with some preliminary assumptions. You may call it a number of hypotheses. These are normally not academically formed theories. These are everyday theories, common sense theories in Gramsci’s terms. They are your anchor in the later discussions, you can formulate a few guiding questions, or agree on key terms that will help you to keep your focus and not get lost in your stories, something that happens very easily. And at the same time you should also engage with more elaborate theoretical perspectives on your topic, maybe in form of a literature review. Realistically in most groups this part is done in a delegated form by one or a few participants, but that is always a matter of agreement within a group. All of these discussions form a constant point of reference throughout a given project, and by going through that process of defining your writing trigger, writing the stories, analyzing them successively one to the next to the next, the initial common sense theories are moved. They are transferred from the initial position into what at the end of the day is a better understanding of the practices that are at the core.
In terms of outcomes, what you get out of it depends on what the group wants. It can either be something like a research report, or it can be an essay that is published in an academic journal, or it can be simply something like a result that is not written up at all. For groups in political activist contexts they may not have an interest in writing it up. Once they have done the process they have established a certain level of knowledge for themselves, as individuals, but also as a collective. Obviously there is an advantage in disseminating results of your work, particularly in cases of political activism, because it can help others to avoid falling in similar traps. But whether or not a group has the motivation to do that, they need to decide themselves.
In terms of the method — and maybe this will lead into some of the methodology then that you talked about — what is the logic or the rationale behind getting people to write out their own individual memories as opposed to sharing in something similar to a focus group where participants don’t come with preconceived texts?
It has a historical component in it. When you think of experiences in self-encounter groups, there were a lot of benefits for the participants, and in fact mostly women, in these groups and their sharing stories of their everyday life experiences: stuff that nobody else wanted to hear. If they were in their families and they were trapped in a situation where they had to do, let’s say household chores, and they had children to mind, and they had maybe an evening job and then they had to deal with their husband, who could not and would not bring the garbage down to the litter bin – all stuff like that. Very clichéd, but at the same time, these clichéd experiences would have been something that when they would have happened, you would not be able to talk about that in any way with your family.
So the women at the time came together and they spoke about their own experiences in their relationships. This is one of the roots out of which Collective Memory-Work grew.
In the actual groups that developed the method, they went a step further and they said, it’s not enough for us to just load off our everyday life frustrations, go home, having had a nice and very empathic meeting where we eventually felt understood, and now we’re back into the same old shit. And in two weeks’ time we will have our next self-encounter group and we can do it again and again and again. Such a practice is part of recycling the patriarchal, hierarchical, authoritarian structure in society that we actually don’t want. What we want is change, but we have our own share also, and we need to look at what is our part in it and how are we actually able to change something, if not by changing something in our own lives?
That means we need to put our material in question, ask questions of our stories, not only use it as material that we want to get rid of, and everybody understands each other and then we have a little crying session, or have a laughing session and we have all these emotions and then we go home and we’re relieved and happy. No, let us look at that material because that is actually what our lives are made of.
interviews, so much is smoothed out. You will certainly say a few words about critical discourse analysis, and I’m sure you will curse the data or material sometimes. It’s the smoothness of the material that makes it difficult to work with, formulaic, almost in a way.
Yeah, the idea that within discourse and narratives, you are necessarily selective about what you include and elide. It’s interesting, what you’re saying reminds me a lot of the work of Georg Simmel, and his theorization that if we focus on everyday life, not from the perspective of the macro, but rather the micro, you learn a bit more. So, I think what you’re saying is that individually written statements allow the group or the collective to mine further into the nature of the everyday, in a bit more detail, as opposed to an interview or a focus group. Is that fair to say?
It would be a fair comment, yes. There’s a certain format in which the stories are written in Collective Memory-Work, and I have yet to encounter a person who cannot write these stories in their own language unless they’re completely illiterate. The stories are short. In most cases something like 500 words, it could be 200, or it could be 800, something in between. But you don’t write lengthy biographical narratives. Obviously, if you have people who are versed in writing, they could write millions of words and yet, they would always recycle the same patterns in it, as we all do.
In writing these short stories, there is a conscious focus on the actual happenings and not so much on meta-thought, explanations and interpretations. If you do it the very first time, you may find it a bit strange to write such a story, which sounds, when you read it out, so mundane. And you would probably think: “why would I write that down, right?”
But at the same time, this is what I assume you were thinking of when you mentioned Simmel and looking at everyday life. For instance, I stand at the traffic light and I wait until the red light switches off and the green light comes on and I walk across the road. Now if that is my experience, I would probably also write about the person who stands beside me and walks already while it’s red, and I would write about my emotion when I see that person breaking the rules, written or unwritten, right? Or I would also, when writing my story, bring in elements of my own ideological coloring, I would probably refer to the nationality of the person who went across the road while the red light shines. Or I would comment on their dress, for example. In our writing we bring the story of our experience into a compact format – it’s a page or two, it’s not a book. And as the author I have to make a decision. How do I write that down? How do I remember the situation? And I try to try to remember as closely as I can, and write it accordingly.
“I stood at the traffic light. I didn’t have shoes on my feet because I was walking barefoot at the time. The people around me were looking at me as if I was an alien.”
That is something like an experience that I would have had. So now I’ve written that down. It is compacted in two sentences. And then I write what happened further, the next sentence, and the next sentence, and so forth. But by doing so, I create material where I as the author have retrospectively constructed myself in a specific social relationship, into a social situation. And because I am restricted in terms of length, I cannot now start negotiating that construction. Whereas in an interview situation, I would always be in a position to negotiate what I have said and to retract and to revert to another point and to smoothen the picture, again. Whereas in the method of Collective Memory-Work, I create this account of the situation and that’s that.
But the actual happenings in the material from my memory is not treated as an empirical reality, because my reality at that time may have been quite different. It is today’s construction, my present-day construction of my reality at that time: that is what we’re looking at as our material. So, we are actually not looking at the concrete situation of a person walking across the road while the red light is shining. We’re looking at the construction of the author in that situation, and her or his construction of the situation in the recount. And that obviously relates to our topic, say if the topic is normative behavior, for example, crossing the road when the red light shines, walking barefoot in town, etc.
Yes, and I think this is where I begin to see similarities between the idea of Collective Memory-Work and how one authors their individual memory and the underlying aim of certain strands of discourse research. In particular, I am thinking here of critical discourse analysis, and the analysis of linguistic patterns of construction with the aim of linking those to underlying ‘common-sense ideas’ and normativity around language use. I think that all of those aspects seem to map neatly onto some of the central ideas of critical discourse analysis. And what I really found interesting was the question of how do I construct the ‘self’? Because that, as well as the construction of ‘others’, is a big focus within discourse research, too.
I also really like the idea of striving to elucidate the common-sense ideas that are embedded in these stories. You know, there’s a belief in critical discourse analysis that, in many ways, what the field aims to do is reduce the illusion of power as it operates in and through language-use. And when I was listening to you, I couldn’t help but notice some overlap with it, in regard to not just having a group talk that acts as a ‘crying session’ or a cathartic experience, but, rather trying to learn more in order to achieve some form of social change. And that is one thing that critical discourse analysis as a field says that it sets out to do.
But having this actual sort of programmatic application where your research yields these sorts of social transformations is probably one aspect of the field where it kind of falls down, and it doesn’t really achieve the impact beyond being an academic article that is published in a journal. And that’s why I was really, really interested when I encountered Collective Memory-Work through your website. Because I immediately saw that there was a potential for researchers from a critical discourse analysis background to utilize the method to begin to have an impact beyond the typical form that might be achieved from a research publication that is limited to a narrow, academic audience. To actually start up Collective Memory-Work groups, and to try to have an impact and elicit changes at the level of everyday people through their discourse research, in terms of their everyday lives and everyday routines.
And I know Frigga Haug mentioned the idea of critical discourse analysis, and she saw Collective Memory-Work as being more than that. But I do think there are certain theoretical similarities, too, in particular when you note facets like the politics of language, the construction of the self and all of these core concepts from collective memory that draw certain parallels to how they’re conceived in discourse research. But I think that the key differentiation here, between the two, lies in the type of data that is typically used in Collective Memory-Work and discourse research. In critical discourse analysis, there’s this tendency to orient analyses towards real-world data, you know, these powerful texts: the legislative constitutions, the front-page news articles, the political speeches, etc. And I think a lot of what you said here today points towards the idea that those types of texts tend to produce formulaic patterns that tend to smooth out the nature of reality, and they don’t really provide any insight into how people reproduce or experience normative behaviors, or what I might call ‘ideologies’ in a day-to-day sense. I think that’s why I was really excited, because I think Collective Memory-Work provides a systematized way of achieving insight in that area.
And so, I’d like to ask have you identified any overlap between discourse research and Collective Memory-Work, or have you regarded the two as being discrete and separate from each other?
They’re not separate from each other. There is a publication by Carla Willig which is called Introducing Qualitative Research in Psychology. It was published in 2001 for the first time I think. It’s a methodology book, right? It’s about different ways to do qualitative research. What she lists there is a number of, if you like, methods or methodologies. She refers to grounded theory, interpretive phenomenology, discursive psychology, Foucauldian discourse analysis, and memory work (which is Collective Memory-Work) as the main examples of methods in that area. And when you read the book, you see there’s this common thread going through it, right. They are all interlinked with each other.
It is very obvious that there is a connection with the methodological underpinnings of Collective Memory-Work. Indeed, Frigga Haug and her group actually established a very early model for describing the basic assumptions of the method. They refer to four pillars, if you like. The first one is the construction of one’s own personality, where on a very simple level, personality is nothing that you inherit, it is something that is socially constructed and in that construction you yourself become an active actor through the course of your life, always in transaction with your surroundings, which is as much your immediate surroundings as it is also society as a whole. This whole process they call ‘societalization’, rather than socialization. The English language doesn’t have a proper word for that. Societalization is a kind of a makeshift solution which is used in critical psychology also. In German it is Vergesellschaftung, rather than socialization.
The second pillar is that in the construction of personalities, other people might use the term identity, we have a tendency to eliminate contradiction. We try to establish a round picture of ourselves. That is why biographical narrative interviews often are so tedious to dissect because of these round pictures. Once they’re constructed, it’s very difficult to find an access route into it. There’s always a way out, by eliminating contradiction: “I say A and I say B and they’re contradicting each other. All right, o.k., I can explain that.” And then they are smoothed out, supposedly, and another explanation added, and another one. We always find excuses for not looking at ourselves as contradictory.
The third pillar is the construction of meaning. If you think of a particular symbol, a particular thing, a particular word as having a meaning, that meaning again is something that is constructed and it’s constructed on a historical basis, there’s always historicity within it. The meaning of a particular
word changes depending on social developments. Also, it can have different connotations for a person in one location and in another location. So, meaning is not something, again, that is an invariable, inherited essential quality of a particular thing or a symbol or a word. It is a constructed quality of this particular phenomenon that supposedly has this meaning.
And the fourth pillar that they refer to is the politics of language. That refers to the fact that language is not a neutral instrument, but it is also embedded in power structures and into a historical kind of struggle, a negotiation over the meaning of particular things.
So, these are the four pillars that they mentioned. And if they don’t connect closely to what I understand that you understand to be critical discourse analysis, then I don’t know what would!
When you were explaining the pillars, it may as well have been pulled from an early text on critical discourse analysis, before it became this kind of siloed field and developed its own jargon. What you’re talking about in terms of the construction of meaning, the elision of contradictions particularly stands out, as well as their theorization of the construction of the self. In fact, much of the work of Theo van Leeuwen looks at this idea of how you construct the self as a social actor and societalization definitely kind of echoes with that. And so in terms of the philosophical underpinnings, I think there’s a lot of similarity there. Maybe that means that moving forward there could be some sort of interaction between the fields if there hasn’t been already.
In particular— and I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Norman Fairclough or not?
Just as a name, I’ve never read his work.
Well, Fairclough is one of the ‘founding fathers’ of CDA, if you want to use that horribly patriarchal terminology. And in the early 1990s he developed what he saw as the programmatic extension of the field of analytical research in CDA, termed Critical Language Awareness. In practice, CLA often took the form of a workshop format of critical discourse analysis, where you try to get people in certain socio-political settings to reflect on how their language use reproduces power and reproduces these common-sense ideologies. And in doing so, raise awareness on how dominant discourses structure the lens through which they interpret society, and there have been some applications of it in the past. For instance, it has been used in South African universities with the aim of getting students and staff to reflect on how racial divisions during and after apartheid were constructed and perpetuated through language use.
But unfortunately, it didn’t really gain a whole lot of traction for various reasons. I would imagine primarily because critical discourse analysis tends to be institutional in the sense that it tends to be practiced by researchers within the confines of universities. And I think the idea that Collective Memory-Work has this long history of being active in both academia and activist spheres, as well as in real world contexts, which lie beyond the university, so, I think it bodes well for potential future applications. Indeed, this idea of seeking impact beyond an academic readership, is something that many university employees will be keen to work toward. So, I think definitely there is some potential there for integrating the two fields, if it hasn’t happened already.
I’m not sure what your take on this is, or if you have some sort of contrary argument to that. But, I’ve seen that you’ve described Collective Memory-Work as a ‘method under the radar.’ And to a certain extent, I do feel that maybe it is under-appreciated, and in particular perhaps from my own biased perspective, it’s under-appreciated from the field of discourse research, where I think it has a lot of potential as a method of enlightening people to how their discursive practices reproduce the everyday and reproduce the power dynamics that govern the everyday as well. And I would maybe echo your argument and say that I would like to see more attention brought to the field, and that hopefully encompasses raising awareness of it in the field of discourse research, as well.
As a means of gaining more knowledge on how language use and how we narrate ourselves and construct ourselves reproduces the lifeworld that we live in, Collective Memory-Work is definitely a valuable method in terms of that.
Sometimes during my study on the method, I felt like somebody who’s selling the method. That always felt strange, because that wasn’t the intention, to “sell the method.” If I was to sell the method, I would make it more compatible with more easygoing experiences: having a rave or something like that. Just take the term ‘collective.’ It, again, has a constructed meaning, it has a history itself. I think of the term collective being used in the outgoing 1970s, when my own political socialization came to the point where I realized, “OK, this is the how the world actually works”, as much as I could. The term collective was used by people who identified as staunch Stalinist, Leninist, kind of, Trotskyist political party members, many of whom supported the Soviet Union and supported the Cultural Revolution in China and so on. Obviously, the term collective has a far wider rage, but at that time in the West of Germany, the term collective had a very bad reputation in that sense, right? And it was in some ways already quite courageous for a women’s group to say, “OK, but we do Collective Memory-Work” in 1982; now, courageous in a certain sense, because they were all linked and attached to Marxist politics and groups and the trade union movement and so on. But when I talk about collective nowadays, this type of association doesn’t come into minds of say a group of students with whom I talk about Collective Memory-Work. To them ‘collective’ is just another term for group. But that exactly is not what Collective Memory-Work is supposed to be, because this collective has a meaning that goes beyond just group. You’re committing to that collective.
It’s interesting how these terms work. You form a team, more so than a group. And a team that is not hierarchical. So not like in basketball where you have the coach and you have the team. Although there are applications of the method where somebody takes on the role of facilitator and suddenly you can have a split, the team and the coach — and I have experienced that myself — but that in itself is a struggle already about what is your own responsibility in the group, in a collective.
Now selling the method and making it more easy to digest would mean that this particular issue would have to be solved in a way where people can’t just go into a Collective Memory-Work session as if it is a yoga course, where they do the work in the session and they go home and they’re happy. That is against the grain of the method from the very start. It requires a certain amount of commitment. And this is where a difficulty lies in applying it as a research method in research projects for academics. The problem is twofold. Number one, they need to be part of a team, they need to become part of the collective. They need to be able and willing to put themselves out on display. They write their own story. The participants in the group will dissect their stories. So suddenly they are not the researcher who is on the opposite side looking at the material that all these little insects produce, and we have such a nice microscope and we can look through it. No, you’re part of the insect population. Sorry. And that alone is already an issue, it’s beyond the traditional divide, segregation and separation between academic work and non-academic work. To do that requires a certain courage, a personal courage to allow yourself to become what nowadays people would label ‘vulnerable’ or ‘touchable’ or whatever, right. So, you expose yourself as a researcher just as much as the drug user who you have interviewed, and you expose yourself as a leisure drug user, let’s say. And suddenly you are together with them and you’re not on the other side. So that courage is needed.
It also needs the courage to state your case in relation to your supposed superiors, as in, to an ethical committee, or anyone who is a supervisor of your work, if you’re in a PhD situation, you need to have somebody who’s actually open for that. So that’s a lot of hurdles to overcome. They can be overcome. And it’s very beneficial, but it requires that courage.
And the next thing that makes the method a bit cumbersome, it is a time-consuming enterprise. This time needs to be invested not only by you as a researcher, but also a group. That means, if used for academic research purposes the method also relies on the commitment of people. We are a group. We’re a collective. Everyone needs to be at the meetings regularly, because we need everybody here. We may compensate if you’re not there for one out of 6 sessions. It’s not great, but it might work. Somehow, we can compensate. But if everybody does that, and everybody does it twice, we can forget about the work. So this time and this commitment is needed for such a group.
On the other hand, the benefits that the participants in such a group get out of it, they weigh up so much heavier than this time commitment. Everyone who does it, who I spoke with, I can’t remember anyone who said they would not do it again, besides maybe one or two persons who had a theoretical problem with the method from the very start. But I mean, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people. Everybody says this is such a great experience and it is only a great experience when the group works. So you need to invest in time and commitment.
Another issue that is raised against the method is the text heaviness. Now with somebody who does critical discourse analysis, that should not be too much of a problem, but at the same time, if you talk about a cohort of people, be they social activists or students in gender studies who are not critical discourse analysts, very quickly, it doesn’t take them 10 minutes—they have thrown in something like “embodiment.” So, how do we get to that now? We need to do something about the embodiment. And they are right in a way, because text only is not enough. You also need physical experience. Text describes physical experience. But it goes far more into a cognitive rather than a motor memory, right. Therefore, if you bring up Collective Memory-Work as a method with people who have this idea of holism, you may encounter a problem to convince them that it is actually revealing to deal with textual constructions and with their own written narratives.
For instance, you might be aware of the idea of walking as a method—Maggie O’Neill does that in Cork. Right? When I heard it first I thought and—I’ll be true here—when I heard it first, I thought “oh for heaven’s sake, walking as a method, I go walking every day, right?” Yet, when I look at it closer I see the rationale in it and I can very much understand what they do there and I appreciate that a lot because it actually gives the people who take part in such a process the physical as much as cognitive experience and engagement. And that is very good. And I mean, there’s so many ways how Collective Memory-Work can be combined with things like that. In fact, I don’t see a contradiction between the different approaches. All it requires is a bit of creativity on the side of whoever initiates a particular project to tick as many boxes as they can for a group actually to be able to then put it into practice.
So, I don’t know whether that leads away from what you said previously about compatibility and possibility for applications, but it’s the real story. As much as Collective Memory-Work can be sold as a critical discourse analytic method if you want it, it can also be criticized for exactly these points. Commitment, time-consuming, cumbersome, text-heavy, non-embodied, not holistic, etc. These are all criticisms that can be thrown at you.
I suppose it’s like any method or any field of study in that regard, that there are strengths and weaknesses. But definitely, I think the conversation that we’ve had for the last hour and a bit has really delved into the beneficence of Collective Memory-Work as an approach, as a method and a methodology. And I would hope that the readers of this eventual interview would begin to recognize that.
Perhaps to bring the conversation to a head: Is there anything you’d like to say in terms of the future of Collective Memory-Work or your own research in the area? Maybe something about your hopes for the field? And in terms of your own future plans for research?
I would like to see Collective Memory-Work to be picked up more. I’ll give you an example. I just recently heard that a group of trade unionists in Hamburg did a non-academic, adult education course, a seminar, which dealt with experiences of descendants of Nazi party members. And they used Collective Memory-Work in their seminar. Now this is not an academic research project. It is a project that draws in people from a very general background. This type of context, I think, is almost predestined for the application of Collective Memory-Work. In what form, shape or manner that can be applied is always a matter of looking at the particular circumstances. In some cases it requires a facilitator, and that’s a good thing for that purpose. In other cases, it’s not.
When I think beyond Collective Memory-Work as a method, when I think of people who are in a position where they look for a vision, where they have a desire for a different way to organize the world beyond capitalist exploitation, and beyond patriarchal and authoritarian structures and beyond ritualistic behavior as the norm: if people are in groups where they share such a desire, I would hope that they would pick up the method, but even more so the idea that guides it. If they take up the idea and see themselves as people who are responsible for trying to create the world they want to live in, and it’s not just somebody else who should do it for them, that is the starting point.
But in any political and social activism, there’s always a danger that they reproduce, unconsciously, what they actually don’t want to reproduce. So the political party that is established and becomes the Green Party, at some point you can’t distinguish it from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil by anything bar the color of the flag that they wave. Or the political youth movement that starts as Fridays For Future becoming an institutionalized machinery, with internal hierarchies and status driven behaviour amongst themselves with officers, administrators, managers and so on. Bingo. There you are. You have tried to create the world that you want to live in and effectively you have created exactly what you didn’t want in the initial phases.
So, how come that happens? You need to be guarded and you need to have a way to counter that. There are other ways also, but Collective Memory-Work is one way to introduce something like a self-inspection, where you say, “OK, we’ll take the time to look at our own doing, once a year, for a weekend, a seminar.” If people take that time out, with time committed and investment from participants, and they do, as in our case, Collective Memory-Work, then they can take a good look at themselves and their practices. Or perhaps they could do so through what you might call in critical discourse analysis a critical perspective. And they must try to figure out where do they actually shoot themselves in the foot with what they’re doing, and where do they need to aim differently.
Yes, I think it’s an ideal to have and I would definitely concur. I think the philosophical message behind critical discourse analysis is very similar. Although, I must concede that when you were talking about how movements and collectives set out to change something and then become something else, the very thing they sought to deter, I couldn’t help but think that kind of resonates to a certain extent with critical discourse analysis. At its inception, it set out to be an academic way of studying primarily language, but also other forms of communication, for how they reproduce power dynamics; whilst now, it, in and of itself, has become this institutionalized entity that exists within universities and exists in the form of hierarchical networks. It has taken on its own identity as a field, and has become siloed and differentiated from others. So maybe those of us who identify as critical discourse practitioners could take a lesson from Collective Memory-Work, or the ideal behind it, and revisit our own institutional status, and the role that we play in reproducing institutional power.
So, yes, I definitely concur with what you have just said. The idea that if collectives—whatever they are –could take a minute or two, or even a weekend every year, to allow each individual the time and space to reflect on how they reproduce the everyday, their common-sense beliefs and, perhaps more importantly, how they can take responsibility in that process, then I think the world might just be a better place.
Robert Hamm is a member of the Patron Body of the Sligo School Project, and an organizer of the annual Sligo School Project Symposium. He also curates the Collective Memory-Work (CMW) page which can be accessed at collectivememorywork.net. The site offers an invaluable range of resources related to CMW as well as information on upcoming events and symposia.