The Social Psychology of Experience: Studies in Remembering and Forgetting


David Middleton & Steven D. Brown

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    In our modern understanding of memory there is an overwhelming tension between preservation and loss. Memory itself often seems to hang by a thread, to be balanced on the cusp between recovery and dissolution. In contrast, we address robust practices of remembering and forgetting at home and work, in public and commercial organisations, involving language and text-based communication, objects and place. Our aim is to overcome the spatial bias at work in both psychological and sociological studies of memory. To achieve this we argue that it is necessary to reconsider some of the basic conceptual tools of memory research and the manner in which they have imposed themselves on the way we relate to the past. Our overall aim is to provide a basis for social psychological enquiry where experience matters.

    We ground the matters of remembering and forgetting in the classic works of Frederick Bartlett (on psychological schema as ‘socially organised settings’), Maurice Halbwachs (on the sociology of ‘collective frameworks’ in memory) and Henri Bergson (on the philosophical discussion of ‘durations’ in experience). We illustrate the significance of their ideas for our arguments concerned with examples drawn from a range of situations where remembering and forgetting are matters of concern. We extend the argument beyond spatial metaphors concerning the passage of time and the consequences this has for the content of experience as finite. We argue that the actualization of experience in spatial terms is never complete and always maintains a relationship to continuous and indivisible experience, what Bergson termed ‘the virtual’. This moves us away from experience as lived in some linear unfolding of time where memory is taken as the vehicle for linking past, present and future, whether individual or collective.

    However, we still place memory at the centre of lived experience – not as the storehouse of that experience, but, instead, as a relational process at the intersection of different durations of living. As we endure in time, our rhythm of living is slowed or quickened in relation to the durations of others. To approach remembering and forgetting in this way is to deliberately blur the boundaries between the individual and the collective, between what is held in common and what is most intensely personal. If remembering and forgetting are to matter for a psychology of experience, we conclude that we must view selfhood not as a ‘thing’, but as a movement that is continuously refracted back through the stabilities it creates. In other words, we seek to demonstrate selfhood as the shifting intersection of experiences of which our present consciousness is only the leading edge. This also leads us to a view of remembering and forgetting as interdependent ways of actualising and virtualising experience rather than its presence or absence. We aim to arrive back at an account of a psychology of experience that encompasses the issues raised in contemporary discussions of social memory while accommodating experience that is not tied to spatialised views of time. We therefore offer an approach to the psychology of experience that is neither individually nor socially determined and where the dynamics of remembering and forgetting do not limit experience.

    This work represents the intersection of our shared and individual interests in memory. We both have academic backgrounds in psychology – one in developmental and sociocultural psychology, the other in social psychology and social theory. We also share interests in the analysis of communicative action and the discursive turn in psychological studies. Our preference is for gathering data from within contexts of human practice. In other words, from within settings where the stake and interests of those involved is self-evidently theirs rather than an arbitrary or simulated concern of the psychologist. However, neither of us would claim that this work is thoroughly ethnographically informed, although we do hope that it will be of interest to those who pursue detailed anthropologies, geographies and sociologies of remembering and forgetting. While we have forsaken the tools of the psychological laboratory, we have aimed to make the work and ideas discussed here informative for those with interests in the experimental psychology of memory.


    We owe an immense debt of gratitude to many people who have assisted us in completing this work for publication. Our publishers Sage Publications deserve special mention. Ziyad Marar and Michael Carmichael have been steadfast in their encouragement and support. Also our grateful thanks to Rachel Burrows for the production editing of the published volume.

    Individually and jointly we have also benefited from exceptionally generous colleagues and supportive academic groups. Throughout the whole development and conduct of the reported studies the Loughborough University Discourse and Rhetoric Group has provided a wealth of academic and collegial assistance. Many people have passed through the Wednesday lunchtime meetings and we owe them thanks for their generosity in sharing with us their ideas, data and analytical insights. Charles Antaki, Malcolm Ashmore, Mick Billig, John Cromby, Derek Edwards, Alexa Hepburn, Jonathan Potter and many others have continuously engaged us in constructive and lively analytical debate. We are also appreciative of the assistance and support of other colleagues at Loughborough, including Charles Crook, Harriet Gross and Mark Lansdale.

    The Human Sciences SCAR group has also been of invaluable assistance and we very much appreciate the discussion with Johanna Motzkau, Darren Ellis, Jeanette Rasmussen, Sally Sargeant, Ian Tucker and Jonathan Woodrow.

    We have also been very fortunate in having access to other settings where social remembering and forgetting are of interest. Roger Säljö and Karin Aronsson generously assisted in facilitating contact with research and debate at Linköping University in Sweden. This resulted in access to a whole range of scholars with cognate interests associated with the Departments of Communication and Child Studies, including Viveka Adelsward, Jan Anward, Bodil Axelsson, Kerstin Bergqvist, Elisabet Cedersund, Jakob Cromdal, Kosta Econonou, Ann-Carita Evaldsson, Per Anders Forstorp, Michèle Grossen, Lars-Christer Hydén, Per Linnell, Claes Nilholm, Karin Osvaldsson, Ullabeth Sätterlund-Larsson, Anna Sparman, Michael Tholander, Cecilia Wajdensjö and many others. Ullabeth's friendship and enthusiastic interest in this work is sadly missed.

    We are also most grateful to Karin Aronsson, Johanna Motzkau, Morten Nissen and Paula Reavey for taking the time to read and make helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. We benefited greatly from their feedback and discussion.

    Over the years, other scholars with interests in social memory and allied topics have encouraged and supported this work in many ways. Our thanks to Hans Christian Arnseth, Malcolm Ashmore, David Bakhurst, Adrian Bangerter, Joanna Bornat, Elisabeth Dos Santos Braga, Jens Brockmeier, Seth Chaiklin, Jennifer Cole, Michael Cole, Robert Cooper, David Curnock, Harry Daniels, Ron Day, Yjrö Engeström, Jan Derry, Ole Dreier, Anne Edwards, Sylvia Ghehardi, Faith Gibson, Sarah Green, Rom Harré, John Harris, Penny Harvey, Mariane Hedegaard, Christian Heath, William Hirst, Andrew Jefferson, Casper Jensen, Torben Jensen, Denise Jodelet, Kevin Hetherington, Robert Knight, the late Steen Larsson, John Law, Bruno Latour, Andy Leslie, Paul Luff, Kevin Mackenzie, Katie MacMillan, Manuel de la Mata, Pirjo Nikander, Tiago Moriera, Anne-Nelly Perret-Clermont, Phil Peters, Clothilde Pontecorvo, Alberto Rosa, Wolff-Michael Roth, Barry Schwartz, Michael Schudson, John Shotter, Ana Smolka, Paul Stenner, Antonio Strati, Lucy Suchman, Jeanine Suurmond, Peter Tulviste, Jaan Valsiner, Harald Welzer, Jim Wertsch, Steve Woolgar. Thanks also to Georgina Born for asking the question.

    We are also very grateful for the enthusiastic collaboration of Miquel Domenech, Danny Lopez, Israel Rodriguez, Francisco Tirado, Sean Vernall, Ana Vitores, Jonathan Woodrow on a British Council-sponsored project on the ‘Virtualisation of Social Institutions’, which provided our initiation into Bergson. Thanks in particular to Israel for convincing us that Bergson and Halbwachs could be good bedfellows, and to Jon for demonstrating what a Bergsonian psychology could achieve.

    All the studies detailed in this volume have resulted from collaborations with numerous other researchers. These include Kevin Buchanan, Charles Crook, Derek Edwards, Geoff Lightfoot, Helen Hewitt, Kyoko Murakami, Jonathan Woodrow. We thank them all for their intellectual and practical support in the conduct of this work.

    A further test bed for the development and presentation of these ideas was within the teaching of the Human Sciences undergraduate course on social remembering at Loughborough University. We are particularly grateful to Sarah Aplin, Alison Ault, Philippa Hands and Lisa McGinty for work on family web sites. We also wish to thank the technical and administrative staff of the Department of Human Sciences at Loughborough University – David Eason and Peter Lockwood for their good humoured technical support and Mary Hewitt, Jane Purvey and John Rennocks for providing unflagging and patient administrative support of our teaching and other duties that really gave us so much more ‘space’ to work on this book.

    We gratefully acknowledge permission to use the following material:

    Finn Orvin (

    Julie and Kevin (

    Andy Neale (

    McDeceno Maltezo (

    Rick Arndt (

    Shirley (

    Independent Newspapers for reprinting copy from the front page published on 28 May 1998.

    Cornelia Parker's ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ is reprinted by courtesy of the artist, the Frith Street Gallery and the Tate Modern, London.

    Sumi Gupta Ariely for use of transcript data from Gupta, 1996.

    Faith Gibson for use of video transcript data from Gibson, 1989.

    Kyoko Murakami for the use of the photographic image of the Iruka Memorial Site.

    Finally, none of our work would have been possible at all without the kindness and love of our families. Very special thanks and love to Ailbhe, Kittie, Jennie and Laura, and to Lorraine and Sue.

    Transcript Conventions

    The following conventions are used in the presentation of conversational data. They are derived from those developed by Gail Jefferson for the purposes of conversation analysis (see Sacks, 1992). They are used as a way of presenting the talk as a social activity rather than, for example, as an expression of ideas, phonetics, or grammar (Edwards, 1997). We have kept their use to the minimum required for the purposes of the discussions presented here.

    [yes]short simultaneous talk of another speaker
    soun-start of [simultaneous talk simultaneous talk [simultaneous talkcut off of preceding sound simultaneous talk
    remember= it seems to me‘equals’ marks the immediate ‘latching’ of successive talk with no interval
    (&)talk continues across the talk of another
    (….)talk omitted form the transcript at this point
    (memory)sound like
    ((laughs))additional comment
    ?rising intonation
    HELPlouder than preceding talk
    >quieter<quieter than preceding talk
    (.)micro pause
    (1)pause in seconds
    Oi ko(italicised) Japanese words
    par:kelongation of prior sounds
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