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Generations and Collective Memory

When discussing large social trends or experiences, we tend to group people into generations. But what does it mean to be part of a generation, and what gives that group meaning and coherence? It's collective memory, say Amy Corning and Howard Schuman, and in Generations and Collective Memory, they draw on an impressive range of research to show how generations share memories of formative experiences, and how understanding the way those memories form and change can help us understand society and history.

Their key finding—built on historical research and interviews in the United States and seven other countries (including China, Japan, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Israel, and Ukraine)—is that our most powerful generational memories are of shared experiences in adolescence and early adulthood, like the 1963 Kennedy assassination for those born in the 1950s or the fall of the Berlin Wall for young people in 1989. But there are exceptions to that rule, and they're significant: Corning and Schuman find that epochal events in a country, like revolutions, override the expected effects of age, affecting citizens of all ages with a similar power and lasting intensity.

The picture Corning and Schuman paint of collective memory and its formation is fascinating on its face, but it also offers intriguing new ways to think about the rise and fall of historical reputations and attitudes toward political issues.

272 pages | 3 halftones, 34 line drawings, 15 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Culture Studies

History: General History

Political Science: Political Behavior and Public Opinion

Sociology: Collective Behavior, Mass Communication, Social History


Generations and Collective Memories is a terrific contribution to several literatures. Drawing on historical accounts, repeated sample surveys, survey experiments, content analysis, and literary efforts, Corning and Schuman weave a fascinating, sensitive, highly readable account of how collective memories are made and remade as history unfolds and cohorts come and go. The book is replete with examples of creative research, carefully argued themes—especially that concerning the critical years hypothesis--and keen insights, a book that will stand the test of time and inspire other work as well.”

Kent Jennings, University of California, Santa Barbara, and University of Michigan (emeritus)

“This book presents fascinating research on how the collective memory of Americans (and others) changes over time. It falls at the intersection of sociology, psychology, political science, and history—at least. People in all these fields will want to read the book, and I suspect many others will, too. Bravo!”

Henry L. Roediger III, Washington University in St. Louis

Generations and Collective Memory is a brilliant, and long overdue, critical reconceptualization of what have now become the most oft-cited, at times over-used, ‘key terms’ in contemporary memory studies. It is also humane social science at its very best—lucidly written, rich with profoundly insightful re-readings of seemingly fixed examples of ‘collective memory.’ This should be required reading for all who study the sociology and culture of memory.”

James E. Young, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“For thirty years Schuman and his colleagues have focused on examining how belonging to a generation affects various forms of shared memory, producing research that has shaped the course of collective memory research. Building on the theories of the important German theorist Karl Mannheim, Corning and Schuman provide a clear, concise, and compelling analysis of how belonging to a generation shapes societal commitments through shared experience and awareness. Generations and Collective Memory is destined to become a touchstone work in the analysis of how history becomes integral to politics and national affiliation.”

Gary Alan Fine | author of Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial

“This book proposes a multidisciplinary, inclusive method for understanding collective memories and how they are transmitted across generations. To show how this works, sociologists Corning and Schuman draw on history, sociology, and psychology to contextualize the memory of three heavily studied subjects in US history—Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. In addition, they point to a host of social scientific data they have gathered on how individuals remember events of the last eighty years. One of their most important findings is confirmation of what they term the ‘critical years hypothesis’ or the tendency to attribute importance to events that occur during an individual’s formative years. Perhaps the authors’ most potent—and controversial—claim is that social scientific surveys can correct the contemporary tendency to consider books, films, and memorials as unproblematic manifestations of a particular collective memory. Corning and Schuman are laudably cautious and deliberate in interpreting their results. . . . Recommended.”


“The methodological depth and breadth of this work is impressive. The authors draw on data from extensive survey research collected over many decades, as well as content analysis of historical documents and media sources. They conduct statistical analysis, qualitative historical analysis, and even natural experiments. Furthermore, they have been able to replicate their findings over and over again. . . . This is the work of exceptionally experienced researchers from whom much can be learned. Scholars and students from a wide range of fields, including history, psychology, political science, and of course, the interdisciplinary field of memory studies, will find this book particularly interesting.”

Social Forces

“There is much to admire in this book. It demonstrates the value of rigorous, programmatic research in the social sciences, placing a strong emphasis on replicating findings over time and across social contexts. The authors are always hesitant to take results at face value and are open to the possibility of disconfirmation and of revision. The research program also undertakes the hardest kind of social science research, crossing levels of analysis from the individual to the society to explore how they interact. The authors are particularly sensitive to methodological challenges that arise, for example, in measuring memory for personal versus public events. Moreover, the research presented embraces the richness of qualitative data and the generalizability of quantitative data.”

Public Opinion Quarterly

“In Generations and Collective Memory, Corning and Schuman synthesize their findings to date, breaking fresh ground in theorizing the relationship between memory and generation as well as the broad significance of generations as a sociological variable. . . . Among memory scholars—both within sociology and beyond—Generations and Collective Memory is a model for interdisciplinary engagement and methodological pluralism. In sociology, it deserves a wide readership, for it redeems Mannheim’s insight that generation should stand alongside the standard variables of gender, race, and education, guiding us to a more comprehensive understanding of the social forces that structure our worlds.”

Contemporary Sociology

Generations and Collective Memory is a clear and cogent study that adds significantly to the theoretical framework now available to control that slippery term ‘collective memory.’ Marrying the best of Maurice Halbwachs’s thinking on collective memory to the insights of Karl Mannheim on generations, Corning and Schumann go beyond both to develop a notion of the ‘critical years’ from the ages of ten to thirty in the life of an individual, during which she identifies and remembers particular events as important. . . . This well-framed hypothesis and its qualifications are tested against abundant survey material, American, European, and Asian in character, and by and large, their hypothesis is confirmed.”

American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents

Authors’ Note
Introduction: The Meanings of Collective Memory and Generation

Part One. Revising Collective Memories

1. Collective Memories and Counter-Memories of Christopher Columbus
2. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: Sex, Slavery, and Science
3. Abraham Lincoln: “Honest Abe” versus “the Great Emancipator”

Part Two. The Critical Years and Other Sources of Collective Memory

4. The Critical Years Hypothesis: The Idea and the Evidence
5. Cross-National Replications and Extensions

Part Three. Beyond Critical Years Effects

6. Does Emigration Affect Collective Memory?
7. Generational Experience of War and the Development of New Attitudes
8. Autobiographical Memory versus Collective Memory
9. Collective Knowledge: Findings and Losings
10. Commemoration Matters: The Past in the Present

Closing Reflections

Appendix A: Statistical Testing and Its Limitations
Appendix B: Survey Response Rates
Appendix C: Formal Tests of Critical Years Effects
Appendix D: Robustness of Standard Events Question

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