Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | July 3, 2012

Analysing Memories of the Difficult Past and Intergenerational Differences

Alexandra Wangler, MYPLACE team member at University of Bremen on her recently published book and its relevance to the MYPLACE project.

For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE

To see more from Alexandra Wangler’s book, or to purchase it, see HERE.

Within Work Package  2 the question arises how the historical discourses of three generations can be analysed. Since it is our aim to outline mainstream and alternative discourses where the difficult past is constructed and re-interpreted and where intersubjective relationships constituting memory work are about to be put forward, an analytical frame for the interviews can shed light on the complex and dynamic character of memory and its transmission. As an example, I would like to present the results and analytical points of my book which is entitled “Rethinking History, Reframing Identity: Memory, Generations, and the Dynamics of National Identity in Poland”. The reason is that it offers ideas about 1.) how to put forward and to analyze different historical discourses between generations and 2.) how to understand the dynmics of transmitting these ideas and memories with all their ambiguities.

The book contributes to the discussion about the role of the different experiences of generations and their historical memories for the formation of national identity. National identity is a process and national groups are never homogeneous entities. In order to explicate this premise, the concepts of ‘generations and life course’ and ‘cultural trauma’ serve as theoretical pillars that introduce the elaboration of the ‘identity process’ perspective. Generations are presented as communities of experience whose particular imprint of historical time may influence their participation and behaviour within democratic civil society as well as their perception of core events. The collective cognitive background of a generation is emphasized in the light of historical change, resulting opportunity structures and lived experience by means of focusing on the discursive practices of generations. For this purpose the study draws on the case study of the Ukrainian minority in northern Poland and their narratives about the collective trauma of ‘Action Vistula,’ where in 1947 about 140,000 Ukrainians were resettled from south-eastern Poland and relocated to the northwestern areas. This event still constitutes the main reference point of the Ukrainian minority’s national identity.

For MYPLACE the analytical frame may be interesting. Three generations have been distinguished and ten interviews haven been conducted in each (in sum thirty interviews have been coded with the programm Atlas.ti). The analysis was based on the following guiding questions:

1. Which differences exist regarding the comprehension and interpretation of particular historical events between generations? The question relates to the self-thematization in the participant’s narratives and the reflected historical consciousness: What is the frame of reference and the recurring themes when talking about difficult historical events? Which consequences are depicted? How are the discourses of guilt and forgiveness indicative of a new historical awareness, maybe even detaching itself from the boundaries of the nation state?


2. How is the understanding of past embodied in the norms of action? This question inquires about the expressions of national identity (e.g. symbols, networks, media consumption) in everyday life and the cultural investment to maintain it. The aim is to disclose strategies and ways of coping with problems.


3. How are national identities constructed and redefined throughout the life course? This question relates to the ways that national identifications evolve, are negotiated and reproduced in different life stage transitions. It can be broken down into several subquestions, such as the following: How do individuals experience self-transformations that are observable in concrete practices, situations and outlooks? Do the opinions change because of maturation (age effect)? How do people struggle to bridge boundaries between self and other? This endeavour to map and document recent developments within the minority group brings us to the next research question.


4. Does national identity appear to be dependent upon opportunity structures that national minorities have encountered in Poland? In other words, how are social change and generations depicted in the narrations? How are generational differences narrated? Do these changes affect society as a whole (period effect), do these events primarily have an effect on the young (cohort effect) or do the opinions change because of maturation (age effect)? Which outlooks are mentioned?


As comes to the fore, the approach of self-thematization and historical consciousness form the basis of the study. This analytical approach permits a comprehension of how the past is understood and how it is embodied in the norms of action – thus, in participation. The way that people talk, how they refer to others in their narratives and how they express nuances permits the reconstruction of ideas and alternative discourses. The intergenerational appraoch emphasizes the dynamic and processual character of mnemonic culture and behavioural patterns. For MYPLACE it means that the interviews can focus not only on the discursive construction (thus routine talk and the contexts of its articulation), but also on choices people make (e.g. with regard to schools and other institutions, any kind of participation), performances (symbols and customs, e.g. the consideration and use of flags, anthems, national heroes, landscapes, clothes, songs, slogans) as well as the consumption of material culture (buycotts, creative interpretation of history and myths, newspaper, media). This allows for examining the actual practices, understandings and social contexts of discourses through which generations engage in the (re)construction of historical memory and identity. The intergenerational comparisons as well as the interviewees’ individual opinions/perceptions about generational differences can grasp the dynamic character of memory construction and crystlizing alternative discourses.

These were just some analytical ideas for the upcoming work in Work Package 2 and the role that our intergenerational interviews can play in presenting young peoples’ opinions and actions in the context of history perception. The results of the research show that young people are aware of the respective generational locations in time and space and the available opportunity structures. They try to understand their grandparents’ views and their ‘out-dated’ histroical memories but at the same time the youths adapt their understanding of history to a globalized world view. The striking point is how they emphasize their wider historical knowledge and the access to more objective literature in this regard. Young people consider this fact as an important advantage and strenght of their young generation – it even discloses as a feeling of superiority. They appear to be a self-confident generation because of their distance to World War II and the resulting historical objectivity. They distance themself from excessive overemphacizing of historical events like Action Vistula and – unlike their grandparents – do not feel urged to justify any collective innocence. For the MYPLACE project these results may serve as suggestions and stimulations for emphasising young people’s social, historical and institutional position in relation to other generations. If we ask about how these findings might be linked to, and inform, research activities within other WPs, it is clearly on the level of changing opportunity structures and a wider acces to information (especially through media) – it is their ablility and willingness to compare and to accumulate more objective (and not one-sided) knowledge (see the ACTA protests) that renders their participation different from mainstream patterns.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: