The beginnings of my past: Children's early accounts of autobiographical memories

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Linguagem – As práticas discursivas como locus de investigação

Language – Discourse practices as locus of investigation

Where does my past begin? Lessons from recent cross-cultural studies of autobiographical memory

Jens Brockmeier, University of Toronto, Canada, and Qi Wang, Cornell University

The study of autobiographical memory or, more broadly speaking, the memory of significant past experiences from an individual’s life, can draw upon a long history of psychological investigation. In order to understand personal memory and their function in the construction of one's life story and identity, researchers have traditionally focused on the impact of individual factors like personality, neurological maturation, cognitive development, and even intelligence on the process of remembering. This focus is closely linked to traditional memory research in general that has foregrounded neurocognitive operations and other intrinsic mechanisms. The picture emerging from this tradition is that psychological phenomena, and phenomena of memory and remembering in particular, are individual matters locked in the head (be it the mind or the brain) of a person. It has often been pointed out that this approach tended to exclud the contexts of acting, experiencing, and remembering – contexts within which individuals interact with each other and with a world of meaningful cultural artifacts. As Bruner (1993) reminded us, there is a deeply rooted Cartesian mode for thinking about autobiographical memory, a mode that is not only characteristic of academic psychology but of all Western folk psychology which emphasizes individuality, power, and autonomy in explicating human lives.
One of the problems that result from the individualistic approach to human memory in traditional psychological research has also affected the comparative study of memory and remembering in different cultures. This problem – inherent in many cross-cultural investigations – lies in the fact that the putatively neutral and analytical notion of "autobiographical memory" used in the traditional psychological and anthropological literature (including the cross-cultural literature) turns out, upon closer inspection, to be based on Western concepts of self, identity, and development. These concepts take for granted the universal existence of a model of individual development that posits as a normative standard of development an increasingly individualized, self-defined, and autonomous self that is set contrastively against other selves and against its social and natural background. In other words, these concepts are bound into the Western semantic and epistemology of the self as described by philosophers, anthropologist, and psychologists (e.g., Johnson, 1985; Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997; Taylor, 1989).
Thus, the problem at stake is that in whatever culture personal memories are examined, the unit of analysis of "autobiographical memory" which underlies such investigation always already implies a specific conceptual construction of one culture. This peculiar construction then is taken to be the standard against which phenomena of memory and remembering from the other culture (or other cultures) are to be measured.

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