Debating Collective Identity: Does a Social Collective Identity Exist?

February 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

What is Collective Identity?:

A couple of months ago I weighed into a blog debate about historical methodology on the U.S. Intellectual History blog. Needless to say, I was deboned and quartered by another reader on my logic and methodology. Of course I was excited that my post had sparked a transition in the conversation, however it also provided a moment for me to clarify my ideas in writing. Therefore, I have posted below my side of the debate with the included inquiry questions. The point of this post is not to defend my abilities, but to demonstrate some great insight I had while thinking about these issues being brought up with my methodology.

As soon as California became an American state, influential individuals and groups began to establish historical narratives and perspectives on the past that legitimized and defined America’s conquest of Alta California. But how do the ideas of the few transform and transmute into a collective identity of place?

Join the discussion by posting below or responding on Twitter ~ @Calhistorian. I also encourage anyone interested to visit the U.S. Intellectual History blog for a locus of discussion and community. Any suggestions, challenges, or reading that I should know, feel free to post.


Q: Do individuals whom have deeper memories think or act differently than those with shallow memories?

A: As David Lowenthal suggests in, The Past is a Foreign Country, “all present awareness is grounded on past perceptions and acts.” And if so, could not an individual’s particular understanding of temporality, influence the construction of their identities and actions, let alone frame the landscape of their memories which seem to define in large part the characteristics of one’s cultural identity? Additionally, and as suggested by Ray Haberski’s post referenced above (Marking Time Through War), an individual’s broader understanding of temporality results not from a linear extrapolation of the past but from a non-linear, wrinkling web of retrospection.

Memories are certainly “of ‘the past'” as you say, however the character of the past recalled, the depth into history one’s memories travel, and the meaning placed on that depth, seem to represent formative structures of individual identity. “The past,” Lowenthal reminds us, “is both historical and memorial; its scenes and experiences antedate our own lives, but what we have read and heard and reiterated makes them part of our memories too.” Therefore, we should attempt to not only understand what memories a historical actor values, but how that actor’s memory is transfused with diverse and often contradictory conceptions of the past that are not of their own making.

In the words of R. G. Collingwood, the past is called into “being by recollecting and by thinking historically, but we do this by disentangling it out of the present in which it actually exists.” When James D. Phelan, mayor of San Francisco in 1896, announced the “New San Francisco” in a speech given to the Mechanics’ Institute, he presented a version of the past that had a direct causal connection with his present through his advocation of the City Beautiful Movement. In the speech (click for full source) he acknowledged and traced republican and democratic (political systems, not party) precursors as antecedent to San Francisco’s own version of American exceptionalism. Phelan wrote that:

[O]n the map of the world the great bay and harbor, opening into 76,000,000 miles of ocean, was stamped by the hand of Fate and destined for empire, and passing generations, now floating on the tide of fortune, dimly conscious of the greatness of their metropolis, little appreciate the strength of their position and the value of their heritage. We are, perhaps, too close to the object to take an extensive view. We have groveled too long in the slough of self-depreciation, and should arouse ourselves to the dignity of our citizenship, and more particularly to the duties of the hour.

Significantly, Phelan’s understanding of this progressive social perfection of American republicanism was just as much a consequence of his deep memory as much as his position in power and stance on urban reform. Phelan even seemed to understand and act on the difference between those with shallow and deep memories and in some ways indicating his derision for those who failed to understand his long-view of history and the nation’s progressive evolution of republican societies.

Q: “You raise an interesting point about Phelan’s “deep memory.”. . .  “Each person recreates the past by encountering its remains in the present. If you take this to extremes, there are as many pasts as there are people imagining the past.” But how does one partake of a “group memory” and “group identity”?

A: Agreed. However, common experience by groups of people can lead to common re-creations (or imaginings) of the past. Groups of common experiences (if only living in the same locale) grow up in the same neighborhood, live in a more or less a common culture with comparable/reconcilable retrospective structures on the past. However varied that experience could be within a given geographic context is at least dependent on a culture’s dialogue with place. As you suggest, vis-a-vis Collingwood, “re-enacting historical thought” is dependent on their knowledge of the past. Beyond personal experience and memory, that knowledge of the past is dependent on received or inherited “pasts” that are available/reconcilable (dependent on place).

Q: So, how does one bridge that gap, how do all these “histories” become a “deep memory”?

The disparate histories communicate and remain in constant dialogue with each other in the public and private spheres as they deploy various imaginings of the past. As John R. Gillis suggested in, Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, present self-awareness is intimately bound with how one remembers the past. One way to investigate this, he suggests, is to look where identities (and its construction of the past) are deployed for particular purposes; in politics, associations, and commemorations especially. As those with the ability to deploy their identity for particular purposes achieve exposure to a wider public, that vision of the past will either reinforce or challenge the established imagining of the past. Whether this reinforcement/challenge is Hubert Howe Bancroft in his “history factory” or the E. Clampus Vitus organization preserving popular pioneer histories in monuments and commemorations, the effect these have on the established identity is dependent on the actors social power and the nature of the identities deployment. Hubert Howe Bancroft certainly had a larger impact on regional, and specifically San Franciscan identity, than the low-brow fraternal order, E. Clampus Vitus, who would however largely agree with Bancrofts “pioneer” view of California. Thus, the contribution to the established collective narrative by deployed identities is still relative to several factors, but not least of which being social power.

Complicating this, Lowenthal reminds us, is that “each route to the past,” whether in written histories, established traditions, or physical relics, “are the domain of specialist disciplines.” And that an understanding of the past is not linear, but a web of retrospection through all avenues to the past; personal experience, cultural traditions, and relics. The story of southern California regional identity demonstrates that an acknowledged collective past does not even require cultural continuity, but can be grounded in place. As Glen Gendzel points out, in some ways it was this conquered yet reconstituted Californio identity which was resurrected by Anglo Angelinos as a uniquely southern Californian identity emphasizing the Hispanic or “Padre” legacy, in contrast to the Pioneer legacy of the north. The padre past was absorbed into the dominant Anglo narrative as a recognition of place.

In this social mileu, a dominant cultural “froth” more or less rises to the surface as competing histories deposit consensus’s revealed through interpretations of written histories, local/cultural traditions, and material relics (from small handheld symbolic relics, to architecture, monuments, to “historic” districts of locales). Back to Mayor of San Francisco, James D. Phelan, his interpretive deployment of the City Beautiful movement in the late 1890s (evidenced in civil reform, urban beautification, and urban planning) literally set to stone, monuments which he thought would inspire civic virtue through ancient wisdom. The Pioneer Monument for instance was inaugurated in the 1890s as a commemoration to the sacrifice of the early California Pioneers that inevitably conquered Alta California by superior culture and settled its American central city on Yerba Buena Cove; building the vanguard American republican society on the Pacific. Pioneer Park still stands today as a historical legacy that is not easily ignored. Associations were just as responsible as individuals in maintaining an established collective identity for the city. The Society of California Pioneers (beginning in 1856), the Native Sons of the Golden West (1870s – with associative group the Native Daughters of the Golden West), and others had their own, often varied, institutional memories. But in supporting monuments and politicians like the Pioneer Monument and James D. Phelan, these associations were playing a supportive role to the collective froth, depositing images, ideas, and orientations towards the past within the visible froth. Maintaining this established identity (froth) requires constant energy and protection from insurgent narratives that might cause disruption or dissonances. Interestingly the staying power of ideas and orientations within the collective identity seems to be a function not of this or that idea’s appeal, but to its tolerance within the established identity. Therefore an insurgent identity has a better chance of depositing its ideas in the collective froth if it is complimentary, compatible, or reconcilable.

Importantly, as Robert Rydell has pointed out through a reader response schema in, All The World’s A Fair, is that the a vision of the past that is produced and deployed in political theatre, celebrations, and commemorations is often not the vision that is interpreted by the audience, and in some cases the participating actors themselves. In California’s Golden Jubilee for instance, the organizational battle over various segments and programs of the celebration by various sanctioned bodies eventually led to a program and construction of the past that no one intended; producing a grand vision that was neither the exact imagining of the past as the elite financiers, the organizational participants, or the audience understood. Although the primacy of social power still exists, as John Gillis reminds us, and often deployed visions of the past “were largely for, but not of, the people.” Therefore, to understand the processes by which individual imaginings of the past translate or transmute into group, and wider collective identities is to investigate how particular stories of the past emerge into the collective narrative froth through their deployment for particular ends. This competition of imagining the past is then set in a social landscape that varies in “ecologies” and “climates” which produce varying environments for an identity’s deployment.


Therefore, although each avenue to the past is the product of a multitude of factors dependent on social and physical factors, each can be analyzed systematically and the ability to follow social power structuring identity is increased. But as Berglund had already pointed out, the power to influence the collective identity of a locale is also dependent on market forces. But that is another structure all together. My goal first is to analyze the top-down approach. Only then can the more contentious and contingent insurgent narratives can be analyzed. I hope to analyze histories, traditions, and relics to serially contextualize a viscous Pioneer identity emerging in San Francisco in the 1850s and becoming molded and transformed in the glut of Gilded Age San Francisco.

Further Reading ~ Gilded Empire:


Primary Sources:


  • BERGLUND, BARBARA. Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West. LAWRENCE, KANSAS: UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KANSAS, 2010.

  • GILLIS, JOHN R., ED. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1996.


  • RYDELL, ROBERT.  All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions. CHICAGO: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 1987.


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§ One Response to Debating Collective Identity: Does a Social Collective Identity Exist?

  • L.D. Burnett says:

    Mark, I thought your comments were both thoughtful and thought-provoking. As the author of the post in question, it was very gratifying to see that it had prompted such a robust discussion. Sorry about the de-boning. I am (barely!) responsible only for my own words on the internet.

    That said, I’m really glad to read the fruits of your sustained reflection on the issues discussed there.

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