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.

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Structures of Collective Identity ~ Temporality

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

A New Year Inspires Reflection:

"San Francisco New Years Eve, 1898"

Image in The San Francisco Call (January 1, 1898) depicting the celebration of New Years Eve as the procession passes the Claus Spreckels Building (The Call Building)

As the New Year approached, many San Franciscan’s took stock in what the year of 1897 had brought the city, California, and the Union. Demonstrating the pervasiveness of the Gold Rush Pioneer Myth of California, writers, intellectuals, and the commercial-civic elite looked to the past with reverence at those Anglo-American who led their city into the future by transforming a temporary rush & boom of the 1850s, into a long-term development into a “New Era,” in the words of the San Francisco Call. As historian of commemoration, John R. Gillis has demonstrated, “memories help us make sense of the world we live in,” and we constantly revise our memories to fit our current identities.

Social Identity Dynamics:

Certainly the conception of any identity is socially and historically constructed. As historian of tradition David Lowenthal writes of the centennial exhibition of the United States in 1876, it led “many [in]to retrospection, and historians adjudged the century’s earlier decades more fruitful, harmonious, and admirable than the later ones.” But this tendency of retrospection did not presuppose romantic nostalgia of the past. Individuals and groups may acknowledge the virtues of yesteryear and the benefits of relics and roots, but many also know that the old has to give way, that youth must be served, that new ideas need room to develop – that the past does indeed constrain the present.” Many San Franciscan’s saw their society entering into a new epoch of Californian and thereby American history. The state’s growth was seen as a sign of the progressive trajectory of a region once inhabited by a diminishing empire.

Image from The San Francisco Call (December 26, 1897) from the children's page

The concept of the city’s progressive development was not lost on San Francisco’s commercial-civic elite. The idea and teleological progress of Manifest Destiny informed San Francisco’s elites that although the pioneers of California were exceptional, they were but intervening steps in the path of civilization on the Pacific Coast. “In this sense,” as historian of California Kevin Starr demonstrates, “as a concept and as an imaginative goal” Californian identity as it developed in the late 19th-century suggested “the cutting edge of the American Dream.” Better than had been seen to develop out of frontiers elsewhere, the story of the Californian republic on the Pacific shores would be the exemplar of Turner’s progressive frontier mechanisms. Many cultural elites, in Lowenthal’s phrasing, “realize that tradition is a brake on progress.” The Society of California Pioneers and the Native Sons of the Golden West in contrast had long commemorated both California’s Admission Day and Marshall’s gold discovery, reinforcing this imagining of American rebirth in a new land. However these organization’s held that California’s pioneers were not degenerates, as a linear vision of societal progress would suggest. But, there “had [also] been some blending in the preceding decades, some moments of amalgamation and imaginative identity wherein Americans had glimpsed possibilities of an alternative California.” The California origin story’s construction was a competition.

New Era Edition

Image of California's Minerva in "New Era Edition" of The San Francisco Call (December 19, 1897).

Individual identity is itself socially, politically, and historically constructed. The same goes for group and urban collective identity. In essence identity is contested, while fractures and silences are more than apparent, but pervasive. The value in regional identity (and individual) though is not in how factual the selected imaginings and rememberings are, as David Wrobel reminds us. But “‘why historical actors constructed their memories in a particular way at a particular time’” that reveals the intricacies of individual and collective identity.

In San Francisco the Pioneer Gold Rush Myth had always held sway among the city’s commercial-civic elite. From the days of the Vigilante Committee to the more recent Chinese Exclusion of the 1880s, the city’s commercial-civic elite employed, participated, and sanctioned this Anglo-American legacy through repeated public rememberings and civic commemorations. This leads me to ask, and likely answered in further posts: What were the most significant ways of remembering the pioneer past in San Francisco? How is this pioneer myth received by the thousands of San Franciscans, let alone those who were not white? And did it matter if you were not white? Origin myths are not factual, neat, or clean, thus could a Chinese San Franciscan see themselves within this pioneer myth?


  • Gillis, John R., ed. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

  • Glassberg, David. American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

  • Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

  • Starr, Kevin. Americans & The California Dream: 1850-1915. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1973.

  • Wrobel, David M. Promised Lands: Promotion, Memory, and the Creation of the American West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

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