The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as well as the escalating climate crisis point to the acute necessity of understanding collective experiences. How do we conceive of and perceive what happens to us together? How do we collectively react (or fail to react) to such experiences? The era of social media creates new ways to share experiences and emotions, revealing how collective experiences can be produced and mediated. Why do some events and experiences seem to be collectively shared and acted upon while others do not?
Historical research can provide important answers to these questions, for example by historicizing the dynamics between subjective and collective experiences, by analyzing the ways shared realities are constructed in different historical contexts, and by studying the changing roles of different media and systems of meaning in shaping collective experiences. Nevertheless, if we wish to elaborate on collective experiences and their limits, the available historiographical approaches and methodologies need to be further developed. Often, the “collective” is used loosely to refer to any social grouping, synonymous with a number of other terms (social, shared, communal, joint, national, etc), or it is avoided altogether in order not to presume any collective mind or monolithic identity. Historians’ suspicions towards collective experiences are well-founded: when looked at through intersectional lenses – class, age, gender, disability, ethnicity, etc. – seemingly collective experiences are usually diverse. Yet while hardly any historian assumes that a nation or a people experience events uniformly, it is still commonplace to use a shorthand, such as “Finnish” or “imperial” experience. What can historians learn from the social and behavioral sciences in thinking about collective experiences and emotions? And what is the historian’s contribution to the study of collective experiences?
To answer these and other related questions, the conference will be an opportunity to develop collective experiences as a concept for historical analysis and explanation. Professor Piroska Nagy (Université du Québec à Montréal), Professor Mikko Salmela (University of Copenhagen) and Professor Maarten Van Ginderachter (Antwerp University), will provide wide-ranging intellectual keynote lectures to stimulate our consideration of collective experiences in history.
The fifth annual HEX conference will delve into the problems and possibilities of studying collective experiences in history. As a point of departure, we recognize at least the following ways of defining collective experiences:
- Experiences that we assume to be experienced in a group
- Experiences that we share with others, without any notion of community
- Experiences linked to shared entities or symbols
- Experiences that are imagined or projected with others as part of a shared future
- Experiences that may never have happened to an individual, but which are adopted as a part of a collective identity or collective remembrance
- Experiences of a “collective other”, in contrast to one’s own subjective experiences
- Experiences in masses or produced by the crowd: natural disasters, conflicts, revolutions, riots, moral panic, illness and disease, festivals, etc.
Considering collectivity in the study of past experiences raises a number of questions. If collective experiences are more than an aggregate of subjective experiences, what are the theories and methods to explain them? How do collective experiences, emotions and memories relate to each other? Could concepts such as emotional communities, emotional spaces and emotional regimes be employed to access collective experiences? How, and by whom, are collective experiences conveyed and shaped (media, authorities, communities, political actors, educators, etc.) and how are they transmitted between generations in culture and commemoration? What about collective experiences without any notion of community? How do collective experiences reflect individual experiences and what are the dynamics of sharing similar experiences at different times to construct collective experiences? How can collective experiences in the past be studied as intersectional phenomena, without imposing any false claims of uniformity or identity? What size of group constitutes a collective, and what difference does it make?