memory “outdoors,” in the structures of discourse, social relations, ritual activities and significant objects that shape the creation of long-term memories and thus in part determine the “shape” of a remembered life.
The ambiguous “inside-outside” character of memory is implied by the fact that we sometimes refer to external memory objects like photographs, or special objects as “memories” even though most of us understand that the actual locus of our memories is in our heads rather than in the world. By implication we acknowledge that our memory is strongly tied to a complex world of memory triggers, much of which is socially constructed. From this perspective it is possible to think of autobiographical memory as having an ethnographic dimension.
In this paper we will explore two important facets of autobiographical memory that share a grounding in family experience. The first I term “identity updating.” Identity updating refers to the way certain social frames provide a context for shaping both significant continuities and significant transitions in one’s sense of self. The second facet of autobiographical memory explored in this paper is the social construction of “joint family memory,” the shared memories that constitute a family’s sense of its common story and its proprietary anecdotes that serve as joint landmarks of family identity.
An under-studied aspect of autobiographical memory is a phenomenon I call “identity updating.” The need for periodic identity updating presumes a basic gap between the self we think and feel we are and the self which other people see when they encounter us. Many people share a disconcerting experience when they catch sight of themselves in a mirror or a photograph. The reflection they see in the image does not seem to be them at all. The image is surely recognizable as oneself, but it is not experienced as an accurate rendering of the self. Usually, it is a decade or more too old.
This perception gap is related to a fundamental double-character of the self.2 At any given time each of us has self that is perceived by others, an evolving self, to be sure, that is always localized in particular time and space. This is the Observed Self. In addition to this Observed Self , we each have an Intuited Self, a self-representation of who we think and feel we are at a given point in our lives. As Roger Smith (1997) has argued, our experience of the Internal Self has been decisively influenced by technological innovations such as the invention of the flat mirror in 16th century Venice or, more recently, the proliferation of photography and videography.
The familiar mirror anomaly suggests that the Observed Self and the Intuited Self are not identical. There appears to be a significant gap between who we think and feel we are and the person who others see and interact with. I am not aware of any formal research that has been carried out on this identity gap between Observed and Internal Selves. I have informally asked many individuals I know about the identity gap and differences between the Observed and Intuited selves. Almost everyone I have interviewed about this phenomenon, ranging from teenagers to the elderly, recognizes it immediately and is able to tell me who they are “inside.”
The individuals I have interviewed seem to feel themselves to be approximately 25% younger than they actually are (the gap in actual years seem to increase with age). Interestingly enough, people tended not to frame this difference in years but rather in terms of autobiographical “frames of reference.” Rather than stating that they felt like they were 45 when