Trouble on Memory Lane

biklen-memory-2Sociologist Sari Knopp Biklen died last year, but she left a substantial body of research that will undoubtedly be brought to life by people across disciplines. In reading her article “Trouble on Memory Lane,” I am reminded of the analytical risks of working with youth, including the assumption that we can connect to a group we once belonged to. Whether you like it or not, says Biklen, people who study youth

often travel down memory lane to revisit their own adolescence . . . More common than uncommon, these references reaffirm an adult’s status as a former youth. With such a status, narrators announce that they are not complete strangers to their informants. Rather, these narratives bring some experience to bear on their projects that increases their interpretive authority.

When I first arrived in the United States, I certainly drove down a memory lane. Feeling disconnected from a foreign society, I hoped that working with children would allow me to use my own past experiences to connect with a still unknown present. Biklen’s analysis on the complexities of using memories as a tool of research made me think things twice. In a different part of her essay, she adds:

Our memories are connected to identity construction and to their social markers. They are not representations of our earlier lives that we can bring in or leave out at will, because our memories are not just ‘there.’ As Bal (1999) wrote about cultural memory, ‘it is an activity occurring in the present, in which the past is continuously modified and redescribed even as it continues to shape the future . . . ‘ One way to think of them is that they are fashioned by us during the years into a narrative so that different parts of our memories are connected to each other.

Biklen clearly relied on Pierre Janet’s and Freud’s thorough analyses of memory, but, read within a modern approach to youth studies, these older texts are revitalized:

When we do ethnographic research on youth, [says Biklen,] we engage a group that is familiar in an experiential sense but historically, and hence significantly, different. This situation of having once been a member of the informant group, broadly defined, means that when adults write about youth we engage a group of which we we once were but are no longer and can never again be a part.

Biklen argues that using our own memories to connect with youth serves researchers more than it does youth. Her analysis should trigger an alarm for people in all disciplines. Whereas self-reflection is important, we must bear in mind that memories can easily take us away from our informants’ experiences and turn us back in on ourselves.

— Alexia Raynal, Associate Editor


To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here. For an exploration of children’s lives between two worlds read Alexia’s article “Children Challenging Borders: The physical and psychological journeys that the children of immigrants make for their families,” published by Zeteo last fall.


Cover image is an ad for Bigelow Tea, featuring typical Staples girls.

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