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Conflicting Narratives about the Argentinean ‘Conquest of the Desert’: Social Representations, Cognitive Polyphasia, and Nothingness

Alicia Barreiro, Jose Antonio Castorina, and Floor van Alphen

Social Representations Theory (Markova, 2012; Moscovici, 1961, 2001a) has brought to the fore how history and collective memory enable individuals to make sense of social phenomena. It allows them to build common sense knowledge of the social sphere, in general, and of the historical process, in particular (Jodelet, 2003). Specifically, social representations—henceforth SR—of history influence how people remember past experiences. They intervene in the collective understanding of events by establishing bias. They also consolidate images and knowledge of the past that are elaborated, transmitted, and preserved by social groups (see Paez, Bobowik and Liu, in this volume). Thus, SR of history encompass shared images and knowledge of the past, elaborated, transmitted,

This work has been supported by funding from the research projects PICT- 2012-1594 (FONCyT-Argentina), PICT-2014-1003 (FONCyT-Argentina), and UBACYT (2014-2017) 20020130100256BA (University of Buenos Aires).

A. Barreiro (*)

National Council of Scientific and Technical Research - Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Buenos Aires, Argentina

J. A. Castorina

National Council of Scientific and Technical Research - Universidad de Buenos Aires y UNIPE, Buenso Aires, Argentina.

F. van Alphen

National Council of Scientific and Technical Research - Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_20

and conserved by a group through interpersonal (e.g. family transmission), mass media (e.g. films, novels), and institutional communication (e.g. history education). These representations serve to preserve a sense of ingroup continuity and to cultivate values and norms that prescribe group behaviors (Liu & Hilton, 2005).

Collective memory contents (Halbwachs, 1925/1992) are transmitted from one generation to the next. They influence how social groups define their rights and duties, legitimize their political agreements, and frame their roles in terms of the right or wrongness of their actions consistent with their historical experience (Sibley, Liu, Duckitt, & Khan, 2008). Several scholars argue that history traces the path that helps to build the group identity and the relations with other groups (Postmes & Branscombe, 2010). In order to do this, the social group resorts to a narrative that tells the group members who they are, where they are from and where they are going (Sibley et al., 2008). This way, individuals identify themselves as members of a group that has constructed an image of itself in the context of both collectively lived experiences and agreed on common values.

Individuals see themselves as members of a group; they recognize themselves in their ingroup memory that transmits shared values and thinking frames from which historical processes are evoked (Halbwachs, 1925/1992). Thus, appeals to collective memory become crucial to account for the way individuals remember history, that is, remembering the past that they did not live and could have existed long before they did. The SR of history stem from these collective past experiences as family and group images shared in the social experience can contribute to remembering historical processes (Jodelet, 2003). However, contradictory meanings of the same knowledge object, such as historical processes, can coexist in everyday life in the same social group, resulting in a state of cognitive polyphasia (Jovchelovitch, 2008; Moscovici, 1961) on the collective and cognitive level. Furthermore, societies create moral narratives to account for their responsibility in a controversial past (Jodelet, 2003; Liu & Hilton, 2005; Paez et al., 2008; Sibley et al., 2008). Through the political dimension that these narratives possess, some societies legitimize or deny the historical basis of reparation claims regarding inflicted injustices (Bar-Tal, 2011; Volpato & Licata, 2010). Memories inform present behavior, such as reparation actions (Bar-Tal & Halperin, 2009), or the willingness to fight for the ingroup in an armed conflict (Paez et al., 2008).

In brief, knowing a particular social group’s SR allows us to know its process of constitution, understanding its potential to preserve the group identity, the status quo, and the possibility of mobilizing people toward a common objective. Within this framework, we will be discussing the contribution of the concept of cognitive polyphasia in formal and informal learning and in understanding controversial processes of the past. We will focus on those historical processes that imply the acknowledgment of questionable moral actions performed by the ingroup. Particularly, this chapter looks into how people account for an Argentine historical process called the ‘Conquest of the Desert’ (i.e. a military campaign that was undertaken by the Argentine government from 1874 to 1885). Since 1880, this campaign has been very important in the official master narrative in Argentina. However, recent insights from different disciplinary perspectives have given rise to important debates about this master narrative. Although the traditional view is still present in different symbolic resources such as textbooks, museums, or monuments, it conflicts with a revisionist narrative that emphasizes the slaughter of indigenous people perpetrated by the Argentine State during this process. The contribution of SR theory to understand how individuals acquire the group’s past, constituting their national identity, will be discussed. Specifically, we’ll consider the role of SR in understanding how the power struggle among social groups shapes collective memory. Also, their role in the way individuals think about history, determining what can be collectively signified and what can be excluded from the real sphere, will be scrutinized. Finally, we will examine what this implies for intervening in students’ history learning and the possibilities to transform common sense knowledge into the disciplinary knowledge of history.

 
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