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Exploring Ignored Variable in International Relations: The Power of Historical Memory  

Photo of Zheng WangInternational relations as an academic discipline examines how the interactions of many diverse factors generate situations of war, international cooperation, and peace. To gain a deeper understanding of these issues, scholars in this arena are continuously striving to identify patterns and frameworks that help unravel the phenomena of today's world. In his new book, Memory Politics, Identity and Conflict: Historical Memory as a Variable, Dr. Zheng Wang shines new light on collective historical memory, an uncommon variable in the field of international relations. He uses historical memory to explain political action and social movement, and in particular, analyzes how contested memory and the related social discourse can lead to nationalism and international conflict.

This is not the first book Dr. Wang has published on historical memory and international relations. In 2012, Dr. Wang published the award-winning book Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. This book, the recipient of the International Studies Association's Yale H. Ferguson Award for "best book of the year," is a case study of historical memory and its effects on China. Since the launch of that text, Dr. Wang has been invited to serve as a peer reviewer for multiple academic journals for manuscripts on the topic of historical memory. By the time he had reviewed over twenty different articles on this topic, he began to notice that there was a consistent issue with the research design in this area of study. In particular, he noticed that researchers found it challenging to adequately define and measure the specific elements of historical memory that they intended to study; thus leaving their articles with significant flaws in the research design. Confronted by the same issues over and over again, he began to make notes, describing the ways in which the papers could improve their methods and therefore, make their arguments regarding the importance of historical memory even stronger. Memory Politics, Identity and Conflict: Historical Memory as a Variable, is the compilation of those research notes and Dr. Wang's advice to scholars.

The book primarily focuses on resolving the issues of definition and measurement that scholars encounter while conducting research on historical memory. The intangible elements of historical memory are often difficult to quantify, but Dr. Wang offers analytical frameworks that researchers can adopt to improve their research design. These frameworks are accompanied by practical examples of their application. Beyond contributing general research on historical memory, Dr. Wang's frameworks allow for the analysis of historical memory across multiple countries and time spans. Such a cross-nation comparison can help scholars to validate the significance of historical memory outside the context of a single country and thus highlight historical memory's power in shaping identity, perception and then action. Further, Dr. Wang notes, "Historical memory is still an understudied field because it doesn't fit neatly into one academic discipline. By using theories and concepts from multiple disciplines, this book can serve as a bridge and contact point to be utilized by researchers in multiple different disciplines."

For Dr. Wang, narratives matter. The collection of a people's thoughts and beliefs about themselves and their nation is difficult to quantify effectively; however, these are crucial elements to understanding what drives the actions of nations. As Andrei Markovits and Simon Reich suggest, "the politics of collective memory…is a major ingredient of the political arena, the public discourse, and the policy setting in every country. It defines such key ingredients as pride, shame, fear, revenge, and comfort for a large number of a country's citizens." By studying historical memory, we understand how events in a country's past contribute to the development of a national identity. This is critical because national identity shapes the national interests that guide policy makers in crafting foreign policy; in understanding a nation's historical memory and national identity, there is an opportunity to gain clarity into the intentions and actions of other countries.

This implication makes historical memory and identity necessary to understand, research, and discuss in both academic and political circles; however, for these discussions to be productive, theories on these concepts must be rooted in concrete research. As the first book on this specific topic, Memory Politics, Identity and Conflict: Historical Memory as a Variable provides a needed guide to critically examining these ideas.

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Categories: Nation and World

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