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Interview with Janelle Wilson about nostalgia

I asked sociologist Janelle Wilson the following questions:

Why is nostalgia ‘a sanctuary of meaning’?

What is the relation between nostalgia and a sense of identity?

Do you think that the factual truth of memories is less important than the reasons behind nostalgic claims?

Is nostalgia universal or a phenomenon of modernity?

Why are the 1950s linked so much to nostalgia?

In response to your questions, I would suggest that nostalgia can provide a sanctuary of meaning in the sense that, through the experience of nostalgia, one is able to see oneself through time and can then better make sense of both personal and collective events that have occurred. As sociologist Fred Davis had suggested, nostalgia may be especially prevalent during transitions in the life course. This speaks to your second question about the relationship between nostalgia and identity. Again, following the work of Fred Davis (and others), we find that nostalgia can help to facilitate the continuity of identity. We see who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming.

With respect to the question about whether or not the factual truth of memories is less important than the reasons behind nostalgic claims, I would suggest that, indeed, the factual truth of the memories is less important. What is more important is why the past is remembered in the way it is. I contend that, as we recollect the past, we may "play with the past" in a way that doesn't match up objectively with what happened, but in most cases we don't do this in a deceptive way; rather, we selectively remember things in a way that will help us to facilitate our continuity of identity; we actively construct meaning. (On the other hand, it is certainly the case that individuals or groups may deliberately paint pictures of past eras or events in ways that align with a particular ideology - this is a phenomenon we see, for example, among some politicians). I would contend that nostalgia is universal. The original meaning of nostalgia was extreme homesickness (indeed, it was considered a disease). When we are apart from the familiar, we may experience "symptoms" of nostalgia. In the U.S., there is a great deal of nostalgia for the 1950s. In part, this is because the 1960s were a tumultuous time, and, although the seeds for "the Sixties" were planted in the 1950s, the popular culture romanticized and mythologized the 1950s as a stable time in the nation's past. At this collective level, certainly there was "selective memory" of that decade - for example, the sanitized picture painted of that time did not include the reality of the racism and sexism, nor the effects of an over-emphasis on conformity.

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