American Sociological Association

Intragenerational Variations in Autobiographical Memory: China’s “Sent-Down Youth” Generation

The relationship between generation and memory instantiates a theme central to sociology: the intersection between history and biography. This study addresses two gaps in the literature. First, whereas the dominant approach uses a cognitive concept of memory operationalized as naming events, I focus on autobiographical memory represented in life stories, in which members of a generation understand the meanings of their personal past as part of a historical event. Second, whereas the dominant approach stresses intergenerational differences of memory, I draw on a Bourdieu-Mannheim theoretical framework to use class—including class positions and habitus—to describe and explain intragenerational differences in autobiographical memory. The two theoretical goals are achieved through theorizing an important case: the autobiographical memories of China’s “sent-down youth” generation, the 17 million youths (zhiqing) sent by the state to the countryside in the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing on a qualitative and quantitative analysis of life-history interviews with 87 former zhiqing, I describe how this generation reconciles two components of autobiographical memory: personal experience in their sent-down years and historical evaluation of the send-down program. Respondents’ present class positions shape their memory of the personal experience, whereas their political habitus formed in the political-class system in the Mao years molds their historical evaluations of the program. Their habitus may change as a response to the social transformation in recent decades. This article not only contributes to our understanding of generational memory but also brings class back into the field.


Bin Xu





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