Photo by Herry Lawford, Flickr CC

Worries about rapid technological change negatively affecting society abound — the advent of the internet, increased availability of smartphones, and ubiquity of social media have many concerned that people are constantly “plugged in” and, as a result, tuning out the world around them. These concerns were revitalized with the recent publication of psychologist Jennifer Twenge’s new research, which finds that a social media heavy diet is associated with depression and social isolation among teens. However, Twenge explains, “The aim of generational study is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both.” Social science research on nostalgia warns against idealizing the past, but also points to varied uses and meanings of nostalgia over time.

Seen as a sickness when it first entered circulation centuries earlier, nostalgia became a common trope in the late 20th century, moving from the medical field to everyday life. Nostalgia is typically defined as a “sentimental longing for the past,” and is often associated with an idealized remembering of “how things used to be.” In this way, nostalgia can be viewed as reactionary and regressive — calls for returns to “traditional families” or “tight-knit communities” are often cast in a language that selectively highlights the positives of previous social forms and ignores the problems associated with them. For example, Stephanie Coontz finds that there has never been a “traditional family” that protects people from poverty or social disruption.
Nostalgia can also be exploited by those in power to further ideological ends. For example, think Trump’s electoral campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” or Brexit with its “Take back control” discourse — both imply a better past. This type of nostalgia is usually vague in terms of the era and place of longing, yet has an exclusionary vision of society that has strict rules about who belongs.
However, recent research complicates these negative connotations of nostalgia by exploring some of the different affective, sentimental, and ideational roles that various kinds of nostalgia practice perform. Research finds that nostalgia can be both a comfort and a catalyst for change, and some argue that nostalgia can be an important basis for thinking into the future. Sociologist Fred Davis recognizes nostalgia as a tool for identity construction and a lens through which people construct, maintain, and reconstruct their identities. He finds that nostalgia reduces insecurities and self-threat by keeping fears of insignificance at bay and reassuring us that our self “is as it was then.” Similarly, Katharina Niemeyer argues that the process of “nostalgizing” provides a sense of belonging that can increase solidarity and lessen loneliness.