Yugonostalgia as a collective emotion is a sentimental longing for a positively remembered past of the former country and life in it. Why and how does it arise? What are its positive and negative effects? And what are its implications?
With Borja Martinović and Anouk Smeekes.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
Yugonostalgia has made multiple appearances on this podcast, so much so the podcast itself has been labeled yugonostalgic despite being anything but (this goes to show that from a certain standpoint a mere glance at yugonostalgia or Yugoslavia can sometimes be labeled or should I say confused with the object of that study). Yugonostalgia provides endless fascination for me, particularly in its role as a driving force behind the persistence of memory of the former country, both there and abroad.
Now I’ve tended to look at yugonostalgia on the subjective, individual level. But nostalgia can be experienced at the group level as well. And that’s our story today.
Before we get to it I want to highlight my favorite group of people: new supporters of Remembering Yugoslavia. Thank you, Michael, Nemanja, Siniša, Sofija, Stephen, and Tara for your gifts and pledges. You truly make this show go on.
If you are listening and feel a little tinge of nostalgia every now and then, it’s alright. I’m here today to shed a little light on what’s going on. Maybe it’ll be helpful, maybe it’ll be therapeutic, maybe you’ll laugh, maybe you’ll cry, and if not with this one, maybe with some other of the 79 episodes I’ve released so far.
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[SOUNDBITE – “Galaksija z 80a” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: When I first started investigating nostalgia, a decade plus ago, I was surprised just how much scholarship there was out there about it. Teams of psychologists, particularly in the UK and the Netherlands devoted their entire careers to studying the phenomenon, which had in fact seen an ascendance in recent years.
The Ipsos Global Trends Survey in 2016 showed that feeling nostalgic for one’s country of the past is a widespread sentiment in many countries across the world; in most countries, more than 50 percent of the population would like their country to be the way it used to be (whatever that means).
One of these intrepid nostalgia explorers is Anouk Smeekes, associate professor of social psychology at Utrecht University. Her research focuses on prejudice and intergroup relations, and more specifically for our story today on historical understandings of national identity in relation to collective emotions and intergroup relations.
ANOUK SMEEKES: Nostalgia in this body of work is considered an emotion defined as a sentimental longing for a positively remembered past. So it’s basically looking at the past through these rose-tinted glasses and basically longing for these positive memories of the past.
Generally, scholars agree that the most important trigger of nostalgia is a feeling of identity discontinuity. And this basically refers to the feeling that a sense of identity is disrupted in an unpleasant way. So when people experience a sense of disconnection between their identities of the past and the present, and this disruption is unwanted.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the former Yugoslavia, the disruption, or one of them anyway, was the breakup of the common country and, on another level, the end of socialism.
ANOUK SMEEKES: So it’s basically the idea of unwanted change in identity that is seen as the most important trigger of nostalgia. And the reason is that emotions are functional for people. So in the case of nostalgia, it’s seen as an emotional coping mechanism to deal with such feelings of unwanted change, so the feelings of identity discontinuity. So a sense of identity continuity is essential for people to have a sense of identity in the first place. The function of nostalgia is seen as restoring this sense of identity continuity.
In longing for this positive remembered past it also becomes clear for people which aspects of their identity they value, which aspects of their identity they find important, and hence which ones they actually want to protect and maintain in the present and future. So in that sense, nostalgia also helps to buffer threats to discontinuity of identity and it helps to sort of reestablish or regain a sense of identity continuity.
PETER KORCHNAK: If your identity, or an important building block of your identity, was being Yugoslav and that is taken away, your identity may crumble around that missing piece. To restore or rebuild that identity, you may experience longing for the time the identity building block was still there. This longing helps you reconnect with that past period and bring it into the now and carry it into the tomorrow.
PETER KORCHNAK: On the personal level, there are, as you’ve pointed out, positive effects and positive uses, positive implications of nostalgia. But what about negative ones on the personal level? What harm, if any, can can nostalgia do?
ANOUK SMEEKES: There’s a lot of research on this. The vast majority of studies really shows that, in general, it has positive implications for mental health and wellbeing.
However, there are some exceptions to this. For example, there are studies showing that for habitual worriers, so people who tend to worry a lot, that for these people, nostalgia may not be so beneficial for their mental health and well being. So there are certain groups of people who can cling on to the past in a way that that doesn’t really help them in the present.
We talked about the definition of nostalgia, right, as this sentimental longing for a positively remembered past. But inevitably, there’s also a sense of loss related to nostalgia because the past no longer exists. So sometimes people also talk about nostalgia as a bittersweet emotion because it’s a combination of longing for something positive but also a sense of loss, right, so realizing that this positive past is over and that it will never come back. This bitterness aspect of nostalgia is something that can be seen as also a little bit more negative. So if people really focus on this loss aspect, right, so the positive past is no longer there, this could also result in less positive implications for wellbeing, so to say.
PETER KORCHNAK: If you no longer feel connected to the past versions of yourself, to who you were in the past, feelings of nostalgia for that past can become painful reminders of how things were and what you left behind. These recollections and feelings in turn hamper your ability to move on and deal with the present.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the former Yugoslav context, you know, nostalgia tends to be viewed as something those lefties feel for that bad socialist country. We, the righties, are not, not the guilty of feeling nostalgia for anything. And of course, in the American context, and I live in the United States, “make America great again” is a perfect, perfect slogan for the restorative kind of nostalgia. So speaking of, do you ever in your in your research—I don’t think I’ve seen that—do you make the distinction between reflective and restorative nostalgia that Svetlana Boym has used or established as a kind of an important distinction of the two nostalgias. So basically, what the soldier is trying to achieve and what its effects are on the other individuals.
ANOUK SMEEKES: I’m a little bit critical of this distinction, to be honest.
Of course, when you talk about this restorative nostalgia that is often also seen in in the political radical right discourse. So the idea that you not only long for the past, but that you also want to bring back the past. Of course, you can say, well, this is a specific form of nostalgia. So simply longing for the past is not the same as also sort of wanting to reconquer the past in the present. So in that sense, I would say yes, it’s definitely a specific type of collective nostalgia, or actually that this could also be the case for personal nostalgia.
With the reflective nostalgia, I’m a little bit more critical towards it because we really define nostalgia as an emotion that pertains to this longing for the past. And simply thinking about the past or reflecting on the past is not something that I would label as nostalgic. This is where I’m critical of the of the concept, because I think a lot of people label thinking about the past or talking about the past immediately as nostalgic, but that’s not the way we understand it. So nostalgia is really about the emotional experience of longing for the past but not that’s not the same as reflecting on the past. So I think, in that sense, reflecting on the past is, of course, good and helpful and can also be constructive but it’s not nostalgia necessarily.
PETER KORCHNAK: In addition to being subjective and individual, nostalgia can be experienced at a group level as well. This doesn’t mean a group of people has feelings as a group. Feelings remain individual, your own, of course.
But if you think of yourself as belonging to a group, that group becomes part of your identity, part of your self, and acquires social and emotional significance. If you feel you belong to a country or to a nation, that sense is an important part of your social identity. Emotions you feel because you’re a member of a group are collective emotions. If events like your country’s disappearance affect your group, which of course they do, you’re going to feel collective emotions about it.
ANOUK SMEEKES: Collective nostalgia is not something that is necessarily only experienced by whole groups or whole societies. It can actually also be experienced by individuals on the basis of their social identity or their group identity. So for example, when you watch TV and you see images of the past of your country, this could evoke feelings of collective nostalgia, even though you’re sitting alone, right, in front of the TV. So it’s a collective emotion that can be experienced individually, so that’s important.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nostalgia as a collective emotion springs from your shared identity as a member of a group; yugonostalgia, its social aspect, to be more accurate, is a collective emotion rooted in being a Yugoslav.
PETER KORCHNAK: You have been focusing on collective nostalgia, particularly national nostalgia, which you define as “a combined sense of loss and longing for fondly remembered national homes of the past that is experienced on the basis of one’s national in-group membership.” Can you differentiate these two types of nostalgia? I mean, beyond the obvious that one is individual one is one is collective, maybe the dynamics of them and how are they similar? How is personal and group-based nostalgia similar? And how are they different in their dynamics and their effects in their in their implications for policy or for the real world?
ANOUK SMEEKES: So for personal nostalgia it’s about your personal past, your unique memories, for example, your unique childhood experiences. For collective nostalgia, it’s about your group and the memories you have of your collective past, so the past that you share with your your fellow group members. So it concerns a longing for objects, periods, or events from your collective past.
In terms of their consequences, they are different. Because what we see in studies is that where personal nostalgia is relevant for understanding all kinds of, let’s say, individual-level processes, so mental health and wellbeing, it’s the collective nostalgia that matters for understanding group processes and intergroup relations. So how people think about their own group, and how they think about relevant outgroups, and also for understanding the way this emotion is used by politicians and how this could affect people’s political attitudes and behavior.
PETER KORCHNAK: Smeekes’s and her colleagues’ research has shown that collective nostalgia as a group-based emotion first motivates group members to do things that would help them bring their group’s past, which they inevitably idealize, into the not-so-great present. They also share a yearning to uphold or return to the group’s core values, which again were somehow superior to today’s. Group members then may feel a kind of moral responsibility to keep the group alive, and they act accordingly. People who are yugonostalgic may wear clothing that shows what they value and what group they belong to; they may listen to music from the Yugoslav period to keep it alive and share in their appreciation of it; they may attend events that commemorate the defunct country’s holidays.
Collective nostalgia then acts as, quote, “a balm for the distressed social identity in that it provides a route and root to protect the future.”
PETER KORCHNAK: You’ve explored collective nostalgia as a national nostalgia where the us is a nation in our case, in the case of this podcast, let’s say Serbs or Croats, but as you already pointed out, collective nostalgia can also emerge in groups in which people are connected on a different basis—a shared past experience and norms and values as in for example, again, in our case, Yugoslavia. So that that feeling of nostalgia is for a collective past for for that group, for that community to which people belong, and the motivation is to then perpetuate that community so that that continuty is ensured.
Could you speculate on similarities and differences between nostalgia in ethnonational terms, again, let’s say Serbs and Croats, and nostalgia for a country that doesn’t exist anymore, in our case, Yugoslavia, that had a supranational or at least non-ethnic identity, kind of an umbrella identity.
ANOUK SMEEKES: Any group context is relevant for studying nostalgia. And I think it’s safe to say that and nostalgia will exist in any type of group or community. Because it’s such a universal emotion, and especially for groups that have somewhat longer history, there will always be experiences of nostalgia, because it also has a meaning-making function. By understanding the past, by longing for the past, it also becomes clearer for people what actually what is our group identity, what binds us and holds us together, so in that sense, I think you could you could study it in all kinds of communities.
Regardless of the group identity at stake or even the content of specific collective nostalgia, the function of the emotion is similar at, let’s say, the group level, right. So we see that it functions as a restorative mechanisms when groups face changes to their identity, the continuity of their identity, and indeed it functions as a mechanism that helps people to restore the identity continuity of their group.
Then what that continuity means, so which values, which traditions are to be continued, that all depends on the particular collective past you are longing for, the particular group that you are focusing on. And in the case of Yugoslavia, the ethnonationalist or the exclusionary forms of nostalgia that we also see in the Western European context in the rhetoric of populist radical right parties, that this is a form of national nostalgia that can really result in polarization, and, let’s say, outgroup hostility, so hostility towards other groups, because it’s often of course, related also to the ideology of, of ethnonationalism. and about about this idea of also national purity, right, and if you see this in the context of nostalgia, it often refers to a longing for a past when it was just us, when the community was still culturally or ethnically homogeneous. And, of course, this exclusionary way of looking at the past also tends to foster opposition to groups that are seen as not part of this positive past, or sometimes even portrayed as the ruiners of this past.
But of course, if you talk about the identity of Yugoslavia, so the yugonostalgia as we also describe it in the literature, so actually longing for an identity that was superordinate, right, so it was actually kind of a multicultural identity where a lot of groups were brought together, and this identity was also defined by fighting for or having as an ideal, this sort of harmonious intergroup relations. And what we see in our research is that when people long for for this types of identity, that this has more positive consequences for thinking about other ethnic groups. In that sense, nostalgia can also have positive consequences for intergroup relations.
PETER KORCHNAK: A few years ago a research study of the former Yugoslavs in Australia that Smeekes was part of proved just that.
BORJA MARTINOVIĆ: I had this idea that it would be actually quite interesting to examine intergroup relations between immigrant groups that originate from the same conflict region because I was wondering whether coming to a new country would for these groups mean that they would gravitate more towards each other because they still share some cultural background and history from the region where they originate, or whether they would actually transfer their conflicts abroad.
PETER KORCHNAK: The study’s lead was Smeekes’s colleague at Utrecht University, Borja Martinović. An Associate Professor at the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Science, Martinović studies group identities, immigrant integration, and intergroup relations in multi-ethnic societies. She hails from Rijeka, where she was born in 1981.
BORJA MARTINOVIĆ: Because I come from Croatia, well then from former Yugoslavia, because when I was born, it was still Yugoslavia, I wanted to focus on those groups. And I knew that these minorities were quite substantial in Australia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Whereas the estimated 50 to 70 thousand people from the former Yugoslavia who are not named Branimir Štulić get quite lost among the 16 millions residents of the Netherlands, the ex-Yugoslav diaspora of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian ancestry or origin comprises about 1 percent of Australia’s total population. They’re also concentrated in the provinces that have Sydney and Melbourne as capitals, and unlike in the Netherlands where they are much more dispersed or assimilated, in Australia they tend to stick together and organize around their respective temples.
About a decade ago, with some grant funding in her pocket, Martinović set out across the globe to see how ex-Yugoslavs in Australia are getting along.
BORJA MARTINOVIĆ: I went there in the hope of reaching about 1,000 participants, so I thought, maybe 300-something per group, and then I would have Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks. But in the end, I only reached 90, which is really little. And that’s maybe an interesting learning experience from this whole endeavor. People were not that willing to complete the surveys. And they were all very kind to me, they took me out for dinners and drinks, and we discussed things. And then I would give them a survey, and in the end, I received very few surveys back. So that was for me a surprise because I was thinking as being an insider, I would probably be able to connect with them. But I was by Serbian participants and Bosniak participants still maybe seen as an outgroup member, whereas Croats were reluctant to complete the survey because they didn’t like the idea of being part of a larger research on groups from former Yugoslavia, because they were saying, “Well, we are Croats, we don’t really identify with as Yugoslavian, so we don’t want to be part of this research.”
PETER KORCHNAK: The research study was a special experience for Martinović.
BORJA MARTINOVIĆ: Because I come from the region, the study was actually particularly interesting for me, and also it was an emotional process. That’s something that I had experienced here for the first time because mostly I do research among, for instance, Turks and Moroccans in the Netherlands and I don’t really associate with those groups so there’s always a distance as a researcher, you can maybe look at it more objectively. But here during this research, I also cried at some point, because I received emails that were, I thought, rather aggressive, either accusing me for [sic] being too Croatian or accusing me for not being Croatian enough, because I’m trying to do research on former Yugoslavs, so that meant that I was a bad Croat.
I finally managed to get more participants once I decided to split up the survey really into three separate ones. So for the Croatian participants, I would say, this is research on Croatians in Australia but I’m conducting similar surveys with also Serbs and Bosniaks. So when I split it up like that, people were more willing to take part they saw themselves as part of the creation group. So just using this label “Yugoslavian” already caused some resistance and making it more group specific increased participation.
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s possible that Martinović’s sample skewed toward people who identify more strongly with the Yugoslav identity or feel yugonostalgia more than those who identify along ethnic lines because they would be more willing to complete a survey about these issues. But Martinović says the results of the study are meaningful nevertheless.
In the study, Martinović examined how often people interact with those from other groups, that is the frequency of interactions between Serbs and Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, and Croats and Bosniaks and vice versa, while correcting for differences between social and less social people.
BORJA MARTINOVIĆ: What we found here is that those who identify more with the Yugoslavian identity tend to be more nostalgic and therefore also have more relative outgroup contact. But those who identify more with their ethnic group, so with Croats, with Serbs, with Bosniaks, tend to assign more guilt to other groups for the conflict that took place in former Yugoslavia and therefore avoid contact with those outgroups. And these are two processes whereby two different types of identity, the ethnic one and the more superordinate, Yugoslavian one, via different types of emotions, yugonostalgia and guilt, can result in contrasting effects on contact.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavs were more nostalgic and, regardless of their own ethnic identity interacted more with people of different ethnicities. Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs tended to stick together within their own ethnic groups.
PETER KORCHNAK: Martinović goes into more detail about the study in the extended version of this episode, available to supporters on Patreon or via PayPal. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to get access.
PETER KORCHNAK: The causation between feeling Yugoslav and feeling yugonostalgic isn’t a hundred percent certain, but—
BORJA MARTINOVIĆ: —if you identify with a particular group, you look at the world with a through a particular lens. And that’s why identifying with the Yugoslavian category would be related to stronger feelings of yugonostalgia. So if you don’t see yourself as a Yugoslav, then you cannot really long back for the past of your group, because you don’t see yourself as belonging to that group.
But indeed, it could be the case that those who have a lot of contact with other subgroups would just by interacting with each other, maybe become more yugonostalgic. They could also become less yugonostalgic because they might feel that, through this interaction, they actually are kind of reconstructing the good old Yugoslav times. So maybe they will not feel that, you know, they they miss that. I don’t know, that’s just a speculation.
But the way we argued for this here was that those who view the world like to the extent that they see themselves as Yugoslav and kind of put on this Yugoslavian lens, they would feel more nostalgic and that’s why they would reach out more to other subgroups.
PETER KORCHNAK: Immigrants and refugees are especially likely to be nostalgic; in the new environment the feeling of nostalgia, triggered by music, say, or food, becomes a central part of their collective identity. It was my own feelings of nostalgia that got me on the path leading to these words.
The feeling of collective nostalgia helps these immigrants and refugees both to evaluate their own group more positively and motivates them to seek out contact with or company of fellow group members. A segment of ex-Yugoslavs in Australia feel nostalgia for their disappeared country and their life in it and seek out the company of their former Yugoslav compatriots, regardless of their ethnic identity, with whom they had shared life there.
All good and fine, and maybe even beneficial for wellbeing and relationships. But Smeekes has identified an important negative effect of collective nostalgia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Collective nostalgia, as you point out, makes people feeling more aware of what connects them of what binds them as a group, let’s say, a nation, in this case, or Yugoslavs, the supranational identity. But that same longing also emphasizes how we are different from them. So that feeling of nostalgia both creates a sense of attachment to my people and creates boundaries and jeopardizes relationships with other people who are outside of those boundaries, let’s say other national groups or in a lot of research that I saw from you, immigrants. So can you elaborate on this mechanism of collective nostalgia? And what are the implications of these negative facets of it?
ANOUK SMEEKES: What we see in our studies, but also something that you actually see in in the rhetoric of populist radical right parties who use national nostalgia, is that it tends to foster processes of social categorization or in simple terms, us versus them thinking (distinctions). And in the case of national nostalgia, we see that it tends to foster us versus them distinctions based on the past. So by portraying the past as glorious, longing for a past that was better, it of course also becomes clearer for people who was part of this past and who was not. It tends to foster exclusionary understandings of nationhood based on the past. So people tend to distinguish between old timers so those people who were part of the cherished past, and newcomers, so people who came later and were not part of the past.
And this is one of the reasons why nostalgia tends to have more destructive consequences for intergroup relations and tends to also result in outgroup hostility, because people feel that these newcomers are actually not part of the nation. And therefore this tends to result in, for example, anti-immigrant attitudes and behaviors in the Western European context.
And this is also something that you see in the rhetoric of populist radical right parties who of course, have very strong anti-immigrant standpoints, they also have very exclusionary ideas about national identity, right, so ethnic nationhood is at the key of their ideology. And they often use also sort of national nostalgic frame to mobilize people for these exclusionary standpoints, right. So by portraying our national past as as glorious because it was still ethnically or culturally or religiously homogeneous, this very much triggers this us versus them thinking and thereby actually mobilizes people for their exclusionary standpoints.
PETER KORCHNAK: Collective nostalgia depends on what group you use as an anchor of your social identity. Whether you’re Yugoslav or you’re Serb, Croat, or Bosniak will determine how you define your ingroup and outgroup, who you see as members of your ingroup and your outgroup, and consequently how you see those groups’ members.
What’s more, that nostalgia will also emphasize the differences between in and outgroups and, consequently, elevate the values of the ingroup and reject those of the outgroup. Of course, as Martinović’s study showed, if you’re Yugoslav, all the ethnic identities, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, are part of your ingroup, whereas if you’re a Serb, Croats and Bosniaks are outsiders and vice versa.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Galaksija z 80a” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: Smeekes too goes into more detail about her research of collective nostalgia in the extended version of this episode.
ANOUK SMEEKES: Everybody tells his own story. But this could still make other people nostalgia for a past that they have never lived themselves.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia.
FILIP FILAKOVIĆ: To this day I personify them through the people that work in them.
PETER KORCHNAK: The K67 kiosk is an iconic product that is a visual synonym of the former country. Though it was once ubiquitous in its thousands and only a few hundred specimens remain, the kiosk inspires not only instagrammers but also artists and educators in their work. How was K67 made? What makes it so popular and what does it mean to people?
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts, follow to make sure you don’t miss out, and subscribe to support us.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, embeds, links, sources, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Before you go and let nostalgia carry you through the day, take a moment to become a supporter of the show. Feel your way to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and join the growing community of our supporters.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.
Additional music courtesy of Detective Spook – thank you!
I am Peter Korchňak.
- Martinović, Borja et al. “Collective Memory of a Dissolved Country: Group-Based Nostalgia and Guilt Assignment as Predictors of Interethnic Relations Between Diaspora Groups From Former Yugoslavia.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology Vol. 5 No. 2 (2017): 588–607
- Smeekes, Anouk. “National nostalgia: A group-based emotion that benefits thein-group but hampers intergroup relations.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 49 (2015): 54–67
- Smeekes, Anouk and Jolanda Jetten. “Longing for one’s home country: National nostalgia and acculturation among immigrants and natives.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations No. 69 (2019): 131–150
- Smeekes, Anouk, Tim Wildschut, and Constantine Sedikides. “Longing for the “good old days” of our country: National nostalgia as a new master-frame of populist radical right parties.” Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology No. 5 (2021): 90–102
- Smeekes, Anouk, Constantine Sedikides, and Tim Wildschut. “Collective nostalgia: Triggers and consequences for collective action intentions.” British Journal of Social Psychology No. 62 (2023): 197–214
- Wildschut, Tim et al. “Collective Nostalgia: A Group-Level Emotion That Confers Unique Benefits on the Group.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2014)
- Wohl, Michael J. A., Anna Stefaniak, and Anouk Smeekes. “Collective nostalgia as a balm for the distressed social Identity.” Current Opinion in Psychology No. 49 (2023):101542
- Wohl, Michael J. A., Anna Stefaniak, and Anouk Smeekes. “Longing is in the memory of the beholder: Collective nostalgia content determines the method members will support to make their group great again.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 91 (2020): 104044