Memorialization, Historiography & History Education: Definitions & Conceptual Issues

Collective and Individual Memories


Memory refers to "the ways in which people construct sense or meaning of the past, and how they relate that past to their present in the act of remembering."1

Collective Memory

Collective memories involve "the ongoing talking and thinking about the event by the affected members of a society or culture."2 In other words, they consist of past reminiscences that link groups of people.3 They are intrinsically inter-subjective processes anchored in experiences and in symbolic and material markers.

The concept of collective memory was first developed by French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs.4 "Halbwachs' primary thesis is that human memory can only function within a collective context. Collective memory, Halbwachs asserts, is always selective; various groups of people have different collective memories, which in turn give rise to different modes of behavior."5 Indeed, memory is socially constructed and reconstructed over time and is intimately related to peoples sense of identity in the present context.6 Some authors have gone further, stating that distortion is inevitable: "Memory is distortion since memory is invariably and inevitably selective. A way of seeing is a way of not seeing; a way of remembering is a way of forgetting, too. [...] There are at least four important and distinguishable processes of distortion in collective memory: distanciation, instrumentalization, narrativization, and conventionalization."7

Sociologist Barry Schwartz countered Halbwachs view indicating that "memory can instead be analyzed in terms of continuities in our perceptions of the past across time and to the way that these perceptions are maintained in the face of social change."8 But whether one chooses to focus on the elements of continuity or rupture, there is a general agreement that sense that collective memories are the objects of disputes, conflicts, and struggles. "This premise involves the need to focus attention on the active and productive role of participants in these struggles. It is they who generate meanings of the past, framed by the power relations in which their actions are embedded in the present."9

Individual and Collective Memories

Individual memory is socially organized or socially mediated. It maybe the image of the past held by individuals who did not themselves experience it but learned of it through cultural artifacts.10  "While the collective memory endures and draws strength from its base in a coherent body of people, it is individuals as group members who remember."11

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Remembering itself is a dynamic social and psychological process. A distinction is made in the literature between active remembering (as a bodily action) and the mental process (cognitive and emotional). "Active remembering is embodied in the concepts of tradition and commemoration. Mental approaches that look upon memory from a social perspective focus upon 'social memories,' 'collective memories' and 'myths.'"12

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Having built on psychological definitions of memory, scholarly discussions have largely centered on memorialization as the social or 'collective' embodiment of the practice of remembering. It is a practice "in which individuals, communities, and societies, interact at sites of symbolically represented 'memory.'"13 The practice of memorialization can take the form of "permanent sites (such as memorials, cemeteries, museums, art works, transcripts, literature, even cinema), or impermanent gestures (such as ceremonies and street theater)" 14 and other vehicles such as books, museums, films, photographs and different rituals of commemoration.15

In post-conflict settings, memorialization is a process "that satisfies the desire to honor those who suffered or died during conflict and as a means to examine the past and address contemporary issues. It can either promote social recovery after violent conflict ends or crystallize a sense of victimization, injustice, discrimination, and the desire for revenge."16

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Memorials can take shape in many different forms:  as a holiday, a monument or another structure like a museum, or a commemoration intended to celebrate or honor the memory of a person or an event.


Monuments generally refer to "specialized, permanent sites dedicated to preserving collective memories. These sites combine three important characteristics: they are located in a particular defined place, their construction consists of durable structures providing symbols for the society's members and they materialize the collective memory."17


A museum is a place where objects of artistic, historical, or scientific importance and value are kept, studied, and put on display. Museums are supposed to devise meaningful ways to preserve heritage for the people for whom they have most meaning.


Commemorations are "social occasions, in which group members gather together in order to focus upon past events, communicate a sense of common sense of social identification and legitimate social institutions and practices? The focus of the commemoration is often tragic; shared remembering of the dead of previous wars, for example, is said to be an important contributor to group cohesiveness and the individual's sense of belonging to the group."18

Rituals and ceremonies

Rituals and ceremonies "consist of speeches, acts (such as parades, guards exchanges), music, decorations and displays presented at a particular time and place for the purpose of communicating the meanings attached to the conflict."19

It is important to note that these diverse forms of memorials often overlap. While in many Western cultures, there is a clear distinction between a museum and a monument, such distinction does not always exist in other parts of the world where the same structure can serve as a museum, a monument, a site for community integration, reflection, mourning or celebration.20

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Memories and Identities

Memory processes play an important role in the construction of individual and group identities. "Memory allows groups to share a sense of sameness over time and space thereby allowing groups to develop and sustain a common collective identity through both remembering and forgetting the past..."21 Yet, identities and memories change over time. They are not fixed things, but representations or constructions of reality, subjective rather than objective phenomena. "We are constantly revising our memories to suit our current identities.  Memories help us make sense of the world we live in; and 'memory work' is, like any other kind of physical and mental labor, embedded in complex class, gender and power relations that determine what is remembered (or forgotten), by whom, and for what end."22  Both identity and memory are political and social constructs, and should be treated as such. In post-conflict environments, "these memories are reconstructed by the interweaving of individual memories and collective memories, which then rewrite distant memories that include long-term history... Such an activity is doubly complicated by the historical course of events in which war crimes and the paradoxical functioning of memory are most often situated."23

"Collective memory consists of past reminiscences that link groups of people for whom the remembered events are important, that is, the events remain significant to them later on. The memory is later invoked to help define what such people have in common and to guide their collective action. As the events in question recede further into the past and those who experienced them directly no longer remain alive, the 'memory' becomes, more precisely, a memory of memory, that is, a memory of what others have told future generations about their pasts."24

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Memory and History

Memories are shaped and reshaped by history, and vice versa. Historians and sociologists have discussed the complex linkages between memory and history, two interrelated yet distinct (but not opposed) processes.

Memory as a source of history

French historian Jacques Le Goff notes: "Recent, naïve trends seem virtually to identify history with memory, and even to give preference in some sense to memory, on the ground that it is more authentic, 'truer' than history, which is presumed to be artificial and, above all, manipulative of memory. It is true that history involves a rearrangement of the past which is subject to the social, ideological, and political structures in which historians live and work. It is also true that history has been and still is, in some places, subject to conscious manipulation on the part of political regimes that oppose the truth. Nationalism and prejudices of all kinds have an impact on the way history is written, and the rapidly developing field of history... is in part founded on the acknowledgement and study of these links between historical production and the context of its period as well as that of successive periods which modify its meaning.  But the discipline of history, which has recognized these variations in historiography, must nonetheless seek to be objective and to remain based on the belief in historical 'truth.' Memory is the raw material of history.  Whether mental, oral, or written, it is the living source from which historians draw. Because its workings are usually unconscious, it is in reality more dangerously subject to manipulation by time and by societies given to reflection than the discipline of history itself."25 Indeed, memory is characterized by distortions, displacements, and negations but those too are critical sources for history, according to sociologist Elizabeth Jelin. They bring up "analytical enigmas and issues that call for further research. In this sense, memory functions as a stimulus for the development of the agenda for historical research."26 This point of view is shared by American historian Dominick LaCapra who notes that in its falsifications, repressions, displacements, and denials, memory may be "informative not in terms of an accurate empirical representation of its object but in terms of that objects often anxiety-ridden reception and assimilation by both participants in the events and those born later."27

History nourishing and transforming memory

"History may never capture certain elements of memory: the feel of an experience, the intensity of joy or suffering, the quality of an occurrence. Yet history also includes elements that are not exhausted by memory, such as demographic, ecological, and economic factors.  More important, perhaps, it tests memory and ideally leads to the emergence of both a more accurate memory and a clearer appraisal of what is or is not factual in remembrance."28 Indeed, the discipline of history nourishes memory in turn. It "allows us to probe and critically question the contents of memory, and this helps in the task of narrating and transmitting critically established societal memories."29 Memories must be looked at historically. That is, "there is a need to 'historicize' memories, which is to say that the meanings attached to the past change over time and are part of larger, complex social and political scenarios."30 Then history itself enters into the great dialectical process of memory and forgetting experienced by individuals and societies. According to Jacques Le Goff, "The historian must be there to render an account of these memories and of what is forgotten, to transform them into something that can be conceived, to make them knowable.  To privilege memory excessively is to sink into the unconquerable flow of time."31

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Historical consciousness

Historical consciousness can be defined as individual and collective understandings of the past, the cognitive and cultural factors which shape those understandings, as well as the relations of historical understandings to those of the present and the future.32

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Historiography is "the study of the way history has been and is written-- the history of historical writing... When you study 'historiography' you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians."33

1. Elizabeth Jelin, "Public Memorialization in Perspective: Truth, Justice and Memory of Past Repression in the Southern Cone of South America," in The International Journal of Transitional Justice 1 (2007): 141.
2. Ed Cairns and Micheal D. Roe, "Introduction: Why Memories in Conflict?" in The Role of Memory in Ethnic Conflict, eds. Ed Cairns and Micheal D. Roe (VA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 28.
3. Mark Osiel, Mass Atrocity, Collective Memory, and the Law (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1997), 18.
4. Maurice Halbwachs  The Collective Memory (New York: Harper & Row, 1980).
5. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, trans. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
6. Cairns and Roe, "Introduction: Why Memories in Conflict?" 11-12.
7. Michael Schudson, "Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory," in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 348.
8. Cairns and Roe, "Introduction: Why Memories in Conflict?" 11-12.
9. Elizabeth Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), xv.
10. Michael Schudson, "Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory," in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 348.
11. Maurice Halbwachs  The Collective Memory (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 48.
12. Ed Cairns and Micheal D. Roe. "Introduction: Why Memories in Conflict?" 10.
13. Sarah Louise Steele, "Memorialisation in the Land of the Eternal Spring: Performative Practices of Memory on the Rwandan Genocide" (Paper delivered at PASSAGES: law, aesthetics, politics. Melbourne, Australia. July 13-14, 2006), 3.
14. Ibid.
15. Jelin, "Public Memorialization in Perspective: Truth, Justice and Memory of Past Repression in the Southern Cone of South America," 141.
16. Judy Barsalou and Victoria Baxter, "The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice" (Washington, DC: USIP, January 2007).
17. Daniel Bar-Tal, "Collective Memory of Physical Violence: its Contribution to the Culture of Violence," in The Role of Memory in Ethnic Conflict, ed. Ed Cairns and Micheal D. Roe. (VA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 88.
18. Cairns and Roe, "Introduction: Why Memories in Conflict?" 14.
19. Bar-Tal, "Collective Memory of Physical Violence: Its Contribution to the Culture of Violence," 89.
20. Interview with Ereshnee Naidu, New York, 7 May 2008.
21. Ereshnee Naidu, The Ties that Bind: Strengthening the Links between Memorialisation and Transitional Justice (South Africa: The Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2006), 1. 
22. John R. Gillis, "Memory and Identity: The History of a Relationship," in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, ed. John R. Gillis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 3.
23. Beatrice Pouligny, "The Forgotten Dimensions of Transitional Justice Mechanisms: Cultural Meanings and Imperatives for Survivors of Violent Conflicts" unpublished, 8 and Beatrice Pouligny, Bernard Doray and Jean-Clement Martin. "Methodological and Ethical Problems: A Trans-Disciplinary Approach," in After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman and Albrecht Schnabel, Eds. (United Nations University Press, 2007), 34.
24. Osiel, Mass Atrocity, Collective Memory, and the Law, 18.  
25. Jacques Le Goff, History and Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), xi-xii.
26. Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory, 56.
27. Dominick LaCapra, History and Memory After Auschwitz (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998), 19-20.
28. Ibid.
29. Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory, 56.
30. Ibid, xv.
31. Le Goff, History and Memory, xi-xii.
32. The Center for the Study of Historical Consciousness.
33. Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris, The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide (Harlan Davidson, 2000), 223.

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