Memory studies are a burgeoning industry in American academic circles. But whether considering “flashbulb memories” (Brown and Kulick 1977) or “mnemonic practices” (Olick and Robbins 1998), these studies are usually part of the sociology of knowledge, where it meets psychology and the cognitive sciences. While references to Maurice Halbwachs, the pioneer of the sociology of memory, are not totally absent from these publications, they tend to be reduced to a few obligatory quotations, which do not stimulate thought. Authors most frequently refer to the same compilation of writings translated and edited by Lewis A. Coser towards the end of his career (Halbwachs 1992),2 and seem unaware of Halbwachs' modifications to his theses on memory, made between the publication of Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire in 1925 and the later writings published in the posthumous collection La Mémoire collective (Jaisson 2008; Namer 1997).

In France, however, Halbwachs is a ‘rediscovered sociologist’ (Jaisson and Baudelot 2007) whose works are constantly republished and subject to stimulating new interpretations. Since the 1990s in particular, the number of references to his work has substantially increased (Jaisson 2008, p.21). The highpoint of this movement was undoubtedly the first new edition since 1971 of the last work Halbwachs published during his lifetime, La Topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre sainte. As its subtitle indicates, this is a “study of collective memory”, regarded by some as a masterpiece (Marcel and Mucchielli 1999). At the very least, this book undoubtedly “recapitulates, in exemplary fashion, the successive links in the chain of his sociology of memory” (Hervieu-Léger 2001, p.223), and therefore, perhaps even more than Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire or La Mémoire collective, can serve as a textbook – even bedtime reading – for anyone seeking to use Halbwachs' methods to undertake a sociological analysis of memory phenomena.

Sadly, La Topographie légendaire remains too little known. This is particularly true in the English-speaking academic world, as only the conclusion has been translated into English (by Lewis A. Coser in the collection On Collective Memory mentioned above).3 One of the very few non-French-speaking authors to cite this book and use it to construct his own approach is Gerdien Jonker (1995) in The topography of remembrance. So the originality of Halbwachs' thinking on the relationship between memory and places, as set out in the pioneering study on the collective memory of Christians in the Holy Land, remains largely unknown or underestimated. Until recently the same was true in France, where the historian Pierre Nora's huge undertaking to make a systematic study of French “places of memory” (Nora 1984–1992 1996–1998), begun in the 1970s, has tended to obscure awareness of Halbwachs' legacy.4 Surprising though it may seem, Nora's work did not use any specific theories of space as framework of memory5 and Nora has constantly undervalued Halbwachs' contribution in this field (Nora 2003).

However, the sociological importance of the dynamic relationship between memories and places can never be exhausted by a study of the so-called places “of memory” alone (Baussant 2007). In this respect La Topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre sainte6 has, as it were, a paradigmatic significance. Far from criticising Halbwachs for “narrow Durkheimism” (Nora 2003, p.15), we should, on the contrary, underline the innovatory nature of his methodology in this book. Halbwachs and Robert Hertz were among the first Durkheimians to dare to conduct a monographic study combining a critique of historical sources with fieldwork.7 Halbwachs himself went twice to the Holy Land, in 1927 and again in 1939, to observe the places he was working on and to talk to archaeologists in situ.

It would be wrong to think that, because it relates to the places of Christian memories, the methodology Halbwachs employs in this study is valid for religious memories alone. In Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, he notes that “religious memory … obeys the same laws as any collective memory” (Halbwachs 1994, p.221).8 His introduction to La Topographie concludes with this unambiguous call: “The experience we study, whatever its extent and intrinsic interest, is, for us, only an experience of collective psychology, and the laws we can deduce from it must be confirmed and clarified by studies of the same genre made in relation to other actions” (2008, p.7).9 There could be no more explicit invitation to the book's readers to try out the author's methodology for themselves in other places.10 So it cannot be denied that “Halbwachs outlines a method which, because it has to be reused each time, in each individual case, nevertheless has a general import” (Cléro 2008, pp.67*–68*). For example, his method seems particularly well suited to describe the relationship between the memory of the Holocaust and the sites of the Second World War concentration camps (Koonz 1994).11 As we shall show here, this is far from the only case: Halbwachs offers us valuable assistance in understanding the relationships established, generally speaking, between the places of a collective tragedy (genocide, attack, natural disaster, air crash, death of a famous person, etc.) and the collective memory of the event. So it is crucial to our understanding of the impulses behind phenomena of pilgrimage or “morbid tourism” (Cole 2000; Clavandier 2004; Sturken 2007) generated by such places as – to mention only two examples taken from our own research – the site of Ground Zero in New York following the attacks of 11 September 2001, and Atocha station in Madrid after the attacks of 11 March 2004.

Our memory is framed by spatial reference points: places, sites, buildings, and streets give us our bearings and enable us to anchor and order our memories. So the material alteration of these places can lead to the substantial modification of our memories, and even their disappearance. But we should not forget either that the collective memory in turn structures the space in which we live. This point is also central to La Topographie:12 by symbolically marking out space, our memories “transfigure” the places they are associated with. It is for this essential reason that sociologists of memory cannot avoid carrying out an ethnographic field study, in situ, to see for themselves what memory has done to its places. What memory does to places and what places do to memory: these are the two inseparable facets of the study Halbwachs invites us to undertake.

What places do to memory

  1. Top of page
  2. What places do to memory
  3. What memory does to places
  4. Programme for a socio-ethnography of collective memory
  5. References
  6. Biography

For Halbwachs (1997 1980, p.119), memory is, as we know, “a reconstruction of the past using data taken from the present”. But in order to be something other than a fantasy, what we remember must have taken place somewhere. “It would be very difficult to describe the event if one did not imagine the place” (1997 1980, p.230). Hence the prime importance of the connection between our memories and places; for while our memory might be pure invention after the fact, if it can be precisely located and commemorated in a place, the place itself is real. Thomas's theorem (Merton [1949] 1957) applies here as it does elsewhere: when people regard their memories as real, their consequences, and particularly their spatial consequences, are also real. Conversely, a memory that lacks localisation runs the risk of not being attested as true, and so of being lost.

The spatial frameworks of memory

To convey the full importance of the localisation of memories, in the conclusion to La Topographie Halbwachs includes a kind of fable. A group that shares the same memory is required to split, with some remaining near the site where the event they remember took place, others going far away, taking with them only the spiritual image of that place. As the site necessarily changes with time, the memory of the group that remains nearby can only persist if it evolves, following the changes to the place. The members of the group who have left, meanwhile, are not aware of these changes and retain a fixed image of the place they remember: they make a symbolic representation of it, says Halbwachs. It is crucial to understand what is at stake in this operation in order to grasp the mechanism of collective memory: “Symbolic thought disconnects these places from their material surroundings and associates them with the beliefs of the group, and those beliefs alone. It is almost certainly the stability of the image that explains the persistence of the beliefs” (2008, p.129).

We are dealing here with two very different frameworks of memory. On the one hand is the familiar, local framework, a “picturesque setting” (1994, p.203) made of objects, houses, streets, and stones, which is extremely vulnerable. The memory it supports is at the mercy of inevitable alterations to the place, and still more of their destruction (by building work, war, natural disasters and so on). In this type of framework memories are always living on borrowed time, threatened by the slightest accident: the forest burns, the plot of land subsides, or a few stones are moved, and you no longer know where you are. Just such a framework underpinned the memory of the disciples of Jesus, and was lost with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The second framework is indisputably more secure, through the symbolic operation it performs: “While, in order to check their perceptions, people usually need to move closer to the object, it seems that they need to move away from it to retain a collective memory” (2008, p.120). Thus, “The notion of a neighbouring street is more familiar, but it is a notion. The image of the distant monument is less familiar, but it is a living image” (1994, p.133). So, to use terms that are not precisely those of Halbwachs, on the one hand we have the “memory of places”, which is faithful but vulnerable, and, on the other, representations that act as matrices for the designation of “places of memory”, which are simplified versions, but more robust.

If Christian memory has been successfully maintained and passed on, despite the many destructions and reconstructions of Jerusalem that have erased all trace of the places as Jesus and his first disciples knew them, this is because, through the writing of the Gospels and subsequent work of the Church Fathers, a symbolic framework of replacement was developed: a “setting of dogma” (2008, p.130) on the basis of which it became possible to create places of memory, in place of the lost memory of the original places. In this context Jerusalem is no longer a city in concrete terms, destroyed and rebuilt over the ages, but “the quintessential holy city … an eternal city” (2008, p.156), “a symbolic place, a celestial allegory, … a sanctuary suspended between heaven and earth” (1994, p.203). And unlike the real Jerusalem, this symbolic Jerusalem is immutable and unchanging, for “while stones can be carried away, it is much harder to alter the relationship established between those stones and human beings” (1997 1980, p.200). What is valid for Jerusalem applies equally to any place associated with an event the memory of which an entire group wants to maintain: it takes on two forms, one real and the other symbolic. While the places continue to live and evolve, often to the point where all trace of the past event has disappeared, for those who maintain the memory of that event, the place remains forever set in their idea of it, which is directly related to their present interest in the event. This is a source of tension – central to the sociological issue of the relationship between memory and places – between “on the one hand a material reality, figure, monument or place in space, and, on the other, a symbol, in other words the spiritual meaning … linked to and superimposed on the reality” (2008, p.128).

The materiality of places and symbolic marking of space

In La Mémoire collective, Halbwachs makes the following crucial statement: “places play a part in the stability of material things and it is in settling in them, enclosing itself within their limits and bending its attitude to suit them, that the collective thinking of the group of believers is most able to become fixed and to last: such is the condition of memory” (1997 1980, p.232). Of course our memories must be able to free themselves of the local setting of what initially happened in order to protect themselves against its alteration or destruction, but they nevertheless need to be easily linked to a place, otherwise they risk becoming lost. So the material form of places constrains collective memory, and generates alterations in that memory. For example, Halbwachs shows that if the memory of an evangelical event is located in a cave, and if, over time, the cave disappears, another must be found nearby. If this does not happen, or the new cave is blocked up in its turn, the memory is lost (2008, p.73).

However, this does not mean that the relationship between the materiality of places and collective memory flows in one direction only. The spatial substance in which collective memories are rooted is not in fact “inert substance, but substance innervated by the thoughts and feelings of the people of the past” (Bastide 1970, p.81). For Halbwachs space is a natural setting that is always socially marked and symbolically charged. The importance of La Topographie is then that it “takes us from the ecological to the symbolic, from space as the place of things to space as a structure or coherent system of collective images” (Bastide 1970, p.81). This is why the space in question in La Topographie is not so much territorial as symbolic (Mazzela 1996).13 In this respect it is significant that the renewal of interest in Halbwachs' work seen in France notably came out of a programme of research into the “symbolic marking” of urban spaces by a group of urban historians led by Bernard Lepetit (Lepetit 1993; Lepetit and Pumain 1999), who had himself been in close dialogue with the sociologist Christian Topalov (Lepetit and Topalov 2001). This research helped to highlight the forms of temporal sedimentation at work in urban spaces where a plurality of memories carried by different groups of actors intersect, forming what can be called “urban palimpsests” (Huyssen 2003).

Each group strives to assert its authority by localising its memories and thus to stamp its mark on its selected “places of memory” in a symbolic marking of the urban space. For a former member of the French Resistance, Rue Gaston Couté in Paris is not just a cul-de-sac in Montmartre; more importantly it is the place where student and soldier of the FFI John Gay was living when he was arrested and killed by the Gestapo.14 Similarly, for anyone who suffered the wave of attacks that struck Paris in the 1990s, Port-Royal is not just another urban railway station, but the place where four people died on 3 December 1996. In both cases, a commemorative plaque indicates the symbolic marking of the place. But changing the name of a street, creating a park, or erecting a monument can also provide marking. So, for example, Stéphane Michonneau (2003) has shown how the construction of Catalan identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was concomitant with a symbolic marking of the city of Barcelona, expressed through “statuomania”. Similarly, Jesús Alonso Carballés (2009) traced the inflections of the memory of the Spanish Civil War by analysing the traces left by memorial policies in the urban area of Bilbao.

As Halbwachs notes in La Topographie, several unrelated memories are often localised in the same place, “as though a place already consecrated by some memory had attracted others, as though memories also obey a kind of gregarious instinct” (2008, p.145).15 And while these memories are carried by different groups, it is not uncommon for a rivalry to develop between them over the symbolic marking and memorial appropriation of the urban space, as Sylvaine Bulle (2006) recently observed in Jerusalem, in an explicit continuation of Halbwachs' work. Moving from the ecological to the symbolic, Halbwachs also highlights the impetus behind collective memory as an institutional phenomenon, involving rivalry between social groups (Mazzela 1996). There are two distinct and often contradictory movements to which sociologists of memory should turn their attention: the “memorialisation” of the original places of an event (where memory is based on the “local” setting and eye-witness accounts) and the “institutionalisation” of official places of memory (created using the “symbolic” setting and representations). Thus Halbwachs shows how places of memory are created out of nothing, with no relationship whatsoever to the “historic” memory of the original places, so that, “strictly speaking, … there are no places of collective memory that are not legendary” (Brian 2008, p.138*).

Places of memory without memories of places

But how can places of memory be created when all memory of the places has disappeared? What actually happens when people with memories of an event in their minds arrive for the first time in the supposed places of that event and find it has left no trace, vestige, or reference point? The fundamental aim of La Topographie is to solve this puzzle.

“For the Christian world, Jerusalem was the quintessential holy city. Although they had never seen it, Christians imagined it”, wrote Halbwachs (2008, p.156). Arriving with this representation in mind, Christians are blind to the real changes that have affected Jerusalem since the time of the New Testament: and try, despite the absence of remains dating from the life of Jesus, to locate the memories attached to their beliefs. “Since the dogma had been formulated, and the dogma involved the place, the place had to be found” (2008, p.154). So the Romans set about inventing undiscoverable locations, beginning in the fourth century, followed most importantly by the Crusaders, starting in the eleventh century, after Jerusalem had been even more considerably altered by the Persian invasion, war, and Muslim occupation. In the course of his study Halbwachs notes that they most often locate the event they desire to commemorate in an entirely arbitrary fashion, “guided by uncertain remains and, even, in the absence of any remains, momentary inspiration” (1997 1980, p.230), or simply clutching “at concrete details, physical accidents” (2008, p.103). Ultimately, the creation of a place of memory can be guided by the “simple desire to present pilgrims with the memory of an important event in an easily accessible place” (2008, p.109).

These observations of Halbwachs are more important than ever in today's world. The impact of the media, particularly television, on our collective memories has merely multiplied the force of the processes he describes.16 For people today, arriving for the first time in a place where they hope to relocate the memory of a major event “seen on TV”, the mental image of the place is certainly even more powerful than it was for the Christians of the early centuries studied by Halbwachs. This is clearly illustrated by some of our observations conducted in New York. Every day thousands of people, their minds filled with images of the World Trade Center towers hit by two aeroplanes on 11 September 2001, go through Ground Zero, now a vast building site open to the sky across six hectares, and try their best to localise their memories there (Truc 2011a). For example, one April day in 2009, a woman of Asian origin looking at the site turned to ask us if this was really the place where the attack occurred. Then, having obtained confirmation, she asked again, doubtfully, “There were two towers, right?” Unable to find any reference points at all in the building site before her eyes, she needed to obtain confirmation from a third person that this was indeed the right place, before taking a photograph and quickly leaving. You often see hawkers in Ground Zero selling leaflets containing the main photographs of 11 September, holding them out in one hand to attract tourists' attention while, with the other, indicating how to localise the images: “It was there, right there … This tower was here, can you see that?” In so doing, they indicate very precisely how to square the media images that the tourists have in their minds with the reality before their eyes.

So in both New York and Jerusalem, people arrive with a mental “picture” of the place they have come to, even when they have never yet seen it with their own eyes. But because this mental representation is fixed and linked to the memory of a particular event, it cannot coincide with the material reality of the place, which has changed since then. So, because these people want to attest to the veracity of their memory, they force themselves to make the images they have in their memory match those they have before their eyes. This schema seems to apply to most places associated with events that have left their mark on minds. Furthermore, the more media coverage an event has had and the more different social groups it affects, the more the place where it occurred is likely to exert a strong attraction.

What memory does to places

  1. Top of page
  2. What places do to memory
  3. What memory does to places
  4. Programme for a socio-ethnography of collective memory
  5. References
  6. Biography

In La Mémoire collective, Halbwachs gives an exemplary summary of what he has striven to show in most of his work: “When a group is integrated into part of the space, it transforms that space in its own image, but at the same time it bends and adapts to the material things that resist it”, so that “the place bears the stamp of the group, and vice versa” (1997 1980, pp.186,195). After considering what places do to the memories of groups, we must now study the reciprocal relationship, to understand how, when collective memories settle on places, the latter are “transfigured”, as Halbwachs asserts at the start of La Topographie (2008, p.1).

Pilgrimage, emotion, and the spontaneous memorialisation of places

Research on this matter has constantly developed over recent years, particularly among anthropologists and ethnologists, again without their work ever being explicitly linked to the name of Halbwachs. The transfiguration of a place through what we have called “memorialisation” usually corresponds to the accumulation on that site of bouquets of flowers, candles, written messages, and other objects, forming what some call an “altar” or a “spontaneous shrine” (Grider 2001; Santino 2006), an “improvised”, “ephemeral”, or “popular memorial” (in contrast to the places of institutional, permanent, and often monumental memory) (Margry and Sánchez Carretero 2007, 2010). This phenomenon of the “spontaneous memorialisation” of a place was studied following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (Kear and Steinberg 1999; Walter 1999) – which probably represents the first occurrence of a media event at the global level – and also in cases as varied as the attacks of 11 September (Fraenkel 2002) and 11 March (Sánchez Carretero 2006), the school massacres at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech (Grider 2007), the murder of Pim Fortuyn (Margry 2003), and the death of John Paul II (Klekot 2007), to mention only a few. We should stress that, in accordance with Halbwachs' theories, materiality is a fundamental characteristic of this memorial marking of space through public mourning rituals (Doss 2008):17 the place is linked both to memories, the mental representation of a past event, and also to “souvenirs”, objects that help to recall and evoke that representation. It has been systematically observed that the makeshift altars put together in places where a person or people have died contain photographs of the dead and objects linked to them (for example, teddy bears and toys for a child, a football scarf or shirt for a supporter, and so on).

This spontaneous memorialisation of the place is accompanied by forms of pilgrimage that help maintain it (Badone and Roseman 2004; Reader 2007; Reader and Walter 1993). Just as Christians, such as the “Bordeaux pilgrim” whom Halbwachs particularly follows in La Topographie, are drawn to the Holy Land by memories of the death and resurrection of Christ, so places associated with memories of important deaths – collective deaths or that of a celebrity – are visited by what we can call secular pilgrims. Here too, there is no lack of monographs: to the cases mentioned above, such as that of Diana (Lesœurs 2005), we can add studies devoted to, for example, the graves of Jim Morrison (Margry 2008) and Elvis Presley (Segré 2002). In the USA this type of attraction has been documented particularly in relation to places marked by the memory of the two most traumatic events of recent American history: Pearl Harbor and the attacks of 11 September (Sturken 2007; White 2004). The actions and behaviour of pilgrims who go to Ground Zero have been the subject of many studies, both ethnographic (Selby 2006) and photographic (Bubriski 2002; Sautereau 2003).

The motivations of the pilgrims are worthy of attention. Halbwachs speaks of a need to bring the memory “to life”, to give it more weight and force, notably for those to whom it has been handed down, who are not its first carriers. In sum we can say that “seeing is believing”: one must see the place to believe in the memory of something not personally experienced.18 Many messages left by pilgrims to Ground Zero since 2001 do indeed reflect this need to come to the place to “realise” the scale of an attack which has, until then, been grasped only through its representations in the media (Truc 2010a). The same is true of young people who visit the concentration camps to give greater weight to their idea of the Holocaust, based on textbooks and films such as Schindler's list (Cole 2000), or tourists visiting Berlin who seek to give substance to the fall of the Wall by taking a piece of it home with them.19 It can be said that, in the present as in the past, the pilgrimage to the Holy Land attracts Christians who want to strengthen their faith, which is otherwise based only on the Gospels and what they have been told.

At the very beginning of La Topographie, Halbwachs also mentions the emotion felt by the pilgrim who arrives at the site and discovers something like “a tangible certainty”, feeling that “the past in part becomes the present: it can be touched, one is in direct contact with it” (2008, p.1). Here it would seem that a sociology of memory must be linked to a sociology of emotion, of which Halbwachs is, moreover, a forerunner (Halbwachs 1947). In his study on the rites of solidarity and commemoration following the attacks of 11 September, Randall Collins notes that Ground Zero has become an “emotional magnet” (Collins 2004b, p.80) to the extent that it has become the centre of a commemorative cult. It attracts people who carry an “emotional energy” (Collins 2004a) linked to the representation they have constructed of the 11 September attacks based on what they have seen in the media. By “realising” in situ what happened that day, they free themselves of this emotion and simultaneously charge the place with it: in return this additional emotional charge helps to reinforce the place's power of attraction.20

This is no doubt what Halbwachs had in mind when he spoke of the “force of inertia” that can be exerted by certain holy places: “There is something mechanical in the force that holds people around a consecrated place. But for a place to play this role, it is not enough for a few individual memories to be attached to it. It is from the day that a cult is organised, when this place becomes the rallying point for a whole group of believers, that it is transformed into a holy place, and the force of inertia within it is manifested externally, in the world of human awareness” (2008, p.126). So the organisation of commemorative rites is indispensable to the durability of a place of memory. A memory only lasts as long as there is a group of people for whom it has a specific importance, and who are concerned to preserve it. If this group becomes dispersed and disconnected, if they abandon the places where they previously commemorated their memories, sooner or later those memories will be lost. A “place of memory” that no longer attracts any pilgrims, or is no longer the site of any ceremony and is not maintained by any particular group, has a “memory” in name only.

The obliteration, rectification, designation, and consecration of places

If Ground Zero is an “emotional magnet” that attracts many pilgrims, this is also because for many Americans it is “hallowed ground”, as President Obama explicitly acknowledged in September 2010.21 In many cases the transfiguration of a place where memories are rooted unquestionably borders on sanctification. However, it is more difficult to take over and sanctify for memorial purposes all or part of a public space, such as a school, station, or shopping mall, than it is a piece of waste ground, a field, or part of a forest.22 However, there are many treatments that can be applied to places to which collective memories attach: sanctification is only one possibility among others. In Shadowed ground (Foote 2003), Kenneth E. Foote, proposes a typology based on a systematic study of murder sites in the USA, the fate of which proves to depend on both the constraints imposed by the place and the significance attached to the event.

First among treatments is obliteration, in which efforts are made to destroy and erase all traces of the event in the place where it occurred, to make it seem as though the event never happened. It is of course a desire to forget the memory of the event in question that motivates such obliteration – either a group is ashamed of what it has been through or else the murderers want to prevent any localisation of the memories of their crimes. The mass graves of civil wars, such as those in Spain, former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, fall into the former category, which we can also describe as “places of amnesia” (Candau 2005, p.125). Then there is rectification, where efforts are made to alter the place in such a way as to remove anything that might recall the tragedy, without however seeking to erase all traces of it. The aim is simply to enable the place to be used again as it was before. Rectification generally means that no particular meaning, positive or negative, is attached to the event: it offers no “lessons” for the collectivity, nor is it perceived as shameful. For example, after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1996, the library that had been the main theatre of the murders was turned into an atrium, with a new library being built nearby, so that the school could resume its normal activities. A similar treatment can often be seen in the case of collective deaths seen as accidental: for example on the site of the AZF factory in Toulouse (Latté 2009), or those of air crashes (Clavandier 2004). However, to be fully effective, rectification is often combined with another treatment, that of designation, in other words the creation of an indication (that can easily pass unnoticed by those not looking for it) that “something” happened here, or nearby. In this category Foote includes commemorative plaques that are not the focus of any ritual practices,23 such as commemorative ceremonies or pilgrimages, and landscaped gardens. Both are ways of discreetly channelling memories seeking localisation towards a place specifically intended for these memorial practices, so that the original site of the commemorated event can be more easily returned to a normal state. Here we see the full ambivalence of relationships between the designation of a place of memory and the preservation of the memory of the original or “historic” places.

The last model identified by Foote is that of the consecration (or sanctification) of the place. This occurs when a positive lesson that must be retained is attached to the commemorated event: an act of bravery, a sacrifice for the community, a unanimous show of solidarity. This consecration is concretely manifested in the construction of a lasting commemorative monument, usually established in the place where the event began, and at which commemorative rituals can be held: a memorial in the strict sense.24 We should stress that the consecration of places in this category is first and foremost a matter of public ritual: any consecration necessarily requires a formal opening ceremony, in the course of which the meaning attached to the place is explicitly stated (Foote 2003, p.8). The paradigmatic example is the famous Gettysburg Address at the opening of the military cemetery of Gettysburg, where Lincoln spoke of the “hallowed ground” again mentioned by Obama in relation to Ground Zero (Truc 2011a). Of course not every hallowed ground or consecrated site is a holy place in the religious sense. However, the basilica built by Emperor Constantine on the presumed site of the death and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem studied by Halbwachs in La Topographie, or the cathedrals built on the sites of the apostles' tombs, such as St Peter's in Rome and Santiago de Compostela, are perfect examples of durably sanctified places that have been the focus of pilgrimages and commemorative rites over several centuries.

Movement, tensions, and rivalries

This grid analysis should be seen as a continuum, as it is unusual for a place to be subjected to only one of these four treatments. More often we find a combination of several, as the collective memory evolves (Molendeijk and Post 2010). For example, designation is often a transition state, before the rectification or sanctification of the memorialised place, given that it is easier and quicker to put up a plaque or create a garden than to build a monument. In this respect Atocha station in Madrid after the attacks of 11 March offers a perfect illustration: two months of spontaneous memorialisation, during which the station was filled with makeshift altars, were followed by the planting outside it, in May 2004, of 192 trees, one per victim, in what was known as the Bosque de los Ausentes (later renamed Bosque del Recuerdo and moved in March 2005 to Retiro Park). This initial designation of a place of memory, soon followed by another in the form of a plaque in the city centre, in Puerta del Sol (opposite kilometre zero), then permitted the rectification of the station. This involved an Espacio de Palabras – an entirely new facility comprising video screens and information panels, where visitors could record messages in memory of the victims on a designated website (Truc, 2011b), thus enabling the removal from the station of the makeshift altars and the regulation of commemorative rites until a monument to the victims was opened in March 2007, officially consecrating the place that the trains were approaching when they exploded on 11 March 2004.

The treatment of places associated with collective memories of a particular event is a key aspect of the particular branch of public policy that deals with memorials (Michel 2010). In the case of the attacks of 11 March, the memorial policy implemented involved a plurality of actors: the Spanish railway company (owner of Atocha station), the station workers' union (source of an open letter, three months after the attacks, calling for the makeshift altars to be removed from the station), the Madrid city authorities, the national and regional governments, the American events agency that devised the Espacio de Palabras, and victims' associations (one of which instigated the name change for the wood planted as a tribute to the dead). Conflicts often arise between these actors, since they do not all share the same conception of what needs to be done – far from it in fact – or attach the same meaning to the commemorated event.

Where the 11 March attacks in Madrid were concerned, some victims and other citizens did not appreciate the rectification of the station and, on every 11 March, we have observed attempts to reconstruct the makeshift altars in Atocha station, giving rise to tensions and even arguments with station staff and managers. The erection in 2007 of an official monument to the victims at the station entrance was not enough to ease these tensions and victims have therefore turned to other places of memory (particularly the other stations where attacks took place, El Pozo and Santa Eugenia). Since 2009 no national commemoration ceremony has been held at the official monument, reflecting a comparative failure of consecration (Truc 2011c). So groups may resist the designation of official places of memory and the rectification or obliteration of the original places, which is a major source of tension between places of memory and the memory of places. Disputes may also arise between groups that attach different meanings to the same event and want to monopolise a place of memory.

Consequently, “there is no place of memory that is not ephemeral, no memorial claim that is not competitive” (Brian 2008, p.130*). One last example is offered by the siting of the “calvary” erected in Poland in memory of President Kaczynski, who died in an air crash on 10 April 2010. While a large cross was spontaneously erected by scouts in the courtyard of the presidential palace on the day after his death, the new president elect, the liberal Komorowski, had a small commemorative plaque placed on a wing of the palace and set about removing the cross. This was followed by more than a month of open conflict between the ultra-Catholics on the one hand and liberals, moderate Catholics, and anti-clericals on the other, around the treatment that this place of memory should receive – sanctification or rectification – until the cross was finally taken down in mid-September and transferred to the chapel in the presidential palace.25 These relocations of memorial sites, the tensions they generate, and the conflicts between actors that they reveal should be central to the research of any sociologists working in the spirit of the approach instigated by Halbwachs.

Programme for a socio-ethnography of collective memory

  1. Top of page
  2. What places do to memory
  3. What memory does to places
  4. Programme for a socio-ethnography of collective memory
  5. References
  6. Biography

At the end of this long discussion in the tradition of Halbwachs' groundbreaking work, we should like to conclude the present article with a few precepts of a methodological nature. As we noted at the start, far from remaining stuck in a “narrow Durkheimism”, in La Topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre sainte Halbwachs demonstrated the fertility for studies of collective memory of an innovative methodology combining fieldwork with a critique of historical sources. In so doing, he opened the way to an authentic socio-ethnography of memory, proceeding by direct observations and “ethnographic tailing” (Coulon 1996), seeking to follow as closely as possible the relocation of memories “on the ground”.

It is without doubt damaging for the study of “places of memory” to be left to historians, while that of the “memorialisation of places” primarily occupies anthropologists. In reality the two need to be approached jointly, as part of the wider sociological issue of the indissoluble relationship between places and memories. The most important thing is the tensions between the memory of places and places of memory, and the conflicts between actors that these tensions reveal. We need to study how, sometimes, the “spontaneous memorialisation” of some places can be institutionalised and lead to the erection of a permanent memorial and how, conversely, the designation of official places of memory can be challenged by the maintenance elsewhere of popular commemorative rites. This implies paying particular attention on the ground to the traces left by these rites, despite all that may have been done to erase them, and the occasional emergence of disputes over the appropriation of certain places. Consequently it is important to give priority to a “multisituated” (Marcus 1995) ethnography, not confining ourselves to going only to “places of memory” that have been designated as such, but also monitoring the resurgence of memorials in places that have been rectified or obliterated. It is only in so doing that we will ensure that the legacy of Halbwachs bears fruit, by retracing, wherever possible and as closely as we can, an authentic memorial topography.

Translated from French

  1. *The present article is the fruit of a study conducted in the context of the seminar “Les épreuves de la mémoire collective”, which I have been running jointly with Johann Michel at EHESS since 2008. I should like to thank Johann and the seminar participants for their stimulating comments.

  2. 2

    The first posthumous edition of La Mémoire collective was translated into English (Halbwachs 1997 1980). It was replaced in 1997 by a new version edited by Gérard Namer, and judged to be more faithful to the author's original intentions (Halbwachs 1997 1980). However, no English version of this latter edition has been published – which can also be seen as a mark of the lack of interest in Halbwachs among English-speaking researchers.

  3. 3

    The choice to translate this text can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that new readers unfamiliar with Halbwachs' approach are often advised to begin by reading this conclusion, which offers a good summary of the author's thesis. This is notably the recommendation of the Quebecois sociologist and theologian Fernand Dumont, in his preface to the book's second edition (Dumont 1971, p.v).

  4. 4

    On the reasons why the approach instigated by Pierre Nora in the late 1970s may have seemed new, despite the work done by Halbwachs before him, see Brian (2008, pp.136*–138*) and Lavabre (2000).

  5. 5

    As many commentators have duly noted, the term lieux de mémoire [places of memory] can be misleading as to Nora's real object of study, as it is often understood in a broad sense (also indicated by the choice of the English term “realms” as a translation of the French lieux, and by the increasingly frequent choice to retain the French term). It would be more appropriate to speak of “memory nodes” (nœuds de mémoire), a phrase Nora also uses.

  6. 6

    Afterwards abbreviated to La Topographie in the present article.

  7. 7

    In this regard, La Topographie can be compared to Robert Hertz's study of the cult of St Besse (Hertz 1913), on which see Mariot (2006).

  8. 8

    All the same, although this is a different issue, it would be wrong to think that Halbwachs reduces religion to a phenomenon of memory (Truc 2010b).

  9. 9

    In the rest of this article all references given in parentheses without the author's name will refer to a work by Halbwachs.

  10. 10

    La Topographie légendaire is also frequently approached as an example of a case study, inviting others of the same kind (Hervieu-Léger 2001, p.223; Marcel 2001, p.1999; Namer 1997, p.258).

  11. 11

    On the same subject, but with no explicit reference to Halbwachs, one can also consult the second part of Cole (2000).

  12. 12

    It is also discussed in chapter 4 of Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire (“La localisation des souvenirs” [The localisation of memories]) and chapter 5 of La mémoire collective (“La mémoire collective et l'espace” [Collective memory and space]), on which we have also drawn in the present article.

  13. 13

    Halbwachs probably took his conception of “symbolic space” from Leibniz, of whom he had a deep and subtle knowledge – his first book was on Leibniz (Halbwachs 1906); cf. Cléro (2008, p.46*).

  14. 14

    [online] Available at [accessed 20 September 2011]. On commemorative plaques of the Second World War, see Barcellini and Wieviorka (1995).

  15. 15

    This was what happened around the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Golgotha was located from the fourth century and which became the main Christian sanctuary in Jerusalem (1997 1980, p.33). It is also what Halbwachs observes on the Mount of Olives (2008, p.38).

  16. 16

    Hence, it is to draw the wrong conclusions to judge Halbwachs' work to be outdated simply because it “predates the era of the media, which have profoundly transformed the issues of collective memory” (Nora 2003, p.16).

  17. 17

    The question of the accumulation of material objects for memorial purposes is also of interest to contemporary artists, Thomas Hirschhorn foremost among them.

  18. 18

    According to Jean-Pierre Cléro (2008, p.62*), here Halbwachs is continuing an idea already present in Hume.

  19. 19

    Generally speaking the same seems true today of all the places linked to the memory of a “global” event watched live on television (Dayan and Katz 1994).

  20. 20

    Tony Walter also proposes an analysis of pilgrimages to war graves as quests for emotional peace (Reader and Walter 1993, p.86).

  21. 21

    President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the Iftar Dinner”, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 13 August 2010 [online]. Available at [accessed 21 September 2011].

  22. 22

    In particular because public places must meet requirements for accessibility and free flow, which memorialisation processes tend to hinder (Joseph 1996).

  23. 23

    Examples we might suggest include the commemorative plaques in metro stations (Gérôme 1995) or in the streets of Paris (Sauber 1993).

  24. 24

    On the specific question of monuments to the dead, see Koselleck (1997).

  25. 25

    Cf. Maja Zoltowska, Le chemin de croix des anticléricaux polonais, Libération, Friday, 20 August 2010, and Pologne: déplacement d′une croix dédiée au président défunt Lech Kaczynski, AFP, 16 September 2009. For other examples of politically contested places of memory, see Pickering and Tyrrell (2004).


  1. Top of page
  2. What places do to memory
  3. What memory does to places
  4. Programme for a socio-ethnography of collective memory
  5. References
  6. Biography

Additional references common to Memory Studies can be found at the end of this dossier in the selected bibliography, pp.197–202.

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  1. Top of page
  2. What places do to memory
  3. What memory does to places
  4. Programme for a socio-ethnography of collective memory
  5. References
  6. Biography
  • Gérôme Truc is completing a thesis in sociology at the Institut Marcel Mauss (EHESS – Paris). A former student at ENS Cachan and agrégé in social sciences, he has been a member of the Casa de Velázquez, Madrid, since September 2009. He is currently researching reactions to terrorism and the relationship between emotion, memory, and collective identity. He is the author of several articles and the book Assumer l'humanité (2008).