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Memory Spaces as Method in Anthropology

Text by Jan-Henrik Seifert (Freie Universität Berlin)

© Pablo Dohms

It is therefore possible to equate what anthropologists have called *culture with the shared knowledge which different members of a society have stored in their long-term memory.” (Bloch 2008, 362)

According to the Oxford Bibliography, researchers in anthropology document the thematic field of memory differently than, for example, historians. Anthropologists are concerned with discourses, practices, or places in which the past finds meaning, as well as with the ways in which the past is used to implement political, cultural or social practices (see Kidron 2016). The aim of this paper is to introduce the concept of memory spaces as a possible tool within anthropology to better understand the lifeworld of interlocutors as well as their understanding of embedded meaning in their specific memory spaces. In the following, I will try to define which spaces can be defined as memory space and how researchers can include the concept in their methodological toolbox.

What Space is a Memory Space?

The concept of memory spaces (lieux de mémoire) can be traced back to the French historian Pierre Nora (2005), who created one of the largest projects in social science research on history and memory through his studies. In a total of seven volumes, the complete work describes the cultural heritage of the people of France, which can lead to an eventual development of national identity.[1] Nora understands the collective and metaphorical term “memory space” as much more than just a topographical location. Memory spaces can describe personalities, symbols, places, rituals, auras, or in short, everything that is seen as a reference for the past in the memories of individuals (Kroh & Lang 2010, 184). Despite the initially abstract term, various objects and scenes of everyday life can be described by it. Nora characterizes, for example, both the momentum of a minute of silence and the writing of a testament as memory spaces, since they meet his criteria. As the actual existence of these spaces seems to be interwoven into everyday life, the concept itself represents a promising concept that anthropologists could use to approach the lifeworlds of their interlocutors as well as spaces charged with meaning. But which space can actually be called a memory space and how can it be approached?

Unfortunately, Nora does not offer specific guidance on how to create or find such a space. However, he defines three conditions that are of significance for the emergence of a memory space. It must therefore serve a material, a functional and a symbolic purpose (Nora 1989, 18-20). According to Nora, this means that only a material fraction of a time unit surrounded by a symbolic aura will evoke a specific memory. This may sound complex and unapproachable at first, but on closer inspection the concept allows a quite simplistic approach. A memory space must leave a trace of itself in space and be visible or at least tangible to its viewer. It is irrelevant whether it represents merely a unit of time or actual material traces of that time. Simultaneously, it must serve a reminiscent functionality that is significant for the social framework of the viewers and gives the specific group the will to anchor it within their collective memory.[2] Since this is not a conscious process, such a space presumably only emerges when it is involved in everyday practices as well as realities of the group after an equally indefinite period of time. In this process, no separation between history and memory may emerge, as both directions coexist in a kind of interplay (ibid., 11-12). And it is precisely within this interplay, in the middle of history and memory, that the historian himself locates the memory spaces.

Being able to grasp a memory space of a group, a village or even a whole nation may just seem challenging. This is due to the fact that “[m]emory is blind to all but the group it binds - which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs has said, that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual” (ibid., 8-9). Memory itself can thus even be described as fluid, as it is in a state of constant development of living societies and can be remembered, forgotten as well as consciously and unconsciously manipulated. This is a significant difference to history and contrasts it. Nora even goes so far as to say: “Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name.” (ibid.). In a nutshell, then, a memory space can be understood as a material as well as immaterial, time-lasting crystallisation point of collective memory and identity that is integrated into social, cultural and political practices and can be described as transformable in the sense of its perception and application within a society (François & Schulze 2009, 18).

Why are Memory Spaces a Promising Concept?

A challenging part of studying history, memories or the in-between memory spaces is that memories are rarely documented in writing. Gary Okihiro (1981, 33) goes as far as to say that “written documents are often referred to as dead letters, [whereas] oral documents are generally styled living testimonies”. Conversely, this means that the reality and the final reviewability of oral documents are almost absent. Reminiscing interlocutors can unintentionally change the past in their narrative perspective. This is perhaps why anthropologists, unlike historians, do not have to insist on the definitive accuracy of historical facts, because when exploring the contemporary lifeworld of interlocutors, these matters initially turn out not to be present and to have less meaning. Of course, data must be verifiable, but as long as (“incorrect”) historical or remembered data are significant for a person or a group, they have an impact on people's lived realities. Consequently, the goal should be pointed towards an anthropology that aims for the understanding of the past of their interlocutors within their social lifeworld as well as their will to anchor specific parts of their past in a collective memory. It should also be pointed towards a clear use of the term “memory” within anthropological research. David Berliner (2005, 198) expresses his concerns on the “danger of overextension of the concept” and calls it “The Abuse of Memory”. He criticises the indiscriminate use of the term for multiple experiences of interlocutors and proposes a necessary distinction between memory as recollection and memory as cultural replication (ibid., 206). But where can we even begin if we have to focus on “unprovable” data and sometimes fuzzy terms in order to grasp notions of memory spaces?

While the “field is where we are” and “any study of consequential biographical experience must be located in the natural social world” (Denzin 2001, 85) it makes sense for the researcher to follow his or her own lead in approaching the field, to be aware of their conceptual and methodological toolbox. Norman Denzin proposes the temporal mapping of interacting individuals within social situations. He states that “[t]emporal mapping focuses on who does what with whom, when and where” (ibid., 87). This allows the research to point to social structural processes in a versatile way, while mapping introduces a historical dimension to the study of the field. Topographical places, but also individuals or further possible memory spaces have their own specific history within a social structure. Since memories are omnipresent and anthropologists form an image of the studied topography and people of a place, it is useful to have an awareness of possible memory spaces in order to pursue further questions and accurately describe actual lifeworlds. Therefore, it makes sense to focus on possible memory spaces within the research by combining methods such as temporal mapping of social interactions as they may lead to an understanding of identity formation. In this context, the construction of memory spaces does not appear as a novel method, but rather as a possible combination of existing ethnographic methods in its pursuit to theorise on identity formation, collectivity, history, and ultimately culture (see Berliner 2005, Degen 2009, Kroh & Lang 2010, Nora 1989).


This essay considered the concept of French historian Pierre Nora’s ‘memory spaces’ as a possible conceptual lens in anthropology and ethnography. I introduced memory spaces as material as well as immaterial remains of time, which gain significance through their location within the collective memory of persons and that can prompt identification with a certain collective. The concept itself gains in value as it can represent and describe everything that is seen as a reference for the past in the memories of individuals. Despite the criticism that anything can be characterised as a memory space, the concept allows researchers to delve into and vividly represent biographical experiences by looking at life-worldly views of their interlocutors.

[1] In the social sciences, discussions on cultural heritage and its definitions are ubiquitous (see Geismar 2015). One approach is to define cultural heritage in terms of tangible features, such as distinctive buildings or exceptional natural phenomena. At the same time, however, the intangible characteristics of a region are also taken into account. In this context, locally specific cultural traditions are included. Nora adds a new dimension to the concept of cultural heritage with his notion of memory spaces through the process of forming a national identity through these spaces. He argues that memories tend to unite the people of specific groups. Therefore, he describes memories as identity forming and, in this case, as a form of national identity (Nora 1989, 9).

[2] It is unfortunately beyond the scope of this essay to look more deeply at the concept of collective memory (Halbwachs 1991), which forms the theoretical basis of memory spaces. It states, among other things, that emergent memories of interactions help to socially connect the individual to the members of a group, ultimately creating the capacity for its collective memory. Nonetheless, it is important to note that it is only through access to a collective memory that individuals equally gain access to memory spaces as they underlie it.

List of References

Berliner, David. 2005. “Social Thought & Commentary: The Abuses of Memory: Reflections on the Memory Boom in Anthropology.” Anthropological Quarterly Vol. 78(1), 197-211.

Bloch, Maurice 2008. “Memory.” In: Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, edited by Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer, 361-363. London: Routledge.

Degen, Andreas. 2009. “Was ist ein Erinnerungsort? Zu Begriff und Theorie topographischen Erinnerns in politischer und phänomenologischer Hinsicht.” In Erzählregionen. Regionales Erzählen und Erzählen über eine Region. Ein polnisch-deutsch-norwegisches Symposium, 70-91. Aachen: Shaker Verlag.

Denzin, Norman K. 2001. Interpretive Interactionism. 2nd Edition. Applied Social Research Methods Series, V. 16. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

François, Etienne, and Hagen Schulze (Eds.). 2009. “Einleitung.” In Deutsche Erinnerungsorte, 9–24. München: C.H. Beck.

Geismar, Haidy. 2015. “Anthropology and Heritage Regimes.” Annual Review of Anthropology 44, 1, 71-85.

Halbwachs, Maurice, Heinz Maus, und Holde Lhoest-Offermann. 1991. Das kollektive Gedächtnis. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag.

Kidron, Carol A. 2016. “Memory.” Contribution to Oxford Bibliographies. (20. July 2021).

Kroh, Jens, and Anne-Katrin Lang. 2010. “Erinnerungsorte.” In Gedächtnis und Erinnerung, edited by Christian Gudehus, Ariane Eichenberg, and Harald Welzer, 184-188. Stuttgart: Springer Verlag.

Nora, Pierre. 1989. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.” Representations, 26, 7-24.

———. 2005. Erinnerungsorte Frankreichs. Übersetzt von Étienne François und Michael Bayer. München: C.H. Beck.

Okihiro, Gary. Y. 1981. “Oral History and the Writing of Ethnic History: A Reconnaissance into Method and Theory.” The Oral History Review, 9(1), 27-46.

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