Memory, citizenship and social behaviour : Can we (really) learn from the past?

Sarah Gensburger et Sandrine Lefranc (CNRS – ISP – Université Paris Ouest – ENS Cachan)

In this research we seek to challenge the widespread belief that remembering our past is necessary for preserving peace and democracy and that we can “learn” from the past. “Memory” is increasingly called upon as an instrument for action against intolerance and the temptation of political violence. Public actors in established democracies have used it (policies, schools, museums, the media) as have international organisations in countries emerging from war. Laws are passed, trials are held, and commissions work to bring truth and reconciliation, all “lest we forget”. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the term memory has inspired an exponential number of scientific studies. It has given rise to a discipline in its own right: Memory Studies. Yet thirty years on we have ultimately learnt very little. The collective project under examination aims to seriously analyse this gap between scientific knowledge and social evolution in order to ask: Can we (really) learn, and act, from the past?

Rather than content ourselves with simply hoping that evoking the past in the present will help us build better societies full of tolerant citizens, we must first question the idea that exposing individuals to this “memory” has a mechanical effect on their behaviour. To do so, and secondly, using both established and innovative methods and all social sciences and working alongside those in the field (the National Archives for example), we would like to closely observe what actually happens when an individual visits a museum, learns about history and so forth. Finally, in order to understand the effects of memory policies we may consider the hypothesis that they are partly connected to ordinary social interactions. If “memory” has such power, it may not necessarily be because it is an effective model for behaviour. It may also be because the belief in its power is fed by processes linked to the individualisation of societies, professional mobility, and the transformation of administrative practices and so forth.

Translated by Katharine Throssel


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