In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Memory and World Politics

  • Introduction
  • Conceptual Overview
  • General Overviews
  • War and Memory
  • Transitional Justice and Memory
  • Memory Laws
  • Trauma, Emotions, and Memory
  • Commemoration and Memorialization
  • Ontological Security and Memory
  • Memory, Security, and Foreign Policy

International Relations Memory and World Politics
Dovilė Budrytė
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0273


Although the study of memory has been very popular in the social sciences since the 1980s, scholars studying world politics started paying attention to memory politics only relatively recently, during the past two decades. Initially, scholars working at the “margins” of the discipline of international relations (IR), in the fields of post-structuralism and political sociology, integrated the concept of memory into their studies. They acknowledged that traumatic memory is essential for the formation and functioning of political communities. Collective traumas, like crises in world politics, can mark new beginnings for political life when new discourses and new identities are formed. Later questions related to identity formation attracted the attention of constructivists. With the rise of the constructivist paradigm in IR, the study of memory politics and especially the relationship between memory and foreign policy attracted more scholars. These scholars became interested in the creation of official historical narratives, state apologies, and reconciliation. Most recently, scholars working in the fast-growing field of ontological security (OS) have started to engage questions related to political memory in their analyses. These scholars are particularly interested in the ways in which states create their biographical narratives to make sense of the world to themselves and engage other states. Memory plays a major role in the creation of these narratives, and thus it is of crucial importance to those who try to understand OS. This article offers an overview of the major works on memory and world politics, most of which have been written by scholars in political science and IR. However, occasionally works from other disciplines were included if they engaged themes that are essential for understanding the role of memory in global politics. These themes include trauma and memory. Memories of war play a major role in “shaking up” political communities, producing new narratives and reshaping identities. Political transitions play a similar role. During political transitions, historical memories are instrumentalized to legitimate new political orders. Consequently, the study of memory cannot be separated from the processes of democratization and democratic consolidation. Furthermore, both democratic and non-democratic states practice intervention in memory practices, outlawing certain practices of memory and silencing others. The rise of memory laws is another theme reflected in this essay. This essay also includes works attempting to imagine “ideal” memory politics when different versions of the past are coexisting and when states adopt a critical gaze into their dark pasts.

Conceptual Overview

The growing body of literature on memory and world politics draws on the enormous body of works that address memory in other disciplines, such as sociology, history, literary studies, philosophy, and anthropology. Halbwachs 1992 and Olick 2007 address the relationship between individual memory and collective memory. Assmann 2008 constructs a definition of collective memory by relating it to family memory, social memory, political memory, and other types of memories. Halbwachs 1992 and Olick 2007 underline the socially constructed nature of memory. They conceptualize individual memories as embedded in social frameworks of memory. Assmann 2008 and Nora 1989 see the relationship between memory and the construction of collective identity as crucial. As pointed out by Connerton 1989, commemorations help to sustain memory and construct collective identity. Ricoeur 2004, Assmann 2008, and Margalit 2002 conceptualize memory as selective, and see the interaction between memory and forgetting as essential for identities. Although memories and identities are closely linked, memory does not need to be a source of competition. According to Rothberg 2009, it can be multidirectional, open to borrowing and new forms of solidarity in global politics. Margalit 2002 views questions about the ethics of memory, including questions about the obligation to remember, memory in democracies, and moral witnessing as essential for the study of memory politics.

  • Assmann, Aleida. “Transformations between History and Memory.” Social Research 75.1 (2008): 49–72.

    This article by the leading scholar in memory studies conceptualizes collective memory as an “umbrella term” for various types of memory, including social, political, and cultural memory. It distinguishes between “bottom-up” or social memory referring to the ways in which events are remembered by individuals, and “top-down” political memory referring to the creation of collective identities for political action. Available online by subscription.

  • Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511628061

    This book is a path-breaking study that focuses on the ways in which the memory of groups is communicated and sustained. It focuses on the importance of commemorations and bodily practices in the construction of social memory, which is deemed as essential for the creation of identities. The book highlights the power of habit in the construction of group identities.

  • Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Edited and translated by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

    This is a pioneering study which laid the foundations for the study of memory in the social sciences by highlighting the socially constructed nature of collective memory. Halbwachs defined collective memory in terms of social frames (that is, people use societal frameworks to define and retrieve their memories), and this opened up the possibility of studying collective memory as a new field of study. Introduction by Lewis A. Coser.

  • Margalit, Avishai. The Ethics of Memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

    This is a classical philosophical book of huge importance for the study of memory politics. These questions include: “Are we obligated to remember people and events from the past? If yes, then what is the nature of this obligation? Who should be charged with remembering for everyone else?” Margalit raises the question of whether it is possible to create a “moral memory” for humanity as a whole.

  • Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7–24.

    DOI: 10.2307/2928520

    This article outlines the concept of les lieux de mémoire (sites of memory, or places with a sense of historical continuity) which is widely used in memory studies. It analyzes the relationship between history and memory, documenting the proliferation of memory and its “democratization” with the increasing number of archives used by various groups and organizations. The sites of memory are intrinsically linked to national identities; they hold societies together.

  • Olick, Jeffrey K. The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

    This book is a seminal work in memory studies that explores the concept of collective memory. It makes a case for memory to be treated as a “sensitizing concept” (instead of an operational concept, a measurable phenomenon). This book includes a chapter that examines the relationship between collective memory and individualistic conceptualizations and argues for an inclusive approach, synthesizing the collectivist and individualistic concepts of memory.

  • Ricoeur, Paul. Memory, History, Forgetting. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226713465.001.0001

    This book is a major philosophical work that explores the complicated relationship between remembering and forgetting. Having engaged many works in philosophy that address memory, Ricoeur highlights the “right of forgetting,” establishing a link between this right and forgiveness and reconciliation.

  • Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

    Putting forward a compelling critique of competitive memory, this book offers a new way to look at the intersection of memory and identity. Memory is conceptualized as open to negotiation and borrowing. The borders of identity groups and memories are seen as fluid. Memory can serve as an impetus for new solidarities and new forms of justice. The relation of Holocaust memory to other struggles, including decolonization, are examined.

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