The George and Irina Schaeffer Center for the Study of Genocide, Human Rights and Conflict Prevention invites you to join our monthly research seminar Figuring Memory: Social Practices and Collective Transformation, organized in partnership with the CNRS, the ENS Paris-Saclay, Paris Nanterre University and Sciences Po. Please register using the links at the bottom of this page.

The notion of collective or social memory has compelled substantial scholarly attention as a means for theorizing socially shared meanings and their political and structural consequences. Recently, a field of “memory studies” has emerged with journals, conferences, and a lively interdisciplinary exchange. Simultaneously, collective memory has developed an applied, practical, emphasis on producing or consolidating social values and the practice of memory has also compelled substantial social and political engagement. Public and private organizations have invested vast resources in memory practices as a means for teaching social justice, combating prejudice, and preventing future atrocities. Public spaces, museums, sites of atrocity, and classrooms have become sites for remembrance in order to combat prejudice, prevent the repetition of past violence, and instill the values necessary for tolerant and open societies. In all these social spaces, the practice of witnessing is a persistent feature.   

The efficacy of memory practices for social betterment is most often taken axiomatically and uncritically as an established fact. Educators, policy makers, and scholars often seem to assume that teaching about past instances of racism, exclusion, and violence will inspire personal and social change. Can teaching about past instances of racism, exclusion, and violence inspire personal and social change? Can narration of the past contribute to transforming society? A robust literature of well-executed studies is still developing and more scholarship is needed in order to answer this question and better understand what is at stake when collective memory is employed in the service of shared values and when such memory practices are, or are not, effective. Furthermore, it is important to investigate if alternative practices might have a greater impact.

The Figuring Memory monthly seminar aims to launch a sustained discussion with scholars and practitioners from multiple disciplines and perspectives engaged with these questions. The seminar takes a comparative perspective, examining past and recent atrocities across the globe and with different motivations and intentions. 

Organizers: Sarah Gensburger, Sandrine Lefranc, Constance Pâris de Bollardière, and Brian Schiff 


Session 1 with Rebecca Hale | 19 October 2021

"Learning about the Holocaust, learning from the Holocaust: fundamental aims, but how do we know they have been achieved?"


Speaker: Rebecca Hale, Senior Research Fellow at UCL Centre for Holocaust Education

Discussant: Sarah Gensburger, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)


This presentation will explore the complexities of studying the impact of Holocaust education, consider the feasibility of using randomized control trials, and appeal to those working in the field to be mindful of making and accepting spurious claims about impact.

Session 2 with Lea David | 16 November 2021

Discussing Lea David's Book The Past Can’t Heal Us: The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights 


Speaker: Lea David, Assistant Professor, Ad Astra Fellow, School of Sociology, University College Dublin (UCD)

Discussant: Cécile Jouhanneau, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier / ART-Dev


Based on evidence from the Western Balkans and Israel/Palestine, Lea David will present her investigation of the relationship between human rights and memory, suggesting that, instead of understanding human rights in a normative fashion, human rights should be treated as an ideology. Conceptualizing human rights as an ideology gives us useful theoretical and methodological tools to recognize the real impact human rights has on the ground. David traces the rise of the global phenomenon that is the human rights memorialization agenda, termed 'Moral Remembrance', and explores what happens once this agenda becomes implemented.

Session 3 with Thomas Van de Putte | 14 December 2021

Discussing Thomas Van de Putte's Book Contemporary Auschwitz/Oświęcim. An Interactional, Synchronic Approach to Collective Memory


Speaker: Thomas Van de Putte, Post-doctoral Fellow, Trento University 

Discussant: Dr. Ewa Tartakowsky, CNRS 


Thomas Van de Putte will present his theoretical and empirical approach to the present attributions of meaning to the past. Based on the author’s fieldwork in the contemporary Polish town of Oświęcim – Auschwitz, in German – he observed the manner in which residents remember and narrate the past of their town. With attention to narratives concerning pre-war Catholic–Jewish coexistence, wartime Nazi occupation, the Holocaust and post-war Communist Poland, he explores the complementary, fluid and contradictory nature of meaning-making processes in various contemporary interactional contexts, both online and offline.

Session 4 with Chana Teeger | 18 January 2022

"Role Playing Racism: History Teaching and the Limits of Experiential Learning"


Speaker: Chana Teeger, London School of Economics 


This paper points to the limits of experiential learning when teaching about histories of racism and discrimination. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in a racially diverse South African high school, I document how teachers employed simulations and role playing exercises to teach about apartheid. Teachers argued that these would help build historical empathy. However, not only did the simulations fail to capture the actual costs of being black—or the privileges of being white— during apartheid, they also reinforced the notion that racial stratification was separate and distinct from students’ current situations. Through the simulations, apartheid was presented as a system that has no legacy. Connections were not drawn between the past system and the present context, which students might recognize as real and familiar. The simulations thus ironically served to delegitimize black students’ claims about ongoing racism at school and in the broader society.

The seminar sessions in Spring 2022 will be announced soon. Please check back later to register.