This research draws on two inter-related theoretical perspectives: cultural memory and ritual/festival studies. Although the majority of research in the field of memory studies deal primarily with discourses and textual data, there is a growing awareness of collective memory as a locally enacted, performed phenomenon. Our research then is framed and informed by the concept of cultural memory, but a focus is the contributions of ritual and performance.

Cultural Memory; Collective Memory

A starting point for many scholars of collective memory has been the pioneering work of Maurice Halbwachs (1992), who was the first to deal explicitly with the local, spatial, and material dimension of what he called “collective memory.” Pierre Nora (1989) argued in a seminal essay that sites of memory become important when ‘living’ memory is fading and collective remembrance becomes separated from everyday lifeworlds. Similarly, Jan Assmann (1995) distinguished between communicative memory and cultural memory, the latter being objectified, institutionalized, and ceremonialized. The concept of cultural memory is useful to this project, as it is already objectified and thus sociologically observable. The past is always the past as remembered; the study of cultural memory is important, since remembering the past is one way that groups create, organize and maintain identities. In a global world, the production of cultural memory is often accompanied by controversy and contestation of meanings. Our research emphasizes two distinct though related aspects of cultural memory: symbolic capital and cultural trauma.

    • Cultural memory as symbolic capital: Following the tourism boom in late 1960s and the ‘memory boom’ in late 1970s, memory tourism became an important cultural phenomenon and economic factor. Museums are an integral part of this business: they not only exhibit artifacts and offer representations of the past, but actively engage in meaning-making; they fulfill educational functions, they are capable of strengthening cultural identities, and they can also open public spaces for controversies. Furthermore, the fast growth of communication, economics, and politics at the beginning of the 21st century paved the way for the globalization of memory ‒ with a tremendous impact on memory tourism and city marketing. History and heritage are forms of symbolic capital: like natural resources, heritage can be developed as a commodity. In particular, religious capital has a central place in memory tourism. For the city of Constance, the Council anniversary is an opportunity to promote itself as an international tourist destination, to become once again the center of events and to inscribe itself into the globalizing memory. Critics of such cultural commodification argue that there is a fine line between a culture’s need for cohesive memories that are constitutive of identity, and the monetization of heritage for purposes of economic development. When this line is crossed, the formation of cultural memories may actually distance local populations from the living communicative memories that constitute it. Thus, it is important to develop guidelines for festival planners and organizers seeking to mobilize cultural capital to avoid this fate.
    • Cultural trauma: Emile Durkheim showed how large-scale, collective celebrations, festivals, and rituals, premised on a people’s stories, narratives and legends of ancestors and foundational figures serve as the building blocks of shared, collective identities. What Durkheim failed to emphasize is that a people’s foundational events are often inscribed with a painful or traumatic dimension. The sociologist Jeffrey Alexander (Alexander et al. 2004; 2011) draws our attention to the fact that painful memories of events far in the past are not premised on shared experiences per se (we were not present when Jan Hus was executed at the Council of Constance) but rather remembered and constructed as “cultural trauma” in and through social processes and discourses, such as a public jubilee or commemorative event. For an event to become or be maintained as a cultural trauma, the event requires social signification, care-taking, symbolic investment, and mediation. There is a gap, in other words, between event and represented, mediated trauma. Alexander’s discussion of cultural trauma is helpful in our work, as it is an open research question whether or to what extent the burning of Hus (who is not only remembered as victim but also as hero) constitutes a Czech ‘cultural trauma.’ We believe that the methods and concepts developed in this dimension of cultural memory research can be applied to other festivals and celebrations, since public festivals are not merely celebratory, but often draw upon and open-up painful cultural memories.

Ritual/Festival Studies
Cultural memory not only materializes itself in cultural forms and tangible objects, it is also performed in public rituals, the meanings of which are often conflictual. In the 1980s, sociologist Frank Manning noted that “throughout both the industrialized and developing nations, new celebrations are being created and older ones revived on a scale that is surely unmatched in human history” (Manning 1980). In response to festival renewal and creativity, in recent decades festival studies has emerged as a developing interdisciplinary field of research, of interest to academics but also planners and organizers in tourism, economic development, and heritage and culture. There is recognition in the literature that “interdisciplinary, experimental, theory building is an urgent imperative” (Getz 2010). Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz pioneered the effort to do cultural analysis on the back of ritual and performance events, rather than the traditional focus on discourse and language.  In recent years, scholars have put the analysis of public events, rituals and performances (such as festivals) on their agenda (Handelman 1990, Grimes 2013, Stephenson 2010). Our research aims to develop our understandings of the roles played by ritual in the practice and formation of cultural memory. Ritual Studies offers a set of tools and ideas to better describe and analyze the intricacies of ritual action, which to date has been underrepresented in cultural memory research.



Alexander, Jeffrey C., Ron Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser and Piotr Sztompka (2004): Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Alexander, Jeffrey, Elizabeth Butler Breese and Ron Eyerman (2011, ed.): Narrating Trauma. On the Impact of Collective Suffering. Boulder: Paradigm.

Assmann, Jan (1995): “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity”. In: New German Critique (65):125-133.

Durkheim, Émile (1995): The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

Getz, Donald (2010). “The Nature and Scope of Festival Studies.” International Journal of Event Management Research 5.1: 1-46.

Grimes, Ronald L. (2013): The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice (1992): On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Handelman, Don (1990): Models and Mirrors. Towards an Anthropology of Public Events. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Manning, Frank. The Celebration of Society (1983). Bowling Green University Press.

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

Stephenson, Barry (2010). Performing the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press.