Conceptualizing intercultural competences through sites of memory

Study the past if you would define the future.

The study of intercultural competence has to take into consideration the (inter)cultural context in which the memory takes place. Memory can be defined as a major subject in contemporary life, a key to personal, social, and cultural identity and mentality (Kenny, 1999). Philosophers have long viewed continuousness of memory as an indispensable and vital quality of personhood. However, personal and collective identity are intimately connected.

Trigg (2012) emphases on the strange and incongruous ways in which body and cognition react to the environment to create and remember place, defined as “lived spatiality” and as an expression of “being-in-the-world”.

To comprehend the processes, practices, and outcomes of social sharing of memory, or collective remembering, one must take into consideration the characteristics of the community to which an important event occurred and in which memory for the event was subsequently formed, shared, spread, and transformed. In other words, one must examine and even explore the socialcultural- historical context where the remembering takes place (Bakhurst, 2005).

This socialcultural-historical context where memory takes place is strongly related to realms of memory (lieux de Mémoire) tangible or intangible.  

Defining Realms of Memory: a literature review

A lieu de mémoire (site of memory) is a concept popularized by the French historian Pierre Nora in his three-volume collection “Les Lieux de Mémoire” (published in part in English translation as Realms of Memory).

According to Nora, “a lieu de mémoire  is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community (in this case, the French community)”(1989: 7).

 It may characterize any place, object or concept vested with historical meaning in the popular collective memory, such as a monument, a museum, an event, a symbol like a flag or the French figure Marianne, even a colour vested with historical memory (the red flag of left politics, for instance). According to La Commission franco-québécoise sur les lieux de mémoire communs (French-Québécois Commission for Common Sites of Memory), a lieu de mémoire indicates the cultural landmarks, places, practices and expressions stemming from a shared past, whether material (monuments) or intangible (language and traditions).

Moreover, ancient monuments can be defined as sites of memory (Schnapp 1996: 13; Demoule 1998). Nowadays, as timemarks they transport the past into our everyday lives and become foci for our cultural memory and various phenomena of history culture.

Nevertheless, Nora argues that sites of memory are not common in all cultures and can be exclusively characterized as a modern phenomenon. Sites of memory substitute a “real” and “true” living memory, which was with us for millennia but now, has ceased to exist (cf. Maier, 1993). In Nora's interpretation, a constructed history replaces real memory. Sites of memory stay artificial, and deliberately fabricated. They aid us recall and reembrace the past – which is possibly essential in order to make living in the modern world significant (Marquard, 1986).

The aim of sites of memory is “to stop time, to block the oblivion”, and they all share "a determination, a will to remember" (Nora, 1989: 19). Nora claims that his definition of sites of memory excludes prehistoric and archaeological sites, since what makes them “important as sites is often precisely what ought to exclude them from being lieux de mémoire: the absolute absence of a will to remember and, by way of compensation, the crushing weight imposed on them by time, science, and the dreams of men” (1989: 20f.).

But this view is misled. Prehistoric monuments were been created as expressions of prospective memory, which is exactly “a will to remember”. Similarly, old monuments in the ancient world were already preserved as timemarks and became significant in different cultural memories, therefore constituting true sites of memory (Assmann, 2011: 60). There is ample evidence for memory crystallizing at ancient monuments not only in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, but also in later prehistoric Europe.

Sites of memory should, therefore, not be interpreted as current successors to living memory, but as significant components of most, if not all, societies in both past and present.

How culture can be defined through memory?

Culture can be defined as both a system (values, models, metaphors, scripts and artefacts) and a process (rituals and daily practices) of symbolic mediation. It functions on social institutions (e.g., the family, the nation) as well as on the actions, thoughts, emotions, and moral values of individuals, therefore guiding and forming both intrapersonal and interpersonal psychological functions (Wang & Brockmeier, 2002). The following characteristics of culture may be mainly significant for the study of collective memory.

First, culture is multidimensional rather than unidimensional. It includes and takes effect through different dimensions, levels, systems, and processes (Valsiner, 2000). Multiple cultural forces such as shared mnemonic traditions as well as practices of rituals, media coverage, and individual storytelling can thus support the development and preservation of a collective memory.

Additionally, culture may be expressed in varied ways across diverse fields of human experiences (for example, national tragedies, political scandals, family relations; e.g. Wang & Li, 2003). Consequently, the procedure and outcome of a collective memory may differ as a function of its cultural relevance in a particular life domain, being constrained by the cultural regularities of that domain.

Moreover, culture can be situated in the public (shared) time and space of the community, as well as internalized into the private time and space of the individual (D’Andrade, 1992).

Conversely, it may also produce tensions between cultural constructions and individual agency, where individuals actively negotiate, resist, or even escape the limits of a state (or community) imposed perception of the past (Kansteiner, 2002). Equally important, cultural heterogeneity occurs within any community, among the individual as well as subgroup members (e.g., gender groups; Cross & Madson, 1997).

To conclude, culture cannot be defined as a static but transitory process (Donald, 1991). It is located at a particular historical moment in time, reproducing and reaffirming the social transformation (including any kind of discoveries) experienced by a community and its members. Collective memory may consequently be influenced by the characteristics of the historical era, which can further result in generational and cohort differences.

Assmann, J. (2011). Communicative and cultural memory. In Cultural Memories (pp. 15-27). Springer Netherlands.
Bakhurst, D. (1996). Social memory in Soviet thought. An introduction to Vygotsky, 196-218.
Cross, S. E., & Madson, L. (1997). Models of the self: self-construals and gender. Psychological bulletin122(1), 5.
D’Andrade, R. G. (1992). Schemas and motivation. Human motives and cultural models23, 44.
Kansteiner, W. (2002). Finding meaning in memory: A methodological critique of collective memory studies. History and theory41(2), 179-197.
Kenny, M. G. (1999). A place for memory: The interface between individual and collective history. Comparative studies in society and history41(03), 420-437.
Maier, C. S. (1993). A surfeit of memory? Reflections on history, melancholy and denial. History and Memory5(2), 136-152.
Marquard, O. (1986). Über die Unvermeidlichkeit der Geisteswissenschaften. Apologie des Zufälligen, Stuttgart105.
Nora, P. (1989). Between memory and history: Les lieux de mémoire. Representations26, 7-24.
Osborne, B. S. (2001). Landscapes, memory, monuments, and commemoration: Putting identity in its place. Canadian Ethnic Studies33(3), 39.
Schnapp, A. (1996). The Discovery of the Past: The Origins of Archaeology, Lond-on. British Museum.
Trigg, D. (2012). The memory of place: A phenomenology of the uncanny. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Valsiner, J. (2000). Culture and human development. Sage.
Wang, Q., & Brockmeier, J. (2002). Autobiographical remembering as cultural practice: Understanding the interplay between memory, self and culture. Culture & Psychology8(1), 45-64.
Wang, Q., & Li, J. (2003). Chinese children's self‐concepts in the domains of learning and social relations. Psychology in the Schools40(1), 85-101.

Lieux de mémoire (May, 2017). Retrieved from:

Thoughts of Italian project partner “Istituto dei Sordi di Torino”: Carolina Carotta, Enrico Dolza, Sofia Mastrokoukou.

Writer of the blog text: Sofia Mastrokoukou, PhD Candidate at the University of Montpellier and Career Counselor at the University of Piraeus.

Motto of the writer: Primum non nocere (First, do not harm)