11 January 2011

Memory studies in the social sciences and the humanities in Argentina

Memory research in the social sciences has mainly focused on investigating practices of social and collective memory of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Social-scientific studies of memories of political violence have mostly been carried out by sociologists (Calveiro, 1998; Crenzel, 2008; Feierstein, 2005, 2007; Jelin[i], 2001, 2002, 2007; Jelin & Lorenz, 2004; Jelin & Longoni, 2005), anthropologists (Guber, 2001; Robben, 2005a, 2005b, 2006; Vecchioli, 2005), communication scientists (Feld, 2002, 2006; Kaiser, 2005), historians ( Carnovale, Lorenz & Pittaluga, Franco & Levin, 2007; Lorenz, 2009), cultural theorists (Sarlo, 2005; Vezzetti, 2003, 2009), and political scientists (Roniger & Sznajder, 1998, 2009; Sznajder & Roniger, 2005).

Several years before the political changes introduced in Argentina by the administration of Néstor Kirchner in Argentina (2003) and in Uruguay by the administration of Tabaré Vázquez (2005), Roniger and Sznajder (1998) put forward the following argument in a comparative study about the politics of memory in the two countries:

A major trend in these societies’(Argentinean and Uruguayan) confrontation with the legacy of human rights violations has been the almost complete absence of physical lieux de mémoire (tombs, mausoleums, public monuments) which could help to encapsulate and frame the past. Indeed, the creation of lieux de mémoire is sometimes perceived as an intention to separate the sites of commemoration from the living society. This poses a challenge for those who are trying to sustain the memory of their loved ones, as well as presenting problems for society at large. The absence of specific and contained lieux de mémoire is extremely painful for the relatives of those missing victims whose burial sites are unknown and prompts some of them (especially the Argentinean Mothers and associations of victims’ relatives) to claim an ever-present role as a living collective memory and ethical collective consciousness. For society at large, the absence of lieux de mémoire keeps the memory of unfulfilled justice and past human rights violations as an open wound and projects the basic disagreements about the past into the public sphere as periodic crisis. (Roniger & Sznajder: 1998: 161)

In sum, these studies were theoretically grounded in the hypothesis that memory is mainly a socio-cultural and political construct. That is, memory is a special type of shared political experience that is shaped by social frameworks of remembrance which enable these experiences to come to light.

Just as many European and American sociologists, historians and anthropologists (Connerton, 1989; Halbwachs, 1992; Levy & Sznaider, 2005, 2006; Misztal, 2003; Olick, 2003, 2007, 2008; Olick & Robbins, 1998) are investigating how social differentiation and political power shape narratives of the past, Argentinean social scientists have also been interested in the roles of the media, politicians, and cultural resources such as memorials and rituals in the processes of legitimizing certain social and collective memories in detriment to others[ii]. These cultural products, e.g. archive, memorials, museums, films, books and photographs, may be thought of as vehicles of memory (Jelin, 2002, 2007), which may be operating to create sites of memory (Nora, 1989) and, thereby, shape collective narratives of the past.

The place of memory, therefore, is the place of political struggle, a struggle which is commonly represented as a struggle against forgetting due to the fact that societies which remember their mistakes in the past tend not to commit the same errors in the present or in the future. Remembering, as opposed to being silent or forgetting, obscures what is actually a contest between rival memories, each with their own oblivions. In the case of the military dictatorship in Argentina, Jelin (2002) states that the erasing and forgetfulness of the past were products of the will or a policy of silence and forgetting on the part of actors who elaborate strategies to hide and to destroy proof and all traces of their crimes, thus impeding people’s ability to remember the military dictatorship in the future. In these instances, there were voluntary political acts of destruction of proof and traces of crimes committed during the dictatorship (e.g. pardons and policies aimed at ‘national reconciliation’), carried out with the intention of promoting selective forgetfulness. However, the memories of the witnesses could not be manipulated in the same way (except through the physical extermination of the latter).

On the other hand, Jelin points out that all policies of conserving memories have an implicit will to forget when selecting traces to preserve, conserve, or commemorate. However, she does not present any specific cases of selective forgetting in the present politics of memory in Argentina. As I indicate in chapter four, these cases of selective forgetting within the Argentinean context may be related to the consequences of the violent acts (e.g. terrorist attacks) committed by former members of armed, political organizations. This underlies a struggle between competing memories, rather than a struggle against forgetting.

Jelin (2007) maintains that the constitution, the institutionalization, the recognition and the strength of the memories and of the identities feed each other. There are, as much for individual people as for groups and societies, ‘peaceful’ periods and periods of crisis. In the peaceful periods, when memories and identities are formed, instituted and tied, the questions that may be asked are not urgent enough to cause any reordering or restructuring of memories. Social forms of memory perform a central role at the time of defining social identities. This feature is crucial after periods of mass violence, such as dictatorships involving mass political repression of dissidents. In these social contexts, collective memories form social identities whose cohesion – most of the time – is based on only one goal: the attainment of reparative justice (Levy & Sznaider, 2005, 2006).

Although the majority of these scholars do not deny that memories must be stored in people’s minds most of their investigations are centered on exploring the cultural products arising from processes of societal remembering. In other words, despite the fact that they do not deny that individuals are responsible for retrieving collective memories (Halbwachs, 1992; Jelin, 2002; Olick 2008), they argue that those memories are always shaped and re-shaped by means of social frameworks that allow the emergence of some memories, while leaving others in the dark. Hence, collective memories are not the sum of individual memories or the outcome of sharing autobiographical memories in a specific social setting. This perspective is focused on exploring the social processes which form and legitimate public representations of the past. In other words, collective memories can be thought of as a group of ideas, images and feelings relating to the past and which emerge from the influence exerted by the cultural resources that people share. Hence, it is important to analyze both the way in which societies use their cultural resources of memory, narratives about the past, rituals, memorials, etc. (e.g. Cromañón), and the processes that make collective memories generate, legitimate, convey, and transform society.

According to Jelin (2007), power relations and hegemony are always present in memories because of the struggle to appropriate meaning and interpretations of the past (2007: 141). This struggle against silence or forgetting lies at the heart of why memory has become such an emotionally and ideologically loaded concept in Argentina. This struggle is crucial after periods of mass violence, such as the 1976-1983 military. In this social milieu, social frameworks of remembrance (Halbwachs, 1992) facilitated the emergence and consolidation of vehicles of memory – many of them considered to be identity projects – which were aimed at the attainment of reparative justice for human rights abuses in the past[iii]. In Argentina, the new social framework of remembrance, explained in the first sections of this chapter, have put recent history into the memory of both individuals and ‘society’ and, in so doing, made the past a living force for designing a new positioning, attitudes, and polices according to specific political interests (Roniger & Snajder, 1998: 134).

The studies referred to above highlight the importance of analyzing practices of social remembrance in Argentinean society. By disentangling how products of social memory work as vehicles of remembrance (Jelin, 2007), these investigations aim at stressing the necessity of remembering the past in order to construct a more democratic society, condemn the traumatic past, and learn from the mistakes committed. Revisiting a past marred by conflict in order to better understand the present and construct a society’s future by strengthening the bonds of solidarity and promoting social justice.


Calveiro, P. (1998). Poder y Desaparición. Los Campos de Concentración en Argentina. Buenos Aires: Ed. Colihue.

Carnovale, V., Lorenz, F. & Pittaluga, R. (eds.) (2006). Historia, Memoria y Fuentes Orales. Buenos Aires: CEDINCI.

Crenzel, E. (2008). La Historia Política del Nunca Más. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI editores.

Feierstein, D. (2007) El Genocidio Como Práctica Social. Entre el Nazismo y la Experiencia Argentina. Buenos Aires: FCE.

Feierstein, D. (ed.) (2005). Genocidio, la Administración de la Muerte en la Modernidad. Buenos Aires: EDUNTREF.

Feld, C. (2002). Del Estrado a la Pantalla: Las Imágenes del Juicio a los ex Comandantes en Argentina. Madrid/Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.

Feld, C. (2006). Quand la televisión argentine convoque les disparus. Modalités et enjeux de la représentation médiatique d’une expérience extrême. Les temps des médias, 6.

Franco, M. & Levín, F. (eds.) (2007). Historia Reciente. Perspectivas y Desafíos para un Campo en Construcción. Buenos Aires: Paidós.

Guber, R. (2001). ¿Por qué Malvinas? De la Causa Nacional a la Guerra Absurda. Buenos Aires: FCE.

Jelin, E. & Longoni, A. (eds.) (2005). Escrituras, Imágenes y Escenarios Ante la Represión. Madrid/Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.

Jelin, E. & Lorenz, F. (eds.) (2004). Educación y Memoria: La Escuela Elabora el Pasado. Madrid/Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.

Jelin, E. (2001). Fechas de la memoria social. Las conmemoraciones en perspectiva comparada. Voces recobradas: Revista de Historia Oral 3, (10). Buenos Aires: Instituto Histórico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires.

Jelin, E. (2002). Los Trabajos de la Memoria. Madrid/Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.

Jelin, E. (2007). Public memorialization in perspective: truth, justice and memory of past repression in the Southern Cone of South America. The International Journal of Transitional Justice 1 (1), 138-156.

Kaiser, S. (2005). Postmemories of Terror: A New Generation Copes with the Legacy of the "Dirty War”. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Lorenz, F. (2009). Malvinas: Una Guerra Argentina. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana.

Robben, A.C.G.M. (2005a). Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press.

Robben, A.C.G.M. (2005b). How traumatized societies remember: the aftermath of the Argentina’s Dirty War. Culture Critique, 120-164.

Robben, A.C.G.M. (2006). Combat motivation, fear and terror in twentieth century Argentinean warfare. Journal of Contemporary History 4 (2), 357-377.

Roniger, L. & Sznajder, M. (1998). The politics of memory and oblivion in redemocratized Argentina and Uruguay. History and Memory 10 (1), 133-169.

Roniger, L. & Sznajder, M. (2009). The Politics of Exile in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sarlo, B. (2005). Tiempo Pasado. Cultura de la Memoria y Giro Subjetivo. Una Discusión. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.

Sznajder, M. & Roniger, L. (2005) From Argentina to Israel: Escape, evacuation and exile. Journal of Latin American Studies 37 (2), 351-377.

Vezzetti, H. (2003). Pasado y Presente. Guerra, Dictadura y Sociedad en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.

Vezzetti, H. (2009). Sobre la Violencia Revolucionaria: Memorias y Olvidos. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI.


[i] Elizabeth Jelin is one of the key scholars in social memory studies in Latin America. She was a board member and former director of the United Nations Research Institute for Human Development. Elizabeth Jelin is the head of the Núcleo de Estudios de Memoria at the Institute for Economic and Social Development in Buenos Aires (IDES). Between 1999 and 2001 Jelin was the principal investigator and coordinator of a large research program ‘Memoria Colectiva de la Represión: Perspectivas Comparativas sobre los Procesos de Democratización en el Cono Sur de America Latina’, which was funded by the Social Science Research Council, NYC. This program awarded 60 research grants to researchers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and the United States. The results of this project came out in a collection of 10 volumes published in Madrid and Buenos Aires by Siglo XXI editores ((http://www.ides.org.ar/grupoestudios/memoria/VolColeccion.jsp).

[ii]Social memory research in Argentina tends to be more ideologically loaded than the above mentioned studies undertaken by American and European social scientists mostly because of the current changes in the Argentina’s cultural and political dynamics in relation to the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

[iii] A good example of remembrance and commemorative practices as identity projects is the human rights association HIJOS, which is an acronym for Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice in the Face of Silence and Forgetting). For more information see: http://www.hijos.org.ar/.

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