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From Collective Memory to Commemoration

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From collective memory to commemoration
Hiro Saito
To have memoryof an event, humans have to experience it themselves. Learning of
an event secondhand, humans acquire knowledge, but not memory. Yet, when sociol-
ogists speak of collective memory,they routinely include as agents of memory those
who do not have rsthand experience of a past event. This inclusion has been taken for
granted ever since Maurice Halbwachs (1992) formulated his Durkheimian theory of the
relationship between collective memory and commemoration in terms of group solidar-
ity and identity: collective memory emerges when those without rsthand experience
of an event identify with those who have such experience, dening both sets of actors
as sharing membership in the same social group. The creation of this aect-laden,
rst-person orientation to a past event is at the crux of commemorationsimply put, a
ritual that transforms historical knowledgeinto collective memoryconsisting of
mnemonic schemas and objects that dene meaning of a past event as a locus of collec-
tive identity. According to Halbwachss formulation, commemoration is a vehicle of
collective memory.
Below, I rst elaborate Halbwachss theory, which has dominated the sociology
of commemoration, by drawing on more recent sociological theories of ritual and
collective identity. I then critically evaluate the dominant Durkheimian theory of
commemoration by examining four empirical phenomena that have not been addressed
adequately in the existing literature: (1) commemorations of negative events or dicult
pasts, wherein commemoration serves not to produce shared mnemonic schemas, but,
rather, to preserve struggles over meaning of mnemonic objects; (2) the understudied
role of political organizations and social movements in the making and remaking of
commemorative rituals; (3) the fundamentally temporal nature of commemoration,
which calls for a more historical approach to both continuities and discontinuities in the
ways actors reiterate commemorative rituals over time; and (4) the incipient rescaling
of commemoration from national to transnational arenas and actors, reconguring
the connection between national identity and collective memory in an increasingly
global world.
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Commemoration as ritual
Human social life is marked and made meaningful by an array of commemorative
practices. Various anniversaries mark our collective calendarIndependence Day, Martin
Luther King Jr. Day, and September 11th, to name only a few American examples.
When humans commemoratewhatever the scale of commemoration may bethey
always do so as members of a social group, be it a family, a school, a city, or a nation.
Their membership in these groups does not simply pre-exist this process, but is actually
constituted through commemoration. By providing actors with objects and performances
that narrate a past event as part of a shared group identity, commemoration constitutes
social groups. Furthermore, because autobiographical memories are crucial to generating
and maintaining individualssense of personal identity, commemoration provides people
with autobiographical narratives of their purportedly shared past as a group and induces
them to feel and accept such narratives as authentic.
The felt authentication of a collective autobiography is made possible by the ritual
nature of commemoration. As Randall Collins (2004: 42) has argued, rituals are occa-
sions that combine a high degree of mutual focus of attention, that is, a high degree
of intersubjectivity, together with a high degree of emotional entrainment [which]
result[s] in feelings of membership that are attached to cognitive symbols.The collective
eervescence that commemoration generates by virtue of its ritual nature helps partici-
pants feel authentic about autobiographical narratives of their purportedly shared past.
Alexander (2004a: 527) has further unpacked the nature of rituals as episodes of repe-
ated and simplied cultural communication in which the direct partners to a social
interaction, and those observing it, share a mutual belief in the descriptive and pre-
scriptive validity of the communications symbolic contents and accept the authenticity
of one anothers intentions.Commemorations capitalize on this aective power of
rituals to prompt participants to generate mutual identications as members of a social
group. Thus Collinss and Alexanders theories of ritual reinforce the Durkheimian point
of Halbwachss theory of commemoration: commemoration is an alchemythat trans-
forms historical knowledge into collective memory, making emotionally charged inter-
pretation of past events integral to peoples social identities as they shift from a subject
position of audience/observers to actors/participants.
This kind of imaginary identication with participants of a past event is most intense
and visible in cases of traumatic events (LaCapra 2001), but sociologists have considered
such identication a dening feature of collective memoryin general. What the
sociological concept of collective memory is meant to capture is the misrecognition of
secondhand knowledge as living memory by virtue of identications on the part of par-
ticipants in commemoration. When commemorative rituals succeed in providing people
with vicarious experience of a past event, secondhand knowledge begins to be felt as
living memory among those who lack rsthand experience. In symbolic-interactionist
terms (Fine and Beim 2007), participants of commemorative rituals take attitudes of those
who have rsthand experience. Commemorative rituals typically force such symbolic
interactions by presenting those who have rsthand experience as the center of the
rituals. This setup tends to lead those who lack rsthand experience to x their attention
on those with rsthand experience and induce the former to experience a past event
vicariously from the imaginary rst-person perspective of the latter. Emotional intensity
of commemorative rituals, exemplied by moments of collective eervescence, promotes
such misrecognition and imagination of secondhand knowledge as shared living memory.
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For commemorative practices to constitute a social group, however, not all members
have to be present in the same physical space. As is the case with national anniversaries,
mutual awareness that other members of the nation in other places are marking the same
occasion helps to produce feelings of group membership and solidarity among indivi-
duals. Print capitalism facilitated the formation of national communities (Anderson 1991)
partly because it enabled commemorative rituals, such as Independence Day, to extend
beyond face-to-face interactions; increasingly distant people were able to imagine their
shared participation in commemorative rituals as members of the same social group.
Today, mass media play a decisive role in generating collective memories at the national
level (Dayan and Katz 1992). Whether and how an event is represented in mass media
thus constitutes an important realm for the sociological analysis of commemoration.
Moreover, as implied by Alexanders formulation, symbolic objectsplay an impor-
tant role in commemorative rituals. Not only do such objects provide focal points for
participantsattention, but the contents of symbolic objects shape mnemonic schemas
and patterns of thinking and feeling about the purportedly shared past. It is important to
emphasize here that symbolic objects are multimodal: they generate meaning in multiple
registers, including not only the verbal-linguistic, but also visual, auditory, olfactory,
gustatory, and tactual registers. Symbolic objects in the context of commemorative rituals
thus constitute built environments that operate as gigantic mnemonics, enveloping
participants. The disappearance of milieux de mémoireobserved by Pierre Nora (1989) is
largely due to the rapid and radical transformation of built environments within moder-
nity. Technological, economic, and demographic changes ushered in by industrialization
and urbanization uprooted people from the built environments that had previously
served as mnemonics of their past. Creatively rethinking the phrase out of sight, out of
mindas out of site, out of mindnicely captures the constitutive role of built envir-
onments in human memory. When the built environments that people inhabit change,
what they remember and how they remember it also change. Mnemonic schemas are
always mediated by mnemonic objects. From this perspective, collective memoryis
best understood as being distributedpartly in human actors themselves, and partly in
the world of mnemonics (Wertsch 2002).
In sum, following Halbwachss Durkheimian formulation, sociologists have largely
studied commemoration as a vehicle generating group solidarity and collective identity
through the distribution and enforcement of shared mnemonic schemas and objects.
Although this Durkheimian approach captures important aspects of commemoration,
I argue that it fails to pay sucient attention to key empirical phenomena that need to
be addressed by any theory of commemoration. In what follows, I unpack these under-
studied empirical phenomena and their theoretical implications.
Commemoration of a difcult past
The Durkheimian perspective holds up best in the case of positive events”—for
example the attainment of political independence or a clear-cut military victoryevents
that generate collective eervescence and reinforce desirable images of collective
identity. But what if events present moral ambiguities and controversies, and rituals do
not resolve but rather preserve and even foreground such diculties? Halbwachss theory
of commemoration is ill equipped to analyze such instances. Robin Wagner-Pacici and
Barry Schwartz (1991: 384) were the rst to highlight this analytic lacuna when they
FROM COLLECTIVE MEMORY TO COMMEMORATION
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pointed out the need to study negative events,that is, moral traumas that not only
result in loss or failure but also evoke disagreement and inspire censure.Their work
highlighted the Vietnam War as one such negative event or dicult pastfor Amer-
icans: various groups of actors, from veterans to peace activists, not only fail to share a
unied mnemonic schema for interpreting the event, but also continue to contest the
meaning of key mnemonic objects meant to commemorate it. Here, negative events as
moral traumas must be distinguished from cultural traumasas theorized by Alexander
(2004b). Although both moral and cultural traumas can be triggered by events that psy-
chologically traumatize individual members of a social group, the former divide group
members by preserving moral ambiguities of the events, while the latter unify group
members by elevating victims to the status of a group totem. Put somewhat dierently,
moral traumas are the result of failed commemorative rituals, in which participants are
unable to generate solidarity and mutual identication with one another. In a sense,
then, the concept of negative events as moral traumas purports to be anti-Durkheimian.
Although Wagner-Pacici and Schwartz shed light on an understudied phenomenon,
they fail to explore a more fundamental weakness of the Durkheimian theory of com-
memoration. In their discussion of the Vietnam War, the authors present various groups
as disagreeing about the meaning of specic mnemonic objects, yet sharing an implicit
understanding that the event is signicant for Americans as a collective. There is no dis-
cussion of cases in which American citizens dis-identied with the United States itself,
or, even more radically, identied with the Vietnamese instead. Whether this character
of the analysis is due to nationalism among the historical actors or methodological
nationalism in Wagner-Pacici and Schwartzs analysis is unclear, but the point is that the
United States is taken for granted as the scale of commemoration: the nation as master
frame of collective identity is never called in question.
The critique oered by Wagner-Pacici and Schwartz could also be countered with a
Durkheimian response that the Vietnam War is only one of many historical events from
which Americans can choose to narrate their collective identity. Although every national
state is confronted with both dicultand easypasts, politicians, intellectuals, and
ordinary people tend to over-commemorate past events that are relatively easy to render
as triumphant narratives. In light of this preponderance of positive commemorations, the
authorscase study of the Vietnam War Memorial does not suciently challenge the
Durkheimian assertion that commemorations generally facilitate the creation of group
identity and solidarity. Arguably the national state can aord to have some failed com-
memorative rituals and moral traumas, so long as it has other, more high-prole rituals
that succeed.
Nonetheless, I nd the critique oered by Wagner-Pacici and Schwartz of Dur-
kheimian theory to be an eective one. However, I would also argue that their real
contribution actually lies in another direction. What is most valuable about their study is
not so much its focus on the commemoration of negative events or dicult pasts in and
of themselves, but its focus on the dynamics of political contention that characterize any
commemorative ritual, positive or negative. I elaborate this point in the following section.
Political contentions in commemoration
Functionalist theories are generally weak in accounting for micro interactions and
contentions that lead to the emergence and transformation of social institutions.
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The Durkheimian theory of commemoration is no exception. Since the ultimate func-
tion of commemoration is specied a priori as the constitution of collective identity,
sociologists of commemoration tend to pay scant attention to social movements and
political organizations involved in the production and interpretation of mnemonic
objects. Wagner-Pacici and Schwartz made a novel contribution when they detailed
how the construction of the Vietnam War Memorial was initiated by a group of politi-
cians, contested by veterans, and debated by journalists and artists. In a similar vein, Vera
Zolbergs (1998) study of controversies surrounding the 1996 Smithsonian exhibit on the
bombing of Hiroshima, and Vered Vinitzky-Seroussis (2002) study of eorts to com-
memorate the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin capture a strong sense of the political contentions
involved in commemoration. These works highlight how dierent groups mobilize and
contest commemorations so as to promote their particular versions of collective memory,
thus advancing their own political interests and symbolic legitimacy.
All commemorative rituals, whether they succeed or fail, can be argued to have this
undercurrent of dynamic interaction among political organizations and social move-
ments. Consider, for example, postwar Japanese commemoration of the bombing of
Hiroshima (Saito 2006). In the immediate aftermath of World War II, there was no
national commemoration of the atom bombing: commemorative rituals were fragmented
among dierent groups of actors, such as A-bomb survivors and politicians. Then, the
hydrogen-bomb fallout in 1954 caused a cascade of changes in the Japanese com-
memoration of the atom bombing, elevating Hiroshimato the cultural trauma con-
stitutive of postwar Japanese national identity as the pacist nation of nuclear victims.
Importantly, however, such a reframing of Hiroshima as a symbol of Japanese national
and moral unity would not have occurred without the mobilization of social-movement
organizations and the formation of a coalition among political parties. Moreover, even
after national commemoration of the event was institutionalized, the public meaning of
Hiroshimaremained multivocal. Although the initial fragmentation of commemora-
tion was overcome in 1954, dierent interpretations of mnemonic objects were never
unied but rather brought together into dialogue within the shared commemorative
ritual.
Categorical distinctions between commemorations of negative or positive events, or
between moral or cultural traumas, are less helpful here than a recognition that all
commemorative rituals are permeated by dynamics of political contention, albeit to dif-
ferent degrees. The sociology of commemoration thus has much to gain by engaging
more extensively with scholarship on political organizations and social movements. In
addition to the dominance of Durkheimian functionalism, the sociology of com-
memoration has been dominated by endogenouscultural explanations (Kaufman
2004). That is, sociologists of commemoration have tended to concentrate on the
meaning of mnemonic objects without considering the links between such objects and
exogenousvariables such as material resources and political opportunities that may
shape their production. The popularity of endogenous cultural explanation in the
sociology of commemoration is due, in part, to the topics resurgence at the same time
that a new cultural sociologyemerged in the 1990s as an alternative to the extant
sociology of culture.The new cultural turntook very seriously the autonomy of the
symbolic system from social structures, in contrast to an older tradition that tended to
explain the symbolic system through reference to exogenous, non-symbolic variables.
Sociologists such as Jason Kaufman (2004), however, have recently begun to argue that
sociologists should launch a concerted eort to synthesize endogenous and exogenous
FROM COLLECTIVE MEMORY TO COMMEMORATION
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cultural explanations. Such approaches would enable us to understand how mnemonic
objects and their meanings are constituted not only in relation to one another, but also in
relation to actors and organizations that produce, use, contest, and transform mnemonic
objects under changing historical circumstances.
This is not to suggest that actors and organizations can simply dictate commemorative
rituals according to their present political interests. Once a certain form of com-
memoration is institutionalized, it tends to persist even in the absence of the causes
responsible for its initial institutionalization. Conversely, no commemorations remain
completely unchanged or locked in over time, for not all elements of institutions are
equally durable. This circumstance is an aspect of the third understudied dimension of
commemorationthe problem of temporality.
Reiterated commemoration
Rituals, including commemorative ones, are by denition repeated over time to main-
tain participantsschemas of thinking and feeling about the world, and acting in it. This
reiterative nature of commemorative rituals dovetails with the character of memory
itselfbetter understood as a reiterative process than a static thing or state. In reality,
what we call memoryis an act of remembering or a moment of recollection that
always involves reconstruction of past experiences. At the individual level, memory of an
event persists only as a reiteration of moments of recollection. Similarly, at the group
level, collective memory persists only as a reiteration of commemoration.
The reiterative nature of commemoration poses rather complicated conceptual
problems of temporality. Like any other institutionalized practices, commemorative
rituals are path-dependent in that it becomes increasingly dicult over time to change
arrangements adopted at their founding. Under the veneer of path-dependent persis-
tence, however, some parts of institutionalized commemoration may well be undergoing
change in response to new political, cultural, and demographic trends. This kind of
incremental change may inuence the overall trajectory of commemorative rituals gra-
dually over time or transform them dramatically in conjunction with contingent events.
Commemorative rituals thus exhibit a seemingly contradictory combination of con-
tinuities and discontinuities because of their fundamentally temporal nature. It is analy-
tically useful, then, to parse out some of the implications of this temporality.
First, the reiteration of commemorations of a past event introduces a period eect.
As the historical conditions in which commemorative rituals take place change over
time, so too can the ways in which those rituals are organized. Reiterated com-
memoration also generates a cohort eect.As older cohorts exit from commemoration
of a past event and newer cohorts enter, the overall composition of mnemonic schemas
shifts along with the participants themselves. In the same way that dierent generations
remember dierent historical events as most important to their lives (Schuman and Scott
1989), dierent cohorts commemorate the same past event dierently on the basis of
their unique historical and human-developmental trajectories. Finally, period and cohort
eects are further compounded by an age eect: people change how they com-
memorate a past event as they move through dierent stages of their own life courses.
Overall, one can refer to age-period-cohort(APC) eects in commemoration.
Until now, no sociologists have tried to tackle APC eects in the study of com-
memoration. This is mainly because sociologists have focused primarily on institutional
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frameworks of commemoration (i.e. the world of mnemonic objects) while bracketing
the mnemonic schemas of individual human beings. Within this dominant sociological
tradition, researchers have tended to analyze only period eects, while generally ignoring
cohort and age eects among individuals who participate in commemorative rituals.
I argue, however, that it is time sociologists should take individuals more seriously when
thinking about continuities and discontinuities in commemoration. As Andrew Abbott
(2005) suggests, human beings are reservoirsof mnemonic schemas that encode,
preserve, and carry forward from past to present structures from dierent times and of
dierent trajectories. The diversity of mnemonic schemas that dierent generations
carry inside their bodies can inuence existent commemorative rituals towards either
continuity or discontinuity. I suggest that APC eects serve as a useful heuristic
for sociologists who want to investigate the wide variety of mnemonic processes, prac-
tices, and outcomes, neurological, cognitive, personal, aggregated, and collective(Olick
1999: 346), that link individuals and institutions in commemorative rituals. If sociologists
are to take seriously the reiterative nature of commemoration, they must begin to ask,
How and why do dierent cohorts of people recollect the same event dierently
in dierent periods and over dierent stages of their lives?and How do such age-
period-cohort interactions account for continuities and discontinuities in commemorative
rituals?
Furthermore, when tracing APC eects in commemoration, it will be important to
contextualize them vis-à-vis changes exogenous to the eld of commemoration.
Although commemorative rituals develop their own internal dynamics over time, they
are also structurally articulate with larger demographic, economic, political, and cultural
formations. Shifts in these formations can aect the demographic composition of parti-
cipants in commemorative rituals, change the economic resources available for such
rituals, induce actors with particular political interests to enter or exit the eld of com-
memoration, or recongure the meanings of mnemonic objects. These exogenous
changes all exert eects on commemorative rituals pertaining to the same past event. It is
thus imperative for researchers to describe and explain the reiteration of commemoration
over time in terms of historical dynamics both internal and external to the eld
of commemoration itself. This analytical injunction points to the fourth and last set of
understudied empirical phenomenathe eects of larger historical conditions on the
scale of commemoration.
Nationalism and cosmopolitanism in commemoration
Following Halbwachs, sociologists have continued to study commemorative rituals in
terms of the construction of national identity, even though commemoration itself has no
intrinsic connection with national identity. The strong, almost quasi-natural association
between commemoration and the nation can be linked to the way in which com-
memorative rituals have been deployed historically as cultural technologies for imagining
the nation, as well as to the symbiotic relationship of the discipline of sociology itself to
the consolidation of national states at the beginning of the twentieth century. Against the
persistent methodological nationalismthat characterizes studies of commemoration,
however, Daniel Levy and Nathan Sznaider explore the question of what they call the
cosmopolitanizationof collective memory at the beginning of the twenty-rst century.
Levy and Sznaider ask: Can we imagine collective memories that transcend national and
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ethnic boundaries? If so, we must ask, how do these transnational memory forms come
about, and of what do they consist?(2006: 2).
To answer these questions, Levy and Sznaider analyze the history of Holocaust
commemoration since World War II. They argue that commemorations become
cosmopolitan when mnemonic objects are de-territorialized from their original geo-
graphical locations and transformed into empty signiers that can be articulated with the
commemoration of other events across national borders. According to the authors,
globalization and the transnational circulation of mnemonic objects eect the cosmopo-
litanization of commemoration. As mnemonic objects traverse national borders through
networks of electronic communication and transportation, the collectivities that
commemorations may constitute are similarly unbound. Reecting on the changing scale
of communities that are being imagined in a global world, Bruce Robbins makes the
following point:
If people can get as emotional as [Benedict] Anderson says they do about relations
with fellow nationals they never see face-to-face, then now that print capitalism
has become electronic- and digital-capitalism, and now that this system is so clearly
transnational, it would be strange if people did not get emotional in much the same
way, if not necessarily to the same degree, about others who are not fellow
nationals, people bound to them by some transnational sort of fellowship.
(Robbins 1998: 7)
Globalizationthe increasing interdependency of economic, political, and cultural
activities in the worldas well as our awareness of globality, makes it possible for people
to incorporate into their commemorative rituals the cosmopolitanhorizon in which
voices of multiple nationalities come to be in dialogue with one another (Beck 2004).
Within this cosmopolitan horizon, emotional engagement (e.g. empathy and solidarity)
can extend beyond the borders of a single nation.
Again, the Japanese commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima serves as an illus-
trative example. In 1991 the Peace Declaration at the Peace Memorial Ceremony held in
the city of Hiroshima mentioned for the rst time atrocities and suerings that Japan
had inicted on other peoples in Asia. The inclusion signaled a sea change, redening
and rearticulating the commemoration of Hiroshimafrom a solely Japanese national
trauma to a trauma linked to other Asian national traumas. Unlike the Holocaust,
Hiroshimaas a signier always refers to a specic place enclosed within the territory
of the Japanese state; however, what it articulates and commemorates has become
cosmopolitanizedthrough the inclusion of the suerings of foreign others. Whereas
we might say that nationalist commemoration is monological in the sense of conning
peoples emotional engagement within their ascribed national group, cosmopolitan
commemoration is dialogical, in that people rearticulate national trauma so as to produce
forms of solidarity that traverse national borders.
Interestingly, Levy and Sznaider similarly highlight the 1990s as the time when
Holocaustbecame an empty signier and commemorative frame dislocated from
space and time, resulting in its inscription into other acts of injustice and other traumatic
national memories across the globe(2006: 5). How and why did the parallel cosmo-
politanization of the Holocaustand Hiroshimacome about during this period?
Globalization, coupled with the worldwide diusion of human-rights discourse
through a growing number of international non-governmental organizations (Boli and
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Thomas 1999) is undoubtedly part of the storybut only part. Sociologists have not
yet begun to systematically investigate the evolving relationship between nationalism,
cosmopolitanism, and globalization in commemoration, let alone begun to explore the
causal mechanisms through which globalization dierentially aects commemorative
rituals in dierent parts of the world.
It is important to point out, however, that cosmopolitanism by no means eliminates
nationalism from commemoration. Commemoration of the terrorist attacks on
September 11, 2001, for example, can be regarded as cosmopolitan. Victims included not
only Americans but also individuals of more than thirty other nationalities, and
the unfolding of the attacks was televised in real time across the world. In the immedi-
ate aftermath of the attacks, people in dierent national states commemorated
September 11as an event relevant to humanity-as-a-whole, although the cosmopoli-
tan commemoration varied regionally in terms of its intensity and expression. This
cosmopolitanism in the commemoration of September 11still persists today. Never-
theless, some American politicians and publics also framed the event as a cultural trauma
specically and especially constitutive of the American nation, using it as a nationalist
justication for subsequent military and political actions. Thus, when studying the cos-
mopolitanization of commemoration against the backdrop of globalization, sociologists
would do well to demarcate carefully the complex articulations between nationalism and
cosmopolitanism.
Conclusion
This brief essay oers two take-away messages. The rst is that commemoration is a
vehicle of collective memory: commemoration is a ritual that emotionally induces people
to experience past events vicariously and thereby imagine their secondhand knowledge
of those events as living memory that they possess as members of a social group. The
second is that sociologists need to address the blind spots of the Durkheimian theory of
commemoration by turning their attention to commemorations of dicult pasts,
dynamics of political contention within commemoration, problems of temporality, and
the incipient decoupling of commemoration from the nation. Commemoration con-
denses a multiplicity of important theoretical and empirical problems, including but not
limited to rituals, traumas, time, nationalism, and globalization. Hopefully, sociological
studies of commemoration will expand and develop the multifaceted perspectives
necessary to capture this complex and fascinating phenomenon.
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HIRO SAITO
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... The movement led a paradigmatic shift in the approach of the colonial government towards the land issue in particular. The Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act was enacted under the guidance of Hoffman, whose significant role is evident in the making of legislation (Gupta 2016;2010;Sivaramakrishnan 1999). However, the movement also produced a massive cultural milieu amongst Adivasi. ...
... In accepting constructed spaces as physical expressions of abstract concepts of power and prestige and of ritual significance in the wider framework of politics, and implementing Paul Connerton's (1989: 70) and Jan Assmann's sociological approaches (2008:110), the materials themselves are accepted as tools employed to transmit, shape and unify individual experiences on a social level (see also Collins 2004;Saito 2010). Thus, this article focuses on how objects used in foundation and termination rituals helped to form the political and cultural memory of a community through constructed spaces. ...
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