Reports: “The Cultural Politics of Naming and Commemoration”

by Manning Zhang (Brandeis University)

On May 27th, the Culture Section of American Sociological Association held the fifth, also the last event of the Culture and Contemporary Life Series. Robin Wagner-Pacifici (The New School) moderated the discussion. Fiona Greenland (University of Virginia), Angela Gonzales (Arizona State University), and Christina Simko (Williams College) served as panelists. The event took a theme “The Cultural Politics of Naming and Commemoration.” Here are highlighted remarks from the discussion.

Angela Gonzales

General attitudes towards (re)naming practices

  • It’s inherently a political act to name and label people and places because naming practices can potentially erase cultural distinctiveness in many levels.
  • The right of claiming is behind name-claiming acts.
  • Claiming identity does not confer to the individual but actually it’s something that is bestowed upon them from a larger group of people, such as a tribe, or a nation itself.

Contextualize naming and commemoration

  • E.g., there are gains and losses when using traditional tribal names to name places during exhibitions.

Fiona Greenland

General attitudes towards (re)naming practices

  • We live in a moment when renaming happens constantly.
  • Materiality is attached to the renaming processes.
  • The collectivity in affirming, recognizing, and responding to a name is undermined by the name-claiming acts.

Contextualize naming and commemoration

  • The request of renaming has become a heavy burden upon its seekers, due diligence into in-depth historical documents for example.

The binaries in naming practices

  • The binaries do not only exist as specific and inclusive labeling, or informal and formal naming, but also exist between the local and the state, the family and the public, the youth and the adult, etc.

Christina Simko

General attitudes towards (re)naming practices

  • In the case of Syria, the role of collectivity keeps coming up in conversations around identity-building, colonialism, nationalism, authoritarianism, etc., in local community.
  • There are subtle differences between labeling an event by date and by place.
    • To name an event by date, such as 911, suggests that there will be a stoppage of that date in that moment into the future and the date will be recognized by a broad core activity.
    • To name an event by place implies that the sphere of relevance is smaller and indicates the persons involved and the forms of future memorialization.

Contextualize naming and commemoration

  • E.g., the war memorial removal controversy across the Southern localities was not simply a local process but also involved with the state-level legislature.

The binaries in naming practices

  • It’s necessary to transform the binaries into a continuum and to highlight the process through which an informal name becomes formalized.

During the Q&A session, Terry McDonnell asked if we would witness a decline in commemoration because of the rise of contestation and political risks and if the commemoration and naming will look different. Angela Gonzales said that the commemoration would continue and even increase, with more amplified contestation around. Christina Simko agreed and added that there will be a proliferation of critical stories, which will intensify the contestation around the commemoration. Fiona Greenland stressed the differences between the personal, everyday commemoration and the bureaucratic, machinery ones. She envisioned that people who wield power will pay increasing attention to the representation in the commemoration acts. 

Hannah Wohl asked why some sites of atrocities do not become places of commemoration, plantations used for leisure in particular. Fiona Greenland and Christina Simko addressed this question by noting their personal observation. Robin Wagner-Pacifici related it to the amplification of legitimate constituencies and responded to McDonnell’s question by affirming that commemoration will not diminish in the future.  

The Culture Section of American Sociological Association curated the Culture and Contemporary Life Series as a new initiative to explore the pressing social issues of our time through a cultural perspective and examine how cultural sociology can inform these issues. The series of events took place once every four to six weeks during the past months in 2021. The May 27 event featuring “The Cultural Politics of Naming and Commemoration” concluded the series for the academic year. 


Fiona Greenland is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. She was a classical archaeologist for ten years, and she studies the construction of cultural heritage and the uses of antiquities in contemporary politics and markets. 

Angela Gonzales is an associate professor and Faculty Head of Justice & Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Over the past decade, Gonzales has engaged in several community-based research projects on the Hopi Reservation. Her research integrates the fields of Development Sociology and American Indian Studies with empirically driven community-based research.

Christina Simko is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Williams College and the author of The Politics of Consolation: Memory and the Meaning of September 11 (Oxford University Press, 2015). She specializes in cultural and historical sociology, with an interest in collective crises, memory and trauma. 

Robin Wagner-Pacifici is a university professor affiliated with the Department of Sociology at The New School for Social Research. Her work analyzes society’s response to violent events, including events identified as terrorist in nature. In addition, she has examined how society remembers traumatic experiences in its past by erecting memorials to such incidents