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Thesis defence : Lucrèce HEUX

Thesis defence

On 30 January 2023

Remembering disasters : an interdisciplinary study of individual and collective aspects of the memory of the Aberfan (1966) and Roc des Fiz (1970) disasters in the 20th and 21st centuries

Memory studies is a growing field of research with interdisciplinarity at its core, bringing together disciplines interested in the mechanisms and functions of human memory. Although this field is growing rapidly, the different disciplines interested in the nature and uses of memory nevertheless adopted very different theoretical, conceptual and methodological frameworks, hampering interdisciplinary dialogue. This thesis has brought together various approaches from history and cognitive psychology to study the link between individual and collective memory, with a particular focus on the memory and forgetting of disasters. Disasters disrupt both societies of the affected areas, the individuals involved in the tragedy, but also a larger number of individuals through the media coverage and the transmission of the stories of the tragedy on the local, national, and sometimes international scene. Two case studies have been selected owing to the striking similarity of the events and the apparent disparity in the collective memory of the local and national populations. The colliery spoil tip slide on a school in Aberfan, Wales, in 1966, killing 144 people including 116 children, while the 1970 landslide on the Plateau d'Assy buried part of the Roc des Fiz children's sanatorium, killing 71 people including 56 children. Fifty years later, the state of knowledge of the two disasters remains unequal: the Aberfan disaster led to several documentaries and the tragedy is commemorated every year in the village cemetery and memorial garden, while the Roc des Fiz disaster is commemorated at the foot of a stone which was incorrectly dated for more than 40 years. Following a mainly historical approach, the short and long terms effects of the media and public statements related to the two disasters were studied within a corpus of contemporary sources and further sources investigating the resurgence of the memory of each disaster in the half-century that followed, as well as oral sources sharing memories of these events. This work highlighted the permanence of the memory of the Aberfan disaster within Welsh society, compared to that of the Roc des Fiz, which a group of relatives of the victims has been trying to restore for 50 years with difficulty. Among the explanatory factors, the role of the media in the half-century following the disaster and the emotion aroused by the knowledge of the disaster, due to individual and collective links with the industry or the affected territory, were identified. The influence of these factors on the memory of disasters was then tested within two studies using mainly tools from cognitive psychology. This thesis has finally contributed to identify the contribution, beyond the difficulties, of interdisciplinarity to understand how some disasters become more memorable than others according to individual interests and the "social frameworks" in which they evolve.

Keywords: Collective memory, Autobiographical memory, Individual memory, Industrial disasters, Landslide

Composition du Jury :
Christine BASTIN, Professeure associée à l’Université de Liège (Rapporteure)
Christophe CAPUANO, Professeur à l’Université Grenoble-Alpes (Examinateur)
Robert GILDEA, Professor à Oxford University (Rapporteur)
Kathryne JONES, Associate Professor à Swansea University (Examinatrice)
Olivier LUMINET, Professeurà l’Université Catholique de Louvain (Rapporteur)
Céline SOUCHAY, Directrice de Recherche au CNRS (Co-directrice de thèse)
Rebecca CLIFFORD, Professor à Durham University (Co-directrice de thèse)
Anne-Marie GRANET-ABISSET, Professeure émérite à l’Université Grenoble-Alpes (Co-directrice)
Jeremy TREE, Professor à Swansea University (Co-directeur)

Read the thesis


On 30 January 2023


Co-tutelle UGA/Swansea University
Financement :  UGA IDEX - ISP / Swansea University



Submitted on 20 November 2023

Updated on 20 November 2023