Social Trauma Research Paper

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Social trauma is a new concept in the social sciences. It transfers a notion from the clinical psychology of individuals to the sociology of groups and cultural communities. On the social level it denotes a collectivity’s response to an event that is considered to be an overwhelming and unexpected threat to its cultural identity and social order.

1. History Of The Concept

Although the term trauma had been used in medical contexts before, its origin as a distinctly psychological concept is commonly attributed to Sigmund Freud. In their studies on hysteria Freud and Breuer characterized the memory of the psychic trauma as ‘a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work’ (Freud and Breuer 1955 (1893–1895), p. 6). Very early Freud noticed the time delay and the possible disparity between the cause and the traumatic response: ‘In traumatic neurosis the operative cause of the illness is not the trifling physical injury but the effect of fright’ (Freud and Breuer 1955 (1893–1895), pp. 5–6). Freud did not yet conceive traumatic memory as a social or collective response. Instead, he refers to processes within the psychic system, in particular to the fundamental tension between instinctive drives and defensive controls. An overwhelming and threatening experience results in an indelible anxiety that is coped with by various defense mechanisms like denial, reversal of cause and effect, or projection of the evil to others.

Psychoanalysis prepared the ground, but the rise of the notion to its current use is due to its relation to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) that were clinically studied and professionally treated after the First World War (shell shock) and, increasingly, after the Second World War (Holocaust survivors, war experiences, rape, violence). During the 50 years since the wars the range of possible traumatizing experiences as well as the symptomatology of trauma vastly expanded —turning ‘trauma’ into a key concept for the analysis of individual and collective phenomena that before had been studied under the conceptual labels of ‘crisis,’ ‘neurosis,’ ‘anomie,’ and ‘disorder.’

2. Social Trauma As Collective Response To The Breakdown Of Order

Genocide and the outburst of violence, military defeat and foreign occupation, sudden economic crisis and mass poverty, forced migration and expulsion from home—but also natural disaster and the spread of mortal plagues—are experienced as shocking events that not only cause great individual suffering, but may also result in the breakdown of social order, that is, in the collapse of the most basic ‘taken for granted’ social expectations. As these ‘evil’ events affect more than a few members of a social community, they cannot be considered as exceptional and individual misfortunes, but rather as events that affect the validity and stability of the social order itself. As a result, they erode basic trust in social institutions, in the solidarity that creates the boundaries of family, neighborhood, and country. The predictability of everyday life is suspended; ordinary time seems to stop (Neal 1998); and the social fabric is disrupted. Under the impact of the shocking event, feelings of hopelessness, apathy, fear, and disorientation spread in the community. Participation in general politics and public debates as well as economic investments and consumption decrease sharply, and crime rates increase. This sharp decline of trust and the rise of apathy and disorientation can be called a social trauma.

In distinction to individual trauma, the social trauma even extends to those members of the community who, as individuals, did not suffer from the traumatizing condition. Because social trust typically extends beyond immediate others, the distrust produced by collective trauma tends to be copied by other members of the community who are devoid of a strong personal experience of breakdown and crisis.

In this conception, social trauma is seen as a response to the sudden breakdown of legitimate social expectations and the rapid decay of social institutions and social structure. The trauma is seen as an ‘adequate’ or natural response to the collapse of social order, and this response can occur without a time delay, immediately after the experience of the traumatizing condition. Although there are mediating institutions and cultural patterns that reinforce and support the traumatic experience, this experience is seen as caused by an external event or condition that is directly observable and objectively accessible. An event becomes a social trauma by its very catastrophic objectivity, that intrudes into ordinary life and resists any attempt to ignore it or to accommodate to it.

3. Social Trauma As A Construction Of Collective Memory

An alternative theoretical paradigm defines social trauma as the sudden collapse of the culturally generated web of meaning that supports individual or collective identity. Because the event that disrupts the web of meaning threatens the identity of an individual or of a collectivity, it may often pass unnoticed when it happens: the mind—individual or collective—is unable to comprehend the moment when its own death may occur. Therefore, social traumas are rarely witnessed directly and immediately, but are crystallized and become available for experience only in the reconstruction of the past. It is the individual or collective memory that strives, voluntarily or forced by others, to remember and to cope with an intrusive event that crushed the social and cultural basis of identity.

This ruminating memory of a past that suddenly confronts a community with the abyss of incomprehensibility is called a social trauma. Because social traumas refer to incomprehensible or horrible occurrences, they are hard to put into narration or to represent by common images or patterns. As individual or collective identities do not refer to objects but to the subjectivity of agents, they can be named, but they escape general definitions and descriptions and so do the traumatic challenges and threats to these identities. In this respect the traumatic memory profoundly differs from the narrative memory that remembers past episodes of meaningful action. However, the narrative memory repeats the past event because it fits into the cultural patterns of the present; the ruminations of traumatic memory result from the very fact that it cannot be narrated and represented by the cultural forms at hand—it occupies our mind because it resists being integrated into our perspective on the world. The strong disturbance and disruption of the individual or collective consciousness produces ambivalent responses and fosters hysteria—obsessive anxiety and repression by denial, the fear of conspiracies and the feeling of guilt, the persecution of scapegoats and hostility towards the victims (Smelser 2001).

4. Individual And Collective Trauma

The culturally constructed trauma can appear on the level of the individual or on the level of the collective memory or on both. If individuals remember the same kind of personal traumatic memories they can—in principle at least—communicate their common or similar experiences and thus develop a collective traumatic memory as members of a generation, as a community of victims, etc. Thus the victims of rape and violence, of racist attacks or forced migration can develop a distinctive collective identity based on common traumatic experiences. But not all personal traumatic memories can be translated into the collective memory of a community. Some remain enclosed in the individual mind and body—because the individual is unable to talk about it, because no other person is expected to understand it, or because the individual trauma is framed by a collective triumph, like the victory of the nation that tends to forget the personal trauma of its soldiers. In contrast to these private and individual traumas, there are social traumas that are largely disconnected from individual experience and memory, but exist, after some time at least, only on the level of collective communication and public culture. Thus the traumatic origins of a nation, a religious community, a generation or an ethnic group can be remembered by public rituals, memorial days, and official monuments, although there may be no surviving witnesses who could claim a personal memory of the traumatizing event. Here, the continuation and reproduction of the trauma is shifted entirely from personal memory to the collective memory of a community, its social institutions, and cultural traditions. Sometimes the collective remembering of the trauma is even impeded by haunting personal memories that cannot be spoken of. After the social trauma is decoupled from personal memories, and transferred to social carriers devoid of these personal memories it can be remembered by public rituals and literature, and it has to be remembered in this way if it is not to be passed into oblivion.

Although there is hardly a traumatic memory that cannot refer to any individual suffering, the cultural construction of a traumatic past does not directly correspond to the amount of individual suffering and the actual number of victims. A victorious war may not be remembered as a trauma, although the number of casualties may exceed those produced by a war that resulted in a military defeat and that, therefore, is remembered as a social trauma. Viewed from a culturalist perspective, the social trauma is not the plain and natural result of individual suffering but its reconstruction in collective consciousness. Whoever partakes in the communicative reconstruction of the trauma can regard himor herself to be a member of the traumatized community, regardless of whether he or she can claim personal experience of the traumatizing event.

5. Modes Of Coping With The Trauma

Most analysts of social trauma agree that there are different modes of coping with traumatic memory, but not all consent to the idea that the traumatized community has to go through a fixed sequential order in coping with the memory. Following Freud we can distinguish between the period of latency and the period of speaking out and working through, or between different responses like denial and uncoupling, reversal, and projection. In the period of latency the community is unable to speak publicly about the trauma because the personal memories are still too vivid to be soothed by public rituals. The trauma is denied or silenced in public discourse or official social representations. If the issue cannot be avoided in communication, it is decoupled from the traumatized community: the time and circumstances of victimization are regarded as being radically different from today’s situation; the victims are even seen as partly responsible for their fate (reversal); the evil is projected on scapegoats or on a few unquestionably responsible individuals.

Only when some time has passed, when a new generation has entered the stage, when a large and influential group of impartial but interested observers takes part in the public debates, can the trauma be publicly addressed by political representatives and even be ritually remembered by memorial days, monuments, and museums. Collective traumas like the Irish famine or the Holocaust of the European Jews, the slavery of African Americans, or the American civil war usually take more than the timespan of a generation to be publicly remembered and recognized. Even if the social trauma can be spoken of and is publicly recognized, its representation remains mostly an issue of contestation and conflict between different generations, political camps, religious or ethnic groups. Questions as to who is to blame for the trauma and who was the most important victim imply, even for succeeding generations, closeness or distance to the symbolic center of the community and are therefore a matter of identity and interest for collective actors within this community. In parallel with these public debates and conflicts, the trauma can be transferred to specialized institutional arenas like historical research and museums, literature, or movies, where it is worked through according to the special logic of the respective institution. Finally, the trauma may be accepted by a majority of a community and become an integral part of its construction of collective identity and history. Not all communities remembering a social trauma will pass through all stages of the sequence and, frequently, different modes of coping coexist and are carried by different social groups and institutional arenas.

6. Victims, Perpetrators And The Public Audience

In its common usage, the concept of social trauma refers to a community of victims. The trauma of the victims resulted from a profound and unexpected denial of their claims on dignity and autonomy as subjects and cohumans. Instead, they have been treated as objects that could be traded, used, deported, oppressed, and killed. Like objects, they were considered as cases of a category deprived of a name, a face, and a place in the community. Slavery and genocide, displacement, and mass violence are the paradigm cases of this dehumanizing treatment of victims. Immediately after the traumatizing event the surviving victims, because of shame and shock, can hardly report on their suffering—they are muted and sometimes they are even isolated from the regular members of their community in special camps or asylums. It is only from a temporal or social distance that the suffering of victims is remembered, that they are recognized as subjects and symbolically reintegrated into the community. This recognition, remembering, and reintegration cannot be achieved by the descendants of the victims alone. Instead, it requires the participation of an impartial public or of a noninvolved third party who consents to this process and agrees with the cultural self-definition of victims. If a nation or an ethnic group claims the identity of traumatized victim, it remains a contingent question as to whether other nations or groups recognize this claim in a public debate.

In contrast to a vast range of research on the trauma of victims, relatively few studies center upon the trauma of perpetrators. The trauma of perpetrators results from the fact that they violated fundamental moral principles, ensuring not only the victims’ status as subjects, but also their own status. Because of their shame and their ignorance, perpetrators tend to be silent and to deny the moral crisis that they have caused. In this case, even more than in the case of victims, a strong third party is required to publicly debate the victimization and insist on stigmatizing the perpetrators. Particular institutions like courts of justice, or professional experts like medical doctors, can also take this position of a noninvolved third party. Only in exceptional cases, however, is the trauma of perpetrators accepted by those who were directly and actively involved in creating the traumatizing event. Instead, it is mainly the succeeding generation and other noninvolved members of the community who can speak of the collective trauma and admit publicly to the collective guilt. Like the social trauma of victims, the trauma of perpetrators also leads to public contestations and conflicts about the question of how the boundaries of the traumatized community of victims or of perpetrators will be demarcated. It also determines who has to be included, even if he or she was not directly concerned as an individual person. In the course of this debate the social trauma of victims and perpetrators is turned into the core of a public discourse about the collective identity of the nation or of the other communities involved. As such, it tends to replace the traditional public representation of national identity that showed the nation as a triumphant or tragic hero resisting its adversaries. This demise of heroism and the rise of social trauma as the core reference for national identity is reflected in public monuments, museums, and movies, but also by the rhetoric and the rituals of political representatives who remember the victims of the past in public.


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