the past twenty years, sociologist Kai Erickson's
"research errands", as he refers to
them, have taken him to any number of communities
still reeling from the effects of recent disasters.
From the flood ravaged town of Buffalo Creek,
to the Grassy Narrows Indian reservation on the
banks of the mercury-contaminated Wabigoon River,
to the neighborhoods surrounding the Three Mile
Island nuclear plant, his journey is charted in
his book, A New Species of Trouble (1994).
The book is a
gripping examination of the impact of collective
trauma which Erikson defines as a "blow to
the basic tissues of social life that damages
the bonds attaching people together and impairs
the prevailing sense of community" (p. 233).
Whether in the form of a natural or human-made
disaster, discrete or on-going social disorder,
or chronic condition, collective trauma is of
sociological interest because it reveals so much
about the intricate interaction between trauma
As Geertz (1973)
points out, culture may be viewed as a context
of symbols and meanings that people create and
recreate for themselves during the process of
social interaction. Culture is represented externally
in artifacts, roles, rituals and institutions,
and internally as values, beliefs, attitudes,
identities, stock of knowledge and world view.
to that definition of culture, this present article
engages in the kind of research errand that Erickson
sets out. It examines an array of collective traumas
around the world for the insights it provides
about the role that culture plays in just two
of what really are many critical areas: the shaping
of the experience of collective trauma, and the
facilitation of recovery from these unexpected
ruptures in social life.
and the Experience of Collective Trauma
When culture functions
well, it buffers members from at least some of
the disruptive impact and consequences of collective
trauma, as the international research literature
attests. Abu Heim, Quota, Thabet and El Sarraj
(1993), for example, find that a strong commitment
to Palestinian cultural values and world view
offers psychological protection to many of the
children in Gaza where armed conflict with the
Israelis is a feature of everyday life. Swartz
and Levett (1989) observe similar buffering effects
of cultural commitment for Black children living
under the repressive regime of apartheid in South
Africa. In their interviews with a small sample
of elderly Armenian survivors of the Turkish genocide,
Kalayjian, Shahinian, Gergerian and Saraydarian
(1996) also find that strong religious belief
and fierce pride in cultural identity mitigate,
to some extent, the otherwise devastating grief
and outrage that survivors experience to this
myths and legends that have as themes the mastery
of past events of collective trauma also may be
used a resource by members of a culture who are
currently experiencing collective trauma. Uyehara
(1980-1981) analyzes the Horehore-Bushi type of
Japanese folksong that developed among immigrant
laborers in Hawaii. Its themes of the trauma of
plantation life and the longing for homeland are
offset by a leitmotif of persistence in the face
of hardship and, ultimately, independence and
success. A source of comfort and inspiration to
the immigrants who composed them, the songs also
serve as a cultural resource for later Japanese
generations coping with other types of collective
There is at least
one example of a subculture "borrowing"
a collective traumatic event in order to create
its own sustaining and comforting myth during
a time of chronic, even unrelenting, trauma. In
April 1912, the luxury liner Titanic struck
an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sunk in the
north Atlantic, killing 1500 of its passengers
and crew, and challenging the western world's
belief in God and its faith in technology. Today,
more is known about that disaster than ever before,
but the story that the immensely popular film,
the Broadway musical and the plethora of recently
published books do not tell is about the appropriation
of the disaster by African-Americans.
None of the ill-fated
ship's passengers were African-American, nor any
of its crew, but as Weisbord (1994) points out
both southern and northern Blacks, traumatized
by virulent racism and demoralized by persistent
poverty, made the Titanic disaster the
subject of a toast, an oral narrative. In a Harlem
version of the toast, Shine, a dark-skinned Black,
worked aboard the luxury liner as a stoker. As
the ship began to sink, and the wealthy white
passengers began to panic and then die, he used
his superior athletic skills to break down an
iron door and swim to safety, ignoring along the
way the captain's wife who offered him sexual
favors for his help, and an elderly millionaire
who offered cash. The toast is not only a narrative
through which contempt for White society is expressed,
but a wholly constructed myth about the triumph
of the race in the face of prejudice, hatred and
artifacts also serve that function. During World
War II, approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans
were confined in relocation camps. Caught between
the demand to show allegiance to their country
of birth by renouncing their cultural heritage,
and the temptation to embrace their heritage even
while risking expulsion from their country, many
of the detainees felt demoralized, confused and
powerless. But the paintings and sketches of the
camps' artists provided images of dignity and
efficacy and, perhaps most importantly, also celebrated
the richness and the strength of the very dual
cultural identity, that of Japanese-American,
that under conditions of internment had become
the source of so much anxiety and even shame for
the detainees (Kuramitsu, 1995).
As deVries (1996)
points out, culture is a "double-edged sword"
(p. 400). Because it acts as a buffer and supportive
system, its members are dependent upon it to give
their lives meaning and direction. Collective
trauma, by its very definition, poses a direct
assault on the continuity and integrity of the
cultural system. At times, however, those disruptions
are so unexpected as to have been entirely unforeseen.
Two examples from different parts of the world
about two subtle, yet insidious, disruptions provide
In 1986 the Chernobyl
nuclear disaster occurred. The worst in a series
of nuclear disasters throughout the world, the
explosions in the Chernobyl plant released hundreds
of tons of radioactive dust and dispersed it across
Europe and Scandinavia. A million acres of forest
were contaminated and vast tracts of land will
remain uninhabitable for thousands of years. The
human toll of "this new species of trouble,"
as Erickson (1994, p. 141) refers to it, is inestimable.
To date, over a half a million people who either
were involved in the clean-up or were living nearby
are sick or dead, and it is estimated that over
$50 billion will be needed to address the future
health needs of the over 4 million people who
continue to live in the most seriously contaminated
areas including the Ukraine where Sappa and Mordovenko
(1993) surveyed students who were 11 to 12 years
old at the time of the nuclear disaster. Although
most of the students agree that the ultimate consequences
of the disaster will take years to assess, 57%
express no real concerns about nuclear accidents
and think that existing nuclear plants should
remain open, and 11% feel that more should be
It is tempting,
of course, to dismiss this quite surprising finding
as nothing more than the product of adolescent
folly and ignorance, but Van Den Hout, Havenaar
and Meikler-Iljina (1995) offer a compelling interpretation
of Soviet life from which the impact of collective
trauma on the cultural stock of knowledge may
be surmised. Every culture provides its members
with a stock of knowledge about the way it works
and a set of meanings that makes sense of that
work. At times, a collective traumatic event is
so overpowering, so shattering, that it tests
that stock of knowledge and if that cultural system
can offer no real explanation for the event or
its aftermath, the members of the culture are
left epistemically disempowered, that is, they
are at a loss to explain what happened and why,
and to derive any meaning from their own suffering.
Under the political and social conditions of propaganda,
disinformation and lies that followed the Chernobyl
disaster, the already depleted stock of knowledge
could not be replenished because the people's
distrust of government and the official press
led them to reject all information about
the disaster--even factual and life-saving information--as
exaggerated or untrue. From this brief discussion
of the sociopolitical context of the Chernobyl
nuclear disaster an alternative explanation for
the surprising responses of the Ukrainian students
begins to emerge: they may be evidence of the
kind of epistemic disempowerment that at times
occurs when a collective trauma tests a cultural
stock of knowledge and finds it wanting.
The Irish potato
famine provides another example of the unexpected
disruption to culture that can occur in the face
of collective trauma. Over the four awful years
of "the Great Hunger," nearly half of
the Irish population either died from famine-related
diseases or emigrated to escape their plight.
The personal toll of the famine was enormous and
tragic, of course, but it is its altogether unexpected
impact on the Gaelic language that is of interest
here. Language is the primary means for communicating
culture and for socializing new generations. As
preliterate people, the Irish poor were devoted
to the oral tradition, using stories, songs and
verse to express and transmit a rich and vigorous
traditional culture. But their language was one
of the victims of the famine. A disproportionate
number of those who died or emigrated were Gaelic-speakers.
By the famine's end, only 300,000 monoglot Gaelic-speakers
were left in the country and over successive generations
English spread rapidly as the association between
the Gaelic language and poverty and ignorance
was firmly forged in the collective consciousness
The steady Anglicization
of Ireland over the 150 years after the famine
created what the Irish refer to as "the Great
Silence," an ever-widening linguistic and
cultural gap between each successive generation.
Increasingly cut off from all that is communicated
by native language--tradition, identity and sense
of place--post-famine generations left their homeland
and sought their dreams abroad, with increasingly
profound socioeconomic and political consequences
for their native country.
At times, an entire
culture is compromised by collective trauma, leaving
its members vulnerable to the psychological sequelae
so familiar to experts in traumatic stress. The
immediate aftermath of the Exxon Valdez
oil spill provides that unsettling insight. In
March 1989, the Exxon Valdez poured over
a quarter of a million barrels of crude oil into
Alaska's Prince William Sound, killing innumerable
fish, seals, sea birds, otters and whales and
destroying the livelihoods of native
Aleut and non-native
fishing communities. In their study of community
residents, Palinkas, Downs, Patterson and Russell
(1993) find that native Aleuts were over twice
as likely to have experienced PTSD and generalized
anxiety disorder than were the non-natives because
the natural resources destroyed by the oil spill
are more than just an economic commodity to them--they
are the crux of Aleut identity, social organization
and ideology, and are the symbols through which
native culture is transmitted to future generations.
Finally, it is
important to consider another cultural failure,
this one so systemic that it is most descriptively
termed cultural disintegration. As Bosnia, Rwanda,
Somalia and other places around the world tragically
reveal, civil wars, ethnic cleansings, revolutions
and mass expulsions and exoduses disarticulate
cultural systems and reduce them to meaningless
customs, pointless rituals and vague collective
memories. As deVries (1996) points out, the disintegration
of culture inevitably gives rise to fierce nationalism,
tribalism and fundamentalism, all regressive forces
that act to "release individuals behaviorally
and ideologically from an intolerable complexity
that cannot be managed or used in a more productive
way" (p. 407). When culture no longer can
provide identity and meaning, it is these kinds
of regressive forces that rush in to fill the
yet needs to be learned about cultural disintegration
and its repercussion on individuals, deVries (1996)
offers some interesting, albeit disturbing, insights.
He suggests that when culture disintegrates, the
individual's problems will be proportional to
it, with the avenues of personal vulnerability
following the routes vacated by the culture. Thus,
"paranoia substitutes for trust; aggression
replaces nurturance and support; identity confusion
or a negative identity substitutes for a positive
identity" (p. 408). While this hypothesis
does not seem to bode well for too many people
around the world today, history also shows that
once the collective traumatic event recedes or
ends completely, people almost always reconstruct
on the remnants of the culture upon which they
had been so dependent.
and the Resolution of Trauma
Culture not only
functions to buffer its members from the devastating
impact of collective trauma, but it also provides
the devices that facilitate the process of healing.
One such device is ritual. The interest of sociologists
and anthropologists in the function and structure
of ritual is well detailed in their respective
literatures which describe ritual as a process
that shapes the expression of emotion, guides
behavior, and offers meaning and closure even
while it strengthens the link of the individual
to the social group and to the culture at large
(Durkheim, 1961; Turner, 1967). For traumatized
individuals whose emotions may be labile and behavior
immoderate, who have an existential need for meaning
and sense, and whose bonds with others and with
the culture may have been torn, ritual can play
an integral role in healing.
Research on racial
minority veterans of the Vietnam War provide that
insight. Parson (1985) was one of the first to
call attention to the "tripartic adaptational
dilemma" of minority veterans who must come
to terms with their bicultural identity, confront
institutional racism, and work through the traumatic
echoes of the war. For African-American veterans
he advocates the use of "post-traumatic psychocultural
therapy" (PTpsyCT) that focuses on each prong
of this adaptational dilemma and even historicizes
institutional racism by addressing the experience
and legacy of slavery.
For American Indian
veterans, participation in cultural rituals provides
a helpful adjunct to more traditional psychotherapy.
One such Navajo ritual, the Enemy Way, lasts for
seven days and involves family, clan and community
members in a ceremony that restores harmony, balance
and connection to the traumatized Navajo veteran.
As Manson et al. (1990) explain, the greatest
relevance of such culturally specific healing
practices lies in their meaning-making function--they
make sense of the traumatic event and the individual's
responses to it through the use of familiar cultural
symbols and activities, and by reference to the
cultural belief system and world view.
An insight into
the psychological consequences of the failure
to enact cultural rituals during and after a collective
traumatic event is provided by research on refugee
groups. Here, the concept of "cultural bereavement"
is important to appreciate. Eisenbruch (1991),
who coined the term, describes cultural bereavement
as the experience of the uprooted person or group
resulting from loss of social structures, cultural
values and self-identity (p. 674). His own work
with Cambodian refugees shows that those who sought
refuge in the United States tend to have more
persistent post-traumatic symptomatology than
those who fled to Australia where there is less
pressure to conform and assimilate, and more tolerance
for the performance of cultural rituals that serve
to heal the psychic wounds of civil war and geographic
is observed in other refugee groups as well. Harrell-Bond
and Wilson (1990) find that many who fled the
civil war in Mozambique are unable to work through
the trauma of displacement because they continue
to feel haunted by the spirits of dead relatives
for whom they had not been able to carry out culturally
prescribed burial rituals. For the Beta Israel,
as Ethiopian Jews prefer to be called, rituals
associated with the land are at the heart of their
culture. Their recent emigration to Israel deprived
them of land ownership and thus rendered meaningless
the rituals that engender their social cohesion
and reaffirm their cultural identity. Schindler
(1993) notes the attenuated grief and mourning
of the Beta Israel emigres even several years
after their dramatic air lift into Israel, and
attributes it to the loss of these unifying and
It is also important
to consider the plight of those who, because of
the marginalizing effects of prejudice, itself
a chronic collective trauma, are routinely and
systematically denied access to and participation
in the restorative rituals, roles and practices
of the larger White culture. Penck and Allen (1991),
for example, find a higher and more persistent
rate of PTSD among African-American Vietnam War
veterans which they attribute, in large part,
to the marginalizing effects of chronic racism.
Loo (1994) finds the same for Asian-American veterans
and theorizes that their marginalization upon
return to the United States systematically excludes
them from the cultural rituals and roles that
will aid in their healing. War is not the only
collective trauma that reveals this insight. In
their study of the survivors of the savage Buffalo
Creek flood, Green, Lindy, Grace and Glessner
(1990) conclude that the one of the variables
that explains the late onset of PTSD in African-American
survivors is the resurfacing of "the usual
prejudicial attitudes" (p. 57) that work
to keep them from full participation in the restorative
rituals and roles that a decade after the flood
had served White survivors quite well.
the Recreation of Culture
The tendency for
collective trauma to act as a "centrifugal
force," as Erickson (1994, p. 232) calls
it, that is to push already socially marginalized
groups ever further away from the cultural center,
is quite well documented in the literature that
is sensitive to its possibility. It would be remiss,
however, not to mention its "centripetal
force." Collective trauma also can bring
people together in the kind of social interaction
that Geertz (1973) says functions to recreate
culture. Two examples, both focusing on another
interaction between culture and trauma-commemoration--will
bring this review article to a close.
The AIDS epidemic
is a collective trauma, as Erickson defines it,
and to date has taken more lives than were lost
fighting the war in Vietnam. The patchwork quilt
that commemorates in individual three by six foot
panels just a fraction of those who died increases
in size with the losses from the epidemic; now
so large, it barely can be experienced all at
once. But when it is, culture is recreated. Rituals
have emerged from the showings of this cultural
artifact (Hawkins, 1993). The wearing of white
clothing by those who first unfolded the panels
for display over a decade ago, a purely functional
choice so as to distinguish them from the viewers,
now is a tradition invested with symbolic significance.
The process of folding and unfolding the panels,
the reading of the names, the singing of the hymn
"Amazing Grace," and the candlelight
procession of viewers representing the spectrum
of religion, race, economic class and sexual orientation,
but brought together by loss, are testimony to
the centripetal force of collective trauma.
In the wake of
the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in
Oklahoma City, the centripetal force of collective
trauma also is observed. The sheer horror of the
event, the violence of the deaths of ordinary
people performing routine, everyday functions,
carry a message "that death can occur arbitrarily
and unfairly. . .and suggests severe limits to
our cultural promise of safety and control"
(Haney, Leimer & Lowery, 1997, p. 169). In
the face of this type of devastating event, the
emotional response of even those not directly
affected is so overwhelming, and the cultural
stock of knowledge so inadequate to explain and
offer meaning, that traditional cultural death
rituals lose their usefulness and can feel empty
One response to
their inadequacy is the creation of what Haney,
Leimer and Lowery (1994, p. 161) refer to as "spontaneous
memorials," that is, the collection of mementos,
usually of a symbolic nature, that people bring
to and leave at the site of the collective traumatic
event. The wire mesh fence surrounding the area
where the Murrah Federal Building once stood is
covered with flowers, hand-made signs, toys, letters
and poems, and other mementos, and even now, three
years after the event, is still a site of pilgrimage.
But it is also the site of the recreation of culture.
The spontaneous memorial represents people's efforts
to create a new, meaningful and public ritual
that acknowledges the grief and fear of the larger
community, lifts constraints on the duration of
mourning and the expression of emotion, and offers
the role of mourner to anyone who participates.
This article examined
collective traumas around the world for the insights
they provide about the role that culture plays
in shaping the experience of collective trauma,
and in facilitating recovery from these unexpected
ruptures in social life. Since it was Erickson's
work that inspired this "research errand,"
it is his conclusion that can be cited to best
summarize the insights this paper has uncovered:
"The experience of trauma, at its worst,
can mean not only a loss of confidence in the
self but a loss of confidence in the scaffolding
of family and community, in the structures of
human government, in the larger logics by which
humankind lives, and in the ways of nature itself"
Abu Hein, F.,
Quota, S., Thabet, A., & El Sarraj, E. (1993).
Trauma and mental health of children in Gaza.
British Medical Journal, 306,
(1996). Trauma in cultural perspective. In B.A.
van der Kolk, A.C. McFarlane, & L. Weisaeth
(Eds.). Traumatic Stress (pp. 398-413).
NY: The Guilford Press.
(1961). The Elementary Forms of the Religious
Life. London: Barrie and Jenkins.
M. (1991). From post-traumatic stress disorder
to cultural bereavement: Diagnosis of Southeast
Asian refugees. Social Science and Medicine,
(1994). A New Species of Trouble: The Human
Experience of Modern Disasters. NY: Norton.
Geertz, C. (1973).
The Interpretation of Cultures. NY:
Lindy, J., Grace, M., & Glesser, G.C. (1990).
Buffalo Creek survivors in the second decade:
Stability of stress symptoms. American Journal
of Orthopsychiatry, 60, 43-54.
Leimer, C., & Lowery, J. (1997). Spontaneous
memorialization: Violent death and emerging
mourning rituals. Omega: Journal of Death
and Dying, 35, 159-171.
B., & Wilson, K. (1990). Dealing with dying:
Some anthropological reflections on the need
for assistance by refugee relief programmes
for bereavement and burial. Journal of Refugee
Studies, 3, 228-243.
(1993). Naming names: The art of memory and
the NAMES project AIDS quilt. Critical Inquiry,
Shahinian, S.P., Gergerian, E.L., & Saraydarian,
L. (1996). Coping with Ottoman Turkish genocide:
Exploration of the experience of Armenian survivors.
Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9,
(1995). Internment and identity in Japanese
American art. American Quarterly, 47,
Loo, C.M. (1994).
Race-related PTSD: The Asian-American Vietnam
vet. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 7,
Beals, J., O'Nell, T., Piasecki, J., Bechtold,
D., Keane, E., & Jones, M. (1996). Wounded
spirits, ailing hearts: PTSD and related disorders
among American Indians. In A.K. Marsella, M.J.
Friedman, E.T. Gerrity, & R.S. Scurfield
(Eds.). Ethnocultural Aspects of Posttraumatic
Stress Disorder (pp. 255-283). Washington,
D.C.: American Psychological Association Press.
(1985). Emigrants and Exiles. NY: Oxford
Downs, M.; Patterson, J., & Russell, J.
(1993). Social, cultural, and psychological
impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Human
Organization, 52, 1-13.
Parson, E. (1985).
Ethnicity and traumatic stress. In C.R. Figley
(Ed.), Trauma and Its Wake (pp. 314-337).
Parson, E. (1990).
Post-traumatic psychocultural therapy (PTpsyCT):
Integration of trauma and shattering social
labels of the self. Journal of Contemporary
Psychotherapy, 20, 237-258.
& Allen, I.M. (1991). Clinical assessment
of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] among
American minorities who served in Vietnam. Journal
of Traumatic Stress, 4, 41-66.
& Mordovenko, D.N. (1993). Atomnaya energetika
glazami podrostkov [Atomic energy through the
eyes of teenagers]. Sotsiologicheskie Issledovaniya,
(1993). Emigration and the Black Jews of Ethiopia:
Dealing with bereavement and loss. International
Social Work, 36, 7-19.
& Levett, A. (1989). Political repression
and children in South Africa. Social Science
and Medicine, 28, 741-750.
Turner, V. (1967).
The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, NY:
(1980-1981). The Horehore-Bushi: A type of Japanese
folksong developed and sung among the early
immigrants in Hawaii. Social Process
in Hawaii, 28, 110-120.
Van Den Bout,
J., Havenaar, J.M., & Meijler-Iljina, L.I.
(1995). Health problems in areas contaminated
by the Chernobyl disaster. In R.J. Kleber, C.R.
Figley, & B.P.R. Gersons (Eds.), Beyond
Trauma: Cultural and Societal Dynamics
(pp. 213-232). NY: Plenum.
(1994). Black American perceptions of the Titanic
disaster. Journal of Popular Culture,
by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic