Collective Trauma: Insights From a Research Errand

Mary de Young, Ph.D., B.C.E.T.S.


Over 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 and culture.

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.

With reference 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.

Culture 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 day.

Cultural stories, 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 trauma.

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 temptation.

Other cultural 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).

When Culture Fails

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 that insight.

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 built.

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 (Miller, 1985).

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 vacuum.

Although much 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.

Culture 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 displacement.

Cultural bereavement 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 identifying rituals.

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.

Trauma and 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 and meaningless.

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" (p. 242).


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Published by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress - 2020

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