Reflecting on the concept of collective trauma for understanding protracted violent conflicts

Taking up some of the resistance against the term of collective trauma, Ursula König and me discuss why collective and transgenerational trauma are relevant and should be a key concept for development and peacebuilding/conflict transformation practitioners and practices. This blog entry was first published by FriEnt 

Since we published the article “Closing a gap in conflict transformation: Understanding collective and transgenerational trauma”, many colleagues have shown great interest in our analysis and arguments. Some of them also questioned our use of the concept and term “collective trauma”. 

This was a fairly typical response: “Both of you are strong advocates of a system- and solutions-focused approach. Are you not pathologising a whole nation, society or group when you characterise it as being affected by ‘collective trauma’?”

Collective trauma: why does it make us – and you – feel uncomfortable?

We see two main challenges in using the term “trauma” while talking about collectives.

First, most of us associate trauma with a particular set of diagnosed symptoms such as dissociation, hyperarousal or numbness, anxiety, disturbed sleep or eating disorders, amnesia, and/or panic attacks. The bodies and minds of people who have experienced trauma remain in “stress mode”, and the hardware of the brain is altered.

When we talk about transgenerational trauma – a particular form of individual and collective trauma – the physical symptoms among the people affected, such as family members, may vary from a general sense of numbness, sense of victimhood, loss and fear, to unexplained  pain and a greater likelihood of illnesses like type 2 diabetes.

Not pathologising collectives

We do not want to place the analytical focus on these symptoms.  While we do not want to pathologise collectives, we are keen to understand how collectives in deep-rooted conflicts develop, refer to and institutionalise – constructive and destructive – coping mechanisms.

We would argue that besides exceptionally resilient individuals, most communities in deep-rooted violent conflict contexts learn to cope “with the past” by making use of the learned patterns of survival such as narratives of victimhood, scapegoating or strong emotions of fear/anxiety. These patterns are survival mechanisms which continue to be prevalent modes of behaviour as communities remain in deep (mental and physical) stress. The atrocities and the injustices committed remain “open wounds” and become points of reference for current political and social behaviour. Political and religious leaders play a particularly important role here as their “wounded leadership” “forces” them to engage in collective narratives of victimhood and survival.

Identity needs 

We want to highlight that every group – be it a family, a political party, ethnic community or nation – needs identity, narratives and emotions which make sense of its (traumatic) experiences. An identity as a victim, for example, gives a discriminated-against group the much-needed social and political recognition of its suffering (and perhaps even financial compensation). The reference to an identity gives a social or political group a much-needed identity and, in turn, “makes sense” of its trauma. The concept of collective trauma explains and mirrors how people use their identity, by which we mean their collective mindsets, emotions and narratives, to make sense of their traumatic experiences.

Concept of collective trauma 

Advantage of the concept of collective trauma

The analytical advantage of thinking of collective trauma in terms of these three identity markers is twofold:

  • First, the identity markers can help us to systematise potentially conflict-aggravating social and political phenomena and dynamics in protracted conflicts. Insiders and outsiders can use the three identity markers as analytical categories to map and understand protractedness – and how to transform it.
  • Second, the three identity markers can be transformed from their conflict-aggravating dimension into empowering resources for resilience and conflict transformation. If we know, for example, that collective exclusive narratives and collective emotions of fear and anxiety inform collective trauma, we can develop theories of change and activities which try to address them. This could mean putting a particular focus on intra- and inter-group confidence-building measures. Another emphasis could be placed on peace journalism which attempts to challenge exclusive mindsets and stereotypes in mainstream and social media.

Trauma matters – but what is new after all?

We agree that many of us working with refugees, humanitarian aid and development in protracted conflicts, mediation and dealing with the past, work with assumptions which could be easily derived from the lens of collective trauma. The new lens we offer is a structured perspective to analyse and understand protractedness of violent (intra- and inter-state) conflicts more comprehensively.  

Political dimension of trauma

With our approach to collective trauma, we focus on the political dimension, linking it with learning processes at various collective levels. Interestingly, the political dimension of transgenerational trauma started some time ago: we need only think of the debates on the  (grand)children of the war generation in Germany, on nationalism in Eastern Europe or on the continued discrimination against Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Summing up, we continue to use the term “trauma” for those collective processes in order to highlight the subconscious, emotional and bodily interplay, to reinforce the concept of resilience at individual and collective levels, and to open the pathway to collective resources by transforming the three identity markers of collective trauma. In short, collective trauma matters but not necessarily in the pathological sense of the term trauma. 

Picture above taken from Tim Mossholder. Picture in FriEnt blog, first published first on 1 April 2020:

And more on collective and transgenerational trauma: Ursula König and Cordula Reimann 2018: “Closing a gap: Understanding collective and transgenerational trauma in conflict transformation processes” (June)