Shared Social Trauma: An Analysis & Defense

Judith Carlisle & Carl Craver


Numerous historians and cultural theorists argue that the concept of “trauma” applies not just to individuals but to the social groups of which they are members as well. This idea has received considerable push back, both from methodological individualists, who believe that social trauma can be analyzed without remainder into the traumas of individuals, and from opponents of the extended mind, who object that that the idea of trauma has no application to groups precisely because groups do not have minds (or minds of the right sort) to experience trauma in the first place. In this paper, we offer an analysis of what social trauma is, using examples to illustrate how social groups can properly be said to be the subject of traumatic events and their aftereffects. Our argument for this thesis begins with an analogy: Social groups respond to traumatic events, sometimes the very same traumatic events, in ways that share many features with the kinds of changes people undergo when they are traumatized. Just as individuals can experience negative events, so too can groups. Just as individuals can adopt coping strategies and display pathological patterns of behavior in light of these events, so too can groups. Importantly, the proposed extension has an important interventional upshot for those who would use science as a basis for building a better world. In dealing with group trauma, we often need to recognize and address at least two different strata of intervention in an effort to cope and heal: both the individual and its social environment might need to change at once. Without such recognition, traumatized groups (e.g., societies, corporations, cultural groups) are structured to replicate and regenerate cycles of trauma over time, both in individuals and in the groups they partly compose.