June 29, 2020

Collective Trauma and COVID-19

Liana tuller author photoBy Liana Renée Tuller,  Research Fellow at Northeastern University's Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence

Numerous newspaper and magazine articles, health advisories, blogs, radio segments, and op-eds have dubbed COVID-19 a “collective trauma.” What does that mean? And, if our city, our country, and our world is, indeed, experiencing a collective trauma, what lessons can previous collective traumas offer us to help us cope?

Unquestionably, COVID-19 has affected people’s psychological state, not only through grief when loved ones die, but also through the stress of job loss, fear of being infected, isolation imposed by social distancing, and anxiety that life will never return to normal. These emotions, communally experienced, could indeed be described as traumatic.

But collective trauma refers to something that is more than the sum of each individual’s mental state. In Kai Erikson’s seminal analysis, a 1972 flood literally swept Buffalo Creek, West Virginia out of existence, severing relationships, norms and rituals that had anchored residents’ lives. The damage to their social fabric—not resident’s individual grief—constituted the collective trauma. Sociologists have since examined collective trauma in the wake of wars, internal conflicts, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks.

Some, like Jeffrey Alexander, propose that, as a society makes sense of shattering events, its members may engage in a contested process in which they make claims about the nature of the harm that has occurred, its victims, and those responsible. Through a discursive process, new defining principles and a new social identity are forged. Per this model, trauma is a cultural interpretation, rather than a positivistic response, to harm.

Events like the Holocaust, the Guatemalan genocide, slavery in the United States, and Hurricane Katrina, which have been interpreted as cultural traumas, are distinguished by having defined ending points, after which society can engage in the acts of collectively interpreting and memorializing.

In contrast, some collective traumas are ongoing. For example, my research focuses on what collective trauma means in conditions of chronic stress and pervasive violence, such as are experienced by residents in certain Boston neighborhoods that have been subjected to decades of structural violence and have been confronted with recurring instances of interpersonal violence. Is this cultural trauma? How do residents dynamically ascribe meaning to what is happening in their neighborhoods? With what results? And, how does this pertain to COVID-19?

Monolithic, officially sanctioned interpretations of social harm don’t emerge from the neighborhoods I study. These neighborhoods are small and often ignored. Their experience has not been processed into a dominant narrative through speeches and monuments and school curricula, in the way that national-level events often are. Nevertheless, residents are actively involved in shaping narratives around violence, trauma, and healing, filtered through the lenses of the particular events and institutions that characterize their neighborhoods. Neighborhood identity forms dynamically along the axes of major disruptive forces, including poverty, racism, and violence.

While neighborhood violence has endured through decades in cities like Boston, COVID-19 won’t be a permanent part of our lives. However, as with neighborhood violence, the experience of living with COVID-19, and all the ruptures and losses it entails, is so intense that it has already created strong emotions that color how we perceive our neighborhoods, our cities, our country, our global society—and ourselves as members of it.

People are actively interpreting what COVID-19 means for themselves, loved ones, and society at large, and the meaning of the pandemic for the “historical life stories” of communities is publicly contested. Although we are still in upheaval, various claims are being made about who bears responsibility for the spread of this virus, for not having enough medical equipment and emergency preparedness plans, for not social distancing enough; who the victims are, and what social groups are turning out to be most affected by COVID-19 and its aftermath. Given the lengthy expected duration of the virus, this collective trauma—like that of neighborhood violence—will emerge as disruption, illness, and death unfold around us. 

The loss of social moorings, the dropping away of a common understanding of the normal bases of our lives can be thought of as collective trauma; the wrestling with meaning, the contestation of narrative around these issues may coalesce into cultural trauma.

Research on neighborhood collective trauma may offer us some lessons for the pandemic.

First, trauma doesn’t have to paralyze us. The neighborhoods I studied had a cadre of individuals who created an infrastructure to improve housing and governance, who created grief support groups, who called on their neighbors and made sure they had a ride to church, who organized family fun days. People and communities who have dealt with the trauma of structural violence, racism, and homicide have had to be resilient. Similarly, there has been a remarkable outpouring of philanthropy, generosity, volunteerism, and small-scale mutual aid efforts during the pandemic.

Yet the fact that people cope with crisis because they have no choice, because they have practice at coping, is no panacea for essential workers who risk their health or the working poor and undocumented families who have lost their income, nor is it reparation for the grossly disproportionate number of African Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19. The observation that people demonstrate resilience should be tempered by these circumstances. 

Second, my research identified two main narrative frameworks through which people reflect on their neighborhoods to varying degrees: critical frames and stigma frames. Having a stronger critical consciousness about social injustice may mitigate some negative effects of collective trauma; it seems to enable people to resist stigmatizing narratives about their neighborhoods that weaken their social participation, collective efficacy, and neighborhood attachment.

My hypothesis is that critical frames about COVID-19 won’t be about the tragedy of the disease itself, but rather the politics that inhibited our country from preparing for and mitigating this crisis and the social conditions that stratified the virus’ health and economic impact by class and race. This lens may galvanize action to promote greater social inclusion.

In contrast, I predict that the “stigma frames” of COVID-19 will be about people feeling wronged or disadvantaged by social distancing measures, denigrated by the way that COVID-19 has impacted them, judgmental about individuals who fall into social categories that experience higher COVID-19 rates—Hasidic Jews, African Americans, urban residents—as tainted by association. Stigma frames make people feel like hunkering down, getting what they can for themselves, and supporting a less inclusive politics.

Both of these frames will begin to coalesce, compete with each other, begin to define identity, and influence action long before a vaccine arrives or herd immunity is achieved.

People’s social location will influence their framing of the pandemic. It may be easier to view COVID-19 through critical frames if you live in a community where more people have lost their jobs and are struggling to get by, where a higher proportion of people are dying from the disease, and where a history of social exclusion has primed you to expect these disparities.

You may be more likely to view this event through stigma frames if you are undocumented and are fearful about reaching out for assistance. You may also be more likely to see COVID-19 through stigma frames if you live in a sparsely populated area, don’t see the direct impact of the virus, and feel those who insist on keeping the economy closed are wrong to keep you from working.

Frames may be lenses through which one sees the world, but they are malleable. Particular narrative framings of large-scale and ongoing traumatic events may enable people to resist some harmful effects of collective trauma. This suggests that public discourse, policy and programming may play a role in shaping narratives that influence collective efficacy and civic activism.

If so, consider this one step of many toward crafting narratives that will lead our country and our world toward a more inclusive, equitable, and hopeful identity—which will promote more inclusive, equitable and hopeful health and economic outcomes—as we try to right ourselves in this world turned upside down.

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