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This blog piece ​introduces ground concepts aiming to overcome fragmentation in individual, collective, and transgenerational trauma studies and draws from a recently published book entitled Understanding Transgenerational Legacy of Totalitarian Regimes: Paradoxes of Cultural Learning. 

Social Psychology of Trauma

Understanding collective trauma as a complex phenomenon positioned on the crossroads of mental health, cultural, social, and political psychology calls for integrated approaches. However, the growing appreciation for the interconnectedness between clinical and social aspects of trauma also revealed the scarcity of concepts, theories, and best practices. 

With recognizing collective trauma as a force behind many social and political processes, I introduce Social Psychology of Trauma as the new area of study. It examines how collective trauma:

  • Influences social cognitions and behaviors which unfold in the presence of trauma and adversity;
  • Becomes a part of the individual self-related phenomena such as social and collective identity (Alexander, 2012), self-concept, and the world view; 
  • Shapes interpersonal and group processes (Alexander et al., 2004; Hirschberger, 2018; Staub, 2018), 

Systems and Ecology of Trauma

In opposition to modular approaches targeting a specific trauma aspect, the trauma systems framework ties multiple layers and dimensions of trauma and systemic resilience.

Systems framework allows for capturing both the wholeness and the diversity of traumatic experiences and introduces the notion that collective trauma is greater than a simple sum of individual traumas. 
Finally, it highlights the concurrent impact of trauma on the systems of health, behavior, family, community, and societal functioning (Bowen, 1966; Cherepanov, 2015). 

Informed by system theory, the ecological approach underscores the interconnectedness between the individual and collective trauma experience, where they both influence each other.  It means that individual and collective trauma cannot be studied separately because not only does society or culture shape individual reactions, but it is also true that mass trauma can directly impact society and culture (Rogoff, 2003).

Aggregation and Massification in Collective Trauma

A social and psychological phenomenon of collective trauma emerges when the traumatic experiences massify (many individuals are traumatized) and aggregate (create shared collective experience) and, as such, become part of the collective psyche. 

When collective trauma aggregates, trauma history may become a unifying experience where victims can support each other and share information and resources. But in certain instances, such as cultural trauma of totalitarianism, collective trauma does not aggregate due to particular severity of the trauma, mutual distrust and/or moral injury, which can become a barrier to developing mutual supports.  Totalitarianism can also stir up dysfunctional collective sentiments and amplify prejudices and stigmatization, perpetuating victimization.

Reaction Formation in Transgenerational Trauma: “Contagion” or Functional Convergence? 

“Trauma contagion” refers to a common belief that likens trauma to a virus that can spread and “infect” those who come in contact with the survivors (Motta, 2008, Reuben, 2015). This concept reflects a tendency of equating the direct with indirect exposure or “criterion creep” (McNally, 2005) recognized in both secondary and transgenerational trauma concepts. For instance,  survivor' decedents can exhibit symptoms that one would have been expected in those who lived through the trauma. But does the superficial similarity in trauma symptoms imply equivalency of the experiences?

I associate this parallelism in symptoms with  functional convergence, a concept borrowed from the theory of evolution. It suggests that some unrelated phenomena can develop functionally similar features because they have similar functions—“similar problems can lead to similar solutions” (Kirk, 2007, p. 79). In this case, recognition of the adaptive role of trauma reactions (Briere @ Scott, 2014) can explain the striking similarity between individual and historical trauma symptoms, which develop in response to real or perceived life adversity or its representation in the collective memory.

For example, similarly to a traumatized individual, collectivity can display patterns of avoidance and suppression of traumatic past (e.g., “denialism”), or demonstrate hypervigilance and distrust (e.g., national paranoia and siege mentality). Re-experiencing can be loosely recognized in massive memorial rituals, and the patterns of social disengagement, learned helplessness, and political apathy remind of dissociation.

Target Source

Cherepanov, E. (2020). Understanding Transgenerational Legacy of Totalitarian Regimes: Paradoxes of Cultural Learning. NY: Routledge. 10.4324/9780429030338

Discussion Questions

  • Does individual trauma exist outside of the social and cultural context? 
  • Besides totalitarian trauma, are there any other kinds of trauma that do not aggregate?
  • Is transgenerational trauma a trauma or a made-up social construct?

About the Author

Elena Cherepanov, PhD, LMHC is a faculty of the Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling at Cambridge College (Boston, MA, USA). Dr. Cherepanov can be contacted at elena.cherepanov@yahoo.com. Twitter Handle Echer02

References Cited

Alexander, J. (2012). Trauma: A social theory . Malden, USA: Polity Press.
Alexander, J., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B., Smelser, N.,_& Sztompka, P. (2004). Cultural
trauma and collective identity . University of California Press.
Bowen, M. (2004). The use of family theory in clinical practice: Family therapy in
clinical practice . Rowman_& Littlefi eld. ISBN 0 97668 761 3

Briere, J. N.,_& Scott, C. (2014). Principles of trauma therapy: A_guide to symptoms,
evaluation, and treatment (DSM-5 update) (2nd ed.). Sage.
Cherepanov, E. (2015). Psychodrama of the survivorship. Journal of Psychodrama,
Sociometry, and Group Psychotherapy 63 (1), 19–31
Hirschberger, G. (2018). Collective trauma and the social construction of meaning.
Frontiers in Psychology , 1441. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01441
Kirk, J. T. O. (2007). Science_& Certainty. CSIRO Publishing.
Motta, R. W. (2008). Secondary trauma. International Journal of Emergency Mental
Health 10 (4), 291–298.

Reuben, A. (2015). When PTSD is contagious. Therapists and other people
who help victims of trauma can become traumatized themselves. The
Atlantic . Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/12/
Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Oxford University

Staub, E. (2018). Preventing violence and promoting active bystandership and
peace: My life in research and applications peace and conflict. Journal of Peace
Psychology24 (1), 95–111.