Cultural Trauma and Total Social Facts

Since Durkheim, sociology has had the habit of looking at psychological phenomena and attempting to co-opt it in the name of social facts and forces. A promising phenomena, one with some relevance for the current COVID pan-pocalypse we are all enduring, is trauma. Once a subset of neurosis or anxiety found in soldiers who saw combat, PTSD has become a common diagnosis for a wide range of individuals whose experience or experiences have lasting cognitive and affectual consequences. Trauma is no joke.

Predictably, sociologists have borrowed this term, applying it, recently, to moments in which “members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways” (Alexander 2004:1). In typical sociological fashion, sociological phenomena – like collective or cultural trauma – is not reducible to biology or psychology: “Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity” (ibid. 10). Since Durkheim’s “discovery” in the 1950s/1960s and subsequent canonization in the 1970s/1980s, American sociology has hewed closely to his forceful denial of the overlap between psychology and sociology in both his Rules of the Sociological Method and Suicide. (Never mind his Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which I could argue was the first and one of the greatest pieces of social psychology sociology has ever produced!). What if, however, cultural trauma could be empirically distinct from the types of intrapersonal trauma abused women and children or soldiers who witnessed their entire platoon decimated, yet still have biological and psychological roots? Would that undermine sociology’s claims, or would it bring these disciplines closer together while asserting sociology’s rightful place?

Total Social Facts
In a series of lectures on psychology and sociology, Durkheim’s nephew, student, and collaborator, Marcel Mauss (1979), argued there were some types of social facts that were total social facts.  Social facts are external, “coercive” forces that give shape to how a group’s members tend to think and feel. Some are structurally patterned while others travel like “currents” of electricity or public opinion, spreading from one person to the other in a recurring game of telephone. Social facts become internalized through ritualized occasions; both the ceremonial and spectacular discussed by Durkheim and the mundane emphasized by Goffman, but remain external in the symbolic representations of meanings etched into words, physical and social objects, and, even geographically and temporally distinct spaces.

A total social fact is one that is fundamentally rooted in our biology and psychology, yet is made real and meaningfully through social interaction and patterned by structure and cultural formations. Mauss, for instance, pointed to language as a total social fact. As Meštrović (1987) interprets this, language is manifest sociologically in the written word, psychologically in speech, and physiologically in evolved features that allow for the mechanics of speech, like the larynx. With advances in cognitive sciences since the 1980s and their spread into sociology, we can push this idea a little further: sociologically, language is shaped by both the actors, environment, and the way in which actors are distributed in space; psychologically, speech is rooted in the mechanisms facilitating actor-environment interface, like mirror neurons that allow for toddlers with no language to track and internalize subtle muscle movements around phonemes; and, biologically in terms of the larynx and language centers of the brain. Thus, on the one hand the speech act is actually a mixture of biological and psychological forces, but on the other hand, it is wholly determined by the structural and cultural context in which significant symbols used in speech are acquired. We need not be afraid of the brain, both biologically and cognitively, because social forces remain ever-present in their ability to coerce patterns of thought and behavior.

Mauss, as Meštrović notes, did not fully leverage the idea of a total social fact, and mostly assumed the listener’s/reader’s familiarity with Durkheim and his acolytes’ sprawling work on religion and kinship, so like Meštrović, we are free to extend the idea with some creative imagination. Can something presumed psychological – PTSD – be a total social fact too?

Return of the Organismic Analogy
One possible way to imagine trauma as both sociological and as a total social fact is to reconsider the organismic analogy. In classical functionalism, society (or, more accurately, collectives) were conceptualized as an organism or supraorganism. Often, this analogy was metaphorical: the large, complex proto-industrial and industrial societies sociology emerged within were composed, like the body, of differentiated “organs” that look different form each other and did different things. However, some, like Herbert Spencer (1873) and, arguably, Durkheim in his Division of Labor, went beyond the metaphor to argue that, in fact, social units were organisms (with special caveats). However, sociologists summarily rejected both the analogous and literal organismic perspectives. But, it remains an open question whether the rejection was too hasty or made on empirical grounds.

For instance, in Kai Erikson’s (1978) incredible study of several West Virginian hollow communities that had been suddenly destroyed and dislocated by a severe coal mining flood, we are presented with evidence that some types of social organization can resemble an organism. Echoing Durkheim’s vision, Erikson compares Buffalo Creek communities to the types of foraging and pastoral societies made famous by anthropological investigation:

persons who belong to traditional communities relate to one another in much the same fashion as the cells of a body: they are dependent upon one another for definition, they do not have any real function or identity apart from the contribution they make to the whole organization and they suffer a form of death when separate from the larger tissue…a community of this kind being discussed here does bear at least a figurative resemblance to an organism…It is the community that cushions pain, the community that provides a context for intimacy, the community, that represents morality and serves as the repository for old traditions” (Erikson 1978:194, emphasis mine).

In interview after interview, Erikson found themes that bubbled up regardless of the individual and the community and network she belonged to prior to the flood. The same pain; apathy; moral disanchorage; disorientation; tendency to develop psychosomatic physical ailments; confusion. He concluded that “when you invest so much of yourself in that kind of social arrangement you become absorbed by it, almost captive to it, and the large collectivity around you becomes an extension of your own personality, an extension of your own flesh” (ibid. 191). This description anticipates the conceptual frame Alexander provides to understand cultural trauma. However, it also suggests something more fundamental than just external social facts: there is something social psychological (Abrutyn 2019) and, even, biological. Erikson (1978:191) continues: members of the community were not only “diminished as a person when that surrounding tissue is stripped away, but [they] are no longer able to reclaim as your own the emotional resources [they] invested in it.”

Cultural, collective traumas, then, have the ability to act as total social facts in cases of tight-knit communities where members have tremendous material and ideological stakes. At the social-level, collective trauma is a function of structural factors, like network density – and cultural factors, like the tightness/coherence of culture. Moreover, it is found in the loss of social relationships and identities that triggers the experience of shared trauma (Abrutyn 2019), thus bringing the level of analysis of trauma into the social psychological and, presumably, psychological. It is accurate to say that the loss of social ties and other things that represent them – like our identities, routines, and so forth – have the effect of eliciting social pain. Social pain, interestingly, affects areas of the brain that overlap with physical pain (Panksepp & Watt 2014; Tchalova & Eisenberger 2015; Matheson et al. 2016), which brings trauma into the neurobiological. And because collective trauma traverses all three levels, yet remains tethered to each, we can conclude it is indeed a phenomenon that truly resembles Mauss’ vision of total social facts. That said, a set of interesting and germane questions revolve around whether or not collective, cultural trauma can extend beyond these tight-knit networks?

Trauma in a Depersonalized and Digitally Mediated World?
I conclude this essay with less certainty and more speculation. Currently, we are all experiencing the effects of the coronavirus. For some, it is moderate in its effects: our favorite haunts are shut down and we may be working from home For others, it means strict social isolation and seriously reduced human contact beyond the denizens of our home. And, for others – particularly members of disadvantaged communities and/or classes of people – it is a high-risk situation: working with or without PPEs; struggling to balance the need for a paycheck with the lack or reduced childcare; working in essential organizations in which contact with symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals is common or, even, the description of the job.

However, the majority of the Earth’s population lives in urban areas with another significant proportion living in the types of non-urban communities that are too large and too diverse across an array of categoric distinctions to create supraorganismic conditions. So, we live in two worlds more than the tight-knit worlds of Buffalo Creek: an encompassing depersonalized world (Lawler et al. 2009) and a digitally mediated world. The former is everywhere as most interaction involves people occupying generalized role positions (e.g., doctor or patient) that carry well-worn patterns of thinking and doing that reduce the need for personal relationships. The latter, however, is no less common, especially now in times of social isolation. Both raise questions about whether the disintegrative consequences of COVID can be understood as collective trauma. Depersonalized contacts involve “thin” exchanges that differ from the dense, multiplex nature of tight-knit communities, while it has become painfully obvous that face-to-face interaction is dynamically different from its digitally mediated cousin (e.g., zoom; twitter).

In both cases, the question of whether a generation or cohort of individuals are experiencing the type of collective trauma that Buffalo Creek’s communities did remains open. If so, why and how does the process resemble the sudden disintegrative reality imposed on those West Virginian’s? More interestingly, how is it different? How does it differ across categories of people and regions? If the trauma, however, is in fact different, how so? Is there a sociological process occuring or are people alone on their island? These are, ultimately, empirical questions of which I lack the data to even hazard an intelligent answer. But, they are really important questions. The world is not going to suddenly shrink and personalize and, short of the end of electricity, social media and digital communications are not likely to disappear; indeed, one consequence of COVID will probably be the expansion of these technologies into more and more facets of our lives. I’ve made the case elsewhere (here and here) that the pain we are experiencing – the grief, panic, anxiety – is rooted in loss. Loss of recurring ritual occasions; of taken for granted routines; of both the annoyances and small gifts daily life provides us; and, even, the places and other objects that implicitly are extensions of our self. The question, though, is whether or not this pain can be characterized as a total social fact in the sense that it is shared and cultural, and fundamentally tied to our biopsycho architecture?

If so, what does the search for a new collective identity look like in a digitally mediated or depersonalized world? One consequence Alexander underscores is that the identity anchors are torn apart and new shared sense of community identity must be built up. But, in less deeply dense networks, how does this proceed and what does this look like? Alternatively, what becomes of the current arrangements of cities? Do we try to create new structural and cultural supports to build these identities? And if so, how? And what do those look like? Again, lot’s of unanswered questions…And, lots of opportunity for new types of research!


About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
This entry was posted in Culture, Emotion, Musings on Sociological Theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cultural Trauma and Total Social Facts

  1. Pingback: Plagues… | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

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