Trauma: A Social Theory

May 31, 2012

"Human beings are storytelling animals," sociologist Jeffrey Alexander tells us halfway through this treatise on the nature of trauma in Western societies. The type of stories we tell ourselves and each other are profoundly indicative of the society in which we live, but Alexander never explains why we seem to be obsessed with stories of trauma. After all, the modern fixation on "trauma narratives" is a fairly recent phenomenon. Until the 1860s, the term "trauma" retained its original Greek meaning as a bodily injury.

The notion of a psychological rupture only entered public discourse in relation to the crises of industrialisation. In 1866 (when Sigmund Freud was still a child), John Eric Erichsen, professor of surgery at University College Hospital in London, first used the word "trauma" in the sense we use it today when he coined the term "railway spine", drawing attention to the psychological disorders many people experienced after railway accidents. Within a century, trauma had become one of the most common ways to talk about certain "bad events".

Alexander is relatively uninterested in the broader history of the concept of trauma, however. His task is different. Alexander seeks to remind us that collective identities, and the multifaceted traumas attached to those collectivities, are culturally conceived. Trauma does not arise "naturally": human agency is crucial. Narrative is formative. "Suffering collectivities," he rightly states, "do not exist simply as material networks. They must be imagined into being." He shrewdly criticises "lay trauma theory", which portrays trauma as inevitably following "bad events", with shattering consequences for individuals and victim-societies. He also has astute things to say about psychoanalytical ways of conceiving of trauma. In order for a "bad event" to become "traumatic", productive, powerful and persuasive social structures and cultural narratives are required.

These points are all convincingly argued. But researchers into traumatic events within the disciplines of history and anthropology (to name just two) have been making such arguments for a very long time indeed. Perhaps the problem is the narrowly sociological focus of the book and the fact that many of the chapters have been published before in various forms (which also means that the final chapter isn't as fully integrated with the rest of the book as it could have been). Claims that this is a "new" social theory are just wrong.

However, Alexander does draw together some fascinating material about the Holocaust and debates about moral universalism, the "rape of Nanjing" and Maoism, and the partition of India and Pakistan. In other words, the value of this book lies less in the novelty of its social theory than in these detailed case studies. He carefully documents the way the Holocaust came to be seen as a moral evil. Although it was primarily a European and American trauma, he unpicks the forces that transformed this historical event into a universal symbol. He places due weight on the means of symbolic production. His insights into the use of the Holocaust as metaphor are a valuable contribution to the debates, as are his reflections on Israeli and Palestinian constructions of trauma.

When he turns to postcoloniality in the contexts of India and Pakistan, Alexander is more concerned with emphasising the ways that leading cultural narratives have sought to evoke empathy and engage in what he calls "civil repair".

He reminds readers that working through trauma is not merely a matter of resurrecting "buried memories" but creating new ones. In this way, Alexander usefully beckons towards a future of "cosmopolitan peace". It is a dream worth returning to in the 21st century.

Trauma: A Social Theory

By Jeffrey C. Alexander, Polity, 180pp, £55.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745649115 and 9122. Published 25 May 2012

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