Trauma is a concept with wide-ranging impact, moving out of limited psychiatric fields into the popular imagination and policy (Fassin 2009). Psychologists now accompany medical doctors in the wake of disasters, ranging from wildfires to war, bringing with them instruments to diagnose, measure, and treat victims. Feeding into neuropsychiatric research on the effects of trauma, epigenetic studies have established yet another language of trauma, this time as an event at the molecular level, suggesting trauma is not just a condition of the psyche. Although recalling nineteenth-century (if not earlier) notions of the impact of the environment on the body, this modern idea – that trauma has a bearing on genes and can be passed down from generation to generation – has had far-reaching consequences.
On 22 November 2022, 14 international scholars met, both online and in-person, at Deakin University in Melbourne to consider the present state of biological and cultural research on trauma and its distribution in the Global South. As a concluding activity of Maurizio Meloni’s Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (2019–2023), Impressionable Bodies, Stephanie Lloyd (Université Laval), Benjamin Hegarty (Deakin University) and Meloni (Deakin University) invited scholars from a range of disciplines to discuss the construction of this concept. Their goal was to depart from universalized accounts of the effects of trauma, such as in molecular or standardized clinical research, and instead foreground concepts for researching trauma developed in the Global South. As our preference was for discussions of trauma in languages other than English, we invited scholars working in a range of non-Anglophone settings, including Mexico, Indonesia, Guatemala, Laos, Indigenous peoples but also countries in the Global North, such as Switzerland and Australia.
That most scientific and social scientific research on trauma is published in English is not a surprise. It reflects a broader trend towards monolingualism first in the natural sciences (Gordin 2015) and now in the social sciences and humanities since the last part of the twentieth century. This, of course, is not a historical first (medieval Latin being one case). Nor is it a necessarily negative phenomenon – monolingualism can facilitate communication across diverse linguistic communities. However, the consolidation of monolingualism does create a conformist canon of authors and chronologies, and also raises serious issues of epistemic justice, equity, impoverishment and under-representation of sources and histories. This is particularly acute for communities and authors who do not belong, or only marginally belong, to the Anglosphere or those who write for scholarly audiences in the Global South.
Medical anthropologists have long addressed the limits of Anglosphere and Euro-American concepts in psychiatry with a focus on the Global South (see for example Desjarlais et al. 1995). Research in transcultural psychiatry integrated both cultural and biological perspectives (Kirmayer 2006), supplementing longstanding ethnographic insights that theorize the relationship between language and local idioms of distress (Good 1977; Nichter 2010). Margaret Lock’s (1993, xxi) concept of “local biologies” similarly attempted to pinpoint “the ongoing dialectic between biology and culture in which both are contingent” to overcome underlying assumptions about the universality of body and disease. How much can the diffraction of trauma research through different linguistic contexts both create more equitable and representative debate, while problematizing the self-evidence of English and question the universality of its scientific objects?
At the workshop, the first set of papers addressed linguistic pluralism to better understand the effects of scientific concepts of trauma and their translation into localised expressions. Under the theme, ‘Learning multiple disciplinary languages: trauma between social practices, indigenous politics, psychology, biology, and culture’, the opening session included interventions from Lloyd, Meloni, Estrada, Gilbert, Dragojlovic and Benavidez. One prompt offered by Meloni was to pinpoint the relationship between the Greek origins of the word ‘trauma’ as wound, which still underpin its English meaning, and compare that with metaphors used in other cultural and linguistic contexts. Gender studies scholar Ana Dragojlovic (University of Melbourne) described how psychotherapists conducting ‘family constellation therapy’ – which merges methods from psychoanalysis, existential phenomenology, and ancestral charismatic healing – claim it can alleviate inherited intergenerational trauma at the epigenetic level. Biological anthropologist Bobbie Benavidez (Northwestern University) described her research in the Mayan context, where the concept of choko pool” (hothead) both better captures the experiences of harm in a colonial context while refusing re-integration into colonial systems. Constrained heavily by language and practices of on-going colonialism, “choko pool” operates as an idiom distinct from post-traumatic stress disorder, the latter emphasising colonisation or other historical trauma as a past, singular event rather than an ongoing process.
In her presentation, Indigenous scholar Stephanie Gilbert (University of Queensland), challenged the view, offered by scientific models, that the experience of trauma is dislocated. Her paper served as a reminder that to know trauma and locate its memories, we must come from a position in which the violence of colonial dispossession can be brought to light. Sandra Estrada’s presentation (in Spanish) focused on the psychosocial trauma of disappearance through a study of madres buscadoras (seeking mothers) in Mexico. Drawing on the work of Martín Baró (on El Salvador during the civil war), her work moves trauma away from the medical and individual model and instead looks at how it disarticulates and rearticulates the social body. Estrada traced the ways in which families not only search for their loved ones, but also created new collectives grounded in both suffering and the affirmation of life. This was exemplified in the act of embroidering, through which relatives of missing people produced a connection between the missing person and the material itself. Embroidery is a performative act of memorialization.
After a roundtable with scientist Sarah Cohen-Woods (Flinders University) on epigenetic and intergenerational inheritance of trauma through a study of chronically stressed women, the second set of papers recast trauma research within a broad plurality of political regimes. Pitakola, High, and Murphy spoke to the theme of “Further diffractions: re-imagining trauma in gender studies, the politics of reproduction, motherhood, and nationhood.” Describing historical contexts with specific experiences of trauma – Indonesia and the state-sponsored violence of ‘65, Laos and the American war, and Indigenous people and the stolen generations in Australia – served as a reminder that the “naturally traumatised” subject of advanced liberalism is far from a universal reality. In socialist Laos, for instance, anthropologist Holly High (Deakin University) explained that official narratives of the revolutionary victory over the United States downplay individual frames of trauma or morbidity in general. This context generates other gaps, particularly for those whose stories do not fit the official narratives of the revolutionary victory.
The final set of papers by Issaka, Chiapperino, Hegarty and Moghnieh looked at “Trauma through multiple social iterations and disciplines: anthropology, STS, economics, queer studies.” These papers addressed the production of knowledge about trauma across a range of sites, including queer/trans communities in Indonesia, epigenetics researchers in Switzerland, genocide and war in Africa, and the absence of traumatic memory in post-war Lebanon. Lamia Moghnieh (University of Copenhagen) described how communities in Lebanon were excluded from “the therapeutic mind,” that is, a mind that is sufficiently rational and secular to be treated by psychiatry. Despite many decades of war and violence, clinicians have addressed Lebanese people in terms of an absence of trauma, which is in turn framed as evidence of resilience. In the case of the queer communities in Indonesia discussed by Benjamin Hegarty, expressions of the effects of violence in universal models of homophobia and transphobia are less compelling than those grounded in cultural models of disassociation and trance. Luca Chiapperino (University of Lausanne) highlighted the need to address the infrastructures that underpin research about trauma in the Global South: the flows of data, samples and experiences across cultural contexts that establish and globalize Euro-American models. The cases in this session highlighted an emergent naturalization of a resilience/trauma binary (normal versus pathological suffering). This simplification helps construct the therapeutic mind; a subject who is capable of being therapized and as traumatised/heal-able/healed. This suggests that pre-modern and cross-cultural ways of suffering are being reframed in terms of “resilience,” and therefore continue to be othered as incapable of “modern” suffering.
One task for future scholars of trauma is the generation of sources, expertise, and scientific knowledge in a wider array of languages and contexts. Any effort to address the complex entanglement between biology and culture in shaping expressions of trauma and their assessment and treatment will need to open itself further to a wider linguistic and cultural archive. Through our workshop, we began a conversation to revitalize frameworks for addressing trauma that depart from extant cross-cultural models by remaining attentive to how trauma is always “something more.” Some starting points for this “something more” are to explore relations, not only with humans, but with non-humans, and the process of translating concepts of trauma between local lifeworlds. For all modern science’s efforts to trace the imprint of trauma onto the body, much of its experience remains imperceptible or irreducible to biology or the physicality of the body alone.
This perhaps suggests that the focus on “healing” (or on building resilience) is itself a product of a certain Euro-American episteme and wider form of liberal governmentality. This highlights specific limits to “trauma.” As Stephanie Gilbert reminded us, even though Indigenous peoples may not necessarily seek a diagnosis, the concept of trauma embedded in the Euro-American tradition can push those communities towards a narrow concept of healing. This focus can deny Indigenous peoples access to traditions beyond those that a healing-focused notion of trauma, as defined in English, authorizes. This is particularly so given the event of colonisation persists today despite being represented as an event of the past.
Such limitations reveal the deeply Euro-American assumptions of mind/body and nature/culture dichotomies that underpin trauma research, revealing many gaps and omissions. Addressing these questions requires ongoing interdisciplinary collaborations and a readiness to engage with wider cultural and linguistic forms of knowledge, including from contexts in the Global South so often excluded from global circuits of science. Both listening to and repopulating these silences remains a crucial project not so much to refine definitions of trauma as to unsettle what they mean.
Desjarlais, Robert R., Leon Eisenberg, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman, eds. 1995. World Mental Health: Problems, and Priorities in Low-Income Countries. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fassin, Didier. 2009. The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Good, Byron J. 1977. ‘The Heart of What’s the Matter The Semantics of Illness in Iran’. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 1 (1): 25–58. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00114809
Gordin, Michael D. 2015. Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kirmayer, Lawrence. 2006. ‘Beyond the “New Cross-Cultural Psychiatry”: Cultural Biology, Discursive Psychology and the Ironies of Globalization’. Transcultural Psychiatry 43 (1). https://doi.org/10.1177/1363461506061761
Lock, Margaret M. 1993. Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Nichter, Mark. 2010. ‘Idioms of Distress Revisited’. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 34 (2): 401–416. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-010-9179-6
Thank you to workshop participants for the lively discussion held at Deakin University in Melbourne, as well as for their comments and input on a draft version of this report. We would also like to thank those scholars who we invited but were unable to attend for their interest and enthusiasm. We are grateful to Andrew Stapleton for writing the notes that served as a basis for this report, and for copy-editing the final version.