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The Impact of Trauma: A psychosocial approach

Brandon Hamber

Keynote address to the “A Shared Practice - Victims Work in Action Conference”
7-8 April 2004, Radisson Roe Park Hotel, Limavady, Northern Ireland


It is difficult to talk about how to deal with trauma when addressing an audience of people who work with its consequences daily. There is a great deal of depth and breadth of work represented here, all of it essential to meeting the needs of those most victimised in the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. As such, I have decided to talk at a different level, i.e. less at an academic or therapeutic level and more at the so-called “personal level”. I will address the subtle, individual and insidious impact of political conflict on all those living in societies in conflict. I will take time to recall the positive aspects of change; the slow pace of change; the pain of change; the challenge of change and the relief change can bring.

A Psychosocial Framework

One way to think about trauma following political violence is within a so-called psychosocial framework. This framework stresses the importance of thinking about political trauma from both psychological and social perspectives. The term psychosocial “attempts to express the recognition that there is always a close, ongoing circular interaction between an individual's psychological state and his or her social environment” (Bergh & Jareg cited in Agger, 2001, p.307). It demands that we think about how social conditions relate to mental health. In terms of political violence this means we have to think about the social context of violence and not only its individual consequences, but also how the social context influences individuals.

Political violence does not necessarily have the same consequences for individuals as other types of violence (e.g. being a survivor of a car crash or a natural disaster). It is unique in so far as it not only targets individuals, but political violence impacts on whole communities and often society at large. In addition to inflicting psychological and physical harm, political violence often aims to undermine the social relationships between individuals, as well as between individuals and society at large. In Chile, for example, it has been argued that political violence during the dictatorship (1973-1990) undermined individuals' sense of belonging to society (Becker, 2001). Political violence is laden with social meaning. It tells victims how others value (or devalue) them as human beings and it communicates to them their place in society.

It is important to bear in mind therefore that political trauma is not simply a collection of symptoms, as it is often portrayed—in fact symptoms may not follow all traumatic situations. Rather, trauma associated with political conflict is largely about the destruction of individual and/or the social and political structures of a society. In this sense, it is important to help victims and survivors deal with the impact of the conflict on them (e.g. to help them through a grieving process in a constructive way), but trauma work also demands transformation of society, mending of relationships and the changing of social conditions.

The Legacy of Conflict

When considering the legacy of political conflict we need to look for its impact in a multitude of ways. One method is to look at so-called victims and to ask how they have been psychologically affected by the conflict. This is crucial. Work is continually needed in this area and many of you in this room are experts in this sort of assistance. However, we also need to look a bit deeper. We need to interrogate the social and psychological impact of conflict in a much more profound way. To illustrate this I would like to use two examples, i.e. what can be termed (a) the politicisation of everyday life, and (b) the legacy of authoritarianism.

(a) Politicisation of everyday life

The politicisation of everyday life is a term and concept developed by colleagues at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg (see Simpson & Rauch, 1991). It is a concept we used in South Africa to think about the consequences of political violence. Basically, I understand it to mean that no matter who we think was right and/or who we think was wrong in a conflictual situation, one of the cumulative consequences of conflict is that often all sides of the political divide end up sanctioning violence. Violence is legitimised as a means of either maintaining the status quo, sustaining power or achieving change, irrespective of its origins. When the use of violence as a “legitimate” way to solve problems permeates a society, a “culture of violence” can be said to have developed.

This largely occurred in South Africa because of the pervasive nature of apartheid. Apartheid permeated all aspects of South Africans' lives. Where you went to the toilet, which bus you went on and which beach you swam on, were all—as a result of enforced racial segregation—

political issues. So it is no wonder that when the conflict became more violent it affected all aspects of society. For example, buses and trains, an ordinary aspect of life in most societies, became a theatre for violence and at times a place of protest. The result was that a “culture of violence” quickly bled into all aspects of the social and civic arena of South African society (Simpson & Rauch, 1991).

When violence seeps into everyday life, then there is always the possibility that as a society comes out of conflict the residue of violence will remain. Violence generally continues to exist within the social fabric of societies coming out of conflict for decades to come. For example, some argue that the extensive violence of South Africa's past has contributed to a climate of violence against women in the country today. This is captured by Goldblatt and Meintjies when they write:

Thus, we feel it appropriate to describe South African society today as a society living in an aftermath. The victims and the perpetrators of terrible violence are still living together in the same society. Many of the same policemen are still policing. Communities are still crippled by poverty, unemployment, lack of education, health, welfare and inadequate resources to improve their situation, which particularly affect black women who are among the poorest and most disadvantaged sector of our society. This too is the legacy of apartheid and the socio-economic violence it wrought on our country. This legacy means that social injustice and a generation of desperate youth remain a reality in our society. Within this environment of physical and emotional damage, millions of men still believe that women deserve to be beaten and violated and many women believe this to be their lot in life (Goldblatt & Meintjies, 1997).

Violence can transform itself following political conflict. It can continue to exist in different forms, such as violence in the home. There is evidence to suggest, for example, that gender violence experienced by women often increases when the fighting dies down (Turshen, Meintjies, & Pillay, 2001). This is not to say that I think there is a simple or direct correlation between political violence and other types of violence in the post-conflict phase. Sometimes political violence can mask other types of violence that have always been there—this is frequently the case with regard to domestic violence.

However, it is certainly true that political violence seems to have transformed itself into criminal violence fairly rapidly in South Africa. There are many reasons for this with dire social conditions being a major contributing factor. That said, I do not think the link between political violence and criminal violence in the post-conflict phase is inevitable. I do not see crime as a linear result of transition. As Turshen (cited in Meintjies, Pillay, & Turshen, 2001) observes, there are many different aftermaths to a conflict, and the scenarios following war can be as diverse as the conflict itself.

We cannot make straightforward comparisons between contexts. However, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that we need to be fully aware of the dangers a “culture of violence” may bring in the post-conflict period. Societies coming out of violence are seriously at risk. Clearly, dealing with the politicisation of everyday life requires psychological, structural and social interventions. We also need to take note of the gender dimensions of conflict and youth will require special attention. In addition, the more subtle impact of conflict requires consideration. It is to this I turn now.

(b) Legacy of authoritarianism

Authoritarianism is generally defined as a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator. I do not use the term here in this literal way. Rather, I use the term authoritarianism to explain the way societies in conflict have a tendency to develop a range of controlling, rigid processes and structures. These become embedded over time in its cultural, political and social landscape, sometimes building on pre-existing cultural and social norms. Many of these practices continue after large-scale political violence abates.

This authoritarianism can manifest itself in a number of ways in societies coming out of conflict. It can take the form of violence, for example, ongoing torture, violent crime or high levels of social violence. However, authoritarianism as I conceptualise it, can also take on less obvious forms. It can be seen in day-to-day relationships and in the way people interact. It can manifest in other diverse forms such as political opinions that preach violence or the exclusion of others, inter-personal aggression, the demonisation of those perceived as 'other', discrimination, intolerance of the views of others, undemocratic forms of social control, and even psychological bullying in the work place or elsewhere.

Authoritarianism in the way I have used it above, is generally detectable at three levels, i.e. at the level of the state, at the social level or in communities, and within individuals.

At the state level, it is commonplace for governments to take on an authoritarian role in societies during the conflict (sometimes they are the cause of the conflict too, as in South Africa). This is typified in some societies by the abuse of power by state officials and security forces. State violence and its use by state officials is often yet another form of socially sanctioned violence. State violence can linger especially at the institutional level. This is certainly a dominant view in Latin American, for example. In many Latin American societies (and South Africa for that matter) we have seen ongoing police brutality even after formal peace agreements and the end of dictatorships. In some of these societies the ordinary criminal, and sometimes the asylum seeker or foreigner, quickly replaces the political dissident as the enemy, many of whom are subject to similar institutional abuses previously reserved for former political enemies during the conflict.

In Brazil, for example, several Brazilian academics (Pinheiro, 1994; Adorno, 1995; Cardia, 1996) use the term “socially rooted authoritarianism”. They argue that despite the return to democratic constitutionalism in Brazil following the dictatorship (1964-1985) authoritarian practices embedded in the state and society have not been eradicated (Pinheiro, 1996).[1] For example, although there has been a rise in crime rates, and there is a diverse pattern of violence in Brazil today, the public penal policies seem to differ little from those adopted during the authoritarian regime (Adorno, 1995).

The second level of authoritarianism is the “social type”. This is where we see “absolute rule” or “control” by various individuals and groups taking place at a social and community level. Communities can become dominated by a specific group of individuals whose behaviour can come to direct and influence the ordinary lives of inhabitants in a multitude of ways. This type of “authoritarianism” can leave a legacy - (deep in the heart of the social fabric) - of socially entrenched, high level intra-community violence, as well as distrust and fear that can permeate many aspects of ordinary life. This has long-term consequences. In South Africa we see it, for example, in the growth of xenophobia at a community level and a disproportionately violent response from across the society to foreigners in general, particularly those from other African countries. Of course, this is something not unfamiliar in Northern Ireland these days.

However, I would also like to suggest that there is a third type of authoritarianism, i.e. the authoritarianism that develops at the individual and personal level. To expand: in the South African context, as the conflict has moved to resolution (at least at the political level), it has become increasingly clear that authoritarianism lives and continues to live in the minds of many South Africans, regardless of their colour or political persuasion. South Africans of all races still overwhelmingly support the death penalty; many carry firearms and advocate tougher dealings with criminals, whilst routinely calling for vigilante action if the police do not act in time. Clearly the idea of violence as the preferred solution to problems (in this case crime) is deeply entrenched.

Political violence may be negotiated away, but readiness to see violence as a solution to problems generally remains in societies where socially-rooted authoritarianism has been present. This can happen at a state or community level—but it also exists within the minds of ordinary people. This internalisation of the values of war and violence is not surprising given the demands of growing up and living in a violently divided society. It is commonplace to see those in conflict creating rigid boundaries, whether physical or psychological, between themselves and those perceived as 'the other'. Groups in conflict have a tendency to externalize, project and displace certain unwanted elements onto 'the other', while maintaining unambiguous psychological borders between themselves and other groups (Volkan, 2002). Those seen as 'the other' are continually devalued and viewed as less human than those from your own perceived group.

In fact, a form of this process is going on right now in another context. In terms of the invasion of Iraq, for example, the deaths of Iraqi civilians (estimated now as close to 10,000, see Iraqi Body Count, 2004) is increasingly being ignored and seen as being simply about 'others'. Seemingly, if column inches in local newspapers are anything to go by, the lives of Iraqi civilians are not as valued as those of British or American civilians or troops.

The denial of another's humanity is one of the most severe consequences of conflict. Each time the humanity of another is denied the legitimisation of violence is subtly entrenched in our heads and in those of our children. Political conflict breeds a type of absolutism of the mind with boundaries between 'us' and 'them' firmly drawn. This distorted thinking is not, however, reserved for those actively involved in the fighting. It can equally affect those who like to think the conflict is not about them. In fact, attempting to distance yourself from the consequences and causes of a conflict going on in your own society can in itself be a symptom of protracted conflict.

Acknowledgement and Truth

Addressing what I have loosely called authoritarianism (or on an individual level the absolutism of the mind) from individuals and society is a lengthy and demanding task. It is critical work for the post-conflict phase and it is trauma work. If we are to address it, however, we first need to acknowledge that it is there. By that I mean not just noticing how authoritarianism lives in 'the other', but recognising that it lives in all members of the society. It is the one thing that those of us growing up in divided societies share.

The way the past impacts on the present needs to be acknowledged as societies attempt to move from conflict. This means we have to re-evaluate our own “absolute” understandings. This can leave us feeling uncertain and it can challenge our preconceived senses of identity. But in societies coming out of conflict some re-evaluation of past perspectives is necessary. The line between “us” and “them” needs to be blurred if we are to develop an interdependent future. This is not without its problems. The typical response when confronted with inconsistencies in our world view is to withdraw and attempt to reaffirm old divisions just as they were in the 'old' days of the conflict. This is one reason why peace processes can take such a long time, i.e. for each of the two steps we take forward there is a tendency to want to take at least one step back.

The challenge, however, is to walk into the blur and to see where that process might lead us. One of the tasks of this process is to engage with the 'truths' of others. The first step might be to simply recognise that others are welcome to their view about the causes and nature of a conflict. However, over time, we need also to use their truth to re-evaluate our own truths. We need to not merely know other people's positions or views, but acknowledge and understand them, perhaps even getting to a point where we can constructively challenge each other's perceptions and thinking.

However, we also need to challenge the sacred cows within our own communities and to rethink our understandings of authority and how authoritarianism operates. All the things we uncritically accepted during the conflict as “the law”, as “morally right”, as “our way of doing things”, or being “beyond negotiation”, may need to be revisited. This challenging task is the basis of building new relationships and mending previously damaged ones. It is one of the fundamentals of peacebuilding. This acknowledgement and relationship building are components of what constitutes trauma work in post-conflict societies.

So, I do think we need to embark on a quest for the truth in relation to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. However, this does not mean that there is one truth out there and that only in finding it will peace and reconciliation be guaranteed. It is the process of seeking the truth that is important. I am not, at this stage, advocating necessarily that a truth commission is the best mechanism for this quest. But the issues generally embodied by truth commissions - such as trying to re-evaluate and investigate the causes, nature and extent of a conflict - are essential to consider in relation to conflict in and about Northern Ireland.

At this early stage the first step is to acknowledge the importance of seeking some sort of truth and to embark on the process of 'truth recovery' at the community level and within ourselves, whatever that comes to mean. But this is a delicate and difficult endeavour because we all fear the truth. As Graham Hayes writes, talking about South Africa:

The resistance comes from many quarters: the perpetrators fear the truth because of the guilt of their actions; the benefactors fear the truth because of the silence of their complicity; some victims fear the truth because of the apprehension of forgetting through the process of forgiveness; and others fear the truth because it is too painful to bear (Hayes, 1998, p.46).

I am not arguing here for a simplistic notion of uncovering of the past, or for storytelling as the panacea to all problems. The cathartic public revealing of truths is not in itself a miraculous social cure to conflict. I am also not arguing for a simple process of forgiveness. Rather, I am highlighting the importance of grappling with the multiple histories, truths, complexities and inconsistencies as well as resistances that a truth recovery process implies. One of the tasks of community groups like yourselves is to lay the groundwork for this. It is also to provide individuals with the support needed to deal with all the ambivalences that dealing with past political conflict will throw up. For example, as many of you know, trauma work is not only about offering support or counselling, it can also be about finding ways to allow victims to voice their legitimate anger at perceived injustices committed in the past. We need to find ways of making social space to hear these voices, no matter what they are saying or reminding us of.


To address the legacy of conflict requires an awareness of its psychological and social dimensions. Addressing the social dimensions of conflict is healing work. The social context of political trauma is important. A psychosocial approach recognises that trauma work following political violence requires the social and political context to be addressed at the same time as individual psychological needs. The psychological and the social are linked and constantly feed off one another. Ways of reconnecting all victims with their sense of belonging in society need to be sought.

Identity is also important. We need to be aware that the movement of two opposing large groups toward some kind of togetherness can lead to large-group identity confusion, which can set in motion dangerous social or political movements (Volkan, 2002). Change, therefore, must be paced but also be deliberate and extensive, embodying a vision of a better future as an ultimate goal. Structural and political changes, backed hopefully by some attitudinal change, will be necessary to stabilise the external context. Internationally it is recognised that democratic 'software' (Lever & James, 2000) is generally needed (i.e. the Human Rights Commissions, Constitutions, new equality laws, Bills of Rights, laws to protect minority rights, etc.) to assist in creating a conducive peacebuilding context. These, amongst other initiatives, can partially offset any “identity confusion” and resistances peacebuilding can bring. They have to be complemented, however, by a range of work aimed at rooting such instruments and structures within the social fabric so as to effect genuine social, psychological and economic transformation.

At the same time we need to be acutely aware of the way conflict perpetuates itself within individuals and manifests in our values and behaviour over time. We all have a responsibility in this regard. In reference to the conflict in former Yugoslavia it has been noted, for example, that:

We share in the responsibility of this war and its violence in the way we let them grow inside of us, that is the way we shape 'our feelings, our relationships, our values' according to the structures and the values of war and violence (Kappeler cited in Hayes, 1998, p.38).

Much of your deliberations at this conference will focus on the youth. To this end, I contend that youth are the barometers of change. We need to ask if the values of war and violence are still growing inside of them. Do they still walk in the shadow of the past? Do we see legacies of authoritarianism and absolutism in their values, actions and behaviour? If so, we have much work to do. Many of you are already engaged in trying to address these issues, but if this process is to be deepened and widened we need to also ask more fundamental questions about our society as a whole. We need to acknowledge the past in a profound and meaningful way, and each of us needs to begin by rising to the challenge of tackling the legacy of the past within ourselves and our communities.

In Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915), Sigmund Freud wrote that:

[War] strips us of the later accretions of civilization, and lays bare the primal man (sic) in each of us. It compels us once more to be heroes who cannot believe in their own death; it stamps strangers as enemies, whose death is to be brought about or desired; it tells us to disregard the death of those we love.

He goes on to add that in war people do not “sink so low as we feared, because they had never risen so high as we believed...". For Freud, violence is innate to human nature and finds easy expression in times of conflict. During times of peace, therefore, the challenge is to use our energies positively and create the social and psychological environment that can help eliminate any impulse for destruction that may still lurk deep inside.


[1] It should be noted, however, they also share the view that in Brazil, authoritarianism has its source before the dictatorship and is embodied in a range of social, political and cultural practices. Back to text.


Simpson, G., & Rauch, J. (1991). Political Violence 1991. In N. Boister & K. Ferguson-Brown (Eds.), Human Rights Yearbook . Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

Pinheiro, P. S. (1994). The Legacy of Authoritarianism in Democratic Brazil. In S. Nagel (Ed.), Latin American Development and Public Policy. USA: St. Martin Press.

Adorno, S. (1995). Criminal Violence in Modern Brazil. In L. Shelley & J. Vigh (Eds.), Social Changes, Crime and Police: International Conference, June 1-4, 1992 Budapest Hungary . Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Cardia, N. (1996). Interview with Nancy Cardia conducted by Brandon Hamber at the Núcleo De Estudos da Viôlencia, São Paulo, Brazil.

Pinheiro, P. S. (1996). Democracies without Citizenship. NACLA: Report on the Americas, XXX(Sept/Oct), 17-42.

Goldblatt, B., & Meintjies, S. (1997). Dealing with the aftermath - sexual violence and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Agenda, 36, 7-17.

Hayes, G. (1998). We Suffer our Memories: Thinking about the Past, Healing and Reconciliation. American Imago, 55(1), 29-50.

Lever, J., & James, W. (2000). The Second Republic. In W. James & L. Van de Vijvers (Eds.), After the TRC: Reflections on truth and reconciliation in South Africa . Cape Town: David Philip, 2000.

Agger, I. (2001). Psychosocial assistance during ethnopolitical warfare in the former Yugoslavia. In D. Chirot & M. Seligman (Eds.), Ethno-political Warfare: Causes, Consequences and Possible Solution (pp. 305-318). Washington, USA: American Psychological Association.

Becker, D. (2001). Dealing with the Consequences of Organized Violence, Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation. Berlin: Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management.

Meintjies, S., Pillay, A., & Turshen, M. (2001). There is no aftermath for women. In M. Turshen, S. Meintjies, & A. Pillay (Eds.), Aftermath: Women in Post-Conflict Transformation (pp. 3-17). London: Zed.

Turshen, M., Meintjies, S., & Pillay, A. (Eds.). (2001). Aftermath: Women in Post-Conflict Transformation. London: Zed.

Volkan, V. D. (2002, 10 May). Large-Group Identity: Border Psychology and Related Societal Processes. Paper presented at the German Psychoanalytic Association Annual Meeting, Leipzig, Germany.

Iraqi Body Count. (2004). Civilians reported killed by military intervention in Iraq. Available: [2004, 9 May].

Brandon Hamber is an independent research and development consultant. He is an Associate of Democratic Dialogue in Belfast and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa. All correspondence to

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