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Erikson, K. (1991). Notes on Trauma and Community. Am. Imago, 48(4):455-472.

(1991). American Imago, 48(4):455-472

Notes on Trauma and Community

Kai Erikson

In the past several years, research errands of one kind or another have taken me to the scene of a number of different human catastrophes—a mountain hollow in West Virginia called Buffalo Creek visited by a devastating flood, a town in South Florida called Immokalee where 200 migrant farm workers from Haiti were defrauded of their meager savings, the ring of neighborhoods surrounding Three Mile Island, an Ojibway Indian reserve in Northwest Ontario called Grassy Narrows that experienced not only the contamination of its local waterways but a disastrous relocation, and a housing development in Colorado called East Swallow plagued by an underground gasoline leak. It has seemed to me throughout that some form of the term “trauma” is the most accurate way to describe not only the condition of the people one encounters in those scenes but the texture of the scenes themselves. The term itself, however, is used in so many different ways and has found a place in so many different vocabularies that it is hard to know how to make of it a useful sociological concept. So I begin with matters of definition.

In classical medical usage, “trauma” refers to a blow to the tissues of the body—or, more frequently now, to the tissues of the mind—that results in an injury or some other disturbance. It is not an infection welling up from within, then. It is not a growth or a rupture or a blockage that originates inside. It is an assault from outside that breaks into the space one occupies as a person and damages the interior.

Trauma, in this usage, refers not to the injury but to the blow that inflicted it, not to the state of mind but to the event that provoked it.

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