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Information and education about psychology, gender, and trauma.

Advice and reflections on writing, research, and life in academia. 

Posts written by Dr. Jem Tosh and Dr. Lucy Thompson. 

Understanding Institutional Trauma

by Dr. Lucy Thompson



[content warning: discussion of s*xual violence, s*xual abuse, therapeutic distress]


In her most recent article, Psygentra Director Dr. Lucy Thompson discusses a critical feminist concept of 'Institutional Trauma'. In this blog post, Lucy tells us what the main ideas are behind this way of thinking about trauma.


What is 'Institutional Trauma'?


'Institutional Trauma' is a particular way of thinking about trauma, which sits among many others. It specifically focuses on understanding how trauma is institutionally mediated. It is also a direct response to increasing public discussions of “institutional trauma” and a lack of engagement with feminist psychological work in these discussions. My work is situated in response to this lack of engagement, and with feminist psychological theory. However, as I discuss below, I do not propose a singular theoretical destination.


What are the main ideas behind this concept of “Institutional Trauma”?


Trauma is everywhere, but not universal


“Institutional Trauma” is a concept that recognizes the ubiquity of trauma in our daily lives. But, this does not mean to say that trauma is experienced or understood by everybody in the same ways. In fact, thinking about trauma as an institutional phenomenon requires an understanding of its specificity, for instance as trauma becomes specifically patterned along institutional lines. These interrelated lines may include (but are not limited to) white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, classism, and the conditions of violence they produce. So, in contrast with universalizing theories of trauma, the concept of “Institutional Trauma” is one way to situate and locate trauma within these conditions: A way to acknowledge that entanglements with institutions should not be ignored and cannot be escaped, and that these entanglements are specific to institutional formations, histories, and legacies. As Sara Ahmed (2012; 2017) argues, these ‘hardened histories’ hit people differently, so while many people might live together in these conditions, they do not all encounter them in the same ways, and they are not all impacted by them in the same ways. These personal-political dimensions of trauma are explored further in my recent paper.


We need to stop totalizing trauma


The goal of this work is not to subsume all other forms of trauma knowledge under yet another “new” totalizing concept: That is part of the colonial project of Knowing (Liebert (2018) assembles an eloquent articulation of this position). Instead, my work aims to generate language that responds to the constructed(and constructive)-ness of trauma knowledge, and engage with the personal-political entanglements of what we call “trauma” in a particular time and place. My desire to engage in this work is driven by my own experiences of sexual violence and psychological distress.


These are messy entanglements, and in my experience, it was not useful to try and disentangle them.

For instance, when I experienced sexual assault in the context of a British university, I was acutely aware of the specific institutional location of that experience, and the consequences. This awareness was compounded by my knowledge of feminist psychological theory, critical psychology, organizational psychology, and institutional theory, but it was not something therapists had a language to explore with me. Instead, there was a push to disentangle the personal and the political and deal only with the personal, meaning that therapists sought to isolate and address what were conceptualized as ‘individual-level problems’ within me. These are messy entanglements, and in my experience, it was not useful to try and disentangle them. I did not view this as a problem with the therapists per se; but rather a consequence of a particular historical focus and tradition in the domain of trauma knowledge and practice in the time and place I sought help (a relatively small town in a midwestern state in the United States of America). It was this knowledge I encountered as distressing because it acted to constrain the ways my experience could be acknowledged and understood. For me, Jeanne Marecek’s work on ‘trauma talk’ (Marecek 1999) was a boundary-bending articulation of the constructed(and constructive)-ness of trauma knowledge in practice. This work helped me to understand the therapeutic relationship, and the institutional production and regulation of trauma knowledge and experience. In my own experiences of therapy, the push for disentanglement was distressing because it served to fragment my experiences so that their gravity and depth could not be addressed. My hope with this work is to resist totalizing accounts of trauma with counter-narratives that may help others to understand their situated experiences of trauma in an infinite array of contexts.


“Institutional Trauma” may - and may not - be a feminist psychological concept


In my work, I situate “Institutional Trauma” as a feminist psychological concept because this is the discipline in which I am situated, and because my work is driven by a desire to:


  • Elaborate on the concept of “institutional trauma” with feminist psychological knowledge in response to current public discussions of this term.

  • Articulate the personal-political entanglements and complexities of traumatic experiences and understand how these experiences may be situated in relation to power - and the experiences of others.

  • Resist the dominance of individualized, depoliticized, and pathologizing knowledge of trauma in mainstream psychology, and decouple the rigid connections between this set of assumptions in trauma theory.


However, this way of thinking about trauma might show up in contexts where the specific language of feminist psychology, and feminisms more broadly, is not dominant or present. By definition, “Institutional Trauma” invites the generation of situated institutional knowledge with indigenous thought. So, “Institutional Trauma” may – and may not – be a feminist psychological concept in different times and places. My desire in this work is not to claim ownership or a right to knowledge over others’ experiences, or to isolate and study a coherent institutional ‘part’ of trauma using a singular heuristic. My desire is to push for responses to trauma that are accountable to institutional complexities and entanglements, while questioning the project of Knowing about trauma itself.


 

An open-access version of the article, Toward a feminist psychological theory of “institutional trauma” by Lucy Thompson is available here.


 


References


Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press.


Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a feminist life. Duke University Press.



Marecek, J. (1999). Trauma talk in feminist clinical practice. In S. Lamb. (Ed.), New versions of victims: Feminists struggle with the concept (pp. 158-182). New York University Press.



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