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Wars, Pandemics, and the Human Mind: Competing Conceptions of Trauma in the 21st Century

Carlsberg Foundation Young Researcher Fellowships

What

This project explores the science and politics of trauma in the 21st century. The official psychiatric model of trauma known as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) currently defines how western societies perceive and treat the psychological effects of shock and violence. But since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the PTSD model has been challenged by new and different understandings of trauma. Two competing scientific vocabularies of "resilience" and "moral injury" now vie to provide an alternative to the psychiatric model of trauma. Yet the reasons why trauma is being reframed today-and the larger social and political implications of this change-are poorly understood; investigating them requires scholarship beyond the psychological sciences themselves.

Why

The work on "resilience" and "moral injury" has occurred in isolation from each other, and the research on moral injury has taken place mostly within the closed circles of clinical psychology and psychiatry. But these concepts need to be considered together in a broader context, as part of a larger challenge to the western understanding of trauma. Our project combines perspectives from science studies, psychology, and the philosophy of science to analyze the use of "resilience" and "moral injury" in Europe and the United States over the last two decades. The result will be a rich empirical account and a comprehensive theoretical appraisal of the way trauma is governed today in relation to armed conflicts, humanitarian crises, and global emergencies like the ongoing pandemic.

How

The project is divided into three case studies. The U.S. to a large extent sets the global agenda for trauma research; case study 1 looks at how "resilience" and "moral injury" have reshaped the American mental health establishment's thinking on trauma since 9/11. The case study focuses on the scientific debates and politics surrounding these concepts in both military and civilian contexts. Case study 2 explores how the concepts are being taken up by humanitarian organizations working in the field of conflicts and catastrophes. Case study 3 looks at how notions of resilience and moral injury affect the way specialists and policymakers perceive the psychological effects of traumatic events in civilian healthcare in the front-line response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SSR

Since the late 19th century, the psychological sciences have helped turn the individual experience of trauma into a concern of the state. The scientific understanding of trauma raises moral, economic, and political questions for state and society. Who is responsible for the suffering? Who should be compensated? Can traumatization be prevented? This project will produce empirical and theoretical insights into how trauma is understood and governed today, as well as critical reflections on how the psychological sciences shape the way societies understand and try to manage the human effects of extreme events.