Elective Course "Social Trauma" (CST)

Elective Course for Master Students (5 ECTS)

Social Trauma is among the most important subjects in clinical, social, and general psychology, as well as in cultural theory (Hamburger, 2017). It is of high interest and practical relevance for researchers and societies that have experienced war, armed or ideological conflicts and totalitarian regimes. Students in humanities need to be informed about the causes, consequences and therapeutic options regarding social trauma.

In the syllabus of most psychology study programs, Social Trauma can be only addressed incidentally. In Clinical Psychology, psychotraumatic pathology and trauma therapy are regularly taught subjects, but the specific conditions of Social Trauma require an interdisciplinary and specific approach. Therefore, the Course in Social Trauma (CST) logically unites in well-developed coordination the overlapping fields of clinical, developmental and social psychology, cultural theory, ethics, and research methodology.

This course can be used to fulfill the requirement of module 10, the cumpulsory elective subject, aimed is to be completed in the third and fourth semester in the fulltime study course. 


1. Starting session: Welcome and settings (group discussion, 90 min.)
In the introductory session participants have the opportunity to reflect on their personal interest in the topic. Each student gets a template for his course diary (portfolio), where the study experiences of every session and homework are to be documented. The design of the course is explained and the initial, basic literature is handed out. A first working definition of social trauma is given in the form of an interactive lecture.

2. Defining Social Trauma (interactive lecture, 90 min.)
The concept of Social Trauma needs a precise and scientifically based definition. Examples throughout history (Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war rapes) are presented by the lecturer and discussed with the class:

  • How can these examples be understood under a common concept of "Social Trauma"? They are characterized as man-made disasters, targeted at whole groups, aiming at physical and cultural annihilation.
  • Trauma is not defined by the external event alone, but by its intra-psychic and socio-psychic processing. What are the specific psychotraumatic impacts of these kinds of social trauma?
  • Phenomenological description of clinical symptoms (to be continued in Block 4)
  • Specificity of memory processing (to be continued in Block 3).
  • Developmental aspects: Impact of social traumatic conditions on human development (to be continued in Block 5).
  • Social Psychological Aspects: Social Trauma is not a one-person event, but occurs between groups (to be continued in Block 7).
  • Memory and denial of Social Trauma is often a central issue in cultural identity (to be continued in Block 6).
  • Homework: Read and discuss individual reports of survivors and perpetrators, highlighting the relevant issues for the definition of Social Trauma.

The specificity of social trauma requires a combination of qualitative and quantitative methodologies to be considered in research plans. The methodology module includes a focus on trauma and extended teaching of research methodologies (lecture and seminar), attachment measurement and qualitative methods in trauma research.

Practical work is in small groups, where students formulate a research question and design a specific research project in the field of social trauma (two workshops). A research plan and design for a hypothetical study is presented in writing after the module completion in the students’ portfolios.

Informed by the concept of secondary traumatization, the ethics module gives special attention to the possible risks of ill-timed research interventions. A space is created for discussion of contradictory concepts such as “survivors” versus “victims” or posttraumatic disorders. The module comprises ethical aspects of working with survivors of social trauma, in terms of retraumatisation by research, reduced capacity to consent, and working with perpetrators (legal aspects of self-incrimination).

Students are asked to peer-review research projects under ethical aspects and discuss their reviews in the group. In the session, the presented projects will be discussed by those who have peer-reviewed them, like in the session of an ethics committee.

This training will be assessed by a standard procedure oriented to the Yale Medical School Ethics Assessment. A certificate will be issued, which is the precondition to any research work under STICS activities.

The introduction of the PTSD diagnosis in the 1970s marked a stage in the development of practice informed diagnoses. The multi-layered construct of traumatic reaction needs further exploration of the full spectrum of related psychopathology. Clinical consequences of social trauma are compared to general psychic trauma (e.g. by abuse, incidents, etc.). Testimonies as a therapeutic approach (Laub et al.) are discussed.

The content of the clinical module research and therapeutic aspects of social trauma comprises clinical consequences of social trauma as compared to general psychic trauma, complex trauma, neurobiology, sequential traumatisation attachment and mentalization. Specific diagnostic approaches are presented and practical work with some diagnostic instruments (semi-structured interviews, questionnaires etc.) in small groups are performed as a role play of test/interview situations and/or assessment.

Specific diagnostic and therapeutic approaches are discussed using a case example.

Social trauma as a relational phenomenon requires a focus on development. Trauma as a single event, but also and more often as a cumulative experience in interpersonal relations, leads to diverse outcomes in the lifespan periods from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. Risk factors from neurobiology, physical health of individuals, family history, and socio-economic and socio-political aspects are discussed to map out the field between psychopathology, resilience and adjustment.

Cumulative and developmental trauma is discussed, defined as a prolonged interpersonal experience early in the life cycle leading to serious impairment in achievement of secure attachment, mentalization and meaning construction, affect regulation, self-perception and interpersonal relations. Specific traumatic events as well as specific concepts including transgenerational transmission and vicious circles of violence are discussed. A small group discussion and case formulation is performed, based on fictional (film or novel) characters.

A portfolio presenting a case analysis relating to the concept of developmental trauma is required.

The module comprises general psychological theory of traumatic memory (dissociation, implicit memory symbolization), group traumatic memories and meanings ascribed to certain past episodes, the false memory syndrome and results in discussion of social implementation of memory versus social extinction of memory. Psychoanalytic conceptualization of inner reality, fantasy and the unconscious had been at the center of the “false memory” debate for more than a century.

As meeting point of cognitive neuroscience and psychoanalysis, memory research provides insights of organization of psychological processes around concepts of personal and collective identity and meaning through the process of construction and reconstruction of autobiographical memory. Students ask their friends or relatives the experimental question: "Do you remember the day when you got lost in a shopping mall as a child?" and report about their findings.

Discussion: social implementation of memory – social extinction of memory

Social trauma is defined at an intersection of sociology, where trauma narratives are regarded as a strong part of social identity and social psychology, studying the individual’s adaption to social constraints and ideologies. The module combines the theory of cultural trauma with specific aspects of social psychology relevant to the study of social trauma. Often, the module is taught by two lecturers specialized in either cultural theory or social psychology.

The social psychology part of the module comprises topics such as the interaction between victims and perpetrators, Stockholm syndrome in large groups, dehumanisation, conspiracy of silence and social psychological aspects of transgenerational traumatization, and totalitarianism. Here, emphasis can be given to migration and borderland identity. In the cultural theory part, concepts of cultural and chosen trauma, collective memory and the culture of remembrance, the media, and political and historical aspects of trauma and testimony are addressed.

Theoretical approaches are discussed using the example of a feature or documentary film.

Participants deliver their learning portfolios. They report and compare their individual education experiences. A space for supervized group reflection is provided.

Further relevant information for IPU students can be found in the Module Description.