Sociologists, especially sociologists gathering primary qualitative data, often find themselves dealing first-hand with trauma and bereavement by nature of what they study: the manifestations of, and mechanisms reproducing, inequality, marginalization and disempowerment are often experienced by people in visceral, traumatic ways.
Unfortunately, most of the sustained conversation about trauma begins and ends with Institutional Review Board applications: as part of receiving approval for their research from their universities, sociologists interacting with real-life people must acknowledge and address the vulnerabilities of the populations they study, including not just the trauma embedded in the area of interest but also the possibility that the research itself will re-traumatize research participants.
This is an okay start…I guess. But it barely scratches the surface of how trauma matters–both in terms of how sociologists engage in fieldwork and how they make sociological sense of their fieldwork. For those of us who do interviews or participant observation, we often come face-to-face with the midst and/or aftermath of trauma, but our training usually leaves us unprepared to deal with it. The problem reproduces itself: in graduate school, we didn’t formally learn how to address trauma as it emerges in our research, so we don’t formally train our graduate students on how to see it and what to do with it–personally and professionally; emotionally and sociologically. We aren’t necessarily prepared with what trauma is, how it manifests, and how it touches our research subjects and ourselves–despite how much we’d like to believe that we are the “objective” researcher. Secondary trauma as well as primary, field-work related trauma is real–but just because it is real, doesn’t mean that we allow ourselves to see it, either as individuals or as a discipline.
While there is a school of sociology focused on trauma led by cultural sociologists like Jeffrey Alexander, the sociological engagement with trauma I’m suggesting here is less a sociology of trauma and more a trauma-informed sociology, particularly with regard to sociological methods. Though there are some notable examples of trauma-informed sociology (Harassed by Rebecca Hanson and Patricia Richards being the most notable example that comes to mind), some of the most useful insights I have found have come not from sociologists but from those working through grief, bereavement, and trauma within and outside of the academy. My own encounter with death over the last year led me to much of this work, but as I read it, I realized that these books also had a lot to offer sociologists, particularly sociologists who collect qualitative data.
Here are some of these resources; be aware (and hopefully excited!) that they often do not follow sociological conventions in terms of style, evidence or argumentation:
Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.
Baughner, B. & L. Cox. (2015). Coping with Traumatic Death: Homicide.
Cacciatore, J. (2017). Bearing the unbearable: Love, loss, and the heartbreaking pain of grief. Summerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1973). On death and dying. Routledge.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
Weller, F. (2015). The wild edge of sorrow: Rituals of renewal and the sacred work of grief. North Atlantic Books.
Yalom, I. D. (2008). Staring at the sun: Overcoming the dread of death. Scribe Publications.
There are also incredible resources through victim advocacy groups and grief counseling centers, including this exhaustive list from the University of Utah. I hope you’ll find this foray into the trauma literature as enriching, and important, as I do.