How Do We Study Our Own Illness?

Collective trauma doesn’t fit into academia

Anna Mercury


Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

There’s a joke I’m about to butcher that goes something like this. One fish swims up to another fish and asks, “Hey, how’s the water?” The second fish stares at him blankly, then asks, “What the hell is water?”

We’re all swimming in stuff we fail to recognize: culture, conditioning, subtle psychological influences from factors in our life as diverse as media, architecture, ecological health, diet and language. We’re so steeped in the parameters that organize our lives that we have no idea what it could look or feel like to live outside of them. We don’t know, for instance, how much the domestication of our species changed our neurobiology. We don’t know how living in industrialized societies changes the way we value relationships. We don’t know how we would process emotion differently if we were raised speaking a different language.

Perhaps most importantly, we don’t know how our societies’ norms are impacting our wellbeing and behavior. We know that they are, that our assumptions, imagination, reactions and expectations are all extremely conditioned, but we don’t know exactly how. We don’t have the means for measuring those impacts, and we don’t have accessible control groups to compare with.

My question is: if you are a fish, how do you study water?

See, it’s that time again when I declare to my family and friends and now you, dear reader, that I am finally going to go ahead get a PhD. In what, you may ask? Well, that’s the first part of the problem.

The thing I want to study is collective trauma and the way it shapes societies. More particularly, how collective trauma shapes certain structures and behaviors into societies, and how those traumatized societies go on to cause further trauma.

What discipline even is this? Is it psychology or sociology, public health or political science? It could fit in one of those cool, vague interdisciplinary programs, “Communities and Social Change” or “Health and Society,” but even then, it’s still too big, too vague.

The second problem is, how do you begin to narrow this question down into something any study could handle? If the goal is to understand the pattern by which whole…