South Africa and Sierra Leone: the trauma of conflict and peace

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: War Studies


This PhD project is dedicated to those individuals who suffer in conflict, and in peace. In recent years, individual traumatic experiences of conflict have sought to be incorporated into national healing through post-conflict processes such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs). However, in seeking a consensus on history, peace-processes frequently silence alternate narratives (Bracken, 1998). Thus, whilst some traumatized by conflict are heard, others are not. This project proposes that this exclusion from peace has the potential to be traumatic itself.

To what extent do post-conflict peace-processes compound the trauma of conflict, and produce 'cumulative trauma' in post-conflict societies?

This preliminary research question introduces the concept of 'cumulative trauma' which here refers to the addition of trauma resultant from peace-processes, to existing trauma from conflict. In comparing the cases of South Africa and Sierra Leone, this project seeks to illuminate the challenges which remain in post-conflict societies.

Trauma, traditionally conceived as a medical phenomenon, has increasingly become recognised to play a role in social and political processes (Edkins, 2003; Fierke, 2015). As a response to events in the social realm, several have argued that trauma is inherently political (Summerfield, 1998; Burstow, 2003; Colvin, 2008). This psychological literature has frequently focused on peace-processes, critiquing TRCs for failing to address the specificities of trauma in context (Bracken and Petty, 1998; Summerfield, 1998; Shaw, 2007; Colvin, 2008; Horne, 2013). However, few studies have followed the impact on trauma in the long-term, and fail to address the political implications.

Despite its role in conflict, only a select number of scholars have addressed trauma from the perspective of international relations. Edkins (2003; 2006) and Fierke (2006; 2015) have produced critical analysis of trauma and memory; and two collections have related trauma to a variety of international relations topics (Bell, 2006; Resende and Budryte, 2014). Although these scholars recognize the role of trauma in peace-processes, few question the implications of these processes for individuals. Meskell is an exception, assessing the long-term impact of silencing traumatic memory in South Africa (2006). However, working with material anthropology, Meskell is limited by her lack of empirical evidence of individual trauma.

This PhD will respond to this gap in the literature by analysing individual trauma in post-conflict environments drawing directly on the cases of South Africa and Sierra Leone. This PhD will illuminate the opportunities for integrating the individual into international relations research.

This project will address the research question using theoretical analysis and case study fieldwork, guided by an ethnographic methodology. Theoretical discussion of conflict, trauma and memory will be supported by case studies of South Africa and Sierra Leone. The fieldwork carried out in both locations will consist of observation and participant interviews where appropriate. Organisations committed to post-conflict healing and trauma provide access to self-defined groups focused on the topic. Comparing South Africa and Sierra Leone will provide insight into post-conflict societies which experienced similar post-conflict mechanisms, but vastly different social, economic and political positions.

Conflict and its aftermath have significant traumatic impacts on individuals and communities. Whilst post-conflict processes such as TRCs have been established to address conflict, little academic attention has been paid to how these processes affect individual trauma. Utilising an ethnographic methodology, this PhD project will investigate how the silencing of certain narratives within peace processes can potentially construct 'cumulative trauma', and how this may impact the stability of post-conflict communities.


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
1916665 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 31/12/2020 Hannah Rose Goozee
Description Victim Support Group monthly meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The research project was presented during the monthly meeting of a support group for victims of Apartheid in South Africa in June 2019. An estimated 40 people were in attendance, the information was later spread by word of mouth to other group members. The purpose of this presentation was to gauge the group's interest in participating in the research process. Following the meeting, interviews were arranged with 37 group members.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019