The Mobilizing Powers of Collective Traumas: A Role for Moralities and Emotions

By Stephen F. Ostertag

Scholarship examining the role of trauma, moralities, and emotions in explaining mobilizations is undergoing a renaissance (e.g., Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2000, 2001; Goodwin and Jasper 2006; Flam and King 2007; Jasper 1998, 2011).  New questions on how people experience, understand, and [re]act to traumatic events and the role of morals and emotions in these developments will help uncover some of the dynamic and nuanced social processes that underscore mobilizations (Kurzman 2008).

David G. Ortiz and I have spent the past four years examining a variety of digitally-mediated mobilizations and civic participations that people organized and took part in in the wake of hurricane Katrina (Ortiz and Ostertag 2014). In the weeks, months, and years after the “federal flood” a number of geographically scattered residents of New Orleans created blogs to communicate news, information, and commentary.  Over time, they found each other and created a digital network of bloggers and blog readers. They called themselves “Katrina Bloggers” and took part in a range of mobilizations and civic participations, and created new civic organizations (e.g., Rising Tide, The Lens). These collective civic actions (Sampson et. al. 2005) were designed to address their shared grievances and frustrations.  Trauma, moralities and emotions were key to their development.

Collective Traumas

“Natural” disasters like hurricane Katrina are transformative events (McAdam and Sewell 2001; Hess and Martin 2006). They shake the bedrock of society, displacing people and jolting them out of their everyday routines.  The lingering effects of such events are powerful sources of collective trauma (Ortiz, under review). Collective traumas add insults to the collective injuries imposed by transformative events.  They’re composed of social and cultural elements.  Social trauma refers to trauma experienced due to the destruction of key institutions and the broader social structure that disrupts daily routines and needed services (e.g., traffic lights, garbage collection, electricity, clean water, etc.) (Erikson 1976). Cultural trauma refers to the trauma experienced due to insults to a group of people that shares a particular identity (such as media representations of “New Orleanians”) (Alexander et al. 2004).  In the weeks, months, and years after what locals termed the “federal flood” a number of residents experienced social traumas due to the response, recovery, and rebuilding efforts of federal, state, and local authorities and private interests (insurance companies, private contractors, etc.). They experienced cultural trauma from the national media’s coverage of the city in which residents were seen as violent and unpredictable, hopeless and in the need of handouts from others, and irrational for not evacuating (Gotham 2007; Ostertag and Ortiz 2013).  These collective traumas were fundamental to the collective civic actions that emerged later. Their mobilizing powers lie in their ability to resonate with a number of moralities and emotions. Moralities provided the reasons and justifications for action and emotions energized these actions.


A growing interest among sociologists (Hitlin and Vaisey 2010), moralities are senses of right and wrong and ideas on how people should act and relate to each other under various conditions.  They serve as beacons around which people build social relationships and justify concerted action. In our own work, we have used moral foundations theory (Graham et al. forthcoming; Haidt 2012) to help explain people’s participation in collective civic actions. Drawing on a growing pool of international research, moral foundations theory argues that there exist six foundations upon which individual and cultural moralities are built ( Placed along a continuum of binary oppositions, these are care<>harm, fairness<>cheating, liberty<>oppression, loyalty<>betrayal, authority<>subversion, and sanctity<>degradation. These moral foundations appear widespread in the sense that they are important normative beacons in numerous cultures across the globe, but they are culturally variant in the value, activation, and practicing of each morality (Graham et al. forthcoming).

In post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans, the collective traumas generated by the response, recovery, and rebuilding work (social trauma), as well as the degrading and embarrassing national media content (cultural trauma) were seen as violating a number of moral foundations. Expressed in both interviews and through their blogging were underlying senses of being cheated and betrayed by federal and city authority figures, private interests, the national media and outsiders who felt that residents of New Orleans needed to just “get over it” and questioned whether it was worth rebuilding the city.  Residents also felt at risk of being harmed as they distrusted the controversial rebuilding of the city (e.g., housing demolition, schooling, flood protection), and the city’s inability to handle its exceedingly high level of violence as people were moving back years after the flood.  These moralities resonated with a number of emotions to produce the bodily energies that fuel action (Collins 2003; Jasper 2011; Stets and Carter 2012).


Emotions refer to the mental states and biological reactions that arise from sensory stimulation.  Through their linkages with moralities, emotions help focus people’s attention and provide the deep drives that fuel individual and collective behavior. Activating emotions such as excitement, happiness, and anger energize individual and collective action (Jasper 2011).

Many of those with whom we spoke and the blogs we examined expressed various dimensions of anger (e.g., frustration, disgust, outrage). These emotions were linked with the moral foundations of harm, cheating, and betrayal, and through them the collective traumas associated with the flood and its lingering effects. Emotions provided the necessary energy for individuals to start blogging, interact with each other, and organize to take part in a variety of offline collective civic actions.

Collective Trauma and Mobilizations

In the weeks, months, and years following hurricane Katrina, a number of bloggers living in or around New Orleans took part in a variety of collective civic actions. They organized their participation in both large and small protests, created new civic organizations and meetings, and took part in individual level civic participations. Collective traumas were key to the actions they took part in, as they provided the moral reasoning and emotional energies to start blogging, find and interact with each other online, and organize their involvement in different offline mobilizations designed to address their shared grievances. I highlighted here how traumas might resonate with different moralities and emotions helping people to focus, justify, and energize their collective civic actions. Yet, there remains much to learn from this line of scholarship.  For example, what kind of social ties might shared traumas, moralities, and emotions sustain? How might traumas relate to changing senses of togetherness and belonging? What can we learn from trauma, moralities, and emotions that can help in devising more equal and fair social movements, policies, and institutions?

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Trauma and Activism

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