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Trauma-Informed Anthropology and the #Me Too Movement: Bringing Marginalized Voices into Mainstream Discourse

By Samantha Moore, University of Saskatchewan

The recent #MeToo movement has drawn much attention to both interpersonal and structural power imbalances within our society, including constructions of violence and sociocultural notions of sexual assault and justice. In the discipline of anthropology, and specifically in reference to those anthropologists who conduct community-based fieldwork with marginalized populations, the #MeToo movement becomes not only a social movement to be examined and critically analyzed, it also provides a platform for reflexive practice in the field. Of specific interest is how we can use the #MeToo movement to gain further insight into the worlds of our participants, especially those participants who live on the “margins” of society, where vulnerability is exacerbated by violence and trauma. Thus, a trauma informed approach in anthropology calls attention to the ways in which this movement has been exclusionary to specific populations, such as women who use substances and those who engage in sex work.

Trauma informed care is mainly utilized in the health and social service sectors to support knowledge-based, integrated care models that take into account the role that trauma plays in the lives of those who access services, with specific emphasis on how trauma can exacerbate health and social concerns such as substance use and exposure to violence (Elliott, Bjelajac, Fallot, Markoff, Reed 2005). Within the realm of community-based ethnographic study, trauma is often the focus of ethical examination and methodology, such as the ways in which anthropologists can minimize harm to participants in the field (Corbin & Morse 2003; Da Haene, Grietens, Verschueren 2010). Additionally, trauma and trauma syndemics have been studied at length by anthropologists in a number of community-based and cross-cultural settings (Breslau 2004; Singer 2000). Anthropologists who are engaged in research on trauma and violence are, in many ways, utilizing trauma informed models of care while also simultaneously analyzing those models within cultural and social frameworks. Because community-based anthropologists must often balance reflexivity and observation with integration and participation, this holistic approach to trauma informed care can be a powerful tool both for the anthropologist and the participant. As the #MeToo movement pushes forward, we can thus observe that conversations around trauma and assault are gaining more traction in mainstream media, prompting individuals to discuss social issues around violence, trauma, and oppression that have long been taboo or socially impeded.

However, marginalized women such as those who use substances and those who engage in sex work have been noticeably absent from discourse in the mainstream media surrounding the #MeToo movement. These exclusions, for many of us who conduct community-based research with these populations, are unsurprising. Such marginalized women have long been seen as contaminators and infectors to overarching social order. Whether prompted by health care professionals to give up reproductive rights due to substance dependence (Derkas 2012), or through the mass removal of their children into child care agencies (Boyd 2004), women who use substances have been regarded as deviant, where their ‘failure to thrive’ has garnered more attention than their ability to resourceful or resilient in the face of violence or trauma. Societal tendencies toward moral blame and the surveillance of deviant behaviour are thus still rampant, even as the #MeToo movement continues to bring about conversations concerning the effects of sexual violence on women. Though there is much evidence to show that women on the margins of society – specifically those who use substances and those who engage in sex work – disproportionately experience violence in a number of forms (Meyer, Springer, Frederick, Altice 2011; Singer 2000), their voices also appear to remain on the margins of the movement itself.  Their absence from the #MeToo movement offers another means of reflection as to how their lived experiences come to be seen as unimportant or unworthy within larger society. That they are noticeably absent in the mainstream media from a movement that has been regarded as momentous brings about a deluge of questions and inquiries for the community-based researcher. Importantly, it also calls for the anthropologist to utilize this movement as a tool to gain further insight into those lived experiences, where researchers can use a trauma informed approach to better understand the social and cultural dynamics that come to pervade the lives of those individuals with which we forge relationships while in the field. Marginalized voices may benefit the most from a trauma informed approach, where anthropological discourse on trauma and violence can emphasize the lived experiences of participants, encouraging such voices to be brought to the forefront of the movement.

The #MeToo movement can therefore act as both a social force to be examined, especially for those researchers interested in the relationship between activism and structural violence, and also as a tool for reflexivity when engaging with those participants who find themselves once again excluded from mainstream discourse. A trauma informed approach in anthropology specifically calls for both the use of, and critical analysis of, trauma informed approaches currently used in the health and social sectors for the benefit of those participants experiencing violence and trauma in complicated syndemic relationships.


Boyd, Susan. 2004. From Witches to Crack Moms: Women, Drug Law & Policy. Durham, NC:   Carolina Academic Press.

Breslau, Johsua. 2004. “Cultures and Trauma: Anthropological Views of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in International Health”. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. 28 (2) 113-126.

Corbin, Juliet and Janice Morse. 2003. “The Unstructured Interactive Interview: Issues of Reciprocity and Risks when Dealing with Sensitive Topics”. Qualitative Inquiry (3) 335-354

De Haene, Lucia, Hans Grietens, and Karine Verschueren. 2010. “Holding Harm: Narrative Methods in Mental Health Research on Refugee Trauma”. Qualitative Health Research 20 (12): 1664-1676.

Derkas, Erika. 2012. “’Don’t Let Your Pregnancy Get in the Way of Your Drug Addiction: CRACK and the Ideological Construction of Addicted Women”. Social Justice. 38 (3) 125-144

Meyer, Jaimie, Sandra Springer, Frederick Altice. 2011. “Substance Abuse, Violence, and HIV in Women: A Literature Review of the Syndemic”. Journal of Women’s Health. (20) 7

Singer, Merill. 2000. “A Dose of Drugs, a Touch of Violence, a Case of AIDS: Conceptualizing the Sava Syndemic” Free Inquiry-Special Issue: Gangs, Drugs, and Violence. 28 (1) 13-24.

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