By Lotte Buch-Segal, Hélène Dumas, Clara Han, Emilie Medeiros, Richard Rechtman and Valérie Robin-Azevedo

Political support for the reconstruction of individuals and social groups in the aftermath of conflict has become an increasingly essential element of strategies to escape violence. The consideration of this aspect with regard to individuals is part of an approach that is both genealogical and moral and that gives the individual’s need to make sense of their experience (i.e. subjectivity, subjectivisation, etc.) an essential role in parallel with other approaches to restore a peaceful social order.

Justice naturally has a key role in these approaches, particularly international justice, such as putting an end to violence and acting as a means of obtaining possible reparations (to settle claims). Memory and processes of remembering also raise the possibility of a collective history and involve the inherent problems of legal disputes and disagreements regarding past events (which is why our group needs to work in collaboration with group 7 (the role of history and memory), 8 (public policies against violence) and 9 (reconciliation and justice).

These three processes, which are currently the most frequently studied and probably the most important, require that a certain distance be taken from the individual’s standpoint (the unique case) for the benefit of the collective experience. However, it is precisely this distancing from the individual for the benefit of collective history that is now the subject of most of the complaints and criticism expressed by victims and/or their representatives. Since it is now common for the aggrieved to claim justice, history and memory must ‘render justice accordingly to each individual’, but the processes of memory and the law are not intended to meet the singular needs of every individual.

This is the precise reason why an increasing number of initiatives and programmes are being developed to take into account (or to be more precise, to account for) the experience of every individual. It is specifically this kind of work that we refer to as the reconstruction of the self and which our group proposes to study.

An initial observation: this idea is not self-evident. It is based on certain concepts that have recently come into use, such as trauma, resilience, individual grief, etc. The idea of focusing on the subjective experience of the individual will necessarily have a pathological or pathologising aspect, as is the case every time notions from psychopathology or psychiatry are borrowed to describe social conditions. The need for reconstruction is initially seen as the reverse of pathology, or in other words, its reversal in a sort of collective therapy signalling and accompanying a departure from violence.

However, three social conditions (or three historical changes) are absolutely essential for the emergence and success of any new undertaking to restore the ‘self’.

  1. Concepts from clinical psychology must first be stripped of their pathological aspect so that they can be used to refer to a new condition of the human being which is distinct from that of a mental patient. The symbolic category is of course that of trauma, which has come to signify the existence of a new condition – that of the victim – that can simultaneously certify the inexcusable nature of the traumatic event and justify the demand for individual and collection reparation for harm inflicted through violence.
  2. This then requires a new concept of the human being as a social agent characterised by his mind, emotions and suffering (rather than his reasoning). In other words, psychological suffering, deep emotional wounds, the memory of past violence, etc., should be considered as indelible traces with collective value through which every individual can not only recognise their own experience and obtain recognition from others of that experience, but also express collective dramas.
  3. Lastly, authentication systems are required, i.e. techniques to address psychological or legal concerns, opportunities for those affected to express themselves, to be validated and for their stories to be confirmed, etc., through which records can be kept of the suffering and experiences of individuals in order to build up a picture of the collective memory.

Three different zones will have to be studied in terms of how these three conditions are distributed and which social structures they depend on.

Three supplementary sub-topics:

At this stage of analysis, it seems important to identify three angles of approach (empirical and critical) to the empirical methods and the norms that they produce and the resistance and counter-resistance that they generate in the target populations.

For the methods, we first of all wish to identify two very different registers, because they concern objects that are radically distinct from one another but that both place subjectivity, or to be more precise, the effect on subjectivisation, at the centre of their approach. These are one, the methods for the restoration of the self, and two, the methods for the restoration of the collective space, particularly through the restoration of a connection with the dead and those who have disappeared.

1) Methods to restore the self

These methods all focus on a psychological treatment of the consequences of violence (whether as victim or perpetrator), from trauma (PTSD) to sexual violence and forced childbirth, torture, child soldiers, etc., as well as therapeutic methods that bring torturers together with their victims.

In this case, psychological restoration is based on the idea of repairing a single case of trauma in an individual which is also representative of a possible collective experience.

At this stage, it will be necessary to define the nature of these different methods and identify the norms that they are supposed to produce.

Participants in this work:

  • Lotte Buch (refugee torture victims in Denmark)
  • Hélène Dumas (victims and perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda)
  • Emilie Medeiros (child soldiers in Nepal, political refugees in the UK)
  • Richard Rechtman (victims and perpetrators of genocide, the subjectivisation of social suffering)

2) Methods to restore the social space between the dead and the living 

Most processes of extreme violence such as genocide or mass extermination, aim to eradicate the person of the deceased solely because of his or her corpse. This essential part of the administration of death, such as by genocide, treats the dead body as a simple piece of waste to be destroyed completely. The purpose of this violence is not only to kill a large number of people but also to cut any symbolic connection between the dead and the living. In other words, the management of bodies, from their dispersion to their destruction, consists of preventing the dead from properly leaving this world behind by depriving them of proper burial, thereby also preventing the ‘living’ from having a place to honour their memory. The processes that occur post-violence, from the search for human remains, the exhumation of mass graves and the identification of bodies to their return to their families for the performance of funeral rites, entail social policies of reparation and restoration post-conflict. In this regard, these initiatives concerning the dead mark both the termination of hostilities and the need for every individual to restore the symbolic links of filiation. The process of exhumation followed by the funeral constitutes a subjective means of reconstruction through the relocation of the corpse in the space of the dead.

Participants in this work:

  • Valerie Robin Azevedo (exhumations and burials in post-violence Peru)
  • Hélène Dumas (searching for bodies in Rwanda after the genocide against the Tutsis)
  • Clara Han (Echos of Death)
  • Richard Rechtman (subjective consequences of the administration of deaths by genocide and their reparation)

3) Evasion and resistance: new perceptions post-conflict

These different methods produce norms that are imposed upon individuals and groups with varying levels of ease. As vectors through which new meanings are subjectively attributed, such as the identity of a ‘victim’, these methods are nevertheless met with resistance by the ‘subjects’, who subvert their content by hijacking the rationale of the restoration of the self. The processes of subjectivisation that result from these different periods post-conflict are part of the process of attribution/alienation/subversion/subjectivisation. It is therefore the subjects themselves who impose, whether deliberately or unknowingly, an analysis of their own evasion and subversion of these new subjective norms.

All the researchers in the group are involved in this approach, which draws its methodology from the ethnography of the day-to-day and the rites of violence.


Richard Rechtman, psychiatrist and anthropologist, leader of the working group “Reconstructing the Self, comparative lessons“, explains what is the approach taken by his Working Group. The group will produce one chapter of the final report.

Subtitles are available in English and Spanish (Click on the wheel to choose the language and then on “CC” to activate the subtitles).