Historical trauma as public narrative: a conceptual review of how history impacts present-day health

Soc Sci Med. 2014 Apr;106:128-36. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.01.043. Epub 2014 Jan 31.


Theories of historical trauma increasingly appear in the literature on individual and community health, especially in relation to racial and ethnic minority populations and groups that experience significant health disparities. As a consequence of this rapid growth, the literature on historical trauma comprises disparate terminology and research approaches. This critical review integrates this literature in order to specify theoretical mechanisms that explain how historical trauma influences the health of individuals and communities. We argue that historical trauma functions as a public narrative for particular groups or communities that connects present-day experiences and circumstances to the trauma so as to influence health. Treating historical trauma as a public narrative shifts the research discourse away from an exclusive search for past causal variables that influence health to identifying how present-day experiences, their corresponding narratives, and their health impacts are connected to public narratives of historical trauma for a particular group or community. We discuss how the connection between historical trauma and present-day experiences, related narratives, and health impacts may function as a source of present-day distress as well as resilience.

Keywords: Community health; Historical trauma; Personal narratives; Public narratives; Resilience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Empirical Research
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Narration*
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology*