Social Violence and the Social Institutions

by Toma Tomov


This paper addresses the issue of violence and the social institutions involved in the catering for the public needs in the period of social change following the collapse of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. It concentrates more specifically on the social welfare institution in Bulgaria, which was called to respond to the demands of transition in a particularly imperative way over the past five years. The paper hopes to demonstrate on the basis of data from a field survey in Bulgaria, that the challenge of the transition to market economy has remained largely unmet by the social welfare institution, and that there is a failure to recognize this fact. An attempt is made to explain the disavowal of the confusion and impotence of the institutions in the face of pressing demands to respond to change by changing themselves. This attempt draws on conceptions about the nature of the social institutions and the ways in which individuals relate to them, developed by schools of thought known as object relations (Hinshelwood; Scharff and Sharff), group relations (Trist and Murray) and systems theory (Bateson; Maturana & Varela). The crucial, though little known and poorly understood role of internal objects in construing “objective reality” is emphasised. A tentative hypothesis is advanced as to why individuals who were born, raised and socialised in a human environment dominated by coercive values and practices project violent expectations on the social institutions. 

The Survey of the Social Welfare Institutions In the summer of 1994 a team of American and Bulgarian researchers travelled extensively in Bulgaria and conducted over 260 interviews at more than 21 locations in different regions of the country with social welfare officers and their clients (Cook). The objective of the study was to identify what needs were brought to the attention of the social welfare service by the Roma population. 

This population was most severely affected by the collapse of the economy of the country. Statistical data indicated that the rates of unemployment and the levels of poverty among the Roma were extreme and beyond containment (as the crime columns of the newspapers strongly suggested). The modes of explaining why the Roma proved so vulnerable to the crisis of transition employed at different quarters agreed on one thing: they blamed, in one way or another, the poverty of the Roma on the Roma. The social welfare institution was no exception. Although the original purpose of our research was to assess the training needs of the employees with respect to their interaction with Roma clients, our investigations led us to a number of disturbing observations and conclusions about the social welfare institution as a whole. Those more general observations are the basis of this paper. One topic which very early on started to dominate the conversations, meetings and interviews that the team held was violence. 

Violence permeated in particular all accounts by both clients (mostly Roma) and employees (exclusively Bulgarian) as to what the other party, in their view, was entertaining as a possible move in the immediate future. Violence in these stories had many faces (physical, sexual and psychological; individual and group; domestic and public; brutal, vulgar and perfidious; spontaneous and premeditated) and created the impression of a world populated by perpetrators and victims only, or by human actors incapable of stepping with respect to each other in any other roles. The clients of the social service, unemployed, poverty stricken and lost in the political scramble around them, reported endless stories of corruption, malevolence and ethnic hatred verging on genocide. The social service employees, unrelenting, suspicious and overwhelmed, produced figures and documents to ward off any personal responsibility for the claims of the other party and to prove that the complainers were not the “honest” or “deserving” poor. 

The members of the research team found it difficult to come to terms with such a close encounter with violence in the course of the survey and admitted that they had been caught unprepared for this experience. Eventually they agreed on the formulation that the Bulgarian social welfare service was a case of an institution in crisis and that there were at least two levels at which the experience and the manifestations of the crisis had to be considered in parallel: the “macro” or institutional level and the “micro” or individual level. 

The Institutional Crisis. 

Confused Growth 

At the institutional level the crisis could be construed in terms of exposure to excessive demands on growth and development, which the institution had failed to meet. The social welfare service had gone very rapidly through a manifold increase of the personnel which it employed. The social assistance offices, for example, used to have a staff of less than 200 persons in 1990, but by the beginning of 1995 they had recruited over 5000 new employees (Mikkola & Bergman). The new social welfare officers had no training in social work and were by and large former state or party employees, who had been re- located instead of just sacked like most of the unemployed in the country. They brought with them the attitude of bureaucratic smugness and superiority that characterised the totalitarian institutions. 

This act appeared to be a panic reaction of those in charge to the devastating poverty and unemployment that accompanied the move to market economy, and not a thoughtful, intelligent effort to buffer the shock of transition. Such a conclusion was supported by the fact that the norms of the institution, its notion of welfare, its language, methods and attitudes had remained exactly the same as during the totalitarian rule: the party functionaries-turned-social workers fitted exactly into this context. 

Dissatisfaction With the System 

There existed at all levels of the social welfare service a feeling of dissatisfaction with how the system worked. This feeling fluctuated in intensity coming at times to the anticipation of imminent failure. A widely practised response to this anxiety was to talk about the low qualifications of the personnel vis-à-vis its tasks and the need of enhanced training throughout the institution. In all numerous accounts on this topic “training” was taken to imply imparting of theoretical knowledge by experts (preferably from abroad) and its absorbing by trainees as a result of cognitive efforts, facilitated by teaching technologies as advanced as possible. An image that adequately described this quest of professional sophistication was that of a run-of-the- mill product: impersonal, impeccable, spotless apparatchik re-incarnated. 

Training Versus Indoctrination 

By 1994, when the survey was launched, there had already been a history of training projects contracted through international funding agencies which had attempted to live up to the criteria that high officials of the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare had formulated in order to convey, more or less precisely, the above idea for the expected outcome of the training. None of these programs had actually lived up to the expectations of their initiators. What was particularly often found to be a flaw in the projects were the modules that attempted to address the emotional needs of the trainees arising from the stress and trauma of being intimately involved with human suffering. At the high levels of the bureaucracy, where the decisions were made, these training modules were always judged to be counter-productive, demoralising and not conducive to the right institutional norms. As should be clear by now these were experiential training inputs which tried to handle frustrated expectations by re-introducing reality and helping the trainees with the containment of their emotions. It had repeatedly been concluded by teams of trainers that without such components professional identity could not be fostered or even focused upon; that the important aspect of attitudes building, which was crucial for the helping professions could not be even broached without such modules. Nevertheless, the bureaucracy kept over-ruling the advice of the teaching experts. The one place in the country where this approach had been welcomed was clinical social work program at the New Bulgarian University, a non-governmental school Freed, Markova). 

A Passion for Control 

A puzzling finding in the course of the survey was that, by and large, social work was assumed not to be a helping profession (Shulman) with the role to provide services to vulnerable individuals such as the children, the disabled and the old. The social welfare service in Bulgaria regarded itself as an outpost of a mother organisation, “the State”, this mythical construct of socialist society, the interest of which it had been called to defend against the peril posed by unoccupied loiterers and schemers against prosperity and well-being. This attitude, typical of the state/party employee, had been nurtured for decades by the totalitarian propaganda, which had imposed the “front line” mentality of constant alert to the ever new reincarnations of the enemy. 

The social welfare institution had interpreted the increment of manpower in its ranks as an encouragement to spread and tighten its habitual practice of control, and not as an opportunity to reconsider critically its role under the new conditions of a society attempting to become reconciled with civility. Five years after the declared abolishment of totalitarian regime the social welfare institution still carried unabashedly the insignia of a system designed and operated to exercise control over the individuals and their lives. There still existed no appreciation of the individual as such, and, therefore, no understanding for the services that cater for the development and needs of the individual and protect him from the hazards of the interpersonal, family and group interactions to which he was exposed. The attitude to the clients displayed at the social assistance offices was clearly one of mistrust, contempt and disgust. Although this attitude penetrated every gesture, posture and facial expression, although it was evident in the way clients were disparaged, ordered around and kept at a distance with the help of barriers like desks, doors and counters, this attitude was never articulated. It just went part and parcel with the notion of social control espoused by the totalitarian institution. 

Social Engineering 

The social services from day one of totalitarian rule were never even remotely seen as called to integrate individuals to community life by helping people to learn how to cope with suffering and loss. Quite the opposite, they had been completely dominated by segregationist institutional thinking. The social services had been reduced to identifying “the deviant”, to labelling, proscribing, interdicting them. This job at the margins of the community was infamous but also crucial to the safety and survival of a social order believing itself to be surrounded by enemies. This job, therefore, was akin to what apparatchiks did, the job of the warrior in disguise. It took unparalleled, selfless loyalty, seemingly unrecognised but profoundly valued by the Authority. For endless days they had to witness shameful displays of unbecoming needs by orphans, idiots, sociopaths, the disabled, the demented, and the like, all of them neatly stacked in institutions of corresponding types at as little cost to society as possible. There never was a word of doing something real about the needs of these unfortunate people such as, for example, empower them to cope. Quite the opposite, their demands had to be endured but never met and, above all, not allowed to disturb the society: a strategy of tacit elimination. 

Victimisation of the Poor 

With the advent of market economy social evils like poverty and unemployment had materialised: the poor and the unemployed had started walking the streets. Shortly after that they had been added to the list of categories of deviance entrusted to the care of the social services. In line with the institutional approach, fighting these evils now meant war on those who embodied them. The warrior mentality approach had spread onto the new embodiments of evil. The result was victimisation (blaming the victim for being a victim) on a mass scale. In brief, the crisis of the social welfare institution, which demonstrated itself as victimisation and violence amounted to no less than the failure of this institution to drop the social control function bequeathed by the totalitarian regime and to pick up instead the helping function that civil societies evolve to alleviate the plight of the individuals who, under market economy, end on the loosing side – the poor, the unemployed, the disabled. 

The Institutional Crisis as Pertaining to the Individuals 

In addition, other factors were at play too at this time of crisis. They stemmed from patterns embedded in Bulgarian culture that modelled attitudes and stereotypes which infiltrated the approach and behaviour of the social welfare officers and which put the Roma clients at a particular disadvantage in comparison with clients belonging to other ethnic groups. These developments were of special interest to the team for reasons of professional values and principles. 

Meaning for the Individual 

Assuming institutional crisis and building up evidence of it, as done above, was a good academic exercise which helped an observer to make sense of what he saw at the institutional level. However, plenty else was going on in terms of personal life projects and ways to cope practised by all individuals. Hardly any of the thousands involved conceptualised their behaviour under the circumstances as an attempt to cope with, or contribute to, the management of the institutional crisis. Quite the opposite, people were trying to take life in a stride as at all other times in or out of crises – institutional, social or whatever. The main instruments they were employing in this were their minds; in the case of Bulgaria, their Bulgarian minds, or their minds of Roma living in Bulgaria. 

The line of thinking taken by the team was typical of the helping professions and clearly demanded that these numerous human efforts apt or inapt, planned or chaotic, premeditated or spontaneous, facilitating or obstructive of institutional developments, be put in the equation. Unlike academics and observers, the team declined to employ a blue-print paradigm enabling one to adopt the architect’s or creator’s view over the situation and to design the way out of it. Rather, the team undertook to explore the meaning, which the experience with the social welfare practice had for the various actors involved, and which made these experiences intelligible to these actors, and thereby rendered them points of departure in undertaking further coping activities. In this approach to “the human factor” the team adopted the perspective to the workings of the individual minds which had been developed by object relations and group relations theories. 

The Construction of Reality by Individuals 

According to these theories individual minds construct versions of reality, and individual behaviours are guided by these versions. For example, victimisation and violence were overwhelming characteristics of the behaviour associated with the social welfare institution in Bulgaria in 1995. This fact suggested preponderance of individual versions of reality in the minds of clients and employees, characterised with extreme anxiety, threat, guilt, envy and similar destructive negative attributes of relationships between individuals. This picture of the reality in the minds was in stark contrast with the version of reality espoused by the public discourse as evidenced in the national and international media and coded with the jargon of democracy and civic society: dawn of freedom, respect for human rights, instillation of ethnic tolerance, assuming individual responsibility, facing ethical choices etc. 

The Individual Actors 

The developments going on at the conscious level, accessible in terms of rational cognition, and in display through the political discourse and the media, were worlds apart from the realities in the mind as evidenced by the stories and counter-stories and counter-counter-stories collected by the team. Amazingly, all or most of the actors pertained to both these realities – the festive one and the nightmarish one. 

At this junction of analysis of the survey data the need to comprehend better the identity of the clients of the social welfare institution and the identity of the civil servants employed by this institution became imperative. The question asked ran like this: Given the possibility after 50 years of coercion to establish relationships which were helpful without being paternalistic, why did the social welfare clients and employees still perpetuate an institutional culture which encouraged learned helplessness, dependence, disguised violence, etc.? Why “fighting poverty and unemployment” had taken to mean “fighting the poor and the unemployed” even though total control had receded? 

These questions were handled in terms of three hypotheses. Each of the three hypotheses, coded in this presentation as the conspiracy hypothesis, the amoral familism hypothesis and the culture enclave hypothesis, provided some explanation of the findings from the survey. It did so by providing an organising principle around which a version of reality could be built. These hypotheses are presented in detail below and are discussed from the point of view of their utility in producing explanations. Before proceeding with the exposition, however, the analytic approach taken in this paper will be presented and discussed in some detail. 

The Approach: Object Relations and Group Relations 

What is entered at this point of the presentation is the immensely complex question of the interplay between individual minds and social contexts, such as families, groups, organisations and institutions. The approach taken in this paper is broadly speaking psychoanalytic and systemic: it purports to account for events in the social domain in terms of explanations which derive from theories which depict man as struggling for autonomy, yet not fully rational. 

The Ego 

A key concept which enables one to explore this interplay is that of the ego, defined for the purpose of this text as the highly abstract function of the mind in maintaining the identity of the individual, or, to use psychoanalytic notation, of the self. What is usually had in mind as ego are constant operations on the border between the external and the internal worlds, between reality and fantasy. The operations of the ego can be likened to those of the manager who monitors the exchange between the company and the world, determining inputs and outputs in such a way as to perpetuate the survival and growth of his business. 


Managing change involves an enormous amount of information processing, decision making and risk taking. Past experience, organised in templates of responses to typical situations and thus made readily available in emergencies, is of crucial importance for the efficient functioning of the ego. This could easily, however, become a mixed blessing as it might set the mind on a given trend of responses, experienced as certainty in one’s judgements and forecasts, and thus alleviating one’s anxiety, but rendering one rigid and less capable of adaptive change. Such individuals resist to accept reality when it suggests that they should change, because giving up certainty, especially great certainty, is experienced as a big loss. Coping with such a loss involves going through a process of mourning and depression. This is painful. Resistance in psychoanalysis denotes the proneness we have to ward off the signals which announce that we should reconsider our templates in the face of reality. Rather than do this, we are more prepared to go at such length as manipulate reality so that it signals what is pleasing to our ear. 

Primitive Defences: Projection 

Disavowal of reality as a defence against pain is one of many mechanisms employed by the ego in maintaining the identity or the self and in managing change. The theory of ego defences, as developed by the school of object relations, identifies a set of defence mechanisms called “primitive” because they are in operation very early in life. Essentially, these mechanisms operate by tinkering about with the very boundaries of the self. This is understandable taking into consideration that the primitive mechanisms appear very early in life when individuality itself is only in a phase of emerging. Projection and introjection are typical primitive defence mechanisms whereby the ego relocates objects outside or inside its boundaries depending on whether this is helpful in alleviating anxiety. Another way to describe the employment of mechanisms like projection and identification is to see the ego as drawing the boundaries round the territory of the self, including or excluding into the self parts of objects and whole objects as might come handy in the situation. This frivolity is more apparent than real, though, and adds to the individual’s flexibility, resourcefulness, and good capacity to adapt. 


Object relations theory looks at these processes as a projective and introjective cycle, i.e. each new re-drawing of the boundary of the self dissipates one type of anxiety, yet sets off another, which is slightly less strong (Summers, p. 76). Objects in the context of this theory are good or bad entities construed by the mind on the basis of being identifiable experiences – good or bad, impinging on his or her senses. Objects are the primary building material that the mind operates with in constructing this particular mind’s version of self and reality. There are good reasons to believe that the internal objects initially are psychic notations of feeling states, which begin to be associated with attachments to real persons and only gradually are taken to be representations in the mind of the external objects (Meltzer, p.178). Thus, “…the self structure …(is) a product of the internalisation of attachments in the form of object relationships” (Summers, p.346). 

As seen from the above the object relations school shows particular sensitivity to the ontogeny of the psychic processes and produces “…evidence (which) indicates, that the infant is best conceived as programmed to seek contact and relationships of various types, only one of which involves the satisfaction of biological drives (Summers, 347). The sensitivity to ontogeny, shown by the object relations school, is pushed to centre stage by the systems theorists to enable them to account for the complex interactions between the individual and the social environment, and more specifically, for the mutual formative effects of these interactions (Bateson; Maturana & Varela). In line with its origins in the feeling states of the body an internal object can be either good or bad, i.e. always experientially meaningful, and since external objects always remain partially constructed from internal sources they also take on meaning. The group relations theorists (Jaques; Menzies) show how “(i)ndividuals may put their internal conflicts into persons in the external world… by means of projective identification and may re-internalise the course and outcome of the externally perceived conflict by means of introjective identification.” (Jaques, p. 21) 


In brief, crucial to this approach is the claim that the objects which are creations of the mind are projected onto the external physical reality. It is by way of this and related mechanisms, such as introjection and identification, that the individual constructs versions of his world of relationships and attains meaning, thus rendering life orderly and predictable, rather than chaotic, incomprehensible and threatening. This is basically a strategy of defence against destructive tendencies, experienced as anxiety of annihilation or persecution. The key actor is the ego, given fully, as a good manager, to activities at the boundaries that delineate the internal from the external world, where all the interactions with the others take place. 

Internal conflicts and other similarly troubling parts of the self are projected onto another object – person or institution, in order to be contained. Similarly, good objects are introjected for their capacity to contain anxiety and thus deal with it when it threatens to destroy the self from the inside. Containment is of enormous importance to the nurturing, helping and therapeutic relationships: it tames anxiety and enables its toleration. (Bion). If a mother, an institution, or a therapist (external objects) fails to acknowledge the anxiety projected onto it and fails to do what is necessary to contain it, an escalation of destructive terror precipitates violent behaviour. (Segal, pp. 134-5). 

What derives from this approach to making sense of individuals, groups and institutions is that it is fully conceivable that changes in objects are as readily initiated in the mental space as they are in the objective world and that changes, thus attained can be carried across both ways. This intricate interplay over the boundaries should not be taken lightly as it suggests how aspects of the human environment, such as coercion, can modify the balance between good-object and bad-object experience, and, consequently, influence the ego strength and the development of the superego (or the moral imperatives) of the individual. It can be claimed that an independent observer will be in position to identify such changes taking place while studying the individuals, groups and institutions and the way they relate in that environment. The change will become evident in terms of symbolic, communicative behaviours, e.g. violence (Sluzki). 

The Hypotheses 

Hypotheses in this context are generic formulations which accommodate and relate in a meaningful way the human facts pertaining to the social welfare institution which belong to the reality in the mind of an individual and which have become evident in his statements and non-verbal behaviours. The formulation of the hypotheses was done by the team in the course of persistent efforts to make sense of the data from the interviews. The generic hypotheses provided frameworks within which the points of view of those interviewed became related to the context and acquired meaning for the team as well. In other words, the hypotheses were instruments of understanding introduced by the team, or an agreed descriptive language adopted by the team for convenience. In practice, if, by applying a given hypothesis to a given point of view or story, the confusion in the mind of the interviewer was reduced or eliminated, the inconsistencies and contradictions were smoothed out, and the position of the individual began to make sense to the team member, this individual’s construction of reality pertaining to the social welfare institution was subsumed under this particular hypothesis. Often one and the same individual had different stories that made sense in terms of different hypotheses. 

The Conspiracy Hypothesis 

The conspiracy hypothesis stated that the system of total control had not been abolished at all but had gone underground and continued to exercise its complete influence with the help of a secret network which was all-penetrating. Everything was disguised as something else. In the “psychotic” editions of this world view (which had completely penetrated the copious yellow press of the country) claims about who dominated the state apparatus ranged from the Extraterrestrials to the KGB, including the Russians, the Americans, the Turks, the psychiatrists and who not. 

In its “ordinary” humdrum variety the conspiracy hypothesis served to absolve the behaviour of learned helplessness, the all-pervading syndrome of the state employee. It provided the moral justification and the rationale for holding a sinecure for a lifetime. In the period of transition the conspiracy construction could be seen as contributing crucially to the delicate balance of a society in crisis. In the face of the rapid dismantlement of the state instruments of control it provided a face-saving excuse to the post- totalitarian individual for his resisting to confront the fact that he possessed no reliable internal agency of control to guide him in the difficult matters of making personal choices and taking personal risks. The conspiracy hypothesis was a major device for externalising the problem of change, for placing it outside the individual. It preserved the ego at the expense of stagnating social change and readily explained the state of mind that many had developed after the sudden withdrawal of the paternalistic guidance from the socialist state: mourning for its seductive promises of love and dependence. 

A corollary of this hypothesis was the need to maintain myths of impending disasters. The poor and the unemployed were obvious candidates for prima facie public enemies as poverty and idleness were implicated in crime, vice, betrayal, moral degradation. The state employees of the social service were relieved to share this belief with the rest of the culture because it provided support to their interpretation of their social work role as one of gatekeeping and not as one of helping or facilitating. The latter implied autonomous, self-governed identities, an intuitively unattainable task for human beings who were the product of crippling paternalistic styles of parenting, education and group and communal life. 

The analysis, resulting from the conspiracy hypothesis, promptly explained why the applicants for unemployment benefits and financial assistance were often put through improvised procedures of means testing that were unethical. For example, clients were asked to sell their household belongings first, live on that money until it lasted, and, only when it was spent out, to apply for help. Or, in order to prevent the unemployed from “cheating the state” when declaring no income from work, the social service gatekeepers requested proofs that the person was idling around all day long. The obsession with policing to prevent loss to the state had obviously gone out of bounds at some of the social welfare offices and had completely eclipsed the primary task of providing services.

At one such office the team found that what contributed or accompanied the establishment of group norms that were counter-productive to the primary task of the organisation was the ego structure of the manager. He was not capable of taking decisions, making choices, or facing risks. The level of his anxiety rose rapidly in such situations and his paranoid acting-out became overwhelming. He needed to detect conspiracy, i.e. cheating on the part of some client, in order to experience his own suspiciousness justified and in order to feel less ill at ease with it, i.e. control it. The employees under this gentleman were aware of the extremeness of his beliefs and felt often embarrassed by them. Nevertheless, they never brought this topic up openly for discussion because they feared that this might be a very destructive act. Unsurprisingly, the analysis of the organisational behaviour in this office revealed no explicit norm to abide by ethical rules or procedural principles, such as team work, which is known to be particularly effective in eliminating the deviations imposed on group norms by pathological ego organisations. 

The Amoral Familism Hypothesis 

Amoral familism is a construct borrowed from social anthropology (Banfield; Tomasic; Tomov), which has been introduced to denote the practice of some traditional cultures to operate double moral standards. The Mafia, the partocracies, the communities based on kinship and tribal loyalty have been known to prescribe one set of ethical norms to their members in their relationships with one another and a different set of norms for relating to people from the outside world. As a pattern amoral familism has been reported to be rigid and hard to change: it is only in the third generation Americans, for example, that it begins to recede among immigrants from Southern Europe. Its survival value in settings of scared resources has been recognised. The limited pie mentality, or the belief that there is a fixed amount of resources and that the only way for one to have more is if one’s neighbour has less, went hand in hand with amoral familism. 

Sequences of social interactions dominated by competition and rivalry, (Bateson) are believed to have been at work for long periods of time in the cultural settings in which amoral familism has crystallised as a consistent pattern. Geographically these should be territories that have seen lots of clashes of masses of people in the course of history, e.g. Balkan tribes at war. In as much as democracy implied reciprocity in social interactions, rather than antagonism leading to splitting (Bateson), it stood as the exact opposite to amoral familism. It could be hypothesised that cultures in which amoral familism had been practised widely will have a difficult transition to democracy. 

This anthropological perspective on the social welfare institution pointed to answers that did not leave much space for optimism. While creating an impression in the public and the outside world that a quick and prompt response had been affected to meet the explosion of needs the institution preserved its culture unchanged. The fact that a policy of double moral standards had been adopted did not meet with indignation and pressure for change on the part of either employees or clients, since both groups were in a complemenatry relationship and represented two aspects of one culture that traditionally endorsed a reality of double standards. 

A most devastating but common manifestation of the traditional culture hypothesis was the case of racism or virulent nationalism infiltrating the group culture of many social welfare offices which covered compact Roma populations. A typical situation there would be to find arrangements of one kind for handling the Roma clients and of another kind for handling the Bulgarian clients. Bulgarians would be treated with more compassion for their plight of outcasts. They would be regarded with less suspicion. The flaws and omissions in their papers would provoke less contempt and indignation. They would be given more readily advice and assistance how to benefit most from the system of benefits and would enjoy numerous other small privileges. Most typically, Roma clients would never engage in small talk with Bulgarian employees about the risks and hardships that the social workers were put through by cheating, lying or prevaricating clients – behaviours that would most readily be explained by virtue of membership in the gypsy ethnicity. 

Bulgarian social workers would genuinely believe that Bulgarian clients had more dignity as human beings in comparison with the Roma, and would be much more severely traumatised than the latter if they remained unemployed or turned “socially weak”, as the bureaucratic clichi ran. The Roma were seen as naturally given to begging, i.e. as “socially weak” by the design of the Creator, and the practice of distributing benefits came, therefore, as a stroke of luck for them. Whereas the Bulgarian clients were hard working, unemployed by misfortune, and worthy of assistance, the Roma were believed not to be deserving “socially weak” and were therefore expected to be eternally grateful for the benefits they were getting, which they were not.

A more covert form of racist victimisation was displayed by a type of social worker of missionary identity who regarded him or her self as a saviour of the poor and under developed Roma and therefore felt empowered to patronise and even boss them around. One such employee shared that she had made it a point to trace all the begging gypsy children in town to their family of origin and ensure that they are on the list for social benefits. This empowered her to reprimand every begging child she came across and treat him as a cheater and have no compassion or feelings of mercy for him. 

The psychodynamic underlying amoral familism, racism and similar behaviours is related to the propensity of individuals to adopt primitive defences such as projection in situations of major frustration that meet with no templates for ego coping. The coping in this case can be seen as the coming to terms with annihilation anxiety, or the fear that your positive self will be over-ridden by hate, envy, violence, etc., that boil inside you. One way to tolerate this disturbing aspect of your self is to explain it away by harm and injustice done to you: you can much more easily accept, even like or pride of your aggression if it is directed at an evil person who provoked you, that is, if you project your destructive impulses on somebody else. 

The Bulgarian social workers of 1995 having themselves narrowly escaped unemployment, overwhelmed with the frustration of having to bare responsibility for the suffering of Roma clients without being properly trained, equipped, or supplied with adequate funds, were only too prone to aggressive feelings and too unprepared to admit them and live with them. They were, therefore, employing primitive defences like projection. The Roma were very convenient to project aggressive impulses onto because of their “otherness” – a separateness encoded culturally and consolidated historically. 

The Culture Enclave Hypothesis 

What is coded here as a culture enclave hypothesis is an attitude of mind that found expression in affirming that Bulgarians were a culture apart from the rest of the world; a place of special predestination governed by people of peculiar propensities; a territory on which all undertakings, fairly reliably tested elsewhere, acquired awkward proportions. Whoever came along with a set of well working ideas in fields ranging from business, technology and society to agriculture, health and education would experience bewilderment at the special meaning these ideas took on in the context of Bulgaria and when handled by Bulgarians. Social welfare was one of many such instances of Bulgarian “specialness”. 

At a closer look the culture enclave hypothesis was an encoding of vague awareness of a difference between the local people and those in Western Europe on a nebulous dimension of human nature. What lurked behind these intonations, boastful and elevated as they were, was pain and fear. This coping with a disturbing premonition about your self and your kin by adopting an attitude of self-extolment was suggestive of defences and brought forth associations about practices characteristic of emotional immaturity often found in young age and tending to persist throughout life in certain individuals. The message as perceived by the team, was of concern that the predominance of such behaviour in Bulgaria was unnaturally high compared to the West. By interpreting this behaviour as a defence strategy the team was assuming that what was unconsciously experienced as a deficit had been transformed with the help of defences into an asset: e.g. a feeling of triumph at the sight of a bewildered foreigner. Disavowed from awareness, though, in such a situation remained the destructiveness of this aggressive lack of co-operation and the display of hostility to well meaning aliens. The articulation of the dimension of the presumed difference, if it were possible, the team further hypothesised, would have been a statement about a delay of many decades of the advent of modernity in Bulgaria. The notion of modernity which was in the air the team articulated after Foucault as that relationship with oneself which amounted to trying to invent oneself. In other words anxiety was high because of beginning awareness of the need to take responsibility of what you are, not dismiss disturbing thoughts about identity by attributing all responsibility to nature or fate. Anxiety was actually too high to allow this thought to be articulated. In fact, anxiety was so high that defences of all kinds had to be mobilised to ward it off. 

Institutional defences were also employed to this end: for example, the enmity to foreign experts, the denigration of their experience and advice, the belittling of their criticisms and recommendations etc. were only too evident in the virtuoso use of bureaucratic procedures and regulations in impeding initiatives, in preventing spread of information, in distorting and misrepresenting ideas and proposals and so on. In addition to the public and state institutions, the family in Bulgaria, paternalistic as it was, provided in its turn probably the best human space for the practice of destructive defences. In a desperate attempt to avoid facing intimidating truths, the family “legitimised” unpunished recourse to violence of all kinds. 

Making Sense of the Team’s Experience: Traumatic Identity None of the themes elicited in the interviews, and presented in terms of the three hypotheses above with the help of the process analysis done by the team was new. From the days of Bion’s experience with groups all of these themes have been known to be present with individuals and groups. Nor was it surprising to find that institutional defenses were at work. The abundance of violent and destructive primitive mechanisms, however, did come as a surprise. More puzzling still was the lack of any indication that some kind of enlightened reaction to these developments was forthcoming. The incapacity of the system to learn from experience, and change accordingly, was stunning. 

To help understand why the crisis had gone that far the notion of traumatic identity was introduced. This concept tries to capture the effects on mental life of coercive human environments, where violence is practised in disguise. Examples could be: possessive parents, controlling partners, secret societies, totalitarian regimes. In contrast to settings in which overt violence reigns, such as concentration camps, the battlefield and the crime scene, in settings of disguised violence coercion comes “…with a mystifying semantic envelope..” and “…has a devastating and long lasting effect on its victims”. “This effect derives … from the concurrence of two factors:” (1) perpetration of violence by the very agencies entrusted with the care and protection of the individual…; and (2) “a context of discourse that … mystifies meanings…” so that the shift from protection to violence is impossible to recognise. (Sluzki, p. 178). 

Conformity, compliance, obedience to authority are constructs of social psychology introduced to disentangle issues of social influence and practices of socialisation in human cultures. The exploitative and traumatising nature of many of these practices are beginning to be recognised (Cialdini). Persistent threats and coercion along with massive injunctions indicating the “correct” way of thinking constitute the key components of the “brainwashing” strategy of socialisation to which the millions now inhabiting Eastern and Central Europe had been submitted for decades. This has been taking place in a setting in which the dictators had appropriated the right to decree reality for the rest of the subjects and had adopted the evil practice of shifting out of the role of protector and nurturer into the role of perpetrator, while making special efforts to conceal this transition. This practice of concealment had been particularly vicious and, therefore, devastating to the subject-turned-victim. It employed amazing insights in how the mind operates and how feelings, cognitions and perceptions can be manipulated. The studies on trauma, child abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder suggest a convergence both in the strategies employed and in the effects on mental life of violent acts, on the one hand, and of coercive human environments, on the other. 

Two illustrations will be made of how the behaviours and experiences described under the three hypotheses above can be interpreted in terms of the traumatic identity of the persons involved. One consequence of life in coercive environments is the failure of these environments to provide opportunities to the individuals raised in them to practice how to make fine enough distinctions between feeling states. This deficit is basic to the individual of traumatic identity. It comes as a result of the constant and massive effort to blur the difference between good and bad, to disguise harmful relating on the part of the authority and its numerous embodiments throughout the life cycle and to misrepresent it as caring. The exposure to such a destructive influence is equivalent to repeated refusal on the part of the parental figure to provide containment to the anxieties of the child. Identifying authority with violence is only natural under these circumstances dominated by feelings of rage, envy, aggression. Such individuals remain for the rest of their lives equipped with only a very unreliable “map” of the universe of human emotional relations because their learning in the formative stage of life has not been assisted, but obstructed by the parental figure. The effects on the overall style of human relating that such a basic deficit must have, can be very grave indeed. Much of the relating which the team had observed taking place at the social assistance offices could be seen as marked by such deficits. 

A second characteristic of traumatic identity that results from the restriction imposed by coercive environments on the freedom of individuals to experiment with versions of reality constructed by themselves and test them out. A prohibition for such practice ensues from the coercive norm that there exists one reality decreed by the authority and that the rest had no choice but to comply with it under threat of survival. One result of this normative arrangement is a cultural notion of truth marked by rigidity, inviolability and sacredness. Under such norms discourse on reality is practically abolished. The public institutions created for this crucially important formative activity, such as the schools and the universities, are transformed under the circumstances into instruments for mind control. Competence and skills to question what appears evident are drained away. A further corollary of this arrangement is a social practice of taking for granted that the version of reality advanced by the authority was by necessity the correct one. 

Traumatic identity is an outcome of living in coercive human environments. It comprises ego structures and defences that have come about as a result of deprivations akin to failed containment and to the experience of violent rejection. Traumatic identity can therefore effect behaviours of interpersonal and social relating that are consistent with the restrictive norms of coercive settings and ensure the survival of the individual. In such settings the acquisition of traumatic identity is conducive to survival, it becomes the norm. And by the same token such environments are doomed to reproduce generation after generation of individuals with traumatic identity. In our case this is the culture of violence and resistance to change. Outside such settings, however, traumatic identity is experienced as being grossly inadequate, as a handicap of enormous disadvantage. Exposure to the outside world was therefore threatening, and as our survey illustrated, primitive defences were called forth. 

The Way Forward 

In 1992 a graduate training programme in clinical social work was initiated at the New Bulgarian University, the first non-governmental university in the country which saw its mission in providing training for democratic living. In January 1995 a dozen or so graduates and teachers from this programme called a founding meeting of a professional association of social workers. The meeting was attended by as many high ranking functionaries in the social welfare system and old guard trainers of government employees for the social welfare sector from the old schools. The meeting was a success because the dozen of initiators had had by then at least two years of experience in small groups, had had individual clients under supervision and had been extensively exposed to trainers from the United States who had been psychodynamically minded. In brief, this dozen of people knew how to provide a containing environment for the time of the meeting that managed to accommodate the psychotic anxieties of the state employees and functionaries. 

In January 1996, exactly one year after the founding meeting, a 3-day conference was held with the professional identity of the social worker as the central topic, at which 70 people were present, mostly employees at the social welfare services in the country. All the speakers were from the social work class of the New Bulgarian University. All the presentations were violently interrupted by the rest of the audience who kept angrily attacking the presenters for being what they were and who demanded to know who had authorised them to speak on behalf of social work. The acting out behaviour reached psychotic intensity by the end of the second day when personal offences and threats were addressed at those who presented or ran the sessions; when a group of people walked out; and when a founding member from the group of the state employees lost self-control. The response by the organisers was containment. 

In announcing and planning the meeting they had taken every step to address invitations to as many of those employed in the social welfare service as they could reach; to all who taught or studied social work in all schools of the country; and to the highest ranking administrators at the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. In facing the aggressive attacks they never dwelled on the efforts they had made, or on the superior training they had got; nor took issue with those who belittled or misrepresented in a deliberately humiliating way their efforts and intentions. It was a superb lesson of how to contain a big group of individuals with traumatic identity. 

By the end of the third day the association got recognition. Future events are forthcoming. After the meeting was dissolved girls cried. 

The END. 

Acknowledgements to my colleagues in the IREX funded project Bulgarian Gypsies and the Social Service System Galina Markova, Maya Mladenova and Yosif Nunev; to Nancy Cook von Bretzel, co-leader of the team for the project, School of Social Work, San Francisco State University, whose comments and criticisms were invaluable. and to Keitha Fine and Robin Schott for the advice and guidance. 


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Paper written for the Seminar on Social Violence, October 14-15, 1995, Prague, To be published, ed. Keitha Fine. 

© The Author 

Address for Correspondence: Medical Academy, 15 Dim. Nestrov, 1431 Sofia, Bulgaria.