Collective Identity and Narratives: Impact on social reform movements

Executive Summary

The article aims to analyse the impact of collective identities and narratives employed by collectives in order to achieve or prevent collective goals. It first examines the three common features a social reform movement possesses, namely: oppressive system(s), oppressor group(s), and oppressed group(s). Then it proceeds to explain how these systems affect each group's identities and how it affects narratives that these groups employ when discussing reforms to these systems. It draws upon theories such as moral neutralisation and cultural trauma to explain these issues. Finally, the article inquires into the outcomes of this narrative clash and how it affects social and policy responses.

Keywords: Cultural Trauma, Collective Identity, Moral Neutralisation, Intersectionality, Caste, Racial Discrimination, Gender-Based violence.


A major point of disagreement during the Indian independence movement was whether political reforms preceded social reforms. Reformers who believed that there was no link between the two asserted that political reforms need not be held back just for the sake of social reforms. Formulation and implementation of political reforms to achieve independence from the colonial yoke were imperative for the greater good of all Indians.

The case for social reforms was put forth by Dr B. R. Ambedkar in his famous speech, “The Annihilation of Caste”.[1] The crux of his argument centred around the faults in the Indian caste system and how its existence would continue to harm Indian society. In his words:

“Every Congressman who repeats the dogma of Mill that one country is not fit to rule another country must admit that one class is not fit to rule another class.”

He also pointed out various instances of caste-based violence and oppression that regularly occurred. Despite the efforts made by social reformers to abolish the system, they ultimately failed. Even though affirmative action policies were later implemented, and some legislation regarding the rights of women, in areas such as property and inheritance, were passed, independent India was nowhere near the one that social reformers envisioned. People belonging to the upper castes still held most positions of power and influence. [2]

Fast-forward to today, instances of caste and gender-based violence are a seemingly regular occurrence. Even though discrimination and violence based on caste are outlawed, several horrific instances have come to light (for example the case in Hathras).

Despite the frequency of these events, every single push for some meaningful change to the caste system has been met with staunch opposition. For example, when the Mandal Commission was about to present its report recommending reservations for the Socially and Economically Backward Classes (SEBC), widespread protests shut down swathes of the country with students immolating themselves as a show of opposition.[3] Even in the past, when Dr Ambedkar presented the Hindu Code Bills [4] to the constituent assembly, one of the bills recommended a number of social reforms which included the removal of the caste system. The bill was poorly received and the version that was adopted was a heavily amended draft of the original owing to opposition from other members.

The question we must ask is why? What could drive someone to take such umbrage with a measure that would uplift those who are less privileged? Every time those who are oppressed attempt to alleviate their position, it is suppressed (often violently). This is not a uniquely Indian problem. It happens nearly every time there is a push for social reform of an oppressive system.

One explanation for this opposition is rooted in identity and narratives encompassing the identities of both the oppressor and those who are oppressed. Both these groups seek fundamentally different things and employ different narratives to achieve their goals. Which narrative they use depends on their identity and how it was formed.

With this context, this article seeks to examine the following:

  1. Common elements of social reform.

  2. Cultural Trauma and its role in shaping the identities of those who are oppressed.

  3. The narrative formation is part of the Identity formation process.

  4. Collective Identities of oppressor groups, narratives employed to ensure change does not occur.

  5. The effects of these two narratives.

Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity

Most social reform movements have three common features:

  1. An oppressive system:

  2. That which allows for malicious or unjust treatment, or exercise of power over a group.

  3. It uses differences between people as a conceptual tool to justify this treatment.[5]

  4. An oppressor group or dominants:

  5. A group that engages in the malicious and unjust treatment of another group.

  6. Usually, these groups extract some benefit from this system.

  7. The dominants usually possess one or more attributes that are the norm [6] (for example, in the United States, this norm would be “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure”) against which other groups are evaluated.

  8. Oppressed group(s) or subordinates: The group(s) that faces this unjust treatment.

Identity formation of oppressed groups:

Oppressed groups usually face injustice as a result of the systems they inhabit. These systems inflict what is known as cultural trauma on the oppressed groups. As per Jeffrey C. Alexander in “Towards a Theory of Cultural Trauma” [7], the definition of the term is:

Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.

An event is classified as culturally traumatic when it dislodges the cultural reference on which collective identity is based.[8] It results from an exercise of human agency, such as the successful imposition of a system of cultural classification. This cultural process is deeply affected by power structures and by the skills of reflexive (capacity to recognize forces of socialization and alter their place in the social structure) social agents.

Oppressive systems inflict cultural trauma onto oppressed groups that consequently form their identities based on those traumatic events. An example of this is the formation of the African American Identity. Slavery and the Civil Rights movement played a significant part in the creation of the African American identity. The trauma in question would be the system of slavery itself. Slavery resulted in the formation of the collective identity of African Americans, stemming from a collective memory shared by the community. It is an identity that signified and distinguished them as a “race,” a people, or a community.

More precisely, identity formation as a result of cultural trauma occurs in the following steps [9]:

  1. Creating and passing down teachings about the threat that the group faces:

The two parts of this process are claim-making and propagation by carrier groups

  1. Claim making:

  2. Claims about the shape of social reality, its causes and the responsibilities for actions that such causes imply.

  3. Depending on the claims, it could amplify the threat that the collective faces.

  4. Propagation by carrier groups:

  5. Carrier groups are the collective agents of the trauma process.

  6. They have particular discursive talents for articulating their claims (for what might be called “meaning-making” i.e., making meaning out of the events that unfolded) in the public sphere.

  7. Narrative creation as a result of this claim:

  8. This has four major parts:

  9. The nature of the pain i.e., what happened to the particular group or collective.

  10. The victim of said pain i.e., who was the target.

  11. Relation of the victim to a wider audience.

  12. Attribution of responsibility (usually an oppressor group).

  13. The narrative has some important effects:

  14. Increases group coherence and cohesion when addressing the issue.

  15. Crystallises existing concerns and the threat to the collective into a well-structured narrative.

  16. Helps teach future generations of this group about the events and helps the trauma gain a transgenerational character.

  17. This narrative ultimately facilitates group identification.

  18. How does the formation of identity take place following the culturally traumatic event:

  19. With the traumatic event at its epicentre, claims are made, narratives are created, and carrier groups propagate these claims and narratives.

  20. Over time these events become the lens through which the group views and understands their social environment.

The nature of a culturally traumatic event usually results in the oppressed group being treated unjustly. Naturally, this group tends to push for systemic change by employing narratives that facilitate the same and are naturally opposed by those who benefit from the system.

Formation of Oppressor Identities:

In social practice, oppressor groups use the differences between people to justify oppressive practices by translating this difference into models of inferiority or superiority. People are taught by these systems and the society to relate to difference not as a source of diversity, interest and cultural wealth, but evaluatively – in terms of “better” or “worse”.[10]

Oppressor groups form identities based on these differences and oppressing those that the system classifies as “worse” or “lesser”. To the oppressor group, the oppressed group’s trauma causes an identity threat that arises from the fact that cultural trauma results in a narrative that implies unjust action from the oppressor groups responsible for this trauma. This creates a tension between viewing themselves in a positive light versus the severe moral transgressions they have committed.[11]

It is, therefore, in the oppressor group’s best interest to ensure that this narrative does not have a lasting impact or influence their social status in any way. To achieve this, oppressor groups resort to common tactics to justify their behaviour or deflect the blame from themselves. Some of the common tactics are:

Incident Denial

To understand this tactic better, we turn to the field of criminology. Specifically, the concept of moral neutralisation.[12] Moral neutralisation is the cognitive process of convincing oneself that it is morally acceptable to commit an act. The premise is that people do not ordinarily engage in reprehensible conduct until they have justified to themselves the rightness of their actions. These techniques can be extended and applied to our analysis of oppressor tactics and narratives since what oppressor groups do is try to justify their actions post facto.

Upon examination of these techniques, we find the tactic that applies here is called denial of the injury.[13] In this case, the actor aims to minimize or deny that their action was harmful or wrong.

Denial of a traumatic event ever occurring is a common strategy. We don’t need to look any further than the #MeToo movement for an illustrative example of this. The movement showcased a culture of denial and silence that actively enabled harassers while effectively preventing victims from gaining any recourse. After all, how can an event be attributed to a perpetrator if the event does not happen at all?

Several other examples include the denial of race-based violence/discrimination or caste-based violence, etc. Thus, denying that the event ever happened is a recurring defence that oppressors rely on.

The Coalition of Silence

The coalition of silence is a tactic that is very closely linked to incident denial. It affects both the victim and those within the oppressor group who wish to push for change. A culture of stigma and silence prevents unjust acts from being reported, and the perpetrators go unpunished.

A study [14] by the Swabhiman Society and Equality Now, found that interference by community groups in rape cases is probably the biggest obstacle to justice for Dalit women and girls in Haryana. The study found that survivors of sexual violence, Dalit women and girls, in particular, are known to be systematically silenced - through threats and pressure from other communities to keep quiet, repression of complaints by their own family or community due to fear, or threats by dominant castes, and failure to register complaints on the part of the police - resulting in a culture of “violence, silence, and impunity.”

The coalition of silence doesn’t just affect victims but those within oppressor groups as well. Consider the American Police as an example. Penalties for whistle-blowers who expose instances of police misconduct can be harsh. As Bouza [15] describes it, “the full force of the agency, formal and informal, is brought to bear on the ‘snitcher’ ....”, “Rats are scorned, shunned, excluded, condemned, harassed, and almost invariably, cast out. No backup for them. They literally find cheese in their lockers.” Case after case offers evidence of harsh retaliation.

For example, in 1998, in Washington, D.C., five police whistle-blowers testified at a special Council Committee hearing investigating alleged police misconduct regarding the retaliation they experienced after exposing illegal and improper action. The police officers “who complain about supervisors or publicly criticize departments, end up on a ‘hit list’ that can result in unwanted transfers, a dock in pay, unfavourable assignments, and other retaliatory measures.” [16]

In this way, the coalition of silence ensures that oppressive systems remain intact by ensuring the silence of those affected, and those who wish for it to change.


To analyse this, we once again turn to the techniques of neutralisation. The actor accuses their critics of not understanding the dynamics of a particular social practice. They can raise doubts about their motives for expressing moral criticism in the first place. Moral concerns in this way, deflect back on the critics. They become the ones with a dubious ideological or moral agenda. Culpability, therefore, lies on the victim rather than the one who committed the act.[17]

For example, one potential outcome of negative, stereotypical media characterizations of racial/ethnic minorities of police violence is that they serve as a rationale for blaming these victims for their own deaths.[18]

Another example we can look at is the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which disproportionately affected the LGBTQ+ community. At the beginning of the HIV epidemic, in many countries, gay men and other men who have sex with men were frequently singled out for abuse as they were seen to be responsible for the transmission of HIV. Sensational reporting in the press, which became increasingly homophobic, fuelled this view.[19] Headlines such as “Alert over ‘gay plague’ ” and “‘Gay plague’ may lead to blood ban on homosexuals,” demonised the LGBTQ+ community. By blaming the victim, society contains its own terror but deepens the isolation of the victim.[20]

Placing the blame solely on the LGBTQ+ community was incorrect. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) stated that “while effective interventions that address individual risk factors and behaviours exist, to ensure good health in all communities requires a broader portfolio that looks at social and environmental factors as well.” [21] In 2020, it delineated a 5-factor model for social determinants of health, one of which is the social and community factors. The health of the individual depends on the community they are a part of and stresses the fact that they need to be provided with or have people in their lives with whom they can talk about serious problems, people to provide them with emotional support, etc.[22] This support structure is usually not available to the LGBTQ+ community in a society where they are heavily ostracised and, despite the CDCs continuous reports, there have been limited efforts targeting these social inequalities, which place gay and bisexual men at greater risk for the acquisition of HIV disease.

A final and very common example of victim-blaming would come from survivors of sexual assault. A 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report [23] noted that even though there have been efforts by the Indian central and state governments to improve the situation since 2013 (the Indian parliament unanimously amended laws, adding new categories of offences regarding violence against women and girls and making punishment more stringent.), the tendency to blame the victim persists. Questions are still often raised – including by those in authority such as politicians, police, and even judges – about their clothing, sexual history, or behaviour, even though those factors are irrelevant, and the fault lay solely with the perpetrators themselves.

Oppressor groups tend to shift blame where they can, and the above examples illustrate how victim-blaming creates narratives that are used to further marginalise or restrict oppressed communities.

Decoupling from or expelling the perpetrators

The final tactic we will examine is decoupling or expelling perpetrators from the community itself. This tactic changes the narrative from an issue of systemic/communal, structured abuse inflicted by the oppressor group and instead, shifts it to an “individual act” committed by “few evil people.” This leaves those calling for systemic social change with no argument left, as it is no longer a problem with the system or community, but with the individuals who perpetrated the act.

An example of this is seen in Germany, post-World War 2. One of the major obstacles that Germany faced after the war from a social point of view was how to reconcile the Holocaust. A new narrative was needed. It was provided by the conception of individual criminal guilt.[24] The Nazis could not be considered alien monsters. Instead, they were conceptualised as individual perpetrators who had committed horrible capital crimes that required treatment as criminals and sentenced to life in prison according to the rules of law. In the narrative of individual criminal guilt, the Germans take the position of the third party, defining the relationship between perpetrators and victims with respect to impartial rules of justice. In this narrative, there was no acceptance of collective guilt yet. What was established instead was the strict boundary between the criminal perpetrators and the general German populace. Despite dissents and debates, most politicians of the new democracy agreed in the denial of any collective guilt of all Germans and supported the new narrative of individual criminal guilt.[25]

Denying any collective responsibility, the ritual of trials confined the question of guilt strictly to individual acts, in particular as evidenced by formal decisions within organizations. The courts of law were institutional arenas where the boundary was staged, ritually constructed, and reaffirmed. The result was a discourse centred around reaffirming this boundary. The parliamentary debates about denazification, wearing military decorations in public, paroles for mass murderers, and the end of prosecution of Nazi crimes, and even about the Auschwitz trial in the early sixties, were all aimed at demarcating a clear boundary between the majority of normal and “decent” Germans on the one side, and the few criminal perpetrators on the other. The acceptance of collective guilt was thus limited until much later.

Another classic example of decoupling is the “few bad apples'' narrative that is commonly used in instances of police brutality. The narrative was first employed by the then United States Attorney-General Jeff Sessions in a March 2017 memo [26]: “The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honourable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.”

This narrative, when employed, has caused a denial of civil rights and creates systemic barriers (such as the “Qualified Immunity” doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations so long as the officials did not violate “clearly established” law) that prevent citizens from seeking recourse [27]

Decoupling, while usually a last resort (as communities tend to protect their members), prevents systemic change by reducing the blame from the collective and placing it on select individuals.

The outcome

Exploring both the oppressor and oppressed group identities provides us with an understanding of how each group creates its narratives. Oppressed groups employ narratives that seek to change the existing system and ensure that the unjust treatment does not continue, while oppressor groups employ narratives to preserve the system, their identities and the benefits they enjoy as a result of both. These narratives are usually diametrically opposed with common ground being negligible at best, or non-existent at worst.

This leads to a clash of narratives between those who are socialised to believe that the treatment they are inflicting is just, and those who have formed an identity based on this unjust treatment.

How is this clash resolved? It depends on the societies’ stratification hierarchies. Oppressor groups usually occupy or constitute the majority of most institutions of society. These institutions then whitewash the actions of their group instead of accurately representing the sequence of events, thus continuing the unjust treatment that they are inflicting on the oppressed group.[28]

Take the HIV-AIDS epidemic again as an example. In the 1980s, the conservative American and British governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher initially did little to accurately represent the dangers of the virulent AIDS epidemic because they did not wish to create sympathy or identification with the LGBTQ+ community, with their ideologies being so stigmatized. This failure, along with the lack of adequate care and support as pointed out earlier, allowed the epidemics to spread more rapidly.[29] Although the Thatcher government later launched a public education program that took the steam out of the moral panic, this instance is a prime example of how institutions can fail to take the proper course of action with respect to oppressed groups, resulting in ideological biases that arise due to socialisation in an unjust system.


Any social reform movement has multiple intersecting narratives. These narratives illustrate various vectors of oppression and privilege. Groups employ these narratives to achieve goals, formulate their identity and attempt to affect social change. Social reform movements usually have several competing narratives employed by the actors in play. These have an effect on all aspects of a society and can impact policy changes as well, provided there is enough political will to do so. Identity and narratives are, therefore, two critical factors that we must analyse whenever discussing or investigating any social reform movement in order to accurately understand the entire situation.


[1]: Ambedkar, B. R. Annihilation of Caste: an Undelivered Speech. New Delhi: Arnold Publishers, 1990.

[2]: Gupta, Aashish, Ankita Aggarwal, and Jean Dreze. Caste and the Power Elite in Allahabad. Economic & Political Weekly 50, no. 06 (February 7, 2015).

[3]: Pachauri, P., and George, P. Storm created by the Mandal Commission poses a serious threat to V.P. Singh’s political survival. India Today. (1990, October 15).

[4]: Derrett, J. D. Hindu Law Past and Present. Harvard Law Review 72, no. 8, (1959).

[5]: Ritzer, George, and Jeffrey Stepnisky. Essay. In Sociological Theory, 10th ed., 575. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2018.

[6]: Ibid., 575.

[7]: Alexander, Jeffrey C. “Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma.” Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, 2004, 1.

[8]: Ibid., 10.

[9]: Ibid., 11-15.

[10]: Ritzer, George, and Jeffrey Stepnisky. Sociological Theory, 10th ed., 575. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2018.

[11]: Hirschberger, Gilad. “Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning.” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (August 10, 2018).

[12]: Kvalnes, øyvind. “Moral Neutralization.” Moral Reasoning at Work, 2015, 77-90.

[13]: Ibid., 80.

[14]: Swabhiman Society and Equality Now. Justice Denied: Sexual Violence & Intersectional Discrimination, 2020 URL:

[15]: Bouza, Anthony V. “The Police Mystique.” Plenum Press, 1990.

[16]: Johnson, Roberta Ann. “Whistleblowing and the Police.” Rutgers University Journal of Law and Urban Policy 3, no. 1, 80–81.

[17]: Kvalnes, øyvind. “Moral Neutralization.” Moral Reasoning at Work, 2015, 82.

[18]: Dukes, Kristin Nicole, and Sarah E. Gaither. “Black Racial Stereotypes and Victim Blaming: Implications for Media Coverage and Criminal Proceedings in Cases of Police Violence against Racial and Ethnic Minorities.” Journal of Social Issues 73, no. 4 (2017): 791.

[19]: “Homophobia and HIV.” Avert, October 10, 2019.

[20]: Cadwell, Steve. “Twice Removed: The Stigma Suffered by Gay Men with Aids.” Smith College Studies in Social Work 61, no. 3 (1991): 236–46.

[21]: Halkitis, Perry N. “Discrimination and Homophobia Fuel the HIV Epidemic in Gay and Bisexual Men.” American Psychological Association, April 2012.

[22]: “Social Determinants of Health (SDOH).” Center For Disease Control (CDC), Health Resources and Services Administration. 2020, 9-17. URL:

[23]: “‘Everyone Blames Me’: Barriers to Justice and Support Services for Sexual Assault Survivors in India” Human Rights Watch (HRW), 2017. URL:

[24]: Giesen, Bernhard. “The Trauma of Perpetrators: The Holocaust as the Traumatic Reference of German National Identity.” Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, 2019, 112–54.

[25]: Dubiel, Helmut. “Niemand ist frei von der Geschichte: Die nationalsozial- istische Herrschaft in den Debatten des Deutschen Bundestages.” 1999.

[26]: Office of the Attorney General, “Supporting Federal, State, Local and Tribal Law Enforcement.” March 31st, 2017,

[27]: Bains, Chiraag. “‘A Few Bad Apples’: How the Narrative of Isolated Misconduct Distorts Civil Rights Doctrine Distorts Civil Rights Doctrine.” Indiana Law Journal 93, no. 1 (2018).

[28]: Alexander, Jeffrey C. “Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma.” Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, 2004, 21.

[29]: Thompson, Kenneth. Moral Panics. London: Routledge, 1998.

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