Mary Kathryn Coe


principal investigator

Mary Kathryn Coe
Associate Professor, Health Promotion Sciences
Department of Public Health, College of Medicine
Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis

Mary Kathryn Coe is a professor in the Department of Public Health, College of Medicine, at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). She earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology from Arizona State University in 1995, and has over 30 years experience conducting research and developing and evaluating health promotion programs in the United States, Mexico, Spain, and Ecuador. She has taught many seminars on cultural competency and published a book and many papers on culture and health.


Maria Glowacka
Adjunct Professor, Anthropology
University of Arizona

Forgiveness as a Cross-Cultural Virtue that Facilitates Recovery from Historical Trauma

The focus of this study is on forgiveness as a virtue that may help individuals and groups recover from historical trauma. While a number of studies have focused on historical trauma in indigenous and kinship-based groups, few studies conducted in these populations have focused on forgiveness or how forgiveness may help recovery from historical trauma. The term forgiveness is defined variously across cultures, religious traditions and scholarly disciplines; however, scholars generally agree that forgiveness is seen as a virtue across cultures and that there are certain similar core aspects to all discussions of forgiveness. Forgiveness, for example, involves releasing one’s resentment and accepting that one will not or will no longer seek vengeance. Recent research suggests that the process of forgiveness may serve as a protective factor, socially, psychologically, and physically, which increases coping capacity and enhances resiliency. This proposed ethnographic study focuses on historical trauma and forgiveness in three generations of three distinct populations whose ancestors, some three to four generations ago, experienced significant collective traumas and dehumanizing war atrocities. Those ancestors may have transmitted that trauma, possibly through such things as stories and actions, across multiple generations of their descendants. Participants include ordinary Poles who as children experienced or were witnesses to war atrocities during the Nazi occupation of Poland, 1939-1945, as well as their children and grandchildren; American Indians who experienced or whose ancestors experienced displacement, economic hardship, boarding school experiences and related breakdown of traditional kinship systems and loss of traditions particularly traditions that encourage forgiveness; and Hispanic/Latinos who have dealt with or whose ancestors dealt with the aftermath of Spanish colonization -- social marginalization, the suppression of indigenous cultures and identities, and the erosion of traditional values, including those related to why we should forgive and how to forgive. Our research hypothesis is that forgiveness is both an act and a process that, on both individual and collective levels, can facilitate recovery from historical trauma. This hypothesis is based upon six broad assumptions that also will be examined in this study: (1) historical trauma can be transmitted across generations through such things as stories, artifacts, and behaviors; (2) historical trauma is a sign that forgiveness has not occurred nor have events been forgotten; (3) forgiveness is a process that often culminates in a public ritual at which the forgiveness is publicly announced and thus cannot easily be withdrawn; (4) forgiveness is a value found across cultures and is a part of all major religions; (5) the process and act of forgiveness have important positive social, physiological, and psychological effects on individuals, and through those individuals, the larger groups in which they live and interact; (6) forgiveness has biological underpinnings that are a product of natural selection.

This study focused on forgiveness as a behavior and a virtue that may help individuals and groups recover from historical trauma. This study also examined widely-held, but not scientifically tested, assumptions related to forgiveness and historical trauma. Life history interviews were conducted in Krakow, Poland with elderly Poles who, as children, had experienced World War II and the Soviet Occupation. The study found that the atrocities committed and the tragedies and hardships experienced were significant and heartbreaking. However, the Poles interviewed were resilient; despite these tragic events, they went on to live full and productive lives. Explaining the transmission of trauma was complex, as nearly all participants claimed they had not talked to their children about the traumatic events although they had talked to their children about virtues. The second part of this study involved testing the underlying assumptions of the study using the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), an on-line database housed at Yale University that includes over 300 ethnographic studies. HRAF data were augmented and verified by simultaneously conducting Google Scholar and JSTOR searches. While it is often claimed that forgiveness is a virtue across cultures, investigating this claim was not easy as some social groups had no word for forgiveness. By tracking conflicts and their possible resolution, however, it was possible to see that forgiveness was known and practiced across cultures. However, although, it was held to be a virtue in traditional, collectivist societies, it was not necessarily seen as a virtue in societies that placed an emphasis on individualism. This is related to the fact that in traditional, kinship-based, or collectivist, societies, social relationships are of significant importance, and reconciliation is a goal, while in a highly mobile individualistic society they may be less valued and asking for and granting forgiveness could be seen as a weakness. A second assumption was that forgiveness involved a process and often culminated in a ritual. Across cultures this assumption was supported. Perhaps surprisingly, these rituals often involved making confessions, sacrifices, and gifts, not to the person offended, but to the ancestors they shared and had upset by their conflict. An additional assumption was that forgiveness could occur at both group and individual levels. A surprising finding was that in kinship-based, traditional societies, which include clans and tribes, all the kin of the victim become victims just as all the kin of the perpetrator become perpetrators. For this reason, forgiveness was a group process that involved, in the case of more serious offenses, complex forgiveness and reconciliation rituals that involved extended kin of both parties and the ancestors of those involved. The intellectual merit of the study is found in the stories of resilience and tragedy that were documented in individuals who are members of a group that is quite elderly, and who often had never told their story. A second intellectual contribution was made in the testing of many widely held assumptions, which were found, in the cross-cultural literature, to either be supported or lacking support.

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