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The Social Separation Syndrome

Reprinted from Survival International Review Vol. 5, No. 1(29):13-15, 1980.

G. N. Appell
Brandeis University



The social separation syndrome consists of a set of symptoms that appear in a population when it undergoes change. These symptoms consist of an increased incidence of behavioral, psychological, and physiological impairments. The incidence of impairments can reach such a degree that they interfere with the processes of change by diverting activities from coping with the change to coping with the impairments. At this level they become dysfunctional, or maladaptive, to the population at risk as they interfere with the population’s processes of adaptation to the change (see Appell n.d.).

Therefore, the proper management of the social separation syndrome by those involved in planning social change is critical to a population at risk in order to minimize behavioral and health impairments and thus facilitate those processes that are critical for the adaptation to change.

There are three disturbances of societal functioning in social change that precipitate these symptoms: (1) psychosocial deprivation and devaluation; (2) growing role conflict and ambiguity along with an increasing aspiration-achievement gap; and (3) social bereavement. These disturbances of functions are interlinked so that a functional disturbance in one area will precipitate or increase disturbance in other areas.

After discussing the nature of these disturbances of function I will show that the symptoms of social separation can be relieved and the disturbances of societal functions mitigated by providing a population with the means by which access to its cultural traditions can be maintained during the period of social change.

Psychosocial depravation and devaluation

All individuals constantly scan their social environment to determine how successful they are in coping with it and where they rank with others in their social fields. Self-esteem and the evaluation of personal worth is the emotive summation of this scan. This summation is constructed from, among other factors, the success or failure in occupying roles and the degree of acceptance or rejection of one’s social identity.

Yet one of the recurrent processes that occurs when an indigenous population is confronted with development or modernization is the loss of self-esteem, the deprivation of personal worth, and the devaluation of social identity.

There are two causes for this. First, there are the explicit evaluations made by members of the dominant culture or by development planners. The other is the product of processes occurring in other societal domains that involve social bereavement, the growth of role conflict and ambiguity, and an increased aspiration-achievement gap.

Frequently, the members of a dominant culture will evaluate the members of an unfamiliar culture as ignorant, dirty, stupid, backward, naked, etc., to maintain their dominance and also to provide an excuse to their conscience for depriving the population of its rights. By dehumanizing the members of a society that has assets, such as land, that the dominant society wants, it provides the excuse for not allocating them the same treatment that one would ordinarily give other human beings (see Appell 1975a, 1980).

In a similar way change agents may also belittle the members of a population at risk and their sociocultural system in order to achieve their change goals (see Appell 1975b). Usually the very act of development itself is phrased in terms that implicitly, if not explicitly, devalue the culture of the indigenous population and its members. For example, seldom are the traditions and history of an indigenous people collected and preserved in situations of social change as normally occurs in developed countries through museums, historical societies, and associations when change is introduced in these societies.

But without sufficient self-esteem and a positive evaluation of personal worth, which must of necessity include one’s own culture, the members of a population at risk do not have the psychosocial resources to cope with social change and to move into the future constructively. Thus, this extrinsic evaluation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Role conflict and ambiguity also contribute to psychosocial deprivation and devaluation. Characteristically, social change produces changes in roles, which cause conflict and ambiguity in their performance. This further erodes an individual’s self-esteem and his social identity. Furthermore, rapid movement in the opportunity structure, such as that resulting from increased educational opportunities, can exacerbate the problem of establishing an acceptable and viable social identity.

In conjunction with the combination of roles that one plays in the kinship and occupational domains of a society, social identity is constructed on ethnic and locational factors. And as locational or ethnic identities are redefined in social change to be encompassed in a larger national identity, so an individual’s social identity becomes ambiguous, ill-defined. Moreover, if locational or ethnic identities also carry connotations of inferiority, this not only threatens a viable social identity but also self-esteem.

Finally, the psychological loss that accompanies social change (see below) also threatens one’s social identity and self-esteem.

These forms of psychosocial deprivation and devaluation have health consequences. Various researchers have reported psychiatric disorders associated with disturbances of social identity (see Appell n.d.). Also, the loss of self-esteem has been found to produce behavioral impairments as well as to precede the onset of physiological illness. The behavioral impairments can include an increase in accidents, drunkenness, millenarian movements, as well as political violence.

Role conflict and ambiguity and the aspiration-achievement gap

Increased role conflict and ambiguity are a necessary concomitant of social change. New roles are introduced; old ones are modified and redefined. And researchers have found an increase in rates of psychological and physiological impairments associated with an increase in role conflict and ambiguity (see Appell 1975b, n.d.).

A growing gap between aspirations and achievement is also a commonplace occurrence in situations of social change. One scholar has in fact argued that development cannot take place without increasing aspirations and that a traditional society must be destroyed to allow this gap to grow. Yet other researchers (see Appell n.d. for a review of the literature) have found that an increasing aspiration-achievement gap in a population is also associated with an increase in psychiatric disability.

Social bereavement

Fried (1963) first drew attention to the fact that the feelings of individuals undergoing rapid social change were similar to those found in bereavement. Marris’s (1974) research explicitly dealt with this problem, and he expanded on the idea of loss and bereavement as part of the process of social change. Grief involves the working out of complex psychological conflicts and processes that have several phases (see Parkes 1970, 1971, 1972; and Marris 1974). First there is a period of denial or numbness. This may be followed or accompanied by an alarm reaction which involves anxiety, restlessness and the physiological accompaniments of fear as well as feelings of threat to one’s identity. This is succeeded by a phase of frustrated searching for the lost one, hoping for reversal, and then bitter pining and unrelieved sense of pain. There is then a period of depression and apathy, interspersed with periods of anger against the deceased for having left the bereaved as well as against those who press the bereaved person towards a premature acceptance of the loss. Guilt is also involved in response to this anger toward the deceased as well as in response to anger expressed against the deceased during his lifetime. This is the period when the bereaved gives up hope of recovering the lost person or lost social world. This period is also frequently accompanied by guilt feelings associated with the process of removing the deceased from one’s social field. Finally, the transition out of the grieving state can be accomplished when the bereaved links up with his life the past meanings of life and the past purposes that were part of the common social field with the deceased. At this point an identification phenomena may occur in which the bereaved adopts traits, mannerisms, or symptoms of the lost person.

The developmental sequence of grieving can be aborted and the process interrupted if the various phases of grieving are not completely worked through. Certain pathological manifestations may then occur, which may include unrelieved depression and apathy, health impairment of various kinds and/or unexpected outbursts of aggression.

Grief, Marris (1974: 31) argues, thus involves the expression of a profound conflict between contradictory impulses C to consolidate all that is still valuable and important in the past and preserve it from loss and at the same time to re-establish a meaningful pattern of relationships in which the loss is accepted. During this period life has lost its meaning. The bereaved is bereft of purpose and so feels helpless. ANor can one escape from this distress by adopting new purposes, since . . . purposes are learned and consolidated through a lifetime’s experience, becoming embodied in the relationships which sustain them. They inform the context of meaning by which life is interpreted, and so new purposes remain meaningless, until they can be referred to those which have gone before@ (Marris 1974: 33-4).

A similar process of bereavement occurs in social change. Marris (1974) argues that when social change involves the disorientation of crucial purposes either because of the loss of important attachments, or because circumstances are too baffling to attach any purpose to them, or because purposes are brought into contradiction, the members of a population at risk
experience the same type of psychological reaction as occurs in the loss of a significant other. Thus, when a population, as a result of social change, undergoes major changes in its social space, its socioeconomic structure, or its assumptions about the world, it must work through the same grieving process. If the trauma of such losses are not successfully worked out and healed, reintegration and growth in the population will cease. Under these conditions populations can lose their capacities to cope, becoming apathetic, depressed, or, alternatively, angry. As with individual grief, so with social bereavement, normal growth and the completion of the developmental cycle of bereavement require that the past be conceived of as a meaningful and an important experience on which to build the future. If the past is destroyed without proper valuation, the normal development of the social bereavement process is aborted.

Thus, it is important that a population have access to its past, to its traditions, to its culture in order to move into the future.
The degree to which the psychological and physiological health of a population is impaired through inappropriate social bereavement is difficult to estimate as no controlled studies have been made of this phenomenon. However, we can perhaps adumbrate the dimensions of the problem by indicating the degree of health impairment that accompanies personal bereavement, realizing that this may only give us a poor analogue. Parkes (1972) in reviewing the evidence available finds that bereavement is associated with an increase in mortality rates, especially from heart disease, and with an increase in the incidence of cervical cancer, psychological impairment, and general health impairment. In one sample, the mortality rate of widowers during the first six months of bereavement was found to be 40 per cent higher than expected. The greatest proportional increase was in the deaths from coronary thrombosis and other arteriosclerotic and degenerative diseases, which was 67 per cent above expectation. In other study mortality among relatives of the deceased during the first year of bereavement was seven times higher than in a matched control group.

One of the characteristic responses to personal bereavement and, I would argue, also to social bereavement, is a feeling of hopelessness. If this condition is not a transient response but the predominant method of coping with loss, there can be additional health implications. For example, there is evidence that hopelessness can figure in the onset of cancer (see Appell n.d. for a review of the literature).

Engel and his collaborators have been concerned with the related question: Why do people fall ill or die at the time they do? And they have identified a psychological pattern that appears associated with disease onset that they call the Agiving up--given up complex@. Five characteristics are identified with this complex (Engel 1968): (1) the giving up affects, i.e. helplessness or hopelessness; (2) a depreciated image of the self; (3) a loss of gratification from relationships or roles in life; (4) a disruption of the sense of continuity between past, present, and future; and (5) a reactivation of memories of earlier periods of giving up.
Again these characteristics are commonly found in social bereavement accompanying social change.

Providing access to cultural traditions to relieve the symptoms of the social separation syndrome1

There are indications that the social separation syndrome in some form or another accompanies all social change. And with all disorders there is always an accompanying response that attempts to lessen the damage and heal. For example, if social bereavement is managed properly there is evidence that it can facilitate the processes of social change. The problem facing the social scientist is how to facilitate the innate healing process in any population at risk and its social system. How can the social separation syndrome be properly managed?

Marris (1974: 151) has argued that the need to sustain the familiar attachments and understandings which make life meaningful is as profound as other basic human needs. And he has pointed out (1974:149) that the recovery from the social bereavement associated with social change depends on restoring a sense that the lost attachment can still give meaning to the present, not on finding a substitute.

Alan Lomax (n.d.11) argues that ACultural continuities can be maintained in symbolic forms alone, in periods of transition and stress@. And in his work he has shown how access to the symbolic forms of a society’s traditions alleviates disorders of social identity.

In this light I have argued (Appell 1977, 1978) that a society undergoing change not only has a right of access to its cultural traditions, its language and its social history. This is expressed in the various United Nations documents on human rights. But this access also provides a useful prophylaxis against the disorders of societal functioning and relieves the symptoms of social separation. To provide this access for a population, the planning for social change should also include ethnographic research, the development of museums, the creation of archives that contain the oral literature, song, dance, and art of the population at risk, and the study of its social history and oral traditions.

This approach should be amplified by what Alan Lomax calls parallel systems of education. AEvery culture needs classroom time in its own locality and region--where its language, customs and arts are taught. Here the bards, the artists, the wisemen, the musicians, the orators, the elders of the culture can function as teachers--to give every young person a firm basis in his own tradition, as he learns to read, to figure and to acquire global and scientific information@ (Lomax n.d.:6).

These methods of providing access to cultural traditions also create the arenas in which the conflict inherent in social change can be worked out productively--the conflict between the impulse to consolidate all that is still valuable and important in the past and preserve it from loss, and the desire to re-establish a meaningful pattern of relationships in which the loss is accepted (see Marris 1974:31). These approaches thus provide the opportunity whereby the members of the population at risk can evaluate their past positively and link up the past meanings of life, the past goals and purposes, with the evolving new life, with the evolving new purposes and goals, so that social change can be accomplished more productively, more creatively, and without the painful dislocations of the social separation syndrome.


1 I am indebted to Marris (1974) and to discussions with Alan Lomax, Director, Cantrometrics Project, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, for many of the ideas expressed in this section.


Appell, G. N.
1975a Indigenous Man: Chemotherapeutic Explorations. News from Survival International 10:7-10.

1975b The Pernicious Effects of Development. Fields Within Fields No. 14:31-41.

1977 The Status of Social Science Research in Sarawak and Its Relevance for Development. Studies in Third World Societies No. 2:1-90.

1978 Human Rights and the Extinction of Cultures: A Proposal for Government-Financed Salvage Ethnology. Anthropology Newsletter 19, 3:18-9.

1980 Talking Ethics: The Uses of Moral Rhetoric and the Function of Ethical Principles. In Ethical Problems of Fieldwork edited by Murray Wax and Joan Cassell. Special Issue of Social Problems, Vol. 27, No. 3, February.

n.d. The Health Consequences of Social Change: A Set of Postulates for Developing General Adaptation Theory. In Amazonia: Extinction or Survival? The Impact of National Development on the Native Peoples of Tropical South America edited by Louisa Stark and Theodore Macdonald, Jr. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. (forthcoming.)

Engel, George L.
1968 A Life Setting Conducive to Illness: The Giving Up C Given Up Complex. Annuals of Internal Medicine 69:293-300.

Fried, Marc
1963 Grieving for a Lost Home. In The Urban Condition edited by Leonard Duhl. New York: Basic Books.

Lomax, Alan
n.d. A Future for Anthropology: Aesthetic Anthropology. Duplicated.

Marris, Peter
1974 Loss and Change. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Parkes, Colin Murray
1970 ASeeking@ and AFinding@ a Lost Object: Evidence from Recent Studies of the Reaction to Bereavement. Social Science and Medicine 4:187-201.

1971 Psycho-social Transitions: A Field for Study. Social Science and Medicine 5:101-15.

1972 Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life. New York: International Universities Press.