Moral Injury Sociology

Treating Moral Injury with Sociology

sociology-fbook-coverAt first, this may sound strange. How can sociology treat an individual’s internal conflicts when it is a descriptive discipline studying the state of social structures? I argue that sociology has practical value for improving the lives of individuals (unlike Stephen Harpers recent comments on committing sociology). The practical value of sociology goes beyond policy recommendations. It can help individuals recover from moral injury by changing the way they see themselves in the world, allowing them to move away from ongoing destructive feelings of shame from self-blame.

By demonstrating how larger social forces shape to our private lives, sociology can help individuals realize they are not personally responsible for certain failures. For example, sociology has a long history of disproving the ‘American dream’ of equality and unrestrained economic freedom by showing how structural barriers make it more difficult for certain minority groups. In the case of moral injury, a sociological study can show how an individual’s agency is influenced by structural forces.

Imagine the following scenario. In training, a soldier is equipped with the necessary skills to navigate difficult combat situations. In field, these skills are put to use when the soldier decides to shoot the driver of a car speeding toward him since it appears to be a car-bomber. Upon inspection, the driver turns out to be an innocent civilian with impaired eyesight. The civilian dies by blood loss shortly after and his family is devastated upon hearing the news. The soldier’s training had lead him to take the proper course of action since the risk was too high, but this action lead him to break his moral belief against harming non-combatants. This cognitive dissonance results in self-blame and feelings of shame.

The internal attributions of agency that occur in moral injury are destructive. In order order to recover, individuals need to come to a more realistic view of their role in the conflict. Rather than an overblown view of argentic control, the individual must come to see themselves as imperfect human beings within a complicated social environment that is impossible to navigate with certainty. As stated in a previous post: the need to make a decision in the fog of war is something that happens to an individual. Specialist Joe Caley, U.S. Army. 1st Cavalry, 25th Infantry realizes his lack of agency when he states: “It’s not what I did in the war, it’s what the war did to me. That was a self-revelation.”

This does not mean sociology is interested in abolishing the concept of agency and discounting guilt as an illusion. Without moral agency, individuals would be mere cogs in the social machine. The feeling of guilt is healthy since it means the person has high standards in their commitment to a moral code. The problem of agency arises when it is overblown and results in destructive thoughts and behaviors that prevent the individual from properly recovering from the conflict. A sociological approach to moral injury can assist individuals in this recovery by showing how their individual lives are shaped by larger social forces. Beyond (often ignored) policy recommendations, sociology has practical value and should be written for general audiences as well as for specialists. With our troops returning from Afghanistan with internal conflicts, now is precisely the time to “commit sociology”.


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