Doctoral Dissertation Research: On Terror and Trauma: Governance, Law and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome


Brinkley Messick
Professor of Anthropology and of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies; Director, Middle East Institute
Helene Quiniou
PhD Student


While contestation of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder paradigm is as old as the diagnostic category itself, the debate about what PTSD is and how to compensate victims remains unsolved to this day. Existing scholarship has examined how community organizing for compensation rights by Vietnam veterans, rape survivors, and high-risk workers has influenced the recognition of PTSD as a diagnostic category. But the intertwined juridical and scientific procedures through which PTSD evidence is indeed produced have received scant attention from the social sciences. The present research explores the production, circulation, and contestation of evidence substantiating trauma and determining its financial compensation following the November 13, 2015 (11/13) terrorist attacks in France. This will allow for a reassessment of the significance of PTSD's characterization as a mental illness with a unique etiology providing grounds for legal prosecution in the constitution of distinct forms of public health policy-making and humanitarian assistance in the U.S., Europe, and the Global South. Findings from this research will address audiences across academia, government and civil organizations that aim to improve the management of emergency psychological care and the indemnification of victims of mass violence.

To achieve these goals, the research explores the technologies of evidence production in two economies of 11/13-related PTSD investigation: (1) the legal determination of the parameters for PTSD compensation and (2) the forensic reporting of PTSD diagnostic criteria in 11/13 survivors and the determination of their etiology. Data are collected from participant observation and semi-structured interviews with state insurers of the Guarantee Fund for Victims of Acts of Terrorism (FGTI), neuropsychologists of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research involved in biomedical research on PTSD in 11/13 survivors, and two associations that represent 11/13 victims to the FGTI. By investigating the intersection between law and neuroscience in their treatment of PTSD claims, the project will provide insight into the entanglement of practices of evidentiary proof, protocols for testifying, and biotechnologies in the politics of life of contemporary societies.