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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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@
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
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.
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1977 The Status of Social Science Research in Sarawak and Its
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