ICRC orthopedic centre, Kabul © Antonio De Lauri

Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique

What is the aim of an anthropology of humanitarianism? How is anthropology addressing the growing convergence of policing and aid? To what extent does the humanitarian imperative to save lives influence the work of the ethnographer in the field? What is the relationship between moral anthropology and humanitarian ethics?

In this workshop, we will address these questions by developing a comparative reflection along three main axes:

1. The ethnography of humanitarianism;
2. The impact of anthropology on the broader field of humanitarian studies;
3. The need for a political critique of humanitarianism.

The main aim of the workshop is to assess what anthropology has been able to produce in this field of study and explore the future developments and articulations of the discipline in a world where humanitarian exceptionalism is becoming the rule in a number of spheres of ordinary governance.

Organizer: Antonio De Lauri (Chr. Michelsen Institute)

Conceptually, we consider the construction and reproduction of “crisis” as a key element in the analysis of contemporary humanitarianism. As several researchers have emphasized, to describe something as “humanitarian crisis” implies facilitating specific forms of action to the detriment of others; enabling the public to think a contemporary issue (i.e. human mobility) in one way, but not in another. More than that, once a crisis is qualified in specific terms (i.e. the humanitarian crisis), it directly calls for a power that is able to manage and administer it. In opposition to a historical narration that is “disrupted and episodic” (A. Gramsci), humanitarianism corresponds to a universal narration that creates a constant nexus between crisis and the politics of exceptionalism.

The workshop places particular emphasis on the use of ethnography as a crucial instrument to investigate humanitarianism in practice. Building on the idea of ethnography as political critique, we ask what the ethnography of humanitarianism is able to reveal and produce. Ethnography does not simply hold potential for a theoretical critique of humanitarian politics, but is a form of action itself in its evidence-making practices and in its relational dimension. To understand the point of view of the “ethnographic subject” in the realm of humanitarianism means to be aware of a number of different institutional and political subjectivities who deliver “aid” as well as a wide range of social and political actors who “receive” it. At the same time, ethnography reveals a complex map of social interactions that questions the simple equation giver-receiver. Participants will reflect on the main opportunities and the main challenges of doing ethnography of/within humanitarianism, in terms of political concerns, methodological questions and ethical issues.


Erica Caple James, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Urban Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Andrew Gilbert, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University.

Synnove Bendixsen, Postdoctoral fellow, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

Lauren Carruth, Assistant Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington DC.

Carna Brkovic, Lecturer and Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Regensburg.

Katerina Rozakou, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Amsterdam.

Alexander Horstmann, Associate Professor in Modern Southeast Asian Studies, University of Tallinn.

Julie Billaud, Post-Doctoral Associate, University of Sussex.

Nefissa Naguib, Professor of Anthropology, University of Oslo.

Ekatherina Zhukova, Visby Programme Postdoctoral Researcher, Lund University.

Heike Drotbohm, Professor, Heisenberg Chair of Anthropology “African Diaspora and Transnationalism,” Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

Jon Harald Sande Lie, Senior Researcher, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

Nichola Khan, Reader, University of Brighton

25 – 26 October 08:00 – 17:00 | CMI, Jekteviksbakken 31

Organised at CMI with funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

If you wish to attend the workshop, please contact antonio.delauri@cmi.no

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