Teaching the anthropology of humanitarianism

This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.


Since the 2000s anthropological studies of humanitarianism have multiplied, producing a multifaceted critique of humanitarian action. Humanitarianism, even Western humanitarianism which seems to attract most attention, has a long history. Yet, it seems that it was only relatively recently that anthropologists saw it as an adequate topic of study. It is no coincidence that some of the first and most cited studies were conducted by people who were actively involved in the humanitarian world as humanitarians themselves (see, for example, Fassin 2006). But how did anthropologists “discover” humanitarianism? When and why did humanitarianism become a popular sub-field in anthropology? Of course, I cannot answer these questions thoroughly here. Instead, in this short intervention, I will try to approach them by drawing on my own experience as a teacher of the anthropology of humanitarianism. I will reflect on the course I have taught on humanitarianism and the uneasiness it generated to some students. This way I hope to shed light to the same uneasiness that I trace in the anthropology of humanitarianism in general. Inspired by Liisa Malkki (2015), I will refer to the “need” to study humanitarianism as driven both by a moral imperative to do good and as a self-formative ethical citizenship process.

For two years, between 2016 and 2018, I taught the course “Doing good? Anthropological perspectives on humanitarianism” at the University of Amsterdam. The course was a demanding thematic module offered to third-year undergraduate anthropology students as well as exchange students at the University of Amsterdam. Many of the students enrolled to the course to gain some insight into the humanitarian world where they aspired to work in the future. I realized that anthropologists have discovered a fertile field of study, the humanitarian field is seen by many of our students as a potential employment arena. However, I watched my students become more and more unsettled.

When we discussed the literature, the students became familiar with the critiques of humanitarianism, largely inspired by political philosophy and the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. It was not (or, perhaps, not only) the opacity of philosophical language that produced their feelings of discomfort and dissatisfaction but the sudden realization that doing good was far more complex and, despite any benevolent intentions, humanitarianism is embedded and reproduces regimes of power. Somehow our discussions became technocratic. “Is there an alternative?” was the constant refrain. This question echoed the need for some practical solution to the humanitarian problem, to the inherent aporias of humanitarianism, the imbalance of power and the neo-colonial elements enacted in contemporary humanitarianism. I felt that the students were in an urgent need for an ethically sound humanitarianism, and a catharsis where doing good would be restored and a recipe available to follow step-by-step. Similar questions have occupied anthropologists of humanitarianism (Malkki 2015: 101-104).

Part of the students’ anguish was a common ill in anthropology, largely caused by the relativism that is so central in the discipline. For some reason, however, when it had to do with humanitarianism, this relativism proved to be even more painful. Foucault’s definition of critique provided some comfort to them (Foucault 1988: 154). Indeed, the Foucauldian critique does not refer to a simplistic aphorism, but rather to the process where assumptions are challenged and taken-for-granted truths are put under scrutiny. Yet, some students still faced difficulties providing critical accounts of humanitarian actions and explicitly refused to do so. Furthermore, the collapse of assumptions is not a simple nor painless process. Especially if these assumptions are so sound in the self-formation of your own self.

Much like humanitarian workers, anthropologists who study humanitarianism travel from the Global North to the Global South out of professional ambition, but also in a process of self-formation as ethical cosmopolitans. They are global citizens enabled by their privileged mobility, their -most often- (white) color, citizenship (passport and visas) and capital materialized in research funding. Often, researchers of humanitarianism and displacement follow the itineraries and the infrastructures created by international humanitarianism (Pascucci 2017). These parallel routes ought to be at the epicenter of a self-reflexive critique and an analysis of the common roots of both humanitarianism and anthropology. The similarities in terminology are also striking as both anthropologists and humanitarians refer to their “field” of study or humanitarian intervention with the same terms and even “tragic tropes” (Cabot 2016). But the similarities go far beyond vocabulary. Like the symbolic geography of humanitarianism, the anthropology of humanitarianism is grounded on specific and enduring geographies of imagination (Trouillot 2003); the there (field) and the here (Western academia), the them [(suffering) “other”] and the us (scholars in the West).

It was these geographies of imagination that I found most hard to unsettle when I was teaching my course. Some of my students already had some involvement as humanitarian volunteers. Yet, our discussions shed new light on these experiences. Suddenly they started to question their plans to volunteer abroad, or felt uncomfortable recollecting their volunteer experiences in countries of the Global South. Although a few students started to question their self-evident mobility, it was harder for them to question their agency, their ability both to “do harm” and to “do good”. Wondering about their entitlement, potency and at the same time the causality that linked them (as potential humanitarians) to the distant suffering “other” was a far harder process.


Bornstein, E., 2012, Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cabot, 2016, ““Refugee Voices”: Tragedy, Ghosts, and the Anthropology of Not Knowing.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 45(6): 645-672.

Fassin, D., 2007, “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life”. Public Culture 19(3): 499-520.

Foucault, M., 1988, “Practicing Criticism”. In L.D. Kritzman (ed.), Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, 152-158. New York: Routledge

Maalki, L., 2015, The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pascucci, E., 2016, “The Humanitarian Infrastructure and the Question of Over-research: Reflections on Feldwork in the Refugee Crises in the Middle East and North Africa”. Area 49(2): 249-255.

Trouillot, M.R., 2003, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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