Between Politics and Ethics: The Anthropology of Global Humanitarianism

Advanced Seminar

March 9–13, 2008

Between Politics and Ethics: The Anthropology of Global HumanitarianismBetween Politics and Ethics: The Anthropology of Global HumanitarianismCo-chaired by Erica Bornstein, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Peter Redfield, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel HillBetween Politics and Ethics: The Anthropology of Global HumanitarianismCo-chaired by Erica Bornstein, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Peter Redfield, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Although suffering and charity are hardly new, the final decades of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of changes in the forms and norms of both. Natural disasters and civilian suffering in war now feature in the recurring drama of “humanitarian crisis” for the international media while a vast complex of interstate entities and nongovernmental organizations seeks to supply aid to victims. “The impulse to alleviate suffering known as humanitarianism is a central element in international moral discourse,” wrote Peter Redfield and Erica Bornstein, co-chairs of this advanced seminar. But although humanitarian action has provoked considerable commentary, “there are as yet relatively few in-depth ethnographic and historical accounts of humanitarian organizations, cosmologies, and encounters.”

“Humanitarianism is an uncomfortably intimate topic for anthropology to address,” wrote the co-chairs, pointing out the discipline’s need for a “fundamental recognition of humanity,” as well as its early ties to the abolition movement and nineteenth-century philanthropy. In the emerging global climate, the effects of humanitarian action have become increasingly unavoidable in many of the contexts in which anthropologists work, but researchers “do not always distinguish between humanitarianism and human rights, on the one hand, and humanitarianism and development, on the other.” The seminar’s goal was to “delineate what humanitarianism might represent as a global form, situated between ethics and politics, and what an anthropology of it might be.”

Four themes guided the seminar discussions—anthropology’s engagement with humanitarianism, religious and secular cosmologies, political limits, and stakes of intervention—with a special focus on the relationship between humanitarianism and war and the emotional and physical dimensions of humanitarianism. The research of the nine participants spanned the globe, including orphans and philanthropy in India, an encounter with death in Malawi, immigration policy in France, Islamic charities, Palestinian refugees in Gaza, self-help organizations treating heroin addicts in China, and Finnish Red Cross nurses.

Medical anthropologist Didier Fassin set the tone for the initial discussion by examining the challenge of critiquing subjects such as humanitarian workers who move through a moral terrain often considered beyond reproach. Co-chair Peter Redfield’s paper, “The Impossible Problem of Neutrality,” from his ethnographic analysis of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), echoed these tensions. Italian medical anthropologist and psychologist Mariella Pandolfi, who has worked extensively in the Balkans, brought a perspective on the ethnography of war, large-scale intervention, and trauma. Former SAR resident scholar and J. I. Staley prizewinner Lawrence Cohen focused on the ethical and political controversies surrounding organ donation and trafficking in India.

From these complex discussions, a more situated understanding of what humanitarian practice might look like began to surface, providing solid ground for future anthropological analysis. The group plans to shape the seminar volume—tentatively titled Forces of Compassion—so that it will be an important pedagogical tool in the teaching of humanitarianism. “There is a growing interest in this topic on university campuses and in the practical lives of our students,” wrote the co-chairs. “We hope the resulting volume encourages a research agenda that carries the enthusiastic tide further in the form of new generations of ethnographic studies.”

Erica Bornstein, Chair Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee The Value of Orphans
Peter Redfield, Chair Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill The Impossible Problem of Neutrality
Jonathan Benthall Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK The Palestinian Zakat Committees and their Contested Interpretations
Lawrence Cohen Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley
Harri Englund Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University The Anthropologist and His Poor
Didier Fassin Department of Social Medicine, Centre de recherché sur la santé, le social et le politique – CRESP, Université de Paris When Critique Goes Critical: The Morals of Humanitarianism and the Politics of Anthropology Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life
Ilana Feldman Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, New York University From Relief Work to Development Assistance: CARE in Gaza, 1955–1967
Sandra Teresa Hyde Department of Anthropology, McGill University Screams, Cries and Whispers: Immutable Mobiles and Malleable Addicts in Post-Socialist China
Liisa H. Malkki Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University A Tale of Two Affects
Mariella Pandolfi Département d’anthropologie, Université de Montréal Conditional Humanitarianism
Miriam Ticktin Women's Studies and Anthropology, New York University From Redundancy to Recognition: Humanitarianism and the Politics of Immigration

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