ICRC orthopedic centre, Kabul © Antonio De Lauri

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.


 25 October

 9:15 - Antonio De Lauri, Chr. Michelsen Institute. Opening and welcome

 Session 1 - Moderator: Katerina Rozakou

 9:30 - Ekatherina Zhukova, Lund University. The Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Rethinking the Role of the Apolitical and Private in Humanitarian Space (Discussant: Tess Altman)

10:15 - Heike Drotbohm, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Navigating the Blurred Boundaries of Aid. On the Pitfalls of Post-humanitarian Encounters (Discussant: Alexander Horstmann)

11:00 - Tess Altman, University College London. Registers of Responsibility in Domestic Humanitarianism (Discussant: Erica James)

11:45 - Andre Thiemann, Central European University. Of Refugees and Statecraft: How Vernacular Humanitarianism Draws Together Disparate Scales of the Welfare State (Discussant: Julie Billaud)

12:30 - Lunch

Session 2 - Moderator: Antonio De Lauri

 13:30 - Andrew Gilbert, McMaster University. Worker Experiments in Humanitarian Politics (Discussant: Hugo Stokke)

14:15 - Lauren Carruth, American University, Washington D.C. The Subjects and Objects of Relief: How Local Aid Workers Articulate and Remake What it Means to Be Humanitarian (Discussant: Heike Drotbohm)

15:00 - Julie Billaud, University of Sussex. The Circular Logic of Humanitarian Expertise (Discussant: Synnøve Bendixsen)

15:45 - Coffee break

16:00 - Katerina Rozakou, University of Amsterdam. Teaching the Anthropology of Humanitarianism (Discussant: Shakira Bedoya Sánchez)

26 October

Session 3 - Moderator: Julie Billaud

9:00 - Alexander Horstmann, Tallinn University. Biopolitics, Humanitarian Design and Vernacular Intervention in Myanmar (Discussant: Andrew Gilbert)

9:45 - Antonio De Lauri, Chr. Michelsen Institute. The Taliban and the Humanitarian Soldier: Configurations of Freedom and Humanity in Afghanistan (Discussant: Ekaterina Zhukova)

10:30 Coffee break

11:00 - Erica Caple James, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Interrogating Asylum from Containment to Care: The Penitential Ethics of Policing Haitian Refugees (Discussant: Katerina Rozakou)

11:45 - Carna Brkovic, University of Goettingen. Emergent humanitarian forms of life (Discussant: Antonio De Lauri)

12:30 Lunch

Session 4 - Moderator: Andrew Gilbert

13:30 - Synnøve Bendixsen, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences. The Complexities of Hope: Writing About Volunteering at Lesvos (Discussant: Lauren Carruth)

14:15 - Shakira Bedoya Sánchez, International Organization for Standardization & Standards, Norway. The Duty of Care: 'Reconfiguring' Humanitarian Workers through Risk Relations (Discussant: Andre Thiemann)


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 in Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology, University of Goettingen.

Katerina Rozakou, University of Amsterdam.

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

Julie Billaud, Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of Sussex.

Tess Altman, University College London.

Ekatherina ZhukovaVisby Programme Postdoctoral Researcher, Lund University.

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

Andre Thiemann, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU.

Shakira Bedoya Sánchez, Technical Committee Member (ISO/TC 292), International Organization for Standardization


The workshop is funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

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