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The Humanitarian Side of Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of humankind and its behavior – literally, as anthropos is Greek for “human” and logia means “study”.

As an undergraduate student of anthropology, you could study subjects like human society and culture, global biocultures and anthropological perspectives on public health, family and kinship, the evolution of human behavior, anthropological perspectives on global cities, gender and sexuality, the anthropology of violence and law, and other fascinating subjects related to humans and human behavior – but these subjects don’t tackle humanitarianism in anthropology directly.

One of the main reasons for this is that anthropologists have historically taken a non-value based approach to cultures and the study of anthropology. However, the world is changing rapidly. The number of job openings for anthropologists at non-profits and the increased debate regarding how anthropologists can best benefit NGOs has given rise to a stronger academic connection between these two topics.

Brunel University, U.K., for example, offers students an MSc in Antropology of International Development and Humanitarian Assistance. This postgraduate course was designed to respond to the global aspirations to reduce how much the “bottom billion” is suffering and the increased attention on international development.

They claim that anthropology has played a key role in the emergence of humanitarian assistance perspectives, and this Masters program provides the necessary training you need to seek employment with NGOs like Oxfam, international agencies like the World Food Program and civil service agencies like the UK Department of International Development. Ethnographic fieldwork is a big part of the program, so you get the opportunity to travel oversees while doing your dissertation.

Berkeley also offers courses, such as “Critical Interventions: The Anthropology of Humanitarian Aid”, used to address the complicated relationship anthropology has with humanitarian aid relationships and its positionality in these dynamics. Anthropologists have already looked at where the instinct to human welfare originates from, often focusing on North-South engagements during times of national disaster, state failure and state withdrawal, but this course explores anthropological work on humanitarianism critically. But Berkley is where you’ll examine the theoretical foundations of anthropological thinking on aid and charity, biopolitics and questions how life is represented in humanitarian literature during this course. You will examine what subjects are produced in humanitarian settings and how power dynamics emerge. South-South humanitarianism will also be explored, with the aim to finally question whether or not anthropologists are complicit in some of the difficult dynamics of humanitarian aid when they write about their subjects, the politics of aid and how anthropology can approach the subject of humanitarianism effectively.

Universite de Geneve (University of Geneva) also holds a week-long seminar in partnership with the Doctors Without Borders (Switzerland office) on “Anthropology and Intercultural Aspects of Humanitarian Action”, with the objective to explain, analyze and assess the intercultural dynamics and power within the field of humanitarianism and humanitarian action. During this course, students explore the anthropological theory and methods related to humanitarian action; analyze the recipients of humanitarian action through an anthropological lens and humanitarian biases and assumptions.

Whereas many identify the difficulties anthropologists have when tackling humanitarianism, and the obvious clash between the two, others argue that studying humanitarianism is impossible unless you study people beforehand. McBride, 2013, wrote “The Essence Of Anthropology, 3rd Edition”, where she argues that it’s impossible to save people you know nothing about. She argues that anthropology goes hand in hand with humanitarian aid, as cultural anthropology provides a holistic perspective, which has a beneficial effect on the outcomes of humanitarian aid through a foundation of scientific knowledge specific to each situation’s population. She states that anthropology’s holistic perspective is essential because it allows for analysis of the various components of an issue in order to approach it in the broadest way possible. McBride highlights the “one size fits all” approach many organizations that carry out humanitarian aid work take, and the need for more effective processes based on anthropological perspectives in the execution of aid.

Indeed, it appears there is much need for humanitarianism to be addressed during anthropology training. Many have documented the issues that have come to light when navigating the area anthropologists find themselves in when working with migrant organizations, for example. A panel congregated at the British Museum in London in 2012 to discuss some of the issues surrounding the production, dissemination and use of anthropological knowledge in voluntary migrant organizations, and the practices and morality of ideologically informed anthropologists addressing the needs of migrants and the organizations that work with them. The panel reported a range of dilemmas when aiming to remain politically and ideologically neutral in these settings, working on the behalf of migrants while managing agents such as state institutions and the host society’s values.

During the panel they discussed the different tactics that can practically help anthropologists negotiate their theoretical background of ethnographic research when working with humanitarian organizations and the risks involved in the interpretation, dissemination and use of this knowledge within these humanitarian nonprofit organizations. The scope of the anthropological responsibility for the end results that come about after taken actions using this knowledge was also debated.

This area of work is both pertinent and important but the field is also developing rapidly. What does the future of humanitarian anthropology hold? This area of specialization could provide great opportunities for passionate students interested in taking part in the provision of humanitarian aid designed to target and benefit defined groups of people and their unique needs. If you’d like to apply to a postgraduate program and change the world, we can help with your graduate school admission. Let us know if you’d like help with your statement of purpose.

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