Čarna Brković’s Reflections on the Papers Presented at Session II, AHN EASA 2020

Čarna Brković

Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology

University of Goettingen


Panel: Locating the Humanitarian Impulse: Questions of Scale and Space

Session II: P005b, 22 July 2020 14:00-16:00


Jessica Greenberg: Quantities of Harm and Qualities of Suffering: Human Rights and Humanitarian Logics at the European Court of Human Rights 

Romana Pozniak: Affective Labor of Local Humanitarians: Emotional Engagement Within Refugee Aid Workscape in Croatia 

Beth Epstein: Diversity, Solidarity, and Resistance in a Parisian suburb

Rachel Humphris: ‘Sanctuary as People’: Care as Prefigurative Politics in Three Sanctuary Cities 

María Hernández Carretero: Citizen Engagement to Welcome Newcomers in Norway: Volunteerism, Humanitarianism and Politics 

I/ Contribution of the Panel and Papers

The papers presented during the second session of “Locating the Humanitarian Impulse: Questions of Scale and Place” discussed humanitarianism in very different social contexts, including the European Court of Human Rights, reception and transit camps on the Balkan route, Parisian suburbs, the movement for sanctuary cities in San Francisco, Toronto and Sheffield, and grassroots attempts of integration in Oslo. It seems as if humanitarian logic and impulse are spreading throughout the Global North. Taken together the five papers illustrate complexities of finding the right vocabulary—both descriptive and analytical—to dissect this proliferation of grassroots humanitarianism. The papers also help us understand some of the challenges of thinking critically about this topic.

I was struck by how all the papers touch upon the ongoing lively debates on the relationship between humanitarianism, solidarity, and collaboration. We all know how this story is usually told in many leftist, feminist, and anti-nationalist circles, and in much of critical migration scholarship that has been written in recent years on the so-called “refugee crisis in Europe”. In this narrative, the state and supra-state institutions are absent and/or failing, so the local community needs to step in—and it needs to do so in a solidary and collaborative manner. Humanitarianism is often understood here as very different from solidarity and collaboration, because it includes hidden or implicit vertical, patronising, and hierarchical relationships that keep people who need help in a state of dependence. Solidarity, on the other hand, is perceived as horizontal and reciprocal, as involving radical openness, collaboration, and willingness to organise political communities differently. Yet, all the papers in this panel demonstrate that there are at least two things this conventional story leaves unspoken and invisible: first, the need to disentangle the ethnographic from the analytical and second, the need for historicisation. I will briefly turn to both points.

First, this story about solidarity and collaboration leaves hidden a certain conflation of analytical and ethnographic scales. All the authors in this panel demonstrate that it is very important to keep the differences in scale visible because they can help us to think and to see things differently. Namely, anthropological discussions of everyday, grassroots humanitarianism and solidarity in the Global North often follow something that Annelise Riles (2015: 147) describes as a “shift from a comparison to collaboration”. Instead of clearly demarcated “their” and “our” worldviews that anthropologists try to compare and translate between, in many studies of grassroots and everyday humanitarians in the Global North there is an emphasis on the need to co-produce knowledge and to share political visions and goals. Yet, collaboration is not an innocent word: it has become a key term also in unlikely places such as among economists, lawyers, financialisation, and market experts. In the era after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, politicians and financiers are turning to grassroots collaboration and the massive crowdsourcing of data as solutions: “When government regulators no longer have the confidence that they can build institutions that will bolster a well-functioning market that can coordinate social activity through price, for example, they turn to massive data collection as a kind of alternative” (Riles 2015: 158). For massive data collection, they need grassroots activity, collaboration, and crowdsourcing. Riles calls this “collaborative economy.” This suggests that our analyses can be richer if we think about collaboration comparatively and if we tease out its premises and effects ethnographically.

An excellent example of how this can be done is presented in Jessica Greenberg’s paper. Greenberg argues that the boundary between humanitarian care and human rights is not as stable as we may initially think. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) needs to mobilise both the logics of care and the logics of justice in order to function. Yet these different logics are not conflated: the scales at which care and justice operate at the ECHR are not the same. There is a temporal succession at play instead: in order for a judge to be able to compare the new cases with the patterns of “well-established case law”, there first needs to be a collaborative production of knowledge about a certain social context. Following how the logics of justice are kept both distinct from and premised upon the logics of care, this paper demonstrates that we can keep both comparison and collaboration in a productive tension in our work.

The paper by María Hernández Carretero also clearly illustrates how the tension between comparison and collaboration can work productively. Hernández Carretero looks at grassroots depoliticisation that is pursued “from below”, outlining how grassroots volunteers in Oslo have depoliticised their work with migrants and how they understood politics in relationship to humanitarianism. Hernández Carretero keeps her analytical vocabulary both close to and separate from the vocabulary of her interlocutors. In doing so, her analysis echoes Rancière’s (2011) argument that disagreement over the boundaries of the political presents the very essence of politics.

Second, the five papers demonstrate the need to critically engage with “solidarity” as an analytical concept. Although “solidarity” has largely positive overtones because it emphasises commonality, this is a tricky term, for it has often been enacted in politically deeply problematic ways. As Candas and Burga (2010: 294) remind us: “Whereas there have been many societies without equality and liberty, it is virtually impossible to find or even conceive of one without any form of solidarity”. The need to ethnographically and historically determine what is meant by “solidarity” is clear also in Clare Land’s (2015) book on “Decolonizing Solidarity. Writing about white supporters of Aboriginal struggles in Australia, Land questions whether collaboration, dialogue, and friendship are necessarily always a good thing in a political struggle, since they can obscure disparities of privilege and power. She argues that friendship should not be the goal of political struggles for racial justice, even as it may emerge over time as their side effect.

As Beth Epstein shows, solidarity speaks not just about a commitment to building a better future and better society. It can also be a way to make a political statement that a certain location (e.g. the Parisian suburbs) is already a place of diversity. The Festival that Epstein ethnographically follows seemed to present less of an attempt to organise the community on different grounds and more of a project of countering the stigmatising perception of the culturally diverse and economically poor suburbs as places of conflict and disorder. Solidarity here functions as a political statement about who “we” are as citizens, today.

Romana Pozniak’s focus on local humanitarians in Croatia also offers an important reminder that solidarity is a complex political force that may have different effects in the European peripheries than in the European centres. The sort of affective labour her interlocutors engage in suggests that historicisation, ethnographic sensitivity, and analytical nuance are needed in order to understand what sort of a relationship is being produced through the activities that are called “humanitarian” or “solidary” and their effects in particular locales. Pozniak outlines individual impulses to give and need for self-care, and the organisational discourses that frame these in a European periphery. In doing so, she illustrates social processes that shape humanitarianism at the edges of Europe and hierarchies between international humanitarians, local humanitarians, and people on the move.

Through focusing on migrant self-organising, Rachel Humphris’ paper wonderfully problematises such hierarchies between those who provide and those who need support. Unlike much research that focuses on the prefigurative politics of grassroots humanitarians, that illuminates what kind of a society grassroots humanitarians are striving towards, Humphris looks at how migrants in sanctuary cities in the US, Canada and the UK organise themselves. Exploring the reasoning and practices of the migrants about what kind of a community they want, need, and work towards, Humphris’ paper merges analytical sensitivity with political hope.

By paying attention to specific histories of humanitarianism in particular places and foregrounding ethnography while keeping it distinct from analysis, these papers provide nuanced balance to the idea that solidarity is the panacea to the “refugee crisis” and hierarchical humanitarianism. Taken together, the papers demonstrate the strength of ethnographic research that is sensitive to the possibilities as well as problems of thinking about humanitarianism, solidarity, and collaboration across different scales of anthropological analysis and political praxis.


Riles, Annelise. 2015. “From Comparison to Collaboration: Experiments with a New Scholarly and Political Form.” Law and Contemporary Problems 78: 147–83.

Rancière, Jacques. 2011. “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics.” In Reading Rancière. Critical Dissensus, edited by Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp, 1–17. London and New York: Continuum.

Candas, Aysen, and Ayse Bugra. 2010. “Solidarity Among Strangers: A Problem of Coexistence in Turkey.” Constellations 17 (2): 293–311.

Land, Clare. 2015. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles. Zed Books Ltd.

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