Anthropology and the Cultural Dimension of Humanitarian Action

Lecture, Seminar
  • Course description

    The value of anthropological knowledge in humanitarian action is widely acknowledged in today’s globalised world. As humanitarian workers, NGOs and experts struggle to deliver critical assistance to those desperately in need in far-away contexts in Asia and Africa, and to millions of displaced Muslims seeking refuge in Europe, one thing has become clear: Even out of goodwill, humanitarian actions are in many circumstances problematic, ineffective, and counter-productive as they are incompatible with the cultural perceptions and practices of those supposed to be the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. This course highlights the vital importance of culturally situated knowledge in the success of humanitarian interventions, and therefore the role of anthropology, a discipline dedicated to, and most suited for, understanding the diversity of cultural practices in different contexts. Participants will have the opportunity to familiarise with key concepts in anthropology, the diverse roles anthropologists can play and have performed in humanitarian actions, and selected case studies of anthropological.
  • Main themes

    • The rising importance of anthropologists and anthropological knowledge in humanitarian actions
    • Why anthropology can contribute to humanitarian action success, with a focus on its unique capacity to understand cultural diversity, contexts, and human agency.
    • How anthropologists approach development problems and humanitarian issues: Key principles and methods in anthropology
    • In-depth analyses of cases of humanitarian actions that fail because of inadequate understanding of local cultural practices in the world and Vietnam, and those that succeed by paying sufficient attention to cultural differences, local knowledge and anthropological insights.
  • Learning outcomes

    • Learners should have an overview of the relation between anthropology and humanitarian actions, the growing importance of anthropological knowledge to humanitarian success, and the key principles and methods that anthropologists employ.
    • Learners should develop the capacity to ‘think in anthropological ways’ when facing a humanitarian problem, particularly a sensitivity for cultural differences, local contexts, unique histories, and human agency.
    • Learners should be able to independently and critically analyse a given case of humanitarian action from an anthropological point of view: What is the problem and what would be the solution?
  • Teaching and learning methodology

    Individual presentation on pre-assigned topics
    Group discussions
  • Assessment methods and criteria

    Short assignment (500 words)
    Individual presentation
    Essays (1,500-2000 words)
  • Required reading

    • Chambers, R. 1985 Rural Development: Putting the Last First, London: Longman.
    • Eriksen, T. 1995 Small Places, Large Issues. London: Pluto Press.
    • Gardner, K. & Lewis, D. 1996 Anthropology, Development and the Post-modern Challenge. Chicago: Pluto Press.
    • Harris, M. 1987 Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, New York: Harper & Row.
    • Harvey, D. 1989 The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
    • Hobart et al 1993 An Anthropology Critique of Development:  The Growth of Ignorance. London: Routledge.
    • Nolan, R. 2002 Development Anthropology: Encounters in the Real World. Colorado: Westview Press.

Last updated: 6 November 2017

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