RUB: Anthropology in Humanitarian Action

Lecture, Seminar
  • Course description

    The course introduces cultural and social anthropology, its research fields as well as its methodological and analytical approaches. It explores the relevance of anthropological perspectives and findings for international humanitarian action. The central “problem” of cultural and social anthropology can be described as the “diversity of human social life” (Michael Carrithers): How does it come that human beings who - all over the world - belong to the same species have developed such a variety in their forms of social organisation, cultural features and world views? Cultural and social anthropology documents and analyses cultural/social flows, processes and formations shaping localities, communities and societies. From an anthropological perspective, disasters represent radical disruptions that challenge the existing social and cultural orders, including those of the humanitarian workers. Disruptions (wars, disasters, forced population movements), which humanitarian action attempts to alleviate, tear apart the invisible social fabric that surrounds the affected population and gives meaning to their lives. With their expertise and approaches, cultural and social anthropologists often contribute to the discussion and solution of practical problems in humanitarian action. They provide an understanding of communities, translocal connections as well as unexpected effects of international aid interventions that can help humanitarian actors adapt their projects to local conditions and needs.
  • Main themes

    Anthropology as a Discipline
    Anthropology and Humanitarian Action
    Anthropology of Violence and War
    Anthropology of Displacement
    Anthropology of Trauma, Coping and Healing 
    Anthropology and the Logic of Intervention 
  • Learning outcomes

    The students will gain the following competencies and capacities:
    ·       to get an overview of key concepts, questions, and methods as well as of research fields of cultural and social Anthropology and their relation with humanitarian action;
    ·       to reflect critically on often used concepts like “ethnic groups”, “locality”, “culture”, “violence, “gender”, “age”, “healing” and “reconciliation” in the context of humanitarian action;
    ·       to get to know analytical and methodological tools that enable humanitarian workers to develop an understanding of the social and cultural constellations in different localities;
    ·       to assess the possible application of the methods and concepts presented in different constellations of humanitarian action such as in conflict and post-conflict situations as well as refugee camps;
    ·       to reflect on the changes and shifts in social relations among the people affected by immediate and prolonged crises, the role of aid agencies and humanitarian workers with different cultural and social background and the intercultural encounters of all actors in the setting of humanitarian action, thus, taking into account the delicate subtleties and difficulties in working in multicultural contexts and multidisciplinary teams.
    ·       to have a good understanding of social relationships in humanitarian action intervention situations at various level and develop an understanding of possible socio-cultural consequences of humanitarian action and the necessity for the empowerment of the local population. 
  • Assessment methods and criteria

    1) Course attendance and Participation: All participants are expected to attend the course regularly, read the basic literature for all sessions and participate actively in the discussions during class.
    2) Group Project: In this assignment, students conduct their own mini-research using anthropological methods (participant observation, interviews, etc.). They will choose from the case studies suggested by the instructor at the beginning of the course. Teams for the group projects will be formed on the basis of self-selection. As a member of a team students are expected to participate in the preparation and presentation of the group assignment. They will gather and analyse information from different sources (own qualitative research, scholarly writings, grey literature, NGO reports, etc.) and relate it to an issue pertinent to the anthropology of humanitarian action. Based on the findings of their research each group will develop one policy recommendation for future action or improvement.
    Giving presentations is an important part of today’s working environment. This assignment is designed to enable students to improve their presentation skills. Each group will give a presentation of no more than 20 minutes. References should be explicitly quoted in the presentation and listed in the list of sources on the final slide.
    3) Reflection Paper: At the end of the course groups will write a paper (1000 – 1250 words) to reflect upon their research projects and link them to the module’s discussions and readings on anthropology in humanitarian action.
    Reflecting upon ones own experiences, stance and opinions is an important step in any learning process and is designed to support students’ development as an effective practitioner in humanitarian action.

Last updated: 15 November 2016

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