Dr. Caroline Brettell
Anthropology has often overlooked activist groups as cultural players, even though activist practices deeply concern “what is at stake” within local moral worlds (Kleinman 1997). Across the globe, the moral frame of “humanitarianism” sustains nongovernmental organizations in their efforts to mitigate politically rooted suffering (Fassin and Pandolfi 2010). Meanwhile, as a local experience, humanitarian action reifies social difference. The exchange of aid between persons of higher and lower social status makes social difference visible even while downplaying individuals' singularity in the name of responding to the most affected people possible. Anthropological approaches to humanitarianism have yet to ask: How does the subjective and social experience of a crisis, by humanitarian aid workers themselves, shape aid efforts? Taking the Arizona humanitarian organization No More Deaths (NMD) as ethnographic subject, this paper addresses the embodied experience of desert aid workers as the cause for their abandonment of conventional politics as the means to end deaths from dehydration on the U.S.-Mexico border. In the words of NMD volunteers, the only action worth taking is the direct provision of humanitarian aid to migrants. The paper describes volunteers' experiences of what they termed a “never ending crisis,” particularly the struggle between individualized empathy and generalized urgency. Within the realm of anthropological theory, it extends Geertz's (1983) concept of “local knowledge” to include subjective influences on cognition and suggests a role for the anthropology of experience in studies of activism.
humanitarianism, experience, subjectivity, empathy, activism, U.S.-Mexico border, Engaged Learning 2013
Anthropology | Social and Behavioral Sciences
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Stonecipher, Rachel, ""Taking the Work Seriously" in a Humanitarian Crisis: The Communicability of Experience in Arizona Desert Aid Work" (2013). Engaged Learning Collection. Paper 18.