Dromi revised cover.JPG

Above the Fray:

The Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian NGO Sector

Forthcoming January 2020
Preorders available from Amazon

Recipient of the Yale University Marvin B. Sussman Prize and an honorable mention for the American Sociological Association Comparative-Historical Section's Theda Skocpol Best Dissertation Award.


“Humanitarianism is not just an ethical orientation, but a whole sector of social institutions and practical actions. Dromi’s Above the Fray superbly illuminates both the history of this field since the founding of the Red Cross and its increasingly difficult challenges today.”

Craig Calhoun, University Professor of Social Sciences, Arizona State University


"Above the Fray is a major effort to analyze the development of a distinct humanitarian field animated by the religious worldview of the nineteenth Calvinist milieu of Geneva, which connects a network of philanthropists, pacific activists, and religious actors concerned with addressing human tragedies. In telling the story of the emergence of this institutional field, Dromi innovates by bringing meaning-making into Bourdieusian field analysis in a non-reductivist fashion. Thus, he makes a brilliant contribution to historical sociology, and offers a much-needed addition to the sociological theory of fields. His book will be a crucial point of reference for several fields of research in the years to come."

Michèle Lamont, Professor of Sociology and African & African American Studies and Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies, Harvard University

+ Book Description

From Lake Chad to Iraq, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide relief around the globe, and their scope is growing every year. Policymakers and activists often assume that humanitarian aid is best provided by these organizations, who are generally seen as impartial and neutral. In Above the Fray, Shai Dromi investigates why the international community overwhelmingly trusts humanitarian NGOs by looking at the historical development of their culture. With a particular focus on the Red Cross, Dromi reveals that NGOs arose because of the efforts of orthodox Calvinists, demonstrating for the first time the origins of the unusual moral culture that has supported NGOs for the past 150 years.

Drawing on archival research, Dromi traces the genesis of the Red Cross to a Calvinist movement working in mid-nineteenth-century Geneva, showing that the organization’s founding members were convinced by their faith that an international volunteer program not beholden to the state was the only ethical way to provide relief to victims of armed conflict. After illustrating how Calvinism shaped the humanitarian field, he argues for the key role preexistent belief systems played in establishing social fields and institutions. Ultimately, Dromi shows the immeasurable social good that NGOs have achieved, but also suggests that alternate models of humanitarian relief need to be considered.

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Soldiers of the cross: Calvinism, humanitarianism, and the genesis of social fields
Sociological Theory 34, no. 3 (2016): 196-219
Read the article at this link.
Abstract: Field theory has largely treated the cultural dimensions of social fields as an emergent property of their objective structures. This article reconsiders the role of culture in fields by examining the development of the logics that govern new social fields. As a study case, it focuses on the genesis of the logics underpinning the field of transnational humanitarianism, focusing on the International Committee of the Red Cross (established 1863). The article shows that the Calvinist doctrine to which the early Red Cross activists subscribed motivated and shaped the genesis of the humanitarian field, especially through its convictions about the nature of war, state and society relations, and charity. Activists drew on this doctrine to justify and advocate the establishment of a permanent, independent, and neutral humanitarian field. Based on this evidence, the article argues that preexistent belief systems have a key role in establishing the logics of new social fields.

For good and country: Nationalism and the diffusion of humanitarianism in the late nineteenth century
The Sociological Review 64S, no. 2 (2016): 79–97
Winner of the Global and Transnational Sociology Best Graduate Student Paper Award from the American Sociological Association
Read the article at this link.
Despite the growing interest in transnational fields and their influence on national-level dynamics, existing literature has not yet addressed the processes involved in creating such fields in the first place. This article provides insight into the complexities involved in national-transnational interactions amidst national and transnational field formation. It examines the nascent transnational humanitarian field of the late nineteenth-century through the work of the emerging Red Cross Movement in the 1860s-1890s, drawing primarily on the archive of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The findings show that National Red Cross (NRC) societies employed a discourse drawn from a transnational cultural arena in order to gain central positioning in their national fields and to convince other parties of their necessity. Conversely, NRCs used nationalism as a form of symbolic capital in establishing themselves in their national fields, seemingly at odds with their cosmopolitan aspirations. Thus, by contrast to the ideal-typical representation of global humanitarianism as non-national, these findings suggest that nationalism and impartial humanitarianism are historically intertwined. More broadly, the article argues that national-level field dynamics as well as nationalism play important roles in the creation of transnational fields, even when field actors present themselves as acting for universal causes.

+ Newsletters/Blogs

“Exploring the origins of the humanitarian sector through archival work,” Sections: The newsletter of the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Development Section 2017

“Nationalism and humanitarianism,” The Sociological Review Blog 2016