Book Project

The Religious Roots of Transnational Relief:

Calvinism, Humanitarianism, and the Genesis of Social Fields

Under advance contract at the University of Chicago Press.

The 1860s calls to establish the Red Cross Movement—the first modern large-scale network of humanitarian relief societies—were met with some enthusiasm, but they also provoked skepticism, pragmatic objections, and ethical opposition. And yet, within little over a decade, the movement became a prominent presence in European, and later global, philanthropic life with outposts fast spreading across the continent and beyond. The growing movement permeated new ideas about organized humanitarian activism—that humanitarian societies are an independent and permanent sector, that they should work impartially, and that they must be afforded neutrality—and these principles continue to undergird the humanitarian community today. In this project, I ask how and why this shift occurred, and how it contributed to the establishment of long-distance humanitarianism as a social field.

Based on archival research at the International Committee of the Red Cross and related archives, I identify the crucial role of Evangelical Calvinism and of patriotic discourse and imagery in propelling the principles propagated by the early Red Cross. I show that the founding members of the Red Cross came to believe that an independent and neutral network of relief societies should be established based on their Calvinist beliefs about the nature of warfare and human agency. Compared to other ideas about medical relief circulating at the time, their proposed program fit directly with intersecting political, organizational, and moral concerns that preoccupied multiple parties across mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Indeed, actors ranging from nobility to working class identified the Red Cross with their own (often quite different) understanding of the common good and adapted its proposals to their own contexts.

By the 1870s, the notions that humanitarian relief societies must maintain a permanent presence in civil societies, that they must maintain a level of autonomy from other institutions, and—crucially—that they must be evaluated on their own terms had become widely and internationally prevalent. Despite considerable differences from the Red Cross, contemporary humanitarian INGOs continue to rely on the same ethical infrastructure and thus bear the imprint of their late-nineteenth-century antecedents. Based on these findings, I highlight the ways in which preexisting belief systems contribute to the establishment of new social fields and shape the logics that govern them.

One paper from this project, focusing on the role of national-level dynamics in the nineteenth-century diffusion of humanitarian logic, was recently published in The Sociological Review. Another paper, focusing on the religious origin of the logics of the humanitarian sector, appeared in Sociological Theory in 2016.

The Trauma of the Displaced Founding Elites in Israel and Turkey (with Gülay Türkmen-Dervişoğlu)

I am working with Gülay Türkmen-Dervişoğlu (University of Göttingen) on a study of how political downward mobility affects group self-perception. This study extends my previous work on cultural trauma and politics, which focused on the Holocaust memory in Middle East politics and on the 2005 Withdrawal from Gaza. One paper based on our project is under review, and is available upon request.

Abstract: Although all political groups in democracies face the option of being ousted from power, elites that dominate new democracies are often particularly affected when they first lose their hold on their state. In this paper, we ask how nation-founding political elites interpret their eventual loss of political power, and what effect this has on their political culture and on the political culture of their country. To answer this question, we attune cultural trauma theory – which deals with the ways a group becomes convinced that its collective identity has been compromised by a horrendous event – to the study of elite downward mobility. To demonstrate, we compare how the Turkish CHP and the Israeli MAPAI/Labor parties, as ‘founders’ of their nations, responded to election losses after decades of political dominance. In our historical analysis we show that both founding political elites, despite continually associating themselves with democracy, have attempted to delegitimize the electoral decision by which they were ousted. We highlight the cultural strategies these elites employed to describe political change as a cultural trauma for the entire nation in order to maintain a sense of superiority in the face of political loss. The approach we offer is applicable to other states in which a political elite ruled for long periods of time, as well as to other types of abrupt elite downward mobility.


 Environmentalism, nationalism, and the struggle over the establishment of new communities in Israel (with Liron Shani)

I am working with Liron Shani (MIT) on a paper on how different notions of nationalism intertwine with understandings of nature protection. We focus on a clash between evicted Jewish-Israeli settlers and Israeli green activists over building new Israeli townships. This paper is available upon request.

Abstract: Although there is burgeoning research on environmental activism, few studies have examined the interrelationship between nationalism and environmentalism in detail. This paper examines how groups manage the tension between national commitment and caring for the environment. It focuses on two opposing Israeli activist groups: a settler movement that aims to establish new communities in the fast-dwindling Israeli open expanses, and a “green” environmentalist movement intent on preserving open spaces by preventing the establishment of new townships. The paper draws on observations, interviews, and textual analysis of a struggle over the establishment of a new communities in East-Central Israel. The findings show that both groups believe themselves to be committed to the protection of nature, and that both groups see environmental responsibility as an integral aspect of their Zionist identity. However, the Israeli green movement sees abstaining from interventions in nature and adhering to sustainable development as Zionist because it preserves Israel for future generations. By contrast, the settler movement sees active intervention in nature—in the form of building new communities, planting trees, and hiking—as the proper way to protect Israeli natural expanses and to maintain the livelihood of Israeli society. We suggest that national commitment can serve as a motivating cultural framework for environmental activism, but can also generate multiple (and even contradictory) interpretations of the correct way to care for nature.


I am working on projects examining how professional communities assign moral significance to their work. Two working papers are available upon request:

Advertising Morality: How Advertisers Think about the Social Good (with Andrew C. Cohen)

Numerous studies in social psychology have demonstrated that individuals seek confirmation of their moral standards from their environment in order to maintain their sense of moral identity. However, while these studies acknowledge that individuals depend on cultural frameworks in interpreting feedback, they say little about how individuals determine collectively what morality is in their context and how they link it back to their own identity. In this paper, we ask how professional communities maintain shared meaning structures that confirm workers’ sense of moral personhood. Drawing on pragmatic and cultural sociology, we claim that professional communities maintain shared narratives that link various aspects of the work in which their members engage with specific understanding of the common good. These narratives allow professionals to maintain a shared view of their work as benefitting society and to perceive themselves as moral individuals. As a case study, we focus on the advertising industry, which has long been stigmatized as complicit in exploitative capitalist mechanisms and cultural degradation. We draw on 9 total months of fieldwork and 74 interviews across three U.S. advertising agencies. We find that advertising practitioners use shared narratives to present their work as contributing to the common good, depicting themselves as moral individuals who care about others in the process. Prevalent narratives were the account-driven narrative, which links moral virtue to caring for clients; the creative-driven narrative, which ties caring to the production of meaningful advertisements; and the strategic-driven narrative, which sees caring in finding meaningful relationships for consumers and brands. 


Sociological Critique, Pragmatics, and Moral Practice (with Samuel D. Stabler) 

Recent scholarship in the sociology and philosophy of social science has suggested numerous ways of clarifying how sociological research can contribute to a good society. This literature has turned to cognitive psychology and moral philosophy for potential grounding. However, this scholarship has paid little attention to the concrete ways in which sociologists debate the rightfulness of their methodological assumptions and the normative meanings they attach to them. In this paper, we offer a new perspective by which to analyze the ways social scientists proffer, manage, and weather moral critiques within their disciplines. Drawing on the work of Boltanski, Chiapello, and Thévenot, we trace methodological-cum-moral debates across three sociological subfields: globalization, secularization, and intensive parenting. We demonstrate that in each debate, critics challenge a common sociological assumption both empirically and normatively. We further demonstrate that sociologists pursue multiple paths in responding to such critique. One such way is embracing the critique and rejecting former sociological methods in favor of new ones. Another is a partial reform of existing practices. A third is acknowledging the critique, but circumventing it by using it as a jumping off point to study new empirical domains. We claim that the seemingly mundane workings of sociological research constitute a site in which sociologists often grapple with the ethics of the discipline and its impact on society. Existing scholarly efforts to define or reevaluate the ethical underpinnings of the discipline would benefit from accounting for ways sociologists already evaluate their work.