Above the Fray: The Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian Relief Sector

Forthcoming 2019 at the University of Chicago Press

Recepient 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.

+ Book Description

Humanitarian nongovernmental organizations present themselves as servants of the most longstanding and universal human values. Yet, while their values – impartiality, neutrality, universality -- are certainly ageless, their social organizations are a most recent invention of human kind. Even though most of us would agree that such humanitarian work is commendable, the idea that humanitarian organizations like the ones we know today should perform it is astonishingly new and – when proposed – was surprisingly controversial. Indeed, when the mid-nineteenth-century Red Cross movement began to advocate for impartial humanitarian work, it was faced with incredulity, suspicion, and ethical objections. Pacifists, for example, chided the Red Cross for merely “laboring to mollify [the] barbarous custom” of war, whereas they themselves were “laboring to destroy it”. And yet, within less than two decades, the idea that humanitarian organizations are an absolute social necessity swept North Atlantic civil societies, giving rise to a growing humanitarian sector that spanned three continents and appealed to aristocrats, professionals, clergy, and working classes alike.

Above the Fray uncovers, for the first time, the origins of the extraordinarily unusual moral and organizational culture that first enabled humanitarian NGOs and has supported their work for the past 150 years. Despite the common assumption that the humanitarian NGO sector is tied to a secular humanistic tradition, the book traces its origins to an orthodox Calvinist movement that worked in Geneva in the mid-nineteenth-century. It draws on archival research at the International Committee of the Red Cross, personal repositories, and media archives, and on memoires of nineteenth-century and contemporary activists. Based on this evidence, it shows that the founding members of the Red Cross—essential figures for the emergence of the humanitarian sector—were convinced by their Calvinist faith that the only way relief could come to the victims of armed conflict was through an international volunteer program that would not be subordinated to state interests. These early activists were the first to advocate the establishment of volunteer relief societies in all state capitals, and they were the ones to propose the most widely known treaties in International Humanitarian Law, the Geneva Convention, which has become the ethical standards for humane conduct on the battlefield. Although the Red Cross has faced considerable challenges over its history and has been repeatedly criticized for failing to live up to its code of ethics, the cultural identity of the “humanitarian” it created remained pervasive for the past century and a half.

The book follows the remarkable spread of humanitarian ideas over the second half of the nineteenth-century. It shows that, despite the objections the Red Cross faced in some philanthropic and intellectual circles, their proposal struck a chord in numerous quarters for different reasons. For many state-level actors, establishing a humanitarian Red Cross society also bore moral implications for their nation and came to be seen as an expression of a national charitable character. For family members of conscripted soldiers, such activism helped alleviate anxieties about the fate of their loved ones that were exacerbated by the increasingly available news reports from the battlefields. For nurses, professional humanitarian organizations offered unprecedented access to the battlefield and helped them gain prestige similar to that of their male counterparts. The book analyzes the multiple cultural currents that the emerging Red Cross unified, showing how they jointly contributed to the wide popularization of the humanitarian sector. Although much of the language and imagery changed across the decades, the working assumption that humanitarian work must be undertaken by a voluntary third sector which is impartial and neutral remains unchallenged. Indeed, the last chapter demonstrates that the same principles the Red Cross propagated in the 1860s underpinned the activities of one of its greatest critics, the Doctors without Borders movement, as late as the 1970s.

The genesis of the humanitarian field from the religious convictions of its founders provides an exceptionally revealing historical case that demonstrates how abstract moral beliefs create new social institutions that, in turn, preserve and replicate them through history. Through the historical analysis, the book develops a new, cultural approach to one of the most prominent methods in comparative historical sociology of recent years, Bourdieusian field analysis. Where this approach has traditionally seen interests and power relations as the key drivers of historical processes, the book reworks field analysis to focus on the constitutive power of faith and symbolic processes in creating new social domains. As such, it will be of use to cultural and historical sociologists studying the emergence and the transformation of cultural spheres, professional worlds, social institutions, and other historical phenomena. Since the dilemmas that the Red Cross faced as it was asserting itself in the nineteenth-century continue to preoccupy the contemporary humanitarian community, this book would also be of interests to students of humanitarian and philanthropic movement, as well as to activists and policy makers.

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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

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I am working on projects examining how communities and individuals assign moral significance to their work, especially in the areas of creative industries and knowledge production.

+ Good on paper: Sociological critique, pragmatism, and secularization theory (With Samuel D. Stabler)

Theory & Society, 48, no. 2 (2019): 325-350

An open access version of the article is available on the publisher's website. A downloadable preprint is available at this link.

Recent years have seen numerous sociological disagreements devolve into moral debates, with scholars openly accusing their peers of being both empirically wrong and morally misguided. While social scientists routinely reflect on the ethical implications of certain research assumptions and data collection methods, the sociology of knowledge production has said little about how moral debates over scholarship shape subsequent research trajectories. Drawing on the New French Pragmatic Sociology, this article examines how sociologists respond to moral criticisms of their work, and outlines three typical responses: (1) accepting the moral criticism and changing direction completely; (2) accepting the criticism but changing discursive register to allow additional work in the area without being subject to critique; and (3) circumventing the criticism by using the debate to devise new research directions that would not trigger such criticism. To demonstrate, the article looks at how sociologists of religion responded, in their published scholarship, to criticisms of secularization theory as depreciating religious people and spiritual experience. Across the responses, we show that sociologists have included moral considerations in their empirical investigations and have switched between diverse moral frameworks to address -- and also avoid -- criticism. We conclude by demonstrating that this model can be extended to other domains of sociological inquiry, including the study of gender-based wage inequality and methodological nationalism. The article highlights the importance of mapping the moral frameworks sociologists use for the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of morality.

Please contact me if you would like a copy of this paper.

+ Advertising morality: Maintaining moral worth in a stigmatized profession (With Andrew C. Cohen)

Theory & Society 47, no. 2 (2018): 175-206

Winner of the 2018 American Sociological Association Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity Outstanding Published Article Award

An open access version of the article is available on the publisher's website. A downloadable pre-print is available at this link.

Although a great deal of literature has looked at how individuals respond to stigma, far less has been written about how professional groups address challenges to their self-perception as abiding by clear moral standards. In this paper, we ask how professional group members maintain a positive self-perception in face of moral stigma. Drawing on pragmatic and cultural sociology, we claim that professional communities hold narratives that link various aspects of the work their members perform 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 narratives to present their work as contributing to the common good, depicting themselves as moral individuals who care about others in the process. We analyze three prevalent narratives: 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.

Blog post

"How Do Admen Sleep at Night? Responding to Moral Stigma in a Creative Industry." Work in Progress: Sociology on the Economy, Work and Inequality, July 2018 (with Andy Cohen).

+ Penny for your Thoughts: Beggars and the Exercise of Morality in Daily Life

Sociological Forum 27, no. 4 (2012): 847-871

An open access version of the article is available on the publisher's website. A downloadable pre-print is available at this link.

Urban sociology has tended to study interactions between passersby and “street persons” with an emphasis on the ways street persons become bothersome, harassing, or dangerous. This article moves away from the focus on the ways interactions in public go awry and focuses on how individuals account for the mundane, everyday exchanges they have with strangers who seek their help. Based on interview data and qualitative analysis of data from an Internet survey, this article suggests that the presence of beggars does not inherently symbolize urban decay to passersby and does not necessarily elicit anxiety, but instead provides a valuable texture of urban life. Further, the article argues that individuals, when justifying their responses to requests for help from needy persons (beggars) in urban spaces, use a variety of cultural strategies to maintain their perception of themselves as moral persons, both when they choose to help and when they refuse. Drawing from these findings, the article suggests that urban sociology and the sociology of risk would benefit from sensitizing their studies of public interactions to the diverse meanings individuals assign to them, rather than presupposing annoyance, anxiety, or fear as their predominant characteristic.

Policy memo

"How Passers-By and Policymakers View Beggars in American Communities", SSN Key Findings, April 2014.

+ Recovering Morality: Pragmatic Sociology and Literary Studies (with Eva Illouz)


New Literary History 41, no. 2 (2010): 351-369

Read the article at this link or on the publisher's website.

The disciplines of sociology and literary studies have seen a renewed interest in morality and in ethics in recent decades, but there has been little dialogue between the two. Recognizing that literary works, both classical and popular, can serve as moral critiques and that readers, of all types and classes, can and often do serve as moral critics, this paper seeks to apply some insights of pragmatic sociology to the field of literature by exploring the ways in which moral claims are expressed, evaluated, and negotiated by texts and through texts by readers. Drawing on the new French pragmatic sociology, represented by sociologists such as Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, this paper claims that fiction has a twofold role in civil society. Firstly, novels serve as critiques in their ability to formalize and dramatize generalizable logics of evaluation and to elicit debates by pointing to the inadequacies of, and clashes between, such evaluative logics in the lives of their characters. Secondly, the reading public is often moved to form its own critiques of a novel, in praise or in denunciation of its content, its form, or its perceived intent, and in doing so exercises its moral capacity in the public sphere.

Translations

An abridged translation to Russian appeared in Social Sciences and Humanities: Domestic and International Literature, series 7: Literary Criticism 18, no. 1 (2012): 13-19.

A translation to Polish appeared in Second Texts, no. 6 (2012): 167-187.


In these projects, I examine how political groups and social movements conceive of the public good, and how their conceptions affect their engagement with politics. 

+ Love of land: Nature protection, nationalism, and the struggle over the establishment of new communities in Israel (with Liron Shani)

Rural Sociology, online ahead of print

An open access version of the article is available on the journal's website. A downloadable pre-print is available at this link.

Abstract: Although there is burgeoning research on environmental activism, few studies have examined the interrelationship between nationalism and nature protection 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” movement intent on preserving open spaces. Our observations, interviews, and textual analysis 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. Conversely, the settler movement sees active intervention in nature—by building new communities, planting trees, and hiking—as the proper way to protect Israeli natural expanses and to maintain the livelihood of Israeli society. Our case demonstrates that, although environmental movements often aspire to universalism, local movements also interlace environmentalism and nationalism in ways that generate multiple (and even contradictory) interpretations of the appropriate way to care for nature.

Please contact me if you would like a copy of this paper.

+ What does trauma have to do with politics? Cultural trauma and the displaced founding political elites of Israel and Turkey (with Gülay Türkmen)

The Sociological Quarterly, online ahead of print

The article is available on the journal's website. An open access pre-print is available at this link.

Abstract: Recent political events, such as Brexit and Trump’s election, have inspired talk of collective trauma in academic publications and news outlets. Yet, scholars have been unclear about the processes that transform mundane political events into collective traumatic experiences. In this article, we ask how political factions come to interpret election outcomes as a trauma. We draw on cultural trauma theory to examine the ways state-founding political elites interpret their election losses. We show that such elites commemorate the loss by employing narratives that depict them as victims of unjust political processes, and simultaneously provide them with a sense of moral superiority. This enduring self-conception hinders subsequent efforts to draw new supporters or to change political strategies. We demonstrate this process using two empirical cases: the Israeli socialist Zionists and Turkish secular republicans, both of whom dominated their respective nations for decades until they were ousted through democratic elections. We suggest that cultural trauma theory can illuminate the reasons for some of the political deadlocks that shape newly-founded democracies’ policies.

Policy paper

One policy analysis based on this project is available on ResetDOC: “Why faltering democracies need strong opposition parties: Lessons from Turkey.”

+ UNEASY SETTLEMENTS: REPARATION POLITICS AND THE MEANINGS OF MONEY IN THE ISRAELI WITHDRAWAL FROM GAZA

Sociological Inquiry 84, no.2 (2014): 294–315.

An open access version of the article is available on the publisher's website A downloadable pre-print is available at this link.

Negotiations about reparations tend to take the language of interests and to deal primarily with monetary compensation for disadvantaged groups. In such proceedings, aggrieved claimants are likely to make a variety of claims about the use of money to represent their experience, ranging from demands for increased compensation to rejections of the entire process altogether. The article draws attention to the communicative functions of money in the reparation process. It claims that actors may grudgingly agree to attach a monetary value to what they hold sacred, but simultaneously strive to preserve their sense of self-worth and to elicit identification by raising moral critiques about the use of fiscal logic. To exemplify, the article focuses on the 2005 removal of Jewish-Israeli settlers from Israeli-occupied territories. It shows that settlers indeed demanded to be compensated fiscally for their lost property. At the same time, it shows that they raised objections to the use of fiscal logic in representing their experience and offered alternate logics of evaluation. The settlers resisted shame and devaluation through such competing logics, demanding that the state reaffirm a positive and embracing relationship with them despite its decision to evict them.

Policy brief

One policy brief related to this article is available on the Scholars Strategy Network website: "Israeli Settlers Evicted from Occupied Areas Want Community Affirmation along with Compensation", SSN Key Findings, November 2013.

+ Trauma Construction and Moral Restriction: The Ambiguity of the Holocaust for Israel (with Jeffrey C. Alexander)

In: Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering. Edited by Ron Eyerman, Jeffrey C. Alexander and Elizabeth Breese, 107-132. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers 2011.

Read the full paper at this link.

The legendary status of the Holocaust as a sacred evil has inspired international human rights law, new restrictions on national sovereignty, and newly powerful moral strictures against ethnic and racial cleansing. Yet, even as this markedly universalizing construction became ever more deeply institutionalized in Western Europe and North America, the Holocaust came to be configured in a radically particularistic manner in Israel and the Middle East. This chapter traces the drastically different trajectories the Holocaust memory took for the Israeli right-wing, the Israeli left-wing, and their Arab neighbors. For Arab nations neighboring the new Jewish nation, for occupied Palestinians inside Israel or in exile, and for radical Islamicists the world wide, the Holocaust’s reality was fiercely challenged and the extraordinary nature of Jewish trauma ridiculed and denied. Meanwhile, inside the boundaries of the Jewish state, religiously conservative and politically right-wing Zionists came to understand the Holocaust as a tragedy that was unique to the Jewish people, not as a tragedy of our times. The Israeli version of the Holocaust trauma drama reinforced ethnic and religious boundaries rather than pointing to the necessity for transcending them. Where Israeli left-wing parties have historically attempted to draw on the Holocaust metaphor in extending sympathy toward the Palestinian plight, such attempts were often ill-received by mainstream Israeli society. These divergent paths the Holocaust trauma followed underscore the autonomy of the traumatic event from its referent and demonstrate the culturally variable routes its remembrance may take.

Reprints and translations

A translation to Greek appeared in Science and Society 28, no. 1 (2011-12): 21- 50.

This chapter was reprinted as “Holocaust and Trauma: Moral Restriction in Israel” in Trauma: A Social Theory by Jeffrey C. Alexander, 97-117. London: Polity, 2012.