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.

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.

The Religious Roots of Transnational Relief 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.

One article based on this project, focusing on the religious origin of the logics of the humanitarian sector, appeared in Sociological Theory.  Another article focusing on the role of national-level dynamics in the nineteenth-century diffusion of humanitarian logic was recently published in The Sociological Review, and received the Global and Transnational Sociology Best Graduate Student Paper Award from the American Sociological Association. This project received the Marvin B. Sussman Prize from Yale University, as well as an honorable mention for the Theda Skocpol Best Dissertation Award from the Comparative-Historical Section of the American Sociological Association.

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

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

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

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. 

This paper won the Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity Outstanding Published Article Award from the American Sociological Association, and is available at this link.


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

Under review

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.



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. 

 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.

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

I am working with Gülay Türkmen (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.