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

Forthcoming January 2020
Preorders available from the University of Chicago Press website

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.

Back to top

+ 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