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

Forthcoming 2019 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.

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.

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.