Demarcating Boundaries: Against the “Humanitarian Embrace”


  • Hanno Brankamp Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, UK



humanization, humanitarianism, partnerships, critical scholarship, refugee studies, solidarity, power


Recent years have seen recurrent calls for bridging the “gap” between the worlds of policy-makers, practitioners, and academic scholars concerned with forced migration and humanitarian aid. This has resulted in growing partnerships between international organisations, governments, businesses, foundations, and universities with the aim of harnessing market economic thinking to create new practice-oriented knowledge rather than out-of-touch theories. This intervention responds critically to these developments and questions the seemingly common-sense logic behind attempts to forge ever closer collaborations across institutional lines. Rather than benefitting displaced communities, bridging divides has often served as a way of consolidating the hegemony of humanitarian actors and inadvertently delegitimized more critical scholarship. Scholars in refugee and forced migration studies have hereby been engulfed in a tightening “humanitarian embrace”. This paper argues that in order to fulfil a scholarly commitment to social justice, anti-violence and pro-asylum politics, it is time to again demarcate the boundaries between the practices and institutions that reproduce humanitarian power and their critics.


Bakewell, O. (2008). Research beyond the categories: The importance of policy irrelevant research into forced migration. Journal of Refugee Studies, 21(4), 432–453.

Bejarano, C. A., Juárez, L. L, García, M. A. M, & Goldstein, D. M. (2019). Decolonizing ethnography: Undocumented immigrants and new directions in social science. Duke University Press.

Benton, A. (2016). African expatriates and race in the anthropology of humanitarianism. Critical African Studies, 8(3), 266–277.

Betts, A., & Bloom, L. (2014). Humanitarian innovation: The state of the art. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Betts, A., & Collier, P. (2018). Refuge: Transforming a broken refugee system. Penguin Random House.

Billo, E., & Mountz, A. (2016). For institutional ethnography: Geographical approaches to institutions and the everyday. Progress in Human Geography, 40(2), 199–220.

Bradley, M. (2008). On the agenda: North–South research partnerships and agenda-setting processes. Development in Practice, 18(6), 673–685.

Brankamp, H. (2018, June 13). The cynical recasting of refugees as raconteurs can’t mask the grim reality, The Guardian.

Chimni, B. S. (1998). The geopolitics of refugee studies: A view from the South. Journal of Refugee Studies, 11(4): 350–374.

Chimni, B. S. (2009). The birth of a “discipline”: From refugee to forced migration studies. Journal of Refugee Studies, 22(1), 11–29.

Clark-Kazak, C. (2017). Ethical considerations: Research with people in situations of forced migration. Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees, 33(2), 11–17.

DeLeon, A. P. (2012). Against the grain of the status quo: Anarchism behind enemy lines. In R. H. Haworth (Ed.), Anarchist pedagogies: Collective actions, theories, and critical reflections on education (pp. 312–325). PM Press.

Department for International Development (DFID). (2011). Humanitarian emergency response review: UK government response.

De Waal, A. (2015, December 7). Policy to research to policy in difficult places. Humanity Journal.

DiMaggio, P. J., & Powell, W. W. (1983). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review, 48(2), 147–160.

Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA). (2012). ELRHA guide to constructing effective partnerships.

Farah, R. (2020). Expat, local, and refugee: “Studying up” the global division of labor and mobility in the humanitarian industry in Jordan. Migration and Society, 3(1), 130–144.

Fassin, D. (2011). Humanitarian reason: A moral history of the present. University of California Press.

Fast, L. (2017, November 2). The data divide: Overcoming an increasing practitioner-academic gap. Humanitarian Law & Policy.

Ferris, E. (2012). On partnerships, power and policy in researching displacement. Journal of Refugee Studies, 25(4), 576–580.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020). Introduction: Recentering the South in studies of migration. Migration and Society, 3(1), 1–18.

Fischlin, D., Heble, A., & Lipsitz, G. (2013). The fierce urgency of now: Improvisation, rights, and the ethics of cocreation. Duke University Press.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Penguin Modern Classics.

Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. University of California Press.

Guilhot, N. (2012). The anthropologist as witness: Humanitarianism between ethnography and critique. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, 3(1): 81–101.

Hartman, Y., & Darab, S. (2012). A call for slow scholarship: A case study on the intensification of academic life and its implications for pedagogy. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 34(1–2), 49–60.

Hilhorst, D. (2018). Classical humanitarianism and resilience humanitarianism: Making sense of two brands of humanitarian action. Journal of International Humanitarian Action, 3(1), Article 15.

Hilhorst, D., & Jansen, B. J. (2010). Humanitarian space as arena: A perspective on the everyday politics of aid. Development and Change, 41(6), 1117–1139.

Hyndman, J. (2000). Managing displacement: Refugees and the politics of humanitarianism. University of Minnesota Press.

Ilcan, S., & Rygiel, K. (2015). “Resiliency humanitarianism”: Responsibilizing refugees through humanitarian emergency governance in the camp. International Political Sociology, 9(4), 333–351.

Krause, U. (2017). Researching forced migration: Critical reflections on research ethics during fieldwork (RSC Working Paper Series). Refugee Studies Centre.

Kuus, M. (2015). For slow research. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39(4), 838–840,

Lammers, E. (2007). Researching refugees: Preoccupations with power and questions of giving. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 26(3), 72–81.

Landau, L. B. (2012). Communities of knowledge or tyrannies of partnership: Reflections on North–South research networks and the dual imperative. Journal of Refugee Studies, 25(4), 555–570.

Mackay, F., Monro, S., & Waylen, G. (2009). The feminist potential of sociological institutionalism. Politics and Gender, 5(2), 253–262.

Mackenzie, C., McDowell, C., & Pittaway, E. (2007). Beyond “do no harm”: The challenge of constructing ethical relationships in refugee research. Journal of Refugee Studies, 20(2), 299–319.

Madison, D. S. (2012). Critical ethnography: Method, ethics, and performance. Sage Publications.

Martell, L. (2014). The slow university: Inequality, power and alternatives. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 15(3).

Mei-Singh, L. (2020). Accompaniment through carceral geographies: Abolitionist research partnerships with Indigenous communities. Antipode, 33(1), 74–94.

Mills, D., & Ratcliffe, R. (2012). After method? Ethnography in the knowledge economy. Qualitative Research, 12(2), 147–164.

Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T., & Curran, W.(2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. Acme, 14(4), 1235–1259.

Nader, L. (1972). Up the anthropologist: Perspectives gained from studying up. In D. Hymes (Ed.), Reinventing anthropology (pp. 284–311). Pantheon Books.

Ogata, S. (2000). An agenda for business–humanitarian partnerships. Washington Quarterly, 23(2), 167–170.

Olivius, E. (2017). Sites of repression and resistance: Political space in refugee camps in Thailand. Critical Asian Studies, 49(3), 289–307.

Pailey, R. N. (2020). De-centring the “white gaze” of development. Development and Change, 51(3), 729–745.

Pascucci, E. (2017). The humanitarian infrastructure and the question of over-research: Reflections on fieldwork in the refugee crises in the Middle East and North Africa. Area, 49(2), 249–255.

Pittaway, E., Bartolomei, L., & Hugman, R. (2010). “Stop stealing our stories”: The ethics of research with vulnerable groups. Journal of Human Rights Practice, 2(2), 229–251.

Priyadharshini, E. (2003). Coming unstuck: Thinking otherwise about “studying up.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 34(4). 420–437.

Reid-Henry, S. M. (2014). Humanitarianism as liberal diagnostic: Humanitarian reason and the political rationalities of the liberal will-to-care. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(3), 418–431.

Reid-Henry, S., & Sending, O. J. (2014). The “humanitarianization” of urban violence. Environment and Urbanization, 26(2), 427–442.

Sandvik, K. B. (2017). Now is the time to deliver: Looking for humanitarian innovation’s theory of change. Journal of International Humanitarian Action, 2(8), 1–11.

Scott-Smith, T. (2016). Humanitarian neophilia: The “innovation turn” and its implications. Third World Quarterly, 37(12), 2229–2251.

Shahjahan, R. A. (2015). Being “lazy” and slowing down: Toward decolonizing time, our body, and pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(5), 488–501.

Simon, R. I. (1992). Teaching against the grain: Texts for a pedagogy of possibility. Bergin and Garvey.

Skilbrei, M. L. (2020). Taking on the categories, terms and worldviews of the powerful: The pitfalls of trying to be relevant. Identities, 28(5), 561–577.

Smirl, L. (2008). Building the other, constructing ourselves: Spatial dimensions of international humanitarian response. International Political Sociology, 2(3), 236–253.

Smith, K. (2015). Stories told by, for, and about women refugees: Engendering resistance. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(2), 461–469.

Stevens, D., Hayman, R., & Mdee, A. (2013). “Cracking collaboration” between NGOs and academics in development research. Development in Practice, 23(8), 1071–1077.

Stoler, A. L. (2009). Along the archival grain: Epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense. Princeton University Press.

Ticktin, M. (2011). Casualties of care: Immigration and the politics of humanitarianism in France. University of California Press.

Tomlinson, B., & Lipsitz, G. (2013). American studies as accompaniment. American Quarterly, 65(1), 1–30.

Turner, L. (2020). “#Refugees can be entrepreneurs too!” Humanitarianism, race, and the marketing of syrian refugees. Review of International Studies, 46(1), 137–155.

Weizman, E. (2011). The least of all possible evils: Humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso.

Zingerli, C. (2010). A sociology of international research partnerships for sustainable development. European Journal of Development Research, 22, 217–233.



2021-11-22 — Updated on 2022-04-03


How to Cite

Brankamp, H. (2022). Demarcating Boundaries: Against the “Humanitarian Embrace”. Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees, 37(2), 46–55. (Original work published November 22, 2021)