Sandvik’s inaugural lecture at UiO: Towards a political and legal sociology of humanitarianism

Photo: IKRS, UiO

May 12, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik gave an inaugural lecture as an associate professor at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law (UiO). Her lecture built on the ongoing Aid in Crisis? Rights-Based Approaches and Humanitarian Outcomes (AIDEFFECT) funded by the Research Council of Norway.

Sandvik argued that humanitarianism is an emergent thematic field of inquiry in international political sociology. She proposed a working definition of the political sociology of contemporary humanitarianism as the study of “The constitution of humanitarian crisis and crisis responses, and how relationships between crises affected communities, humanitarian actors, host governments and donors emerge from and shape crisis and crisis responses.” In her lecture Sandvik explained how this definitional prism allows us to ask questions about power, authority, concept development, standard setting and resource distribution in the global emergency zone, and more specifically as articulated through the concept of ‘humanitarian space’.

As humanitarian action is becoming increasingly juridified, there is also room and need for a sociological orientation as a sociology of law within this emergent thematic sub-field. Sandvik suggested that as researchers specifically focused on the legal aspects of humanitarian space and the evolving law of humanitarian action, legal sociologists are interested in normative constructions and contestations regarding conceptualizations of crisis, aid, agency, responsibility and rights within and across different social fields of regulation and governance. She also proposed that this effort should draw on the research methods, methodologies and theoretical approaches of legal anthropology.

On a general note, Sandvik argued that a political and legal sociology lens on humanitarianism is needed, because it is evident that humanitarian response is often neither short-term nor transnational nor necessarily benevolent in intention or effect. There are more humanitarians, they have more money, with which they do more things more places than ever before, under a patchwork of voluntary accountability regimes. Our understanding of emergencies and where and why they happen is also being upended: As illustrated by the European refugee-crisis, border control and security practices may be the sources of humanitarian suffering. Moreover, humanitarianism increasingly comes with a preemptive streak: While humanitarian aid was once designated to assist and protect displaced civilians, humanitarian aid is today targeted towards protecting our way of life against migration. In a new variation of the Global War on Terrors use of humanitarian aid for stabilization, aid is now being channeled towards emergency education against radicalization.

With respect to Norwegian donorship, from financing post-colonial imaginations of long-term development patterned on “Nordic” models, funding is increasingly being shifted through a massive political push for making a seamless bridge between development and humanitarian aid. In the process, the focus on governance and democratic accountability is sidelined in favor of instrumentalizing humanitarian aid for distinctively non-humanitarian purposes.

However, there is no sustained critical academic engagement with Norwegian humanitarianism, historically or in the present. By developing a political and legal sociology of humanitarianism we can begin to identify, unpack and critique the political, legal and ideological practices of contemporary humanitarian governance.

An extended version of this presentation, co-written with Kjersti Lohne, will be published at a later stage.