Iain Wilkinson: "Humanitarianism is an issue that calls into question the terms under which we assign value to human life"

22 Dec 2014

January 08-10, STI will hold the Experts Meeting "Understanding Modern Humanitarianism: Conditions, Consequences and Critical Concerns," in which Iain Wilkinson is the Academic Leader.

What are the aims of this meeting?

In recent years an unprecedented number of publications have been dedicated to the attempt to document, understand and explain modern humanitarianism. There are now a range of competing perspectives on the origins and history of humanitarian culture and experience. There are also a number of contrasting perspectives on how to theorize and evaluate humanitarian politics and culture. This is a trans-disciplinary field of inquiry that includes psychology, sociology, philosophy, history, politics, law, international relations and cultural studies. Many of those involved understand the study of humanitarianism to involve them in re-thinking disciplinary boundaries, methods and practices of knowledge of production. This meeting is designed to gather together experts with opposing and contrasting views on these developments. Our aim is to clarify terms of debate and agendas for research.

Why is humanitarianism now being taken up as a matter of concern?

The new gathering of interest around the attempt to explain humanitarian culture and experience is not easy to explain. It has multiple origins and is expressed in a variety of interests. It is now featured as a core concern for those engaged in attempts to understand new forms of government and governmental culture that have emerged through intensified processes of ‘globalization’. It is identified as a major social force and institutional development among those attempting to understand new formations of civil society and cross-national experiences of moral solidarity (particularly in relation to issues of disaster relief, and international aid and development). It is addressed as a key feature of ‘women’s morality and politics’ by feminist scholars working to recover the history of women in public life. It is taken up as a major topic for analysis by researchers attempting to chart the history of emotions and their consequences for social life; and here, amongst other things, it is understood to have had a major impact on how people negotiate with terms of religious belief. It is an issue of controversy and critical analysis for those concerned to understand the reconfiguration of social and cultural experience that takes place through modern communication media. It is a major interest for researchers involved in attempts to reform social institutions so as to promote practices of care and compassion (particularly in relation to health and welfare). It is also studied out of an interest in the ways in which it may be co-opted and appropriated for ideological ends and as part of the apparatus of power-relations; and in this regard, it has increasingly attracted the interests of analysts engaged in attempts to develop new critical understandings of law, politics and contemporary moral culture.

What is your particular interest in this matter? 

Whenever humanitarianism is addressed as a matter for social understanding, it is generally recognized that a great deal is at stake. It is an issue that calls into question the terms under which we assign value to human life and how we negotiate with the moral responsibilities we bear towards others. It concerns our understanding of the causes and effects of human suffering and how we should venture to care for the harms that are done to people. At the same time as it draws debate to the moral character of human society, it also involves us in questioning the moral state of our humanity; and often with the effect of uncovering uncomfortable truths and disturbing conclusions in relation to our motivations and conduct. My particular lies in the involvement of these matters in the historical awakening of our social conscience and our cultural dispensation to think of others and ourselves as social beings. My interest lies in the involvement of humanitarian culture in the extension of bonds of social recognition and in the cultivation of a shared understanding that we should relate to one another with social care. I am also very interested in the moral and intellectual tensions that have existed through the history of western social science between, on the one hand, the pursuit of social knowledge in purely rational terms, and on the other, the acquisition of human understanding that comes through our involvement in forces of humanitarian ‘fellow-felling’. At the same time as I hold that humanitarianism should be addressed as a matter for critical analysis, I am also concerned to argue that it remains an indispensable component of the human capacity to be social and to reach out to others with social understanding. It is something that need to better understand if we are to involve ourselves in creating conditions that make possible humane forms of society.

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