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On September 20-21, 2013, the international workshop entitled “Towards an Anthropology of International Intervention” was held at McMaster University.  It was funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and organized by Andrew Gilbert. 

This workshop’s aim was to chart new theoretical territory and set a new agenda for an ethnographically-grounded, historically-sensitive and publically-relevant anthropology of international intervention in the 21st century.  In the service of this goal, the workshop brought together anthropologists working across diverse sites and contexts of international intervention to both present individual research papers and build a collective analysis across them.  This analysis was formed around two core questions: What is anthropology’s contribution to the study of the forms and contexts of international intervention?  What contribution does the study of the forms and contexts of international intervention have to make to anthropology more generally?  This meeting also worked to set up a third goal: a larger conference to follow the workshop in which finalized papers will be presented to a group of non-anthropologist/policy-oriented scholars or practitioners/activists in order to explore the broader contribution of anthropological research in sites of international intervention.  The aim is thus to provide a model of critical engagement for academic anthropologists as well as a window into the value of anthropological research for an audience who might not be used to taking it into account. 

The workshop assembled a small group of scholars based in Canada, the United States, Italy, Pakistan and Singapore (for a list of presenters and paper titles, see link to workshop program).  Participants took up the workshop’s core questions through the intensive discussion of research papers focusing on different field sites (Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Aceh, Afghanistan, Botswana), objects of investigation (the care of orphans, the education of girls, infrastructures of communication, global health training programs, ordinary ethics, practices of publicity), and theoretical concerns (humanitarianism, care, crisis, sovereignty, hegemony, self-fashioning, expertise, and human flourishing). 

For a list of publications from the workshop click here


The following summarizes some of the important observations and conclusions made during the course of the workshop.

Anthropology in Contexts of International Intervention.  In addition to the extremely valuable and stimulating discussion of the individual research papers, a number of critical observations emerged from the collective conversation across the workshop’s two days.  First of all, there was a fundamental feeling that the study of various forms of international intervention (military, humanitarian, political, economic) was going to increasingly be part of anthropology’s future, if for no other reason than more and more parts of the world are the objects of such intervention on an almost permanent or perpetual basis. Moreover, anthropology will have to take international intervention into account because it is a dominant mode for integrating various parts of the globe into a range of world systems and their normative horizons.

More than this world historical fact, however, it became clear over the course of the workshop that the anthropology of international intervention touched upon a number of core aspects of human being: normality, the ordinary, ethics and morality, and the vulnerability of human life.  Indeed, the violence and destruction that are both the cause and (sometime) consequence of international interventions foreground the twin themes of human survival and human flourishing. 

This connects to another observation made during the workshop, namely, that the contexts of international intervention were good for thinking about the relationship between crisis, rupture and emergency on the one hand, and the emergence of novel forms of social and cultural life on the other.  There is nothing particularly celebratory or optimistic in this observation.  Rather, as one participant argued, it comes from the recognition that international interventions are contexts which produce a disjuncture between life as previously lived and a present in which that life is no longer possible.  At such moments of rupture, “when the question of human flourishing is posed (how shall I live?),” this often “leads to creative actions, even amid mortal threats to life and social death.”

That said, participants also acknowledged that this recognition contradicts or at least goes beyond the much more narrow thinking about human life in the current theory and practice of international intervention.  In this regard, the liberal and other humanitarianisms that we encounter in various aid interventions encroach upon anthropology’s core object of study - what it means to be human.  We thus see a critical role for anthropology in contesting these narrow visions and definitions of the human, with an empirical eye cast toward life as lived in the midst of crisis and emergency.

Another issue area touched upon during the workshop had to do with the organization and definition of politics and the political.  Anthropological research in the contexts of international intervention demonstrates both the permanence and fleeting (or permanently fleeting) nature of sovereignty.  Indeed, a few participants felt that such research also demonstrated a need to move beyond the nation-state and empire, both analytically and politically.  In part this was because such terms may obscure important processes: for example, there is a particular type of temporality to intervention that is distinct from nation-state or imperial time structures.  More than once, we recognized the pitfalls represented by normative theory when we attempt to analyze the politics of intervention.  As one participant put it, “when cast in a normative frame, intervention and territorial sovereignty are rendered as universal categories rather than as recent and contingent forms of political life.”  At the same time, the very phrase “international intervention” carries with it an epistemology that assumes a world divided into nation-states—of people and thing inside and outside, local and international—that may not accurately grasp the kinds of dynamics that evolve in the contexts of intervention.

As has been pointed out by others, the use of the term empire to describe military, humanitarian, development or other action carried out transnationally is usually invoked for political reasons - “imperial name-calling” as Cooper and Burbank put it, “designed to discredit interventions by American, French, or other governments” (2012: 239).  They rightly point out that such invocations do not “provide means to analyze or improve today’s world” (Ibid), in the end the telling us little about the workings and effects of the intervention encounter.  Moreover, as John Kelly points out, another problem with the charge of imperialism is that it tends to assume that the answer to that charge are the forms of freedom, sovereignty and self-determination rooted in the UN nation-state model.  And yet, as Kelly has shown, this is the very model advocated by the powerful states that are leading international interventions and usually charged with imperialist behaviour.  Clearly, something is amiss if the so-called imperialist and his critic have the same end goal.  We need a better analytic vocabulary to get at the stakes and effects of intervention.  In this regard, some participants found it useful to focus analytically on legitimacy, authority, and experts (and the processes of legitimization, authorization, and the making of experts and expertise).

Anthropology’s Interlocutors.  A different set of observations arose from our interactions with a diverse set of interlocutors, ranging from other academics to activists, policy-makers, and the practitioners of various aid, political, or military interventions.   Here we had a sustained discussion about what interests them about anthropological research in contexts of international intervention.  We noted that some of these interlocutors find common ground with anthropologists over a mutual preoccupation with human freedom (an ethic that Webb Keane has persuasively argued motivates many of the developments in North American anthropology over the past few decades) or human suffering (see Robbins 2013 for a recent discussion of the ascendance of this focus in cultural anthropology).  It is also clear that many of our interlocutors are attracted to a light version of the ethnographic method we practice.  In part this attraction lies in the empirical explanatory promise offered by the ethnographic focus on the particular.  In addition to the focus on the particular, we noted that they value our research for how its lack of a normative or positivist orientation opens up new horizons of knowledge.   We also recognized, however, that this interest is often only in the service of developing better norms, or actionable knowledge; and in some cases this “action” has mortal stakes, for this knowledge may be weaponized.

In thinking about the interests of our interlocutors in anthropological research, we recognized that, at least according to George Marcus and Didier Fassin, the role and authority of the anthropologist in contexts of international intervention has been destabilized.  The reason is that anthropologists are only one among a variety of figures in “the field,” and thus are not alone in grounding the legitimacy and authority of their knowledge in the claim to have “been there”; indeed, these figures can and do lay some claim to the intimacy that anthropologists long asserted as their own.  In thinking then about the question of what makes an account anthropological—or valuable—if it is no longer simply “fieldwork,” we noted some important distinctions with our non-anthropology interlocutors.  For example, we recognized that our ethnographic experience was one of living with the uncertainty and shifting nature of our conceptual coordinates, and also noted that this was true of many of our informants’ lives – a quality of human existence that is particularly clear in the contexts where international interventions occur.  One consequence is that, as opposed to the theoretical (positivist) concerns of other academics, or the practical concerns of journalists or practitioners, both of which seek or require analytic closure, the ethnographic practice of workshop participants exhibited a fundamental need to keep open the question of what is actually happening in the contexts of international intervention, to keep open the question of what the “it” is that we are observing and analyzing, and to pay attention to the struggle over defining what “it” is and what is happening.  Thus while our interlocutors like the critical edge that anthropological knowledge brings, they are often less interested in keeping these core sets of questions open.


Cooper, Frederick and Jane Burbank. 2012. “The Empire Effect.” Public Culture. 24(2): 239-247.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason. A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Keane, Webb. 2005. “Estrangement, Intimacy, and the Objects of Anthropology.” In George Steinmetz (ed). The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences. Positivism and Its Epistemological Others. Duke University Press.

Kelly, John D. 2003. “U.S. Power, after 9/11 and before It: If Not an Empire, Then What?” Public Culture. 15(2): 347-369.
____. 2006. “Who Counts? Imperial and Corporate Structures of Governance, Decolonization and Limited Liability” in Craig Calhoun, Frederick Cooper and Kevin Moore (eds). Lessons of Empire. Imperial Histories and American Power. NY: The New Press.

Marcus, George. 2010. “The Making of Anthropologists in States of Emergency” in Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi eds. Contemporary States of Emergency. The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions. Zone Books.

Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the suffering slot: toward an anthropology of the good” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 19(3): 447–462.

Contact: Dr. Andrew Gilbert, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, McMaster University