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Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute

Histories of Humanitarianism

The history of humanitarianism has lately become a growth area.

This strand engages with the meanings that have been assigned to humanitarianism in different times and places. Our research is driven by a wish to contextualise it as a shifting set of professional, discursive and cultural practices.

It has been funded by the AHRC (including a follow-on project on ‘Refugees in Post-1945 Europe: Living in Displaced Persons’ Camps, Experience of Return and Resettlement’), by the ESRC, the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy.

Research strands

Belgian refugees 1914
Belgian refugees, 1914.

A particular focus of our research is on the history of ‘humanitarian technologies’ from the late nineteenth century onwards (notably through a major ESRC research project led with Dr Julie-Marie Strange), examining how practices embodied and developed humanitarian values. This research strand makes connections with other research agendas and networks in the history of humanitarian aid and is both archival and observation based work with NGOs and humanitarian practitioners.

Another strand of our research maps the history of global population displacement in the twentieth century as well as current refugee crises, making comparisons and drawing connections between the causes and outcomes of refugee crises, referring to the stance taken by governments, NGOs, international organisations and relief workers.

We seek to establish the trajectories followed by refugees and the meanings they ascribed to their displacement across time and place. In demonstrating the ways in which refugees have been represented culturally by means of photography, film and other media, this strand connects with Cultures of Humanitarianism.

In looking at contemporary politics and practices concerning refugees and providing expert services to refugee-rights-based NGOs, the strand also connects with Political Violence, States and Geopolitics.

We have a particular interest in the cultural practices of faith-based organisations, including medical missionaries, faith based organizations, the Society of Friends (Quakers), and how they understood their role at different times and in different sites.

We are disseminating the results of our research to a wide public audience through a series of exhibitions, including the Quaker exhibit at the National Memorial Arboretum, and incorporating our findings in the school curriculum through a resource pack for teachers on the theme of ‘Refugees and displaced persons in Europe after the Second World War’, as well as publications in learned and professional publications.

Academic staff

Rony Brauman, Jenny Carson, Peter Gatrell, Tanja Müller, Tony Redmond and Bertrand Taithe.

  • People - find out more about our staff

PhD students

Peter Borklund, Jessica Field, Luke Kelly, Rosy Rickett and Alice Tligui.

Key publications and resources

  • Gatrell, Peter (2013) The Making of the Modern Refugee. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Müller, Tanja R. (2012) From rebel governance to state consolidation – Dynamics of loyalty and the securitisation of the state in Eritrea. Geoforum 43(4): 793-803.
  • Taithe, Bertrand, Crook, Tom and Gill, Rebecca (Eds) (2011) Evil, Barbarism and Empire, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Bertrand Taithe (2012), ‘Pyrrhic Victories: Catholic Faith, medical expertise and secularizing technologies’ in M. Barnett & J. Stein, Faith and aid: Religion, Secularism, and Humanitarianism, Oxford University Press.
  • Bertrand Taithe and Adam Davies (2011) French Historical Studies, including introduction: From the Purse and the Heart: Exploring Charity, Humanitarianism and Human Rights in France. French Historical Studies 34(3): 413-432.