RESEARCH TO POLICY: HEALTH
The anthropology of humanitarianism
Erica James examines the effectiveness of aid
“The anthropology of humanitarianism is becoming a subdiscipline in and of itself, and I think there is an excitement in asking these kinds of questions.”
— MIT anthropologist Erica Caple James
Erica Caple James conducted her dissertation research in trying circumstances: in Haiti, following the 1994 removal of the country’s military leaders. It was a time of social conflict and discord, yet the sense of the anxiety many Haitians felt during their everyday lives was not, to James, an incidental hazard: It was the subject of her work.
Indeed, throughout James’ career as a medical anthropologist, she has specialized in studying people confronted with social, economic, and political uncertainty. James, now an associate professor of anthropology at MIT, has often sought to address a particular question about people placed in such difficulties: Are their psychological and civic needs being addressed by the social organizations that purport to help them?
Or, as James puts it, her work centers on studying “critical junctures at which human life, liberty, and equality are bound or constrained by institutions — whether for good or ill.”
Photo by M. Scott Brauer, courtesy of MIT News