Disaster And The Politics Of Sympathy

Keywords: Disasters, Relief, Politics

In the aftermath of disaster, frequently an institution, organization, or person emerges as the party that particularly bears the cloak of sympathy towards the people affected. That cloak can be acquired by a range of establishments: very commonly the nation or possibly a regional government; often a non-governmental organization, at times one that basks in international reputation, other times one new or lesser known one; particular individuals, sometimes governmental office holder, or influential donors. To the public, the holder of the sympathetic veneer usually appears innocuous, even admirable, and in consequence, attracts gratitude, recognition, and acclaim.  Unrecognized is that both the aura of solicitude and the party clothed in it are, in fact, highly political. Sympathy imparts power and dominion. The agency holding compassion augments its standing, garners continuity, procures funding, and most significantly, obtains the leverage to determine the agendas, usually self-beneficial, that include exclusion, inclusion, and flow of money and goods. Sympathetic agents are able to create remembrances to themselves, construct and name public buildings, erect monuments, and propagate legends augmenting their beneficence, thus ensure ongoing repute. When a particular agency gains the sway of sympathy, the disjunction between expert knowledge and the practices of the agency readily rigidifies. The agency acquires official, or semi-official, status, such that other operatives diminish in import or are seen as “outliers.” It can readily obscure the factors that drive vulnerability and, indeed, create vulnerability. Its policies can negate the importance of a people’s culture and dismiss nuances such as social class, gender, and continuity of community. Agencies with the power of sympathy also often turn to controversial approaches like “cookie cutter” and “best practices” despite lack of pertinence. They secure influence over the “framing” of disaster, what happened, how long it lasts, and what constitutes actual injury; can carry dogmas of “progress” and “betterment;” and perpetuate the practice of alleviation over prevention. Yet, in the many decades of disaster enquiry, rarely has the role of sympathy nor the agency conveying it been examined. Also, less studied is how the politics of sympathy and compassion shapes and transforms the identity and subjectivity of the affected population, who oftentimes are imagined as “vulnerable” and “grateful” gift recipients. Such subjectivity transformation not only highlights the tensions between the gift givers and receivers, but also reveals the complex and long-term impacts of the aid and charity work. This panel probes the politicization of sympathy in relation to disasters. Various examples, sites, and agents are highlighted. The panel is of interest to anyone working on disasters in relation to politics, care, emotions, solidarity, relief, the NGO industry, and related themes.


Susanna M. Hoffman [corresponding chair]

Susanna Hoffman (Ph.D. U.C. Berkeley) is a disaster anthropologist, author, co-author and editor of ten books, two ethnographic films, and over forty articles and columns. Among her books are CATASTROPHE AND CULTURE (SAR, 2002) and THE ANGRY EARTH 1 & 2 (Routledge, 1999 and 2017), both co-edited with Anthony Oliver-Smith and the forthcoming Disaster Upon Disaster: The Gap between Knowledge, Police and Practice (Berghahn Press). Recently she launched both the Commission on Risk and Disaster for the IUAES (International Union of Anthropologic and ethnographic Sciences) and the Disaster Interest Group for the SfAA (Society for Applied Anthropology.)


Kristoffer Albris

Kristoffer Albris has a PhD in social anthropology, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law. He has done field research in the South Pacific and in Central Europe, on topics such as scientific communities in disaster management, memory of disasters, emergent groups in response work, social media in emergencies, and flood protection conflicts.


Qiaoyun Zang Qiaoyun Zhang

Qiaoyun Zang Qiaoyun Zhang is a PhD in cultural anthropology and currently a fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden University, the Netherlands. Dr. Zhang’s research focuses on culturally-sensitive post-disaster reconstruction in China and the US. She has explored issues including state-ethnicity relationship, cultural heritage preservation, tourism development and community building after disasters.