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How can anthropological perspectives help us understand the Grenfell Tower fire as a humanitarian issue?

By Gwen Rose Baynham, Francesca Fiennes, Eleanor Hurley, Nooa Karlo, Tessa Keijzer, and Ellen Kingston

This blog aims to demonstrate that anthropological perspectives warrant inclusion in discussions on UK-based poverty. Particularly in the case of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there are many points of discussion that can be raised from this perspective. This blog will argue three points. Firstly, that shared scholarship between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds and a cross-disciplinary approach is imperative when discussing humanitarian issues. Secondly, ‘regimes of governance’ need to be examined through an anthropological lens, applying this notion to humanitarian issues within the UK. Lastly, we will explore the concept of disaster capitalism and the idea of ‘raced neoliberalism’ (Perry, 2015, pp. 109) through the case study of New Orleans in tandem with Grenfell. Ultimately, we argue that anthropological knowledge is fundamental to theorising UK-based poverty, and subsequently a reverberation of these perspectives needs to occur globally.

Firstly, we draw upon Lewis’ argument that it is ‘time to abandon the “Parallel Worlds” of international non-governmental organisation (NGO) and domestic third sector scholarship’ (Lewis, 2014, pp. 1132). Discussions within the realms of humanitarian scholarship tend to be bounded and have a simplistic approach that upholds binary categories of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’. This is an issue anthropologists consistently engage with, as it is the way that the global order is constructed, but they also critique this simplistic understanding of world systems, especially given its colonial origins. Lewis concludes that developing a unified approach to humanitarian crises is the way to move the scholarship forward.

Moreover, poverty does not only exist in the developing world. Grenfell was not accurately considered by public discourse in the context of the ghettoisation (Wacquant, 2009) that exists within ‘developed’ countries such as the UK, creating ‘pockets’ of poverty even in richer boroughs such as Kensington. The response to the Grenfell tragedy is a result of these binary categories of thought, rather than an awareness informed by shared scholarship.

We will use ‘regimes of governance’ to look at Grenfell and the issues related to it from an anthropological perspective. Governmentality is the concept that specific forms of power produce subjects in a certain way, differing locally, nationally and transnationally. Thus ‘government entails any attempt to shape with some degree of deliberation aspects of our behaviour according to particular sets of norms and for a variety of ends’ (Dean 2010 [1999], pp. 18). Therefore, the acts of government can be seen as governance. This theory shows that the state is intertwined with society, the operations of which are conducted through different modes of ‘conduct’; its power is operationalised differently depending on the context.

The norms that produce certain forms of governance, such as in the case of Grenfell’s inadequate fire safety regulation, highlight the urgency to ethnographically analyse specific operations of power. In the case of Grenfell this idea perhaps explains the lack of cohesion in terms of emergency response. It would allow us to see the state as unprepared based on regimes of governance that did not perceive humanitarian disaster as a likelihood. The UK state governs through austerity policies that affect those living in poverty, instead of policy that alleviates it. Current forms of international aid governance rely largely on actors such as the UN to enter into the post-tragedy arena and coordinate responses (Bowden et al, 2017), but for that to happen, states need to recognise that they are in a post-tragedy arena. Next we will examine what hindered the framing of Grenfell as a humanitarian issue.

In the case of the UK, political decisions essentially contributed to the tragedy and the failed response. Capitalist motivations and the local council’s unaccountability positioned the fire as a ‘tragedy’ but not the fault of the council, depoliticising the event. Thus, the media debate presented a dichotomy of the council’s ‘apolitical’ response vs. the anger of local residents who lived through the aftermath and understood themselves as ‘second-class citizens’. This poses the questions: who was responsible to respond? Are apolitical responses helpful long term? It is clear that the Grenfell Tower fire was a result of a neoliberal agenda and the social inequality in the borough. An analysis of the phenomena known as disaster capitalism (Klein, 2005) may help us understand this response to the tragedy.

Disaster capitalism entails profiteering from disaster responses and the privatisation of local infrastructure, occurring at the intersection of neoliberal agendas and ‘man-made catastrophes’ (Adams, 2013, pp. 22). For example, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, citizens in New Orleans were not only literally erased by the disaster but some were socially erased as they were undesirable citizens to capitalise upon. Money was made from the suffering citizens and profitable projects, instead of aiding those in need.

The borough of Kensington is divided similarly to New Orleans by race and class contours. However, conversely to the response to Katrina, it can be argued that what occurred in the context of Grenfell was ‘disaster austerity’; money was not made from the disaster but was saved through cladding the building in cheaper material. Even before the disaster, the bodies who became victims were labelled as undesirable, and the lack of response (Preston, 2019) suggests the ongoing erasure of ethnic minorities, such as those who lived in Grenfell Tower. This erasure only became visible as it escalated into a tragedy that could not be ignored.

In conclusion, aid response needs to comprehend and maintain a sensitivity to the neoliberal climate we live in, allowing us to rework the categories of thought of developed and developing worlds, especially within the borders of a London borough that clearly demonstrates characteristics of these binaries. An anthropological perspective helps illuminate a unified approach to humanitarian crises and highlights the need for humanitarian responses to be extended to all citizens affected by disasters; whoever and wherever they may be. Coordination systems, shared scholarship networks and political accountability are necessary to improve humanitarian responses within the UK. Anthropology can help us bring these improvements to the forefront of humanitarian response.


Adams, V. (2013). Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bowden, M., Burke, K. & Kent, R. (2017). Grenfell Tower and the Case for Humanitarian Coordination. RUSI Newsbrief: Crisis Response, 37(3), pp. 1-3.

Dean, M. (2010[1999]). ‘Basic Concepts and Themes’ [Excerpt], in Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society. 2nd edition. London: SAGE Publications, pp. 16–21.

Klein, N. (2005). The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. [online] The Nation. Available at: [Accessed 4 Dec. 2018].

Lewis, D. (2014). Heading South: Time to Abandon the “Parallel Worlds” of International Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) and Domestic Third Sector Scholarship?. VOLUNTAS, 25(5), pp. 1132–1150.

Perry, M. D. (2015). Who Dat?: Race and Its Conspicuous Consumption in Post-Katrina New Orleans. City and Society, 27(1), pp. 92-114.

Preston, J. (2019). Grenfell Tower preparedness, race and disaster capitalism. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wacquant, L. J. D. (2009) Punishing the poor the neoliberal government of social insecurity. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press.