Select Page

(2017-8) To what extent is it useful to explore ‘doing good’ through the lens of performativity?

By Maddy Arlidge, Inès Decoster, Catherine Long, Julie Olsen, Mercedes Thompson, Maia Tunley.

Through an anthropological lens, we want to explore what it means for aid workers to be in a profession that aims to ‘do good’. Using the theory of ‘performativity’, we aim to shed light on the ways that notions of performance help explain certain forms of behaviour and priorities in humanitarian work. We take performance as ‘a degree of pretending something vis-à-vis an audience’ (Eggen, 2012: 16). As aid projects are becoming more institutionalized, rationalized and bureaucratized, specific subjects with assigned roles emerge from humanitarian encounters and, inevitably, become part of problematic relationships of hierarchies and inequalities. Rather than undermining humanitarian intentions, we believe that drawing attention to the problems with humanitarian performance can serve to recognize the unintended consequences of humanitarianism and to discuss whether and how humanitarianism can preserve its ethics.

The theory of ‘performativity’ was explored by Judith Butler (1997) in order to look at the bodily construction of gender. According to Butler, gender is socially constructed through the body: subjects perform their assigned gender according to cultural and social expectations through repetitive acts. Gender therefore appears as ‘natural’ or autonomous, while it is in fact constructed and contained within these social structures. By applying the theory of ‘performativity’, the positions of both humanitarian aid workers and recipients can be understood as roles that are characterised by their performances. Similarly to the performances of ‘gender’, there are pre-existing social ideas of how a humanitarian professional or recipient should behave.

Ticktin’s (2011) work is a good example to think of humanitarianism through performativity. She focuses on the ‘illness clause’ – an exceptional humanitarian measure embedded in the 1998 French immigration law which gives legal residency to undocumented immigrants already in France who suffer from life-threatening pathologies, if they are declared unable to receive proper treatment in their home countries (2011: 9). This politics of care requires the performance of different subjects. On the one hand, the nurses, doctors and social workers become the ‘gatekeepers of the nation’ (2011: 195): they are constantly forced to make arbitrary judgements in order to maintain the legitimacy of the system. On the other hand, undocumented immigrants are encouraged to adopt the role of the passive victim who embodies the ‘morally legitimate suffering body’ (2011: 4). Ultimately, with this shift from a politics of immigration to a politics of humanitarianism, both humanitarian workers and aid recipients are aware that they must perform and play along with their assigned roles in order to fit institutional, cultural and social expectations. Their performances end up reproducing problematic hierarchies and inequalities.

Similarly, Peters (2016) explores how some staff members of GGAP (Good Governance in Angola Program) strategically emphasize or downplay part of their lives and experiences in order to fulfill pre-determined expectations and be considered as legitimate local workers. For Peters, these employees use such performativity in order to maintain the industry’s misconceptions of what a ‘local worker’ might be able to do (2016: 495). For instance, they avoid socializing with the international workers; they hide their past experiences of being brought in a foreign country; they hide their linguistic capacities; or they emphasize their knowledge of local language and customs, however tenuous it may be. Therefore, these workers reinforce, rather than resist, hierarchical inequalities which limits their capacity of action in the NGO because, ultimately, reproducing such inequalities is advantageous for their own professional projects (2016: 495). For development projects, the fact that such workers are deemed competent in the presumed local area could be damaging for the community as they ignore the local language or customs. More importantly, performativity in this way widens the hierarchical gap between local and international workers within the development industry.

To explore the lives of aid workers in this way inevitably leads to ‘Aidland’, an emergent literature which takes humanitarian workers as ‘an object of enquiry in their own right’ (Harrison, 2013: 263). For Harrison, this new field of study is too inward looking and narcissistic (2013: 264), thereby taking away from the real focus on the recipients of their work: the focus should lay on both parts, donor and recipient, and the relationship between the two. More importantly, Harrison argues that ‘Aidland’ has generated a ‘broad (and for many hegemonic) consensus, both about the meaning of development and about the ways in which it is to be achieved’ (2013: 269). Therefore, studies of ‘Aidland’ becomes a source of knowledge and perspectives which highlights pre-existing frameworks within an organization on how an aid worker should behave. It ultimately shapes the performativity of the aid worker, especially if that individual has not been in this ‘role’ before, and recreates reified expectations.

In conclusion, applying the theory of performativity to the study of humanitarian workers and aid recipients reveals the existence of problematic pre-existing frameworks, upon which aid workers or recipients base their personas in humanitarian encounters. Are these performances an ‘ethically appropriate and politically adequate response to distant suffering’ (Chouliaraki, 2012: 17)? Is there an efficient alternative? Notwithstanding, the recognition of such ‘performative’ frameworks can benefit aid workers in different ways. It can be helpful to recognize the characteristics of an aid recipient so an aid worker can work more efficiently; it can assist aid workers in their role of a humanitarian professional despite their lack of previous experience or knowledge; or it can serve to highlight and therefore resolve any inequalities that might divide aid workers.


Butler, J. (1997). <em>Excitable Speech: A Politics of The Performative</em>. New York: Routledge.

Chouliaraki, L. (2012). ‘The Theatricality of Humanitarianism: A Critique of Celebrity Advocacy’, <em>Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies</em>, 9(1): 1-17.

Eggen, O. (2012) Performing Good Governance: The Aesthetics of Bureaucratic Practice in Malawi’, <em>Ethnos</em>, 77(1): 1-23.

Harrison, E. (2013) ‘Beyond the Looking Glass? “Aidland” Reconsidered’, <em>Critique of Anthropology</em>, 33(3): 263–279.

Peters, R. W. (2016). ‘Local in Practice: Professional Distinctions in Angolan Development Work’, <em>American Anthropologist</em>, 118(3): 495–507.

Ticktin, M. (2011). <em>Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France</em>. Berkeley: University of California Press.