Humanitarian studies and humanitarian practice: too close for comfort?

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I’m often at the intersection of academia and practice. As part of my doctoral work I was embedded within Concern as their disaster risk reduction documentation officer, producing reports for the organisation while at the same time collecting data for my dissertation. My experience is not unique: in the humanitarian sector academics often rely on practitioners to access data and field insights, and practitioners rely on academics for rigorous high-quality research and analysis.

Although collaboration between academics and researchers is common, straddling the academia – practice divide can be challenging. Mixing the more applied concerns of practitioners with the theoretical concerns of academics can bring greater depth to a piece of research, but it often feels like there is little room in the academic world for applied studies and little in the practitioner world for theoretical ones. Publishing results is also difficult.  Practitioners tend to want reports wherein journal articles are the norm in academia.  These divergent publishing needs have the effect of doubling the writing requirements of a project. Simply put, academics and practitioners have different interests and different needs.

Cross-pollination can also have other costs. When academics pursue practicality they can neglect neglect larger basic research questions. Humanitarian studies tends to be practice driven, focused on building a better humanitarian system. Some argue that as a result humanitarian studies is weak in theory, particularly in the application of (potentially valuable) critical and constructivist research paradigms. Humanitarian practice seems to be increasingly facing similar challenges, in that data driven and results based humanitarian action, an extension of managerial approaches to aid, can inhibit projects that might be more difficult to measure and have fuzzier results.

So is collaboration worthwhile, given all of the challenges? I think it is. Academics and practitioners have much to learn from each other, and can work with each other to create new forms of knowledge and practice. Nonetheless, academics are not practitioners and practitioners are not academics. Nor should they be. When humanitarian studies and humanitarian practice subsume each other, both become weaker. To use a common quip of new humanitarianism, coordination and collaboration are critical for humanitarian effectiveness, but coherence can be disastrous.


An example of collaboration: a joint public talk on disaster risk reduction by UCD’s Centre for Humanitarian Action and Concern Worldwide.

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