Humanitarianism identifies groups of displaced persons (e.g., refugees and internally displaced persons) as dependent on outside assistance. Rather than being perceived as individuals, people in need are viewed collectively, identified by their ‘problems’ and oftentimes stripped of their individual rights and self-dignity. Interactions between humanitarian ‘helpers’ and the recipients of their help constitutes a power relationship, with the recipients held in a position of obligation to the benefactors. The distribution of goods and services to these populations indicates not simply a material transaction, but also a moral transaction. As an individual in one of these groups, how might one perceive oneself and others and what are the implications of these perceptions? How do perceptions of ‘otherness’ color interactions and meanings developed through these interactions?
The theory of symbolic interactionism contributes to our understanding of the different meanings attributed to individuals and groups in various settings. In differentiating between the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’, Mead (1934) develops his idea of a generalized ‘other’. ‘Other’ and how one thinks one’s group perceives oneself is dependant upon human interaction. It is in realizing one’s role in relation to others that selfhood arises. Furthermore, the ‘I’ represents the self as a subject, whereas the ‘me’ identifies the self as object. Mead addresses the concept of self through his idea that the individual is a product of social interaction. One is first perceived as an object to others. Self is developed when one has an awareness that he himself is an object. This development of self is supported by human action, specifically communication. Language allows us to speak about ourselves in the same way we speak about others, thereby perceiving other and self as interacting objects.
In supporting Mead’s ideas, Blumer (1969) outlines three points related to the methodology of symbolic interactionism. First, people perceive an object depending on the meaning that they attribute to that object. Secondly, meaning is developed based on the process of social interaction. And finally, meanings can change over time. Human society is influenced by culture, derived from what people do rather than what people are. One’s status in society is defined by the way that people interact with others. Using the example of humanitarianism, the action of receiving help from humanitarians defines the recipients as dependent upon this assistance. The concept of culture also contributes to definitions of ‘otherness’.
Being an outsider in a culture speaks to Goffman’s (1959) assertion that society is not homogenous, and therefore we must modify behavior for various settings. Goffman uses the analogy of life as a theater, with the necessity for a parking lot and a cloakroom as well. In other words, the individual is responsible for the maintenance of the social world by playing his role, while at the same time considering the broader context behind simple face-to-face symbolic interactionism. “Putting on a show for the benefit of other people” (p.28) is related to a conception of what others perceive of oneself.
Mead, Blumer, and Goffman speak to the importance of self in relation to other. Rights-based humanitarianism addresses the division between the two. By encouraging interaction with individuals in the group, rather than viewing the group as its own entity defined by ‘other’, the individual rights and dignities of displaced populations are maintained. Meanings should shift away from viewing displaced populations as “vulnerable” and more towards a definition of survival in adverse circumstances.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.