Refugees and citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th century

Anthropological approaches to refugeeness and humanitarianism (internal workshop)

During a two-day internal workshop in January 2020, the Unlikely Refuge? research team discussed the use of anthropological methods in the historical research of refugeeness and humanitarianism. Our debate developed around similarities and differences between the historical and anthropological theoretical approaches and research methods. Furthermore, we considered the applicability of interdisciplinary insights and their practical implications for the team’s work.

We structured our discussions within three consecutive sessions. As part of the theoretical introduction, we focused on the notions of state, agency and migration in current anthropological debates. Moreover, we investigated the problem of contemporary methodological developments in the fields of national and transnational migration studies and addressed ethnography as a method in migration research.

Within our session on anthropology of humanitarianism, we discussed certain key theoretical insights on refugeeness and humanitarianism in anthropological literature, assuming that they can serve as a basis for framing and formulating interdisciplinary research questions. We have been particularly interested in the anthropological perspectives of the role of states as non-homogeneous entities that are entering both into formal and informal relations with migrants and refugees. We discussed the contrasts between state bureaucratic procedures and the everyday local realities of humanitarianism. Furthermore, we looked into the issue of refugee reception by societies with different experiences of migration. We also delved into various approaches towards migration and refugee experiences, including the role of emotions and the perceptions of temporality and timing of migration and refugeedom.

In our final session, we inquired into the topic of migration as a gendered experience with Petra Ezzeddine, a sociocultural anthropologist from Charles University (Prague) as our guest speaker. Together we explored the relation between gender and migration in the case of Yugoslav refugee women. Among others, Petra drew our attention to an interesting Czech-language blog project dedicated to the life stories and everyday issues of contemporary female migrants (SIMI bez vrásek).


A. Theoretical framework

Anderson, Bridget. “New Directions in Migration Studies: Towards Methodological de-Nationalism.” Comparative Migration Studies 7, no. 1 (September 3, 2019): 36.
Mountz, Alison. “Introduction: Struggles to Land in States of Migration.” In Seeking Asylum: Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border, xiii–xxxiii. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

B. Anthropology of humanitarianism

Brković, Čarna. “Scaling Humanitarianism: Humanitarian Actions in a Bosnian Town.” Ethnos 81, no. 1 (2014): 99–124.
Dunn, Elizabeth C. “The Camp and the Camp.” In No Path Home: Humanitarian Camps and the Grief of Displacement, 9–25. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018.

C. Gender and migration

Ezzeddine, Petra, and Hana Havelková. “Women in Between: Gender, Refugee Experience and Ageing.” Urban People/Lidé Města 18, no. 2 (2016): 179–201.
Helms, Elissa. “‘Politics Is a Whore’: Women, Morality and Victimhood in Post-War Bosnia-Herzegovina.” In The New Bosnian Mosaic: Identities, Memories and Moral Claims in a Post-War Society, edited by Xavier Bougarel, Elissa Helms, and Ger Duijzings, 235–55. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007.