MIT Anthropology Spotlight

Erica James

Political Economies of Trauma and Compassion

Professor Erica James explores the economies of compassion in charity, corporate philanthropy, humanitarian and development aid across territorial and socio-political borders


Erica James's research examines how individuals, organizations, and states contain and redress psychosocial trauma by means of economies of compassion. Compassion economies include charity, corporate philanthropy, humanitarian and development aid circulating within and across territorial and other socio-political borders. She has analyzed these topics in three ethnographic projects: the first, a study of institutions providing rehabilitation assistance to torture survivors in Haiti; the second, a study of a long-standing religious charity in the United States that supports Haitian refugee and immigrant populations; and third, an ongoing study of U.S. governmental surveillance of Islamic charitable practices as a component of anti-terrorism strategies.

Her first book, Democratic Insecurities: Violence, Trauma, and Intervention in Haiti (University of California Press 2010), offers a critical inquiry into international practices of postconflict transitions through an analysis of Haiti's difficult path toward democratic consolidation and economic stability. She considers these interventions from the perspective of Haitian human rights victims who were targeted for violence between the September 30, 1991 coup d'etat of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the October 15, 1994 restoration of democracy by a U.S.-led multinational force. Immediately following the 1991 coup, but especially after the 1994 restoration of democracy by a multinational military intervention, diverse organizations and individuals began offering relief to suffering Haitians. Humanitarian aid included reconstructive surgeries as well as routine medical care, legal advocacy and counseling, financial stipends, housing relocation assistance, and burial assistance.

In the process of aiding Haitian officially deemed to be eligible victims, humanitarian and development aid workers managed and translated suffering through bureaucratic procedures like diagnostic tests, affidavits, and similar modes of documentation and verification. Such practices were deployed to validate whether suffering was authentic. At the same time these evidentiary and documentary procedures demonstrated the competence of the aid workers and the organizations in which they worked, thereby providing accountability to the organizations' donors. The bureaucratic processing, validating, and recording of victim status, as well as the efforts to recognize and ameliorate victims' suffering, created an industry in which identities of injury became circulating commodities in the humanitarian market. Traumatic suffering became a kind of currency for the distribution of individual and institutional benefits in an environment of multi-dimensional insecurity. These transactions created what James labels a political economy of trauma.

Her second major empirical book project, The Church, the Charity, and the Center: Corporate Catholicism in the Archdiocese of Boston, analyzes the psychosocial experiences of impoverished Haitian refugees and immigrants in the greater Boston area and the challenges they faced to meet their needs through Catholic institutions. She explores these subjects through a history and ethnography of the Haitian Multi-Service Center (the Center), a three decades old Haitian-run center funded by the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston (the Charity), the charitable arm of the embattled Archdiocese of Boston (the Church). Both the Charity and the Center have been grappling with the unanticipated organizational, financial, and community effects of the clergy sex abuse scandal. The Center has been a provocative site through which to explore the intersection of law, policy, and biological condition when public funds provide service through religious institutions. The overall investigation contributes to an expanding focus in the social sciences, public health, law, and medicine on racial and ethnic disparities in physical and mental health, and on immigration and welfare policies.

A third ethnographic research project builds on these two studies of the entwined legacies of violence, humanitarianism, biopolitics, law and bureaucracy to analyze ideas of charity, reciprocity, and moral economy in an Islamic context. She has begun a project that looks at the consequences of the criminalization of Muslim charity post-September 11, 2001. She has conducted a year of ethnographic research tracing the work of Islamic advocacy organizations to instruct Muslims and persons of Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian backgrounds in best practices regarding Islamic finance and philanthropy. In response to an intensification of racial and ethnic profiling of these persons in the war on terror, Islamic civil society organizations are teaching their constituents how best to protect and preserve their American civil rights while fulfilling religious obligations to give charity and not compromising either their own or American security. The ultimate question this project asks is what will be the long-term repercussions on all corporate persons of this new process of governing gifts and policing philanthropy?

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