Researching Humanitarian Affairs: Normative Issues, Research Gaps, and Methodological Challenges

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The study of humanitarian affairs – defined as international politics and policies that deal with the limitation of human suffering in situations of crisis and war – should be the core issue for many scholars of International Relations. In this blog post, I deal with three central themes relevant for studying humanitarian affairs: 1) issues and challenges, 2) research gaps, and 3) methodological challenges. In doing so, I am hoping to facilitate a larger debate about how we, as scholars of IR, can and should study humanitarian affairs. I will then conclude with some normative considerations on the relationship between International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law in the context of humanitarian affairs.

Normative Issues

One of the main issues when studying humanitarian affairs is normativity. Taking human suffering seriously – which lies at the heart of humanitarian affairs – demands researchers to take a normative stand. In addition to that, we also need to be open and transparent about our normative position. This relates to what Stefano Guzzini has described as ‘double hermeneutics’ in the context of constructivism. That is, researchers must not only be reflexive about their research, they must also be reflexive about their position within this research, and on the topic they are researching.

The biggest challenge I see that comes from this effort is that such reflection takes time and space, both of which are limited. We do not always have time in the context of PhD dissertations, writing conference papers or working within a project with a limited timeframe. However, I think we ought to take time out for these things. Limited space, in the form of word limits, also constrains our ability to write about reflexivity in a transparent manner. I do not suggest expanding the word limit; I rather suggest finding ways to at least signal reflexivity through an opening or closing paragraph, or even a few footnotes, and then perhaps point to other places where we can undertake more detailed reflection. I believe blogs are ideal platforms for this.

Research Gaps

I believe that employing feminist approaches to IR, which have for decades argued for re-focusing IR onto the individual and on issues of gender, and moving away from structural aspects are especially helpful here, and so are constructivist approaches that focus on agency. Sylvester’s work on war as an individual experience is one of the feminist works that come to mind. Within constructivist approaches, Kathryn Sikkink’s work on agentic constructivism is also relevant. Moreover, the work of critical constructivists, such as Antje Wiener on norm contestation, can also help us to have a better understanding of what is going on with regards to stakeholders and those affected by global norms. Within my own work, I have put forward the argument that we lack a clear understanding of how the individual human being, the very ‘target’ of humanitarian affairs, is socially constructed, and I have argued for looking at the social construction of individual human beings through their positions in relevant discourses.  In a nutshell, I do not want to deny the usefulness of studies that use large-N analysis and statistical data to gain a deeper understanding of the structural aspects of humanitarian affairs. However, from my perspective, approaches that centre on humans, agency, and norms are especially helpful when it comes to studying humanitarian affairs.

Methodological Challenges

With regards to the methodological challenges, humanitarian affairs is a field as any other in political sciences in so far that the research question should dictate the methodology and method, and not vice versa. It means that we need to train students both in quantitative and qualitative methodologies and methods. It also means that we as a scholarly community need to understand that different methodological approaches provide different insights, but the output is always empirical work. Naturally, we always need to ensure a high degree of quality in that empirical work, which requires clear indicators for qualitative and quantitative research. However, certain approaches are better equipped when it comes to including individual experiences. As Sylvester aptly remarks:

Individuals aggregated into data points cannot share their voice, their power, their agendas, and their experiences with international relations. And that is my point: in IR, individuals are studied using someone else’s script, not their own, which might be a reason why IR is on the back foot when it comes to anticipating people as stakeholders, actors, and participants in international relations. (Sylvester 2013: 614)

International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law

We often find that situations in which humans suffer are either war or warlike constellations. Often the body of international law governing these situations is International Humanitarian Law. This has many advantages because it allows making such a horrible thing as war slightly more humane. It also allows focusing on limiting human suffering to a minimum, ideally preventing unnecessary human suffering, and protecting civilians.

At the same time, International Humanitarian Law can be used to justify actions that cause human suffering, which would not be allowed under International Human Rights Law. Drone strikes are a prominent example. In my opinion, this ongoing debate between International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law should not be left to the lawyers. As Kratochwil remarked, we should not leave “[
] law to jurists, bureaucrats, or administrators” (Kratochwil 2014: 29). In the same manner, humanitarian affairs should not be left to the policy makers, the military, and the NGOs. They all play their role, and they all provide their insight. But without the perspective of a critical political scientist on these issues, we will lose track of the bigger, more complex, more political, and more normative questions of humanitarian affairs.


Kratochwil, Friedrich V. (2014) The Status of Law in World Society: Meditations on the Role and Rule of Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sylvester, Christine. (2013) Experiencing the end and afterlives of International Relations/theory. European Journal of International Relations 19 (3): 609–626.

Note: This blog post is based on a Roundtable contribution at this year’s Pan-European Conference on International Relations in Prague ( I want to thank Elvira Rosert (ISFH Hamburg) and Charlotte Dany (Goethe University Frankfurt) for convening the roundtable and for providing me with the overarching themes of issues and challenges, research gaps, and methodological challenges I also use in this blog post. Thanks also to the other Roundtable participants and the audience in Prague for a fruitful discussion.

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