Paper: Determinants of conceptual evolution in humanitarian discourse

Paper details

Paper authors Alex Odlum
In panel on Beyond the Local: Cultural translatability in humanitarian interventions
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person / Online


Given that key humanitarian concepts are used and defined differently across time, organisations and geography, this paper examines the determinants of this conceptual variation and explores its consequences. We analyse the relationship between power distribution in humanitarian policy events and response interventions, and the corresponding evolution of humanitarian discourse. Drawing on data from the Humanitarian Encyclopedia platform, we operationalise power distribution according to the types (e.g. local or international) of organisations attending policy events or responding to crises. We indicate discourse shifts with the emergence, perpetuation, or disappearance of key concepts in humanitarian documents before and after the events. We believe this research could have implications for humanitarian policies, particularly the localisation agenda, by identifying factors that affect the prominence of local actors’ voices in the overall discourse. The analysis builds on ongoing research for the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project, which has used participatory mixed methods to identify 129 key concepts of humanitarian action, and analysed the semantic and lexical behaviour of each concept in a corpus of over 71 million words and 4,824 humanitarian documents. Findings so far suggest many key concepts are divergently defined, used and understood across the time (2005-2019), world regions and organisation types.