Anthropology & Sociology
24 September 2021

Podcasting as a means of teaching and researching contemporary humanitarianisms

When the Covid-19 pandemic started one year and a half ago, forcing us to remain at home and teach remotely, I found myself wondering how I could maintain some degree of social proximity with my students in spite of the physical distance between us. How could I re-create an intimate online space conducive to vigorous intellectual exchanges and debates of ideas when face-to-face interactions were no longer possible? What kind of knowledge could we possibly generate from behind our computer screens? How could I capture their attention, awaken their curiosity, encourage them to articulate their views when the technology drastically limited the fluidity of our communication? And most importantly, how could we move beyond our collective feeling of isolation and anxiety and turn this extraordinary experience into an opportunity for imagining a more hopeful post-pandemic future?

Surprisingly, our new condition, marked by daily updates in news reports on infection rates and case-fatality ratios and announcements of new governmental measures, mirrored to some degree the humanitarian contexts we explored in my course on ‘comparative humanitarianisms’. Confronted for the first time with life lived in limbo made us particularly sensitive to those who face deeper forms of existential stuckedness such as asylum-seekers waiting for their case to be dealt with. Our class therefore became an ‘experiment in emergency teaching’ during which we collectively reflected on our confinement experience, drawing inspiration from the scholarly literature on humanitarian action. Together, we sought to examine the ‘state of exception’ under which we were kept, observing how new humanitarian techno-legal designs developed to maintain ‘biological life’, such as masks, hydro-alcoholic gel, gloves as well as QR codes, PCR tests certificates and circulation permits – which constitute the banal material reality of emergency situations -- had become ubiquitous parts of our everyday. We examined how hitherto devalued professionals (nurses, cashiers, delivery persons, cleaners) had suddenly been turned into national heroes whose lives were ‘sacrificed’ to protect the life of the ‘general population’. We pondered upon the hierarchies of life that were reinforced as lockdowns were uniformly imposed on everyone, including those who had no ‘home’ where to take shelter.

During the first confinement, students kept a learning journal in which they recorded their experience and tried to make sense of it through the texts I asked them to read. To break free from isolation, I asked them to join small reading groups that met once a week prior to the class to discuss some questions I had given them in advance. 

But as the second and the third waves erupted and a supposedly momentary situation of physical distancing became a more permanent condition, I searched for new ways of teaching and engaging with students. As a co-founder and editor of the online publication platform Allegra Lab which specializes in multi-modal anthropology, I am deeply convinced by the multiple research and teaching potentials afforded by new communication mediums, especially when production techniques are taught simultaneously to research methods. Ian M. Cook, an anthropologist based at the Central European University in Budapest and one of Allegra’s multimodal editors, has a long experience of using podcasts for teaching and research. He agreed to accompany my students in their podcast production process, teaching them the art of writing ‘for the ear’, recording and editing podcasts and conducting an interview. He made himself available during the entire term to give students feedbacks and advice on their creations. Students revised their plans accordingly, identified new interviewees, reworked their analytical frame, searched for soundtracks to create sonic atmospheres. The quality of the podcasts you will hear in this series reflects the quality of his mentoring and the enthusiasm this project triggered among students.

Podcasting was relevant to the course because it enabled students to collect information on the ‘humanitarian response’ (from state and non-state actors) to the coronavirus pandemic and to develop their analytical skills through preparing interview questions, a framing introduction and a synthesis. It also enabled students to develop their research and networking skills, to reach out to experts, activists and professionals whose experiences and perspectives they sought to better understand and to work and think with material they had collected themselves. This initiative was intended to encourage them to work on their oral skills, engage with their peers and undertake collaborative work.  But most importantly, podcasting offered them a unique opportunity to engage in the practical application of their research and communicate it to a non-specialist audience. 

A variety of themes and experiences are captured in this series: from mutual aid responses in Mexico, the relationship between revolutionary protests and the imposition of sanitary measures by the government in Lebanon, emergency health care in Japan, the situation of asylum seekers living in camps in Greece, to a comparison of the challenges faced by humanitarian actors in New York and Mogadishu. By documenting the perspectives of various actors directly involved in or concerned by the response, the podcasts reflect on the growing significance of humanitarianism as a means of governing populations and explore the overlaps between neoliberalism, the politics of security and relief. Together, they offer timely insights into the ways in which the pandemic has reshaped our lives as well as refreshing food for thought for re-imagining global solidarity in precarious times. 

Covid-19 in Lebanon: Voices of the government and the people


The podcast ‘Covid-19: Voices of the Government and the People’ explores opposing perspectives about the pandemic response in Lebanon. When the pandemic hit Lebanon, the country already faced an economic and political crisis. People lost income and employment due to rapidly rising exchange rates. A mass of migrant workers was forced to leave as a result. Furthermore, on October 17th 2019, nationwide protests erupted in Lebanon after the government had ratified a monthly tax on WhatsApp calls. This marked the start of a revolution during which people from all religions, regions and social classes protested for radical political and economic reforms. The government used the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to impose a general lockdown, put an end to the protests and impose its authoritarian rule while disregarding people’s requests for change. This podcast brings together the perspectives of a Member of Parliament (Fadi Fakhry Alameh) and civil society activists (Sara Abdallah and Imad Bazzi) and discusses state policies, the revolution and the future of Lebanon.


Covid 19 in Japan: Life in an emergency ward


This podcast captures the experience of Miyuki Uchiyama, a Japanese medical doctor who had worked in a cancer treatment unit in a Tokyo hospital prior to joining the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.  Miyuki is currently studying at the Graduate Institute Geneva.

The podcast discusses the ways in which the framing of the COVID 19 pandemic as an ‘emergency’  overshadows pre-existing problems within the Japanese healthcare system. By listening to Miyuki’s experience of working within an overstretched public hospital, we discovered that the lives of healthcare workers had been to some degree ‘sacrificed’ so as to ‘save’ the general population well before the pandemic started. Miyuki’s fierce story brings to light the condition of structural vulnerability within which healthcare workers are kept. The podcast documents how a sense of responsibility to fulfil their medical duty is often hindering healthcare workers from seeking help. Lastly, we underscore how doctors and nurses can be compared to ‘humanitarian workers’ struggling to save lives while exposing themselves to danger.  Miyuki’s account provides an evocative illustration of a humanitarian form of government geared toward ‘emergency management’ that increasingly dominates the ways in which contemporary societies are governed.

Hierarchies of Humanity: COVID-19 Response in Greek Refugee Camps


The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a glaring light on the fault lines that mar our society. While some still maintain that the “virus does not discriminate”, a cursory look at the policies and responses the pandemic has prompted, proves otherwise. This podcast explores the COVID-19 response policies in Greece, and the disparities they engender between its citizens and the thousands living within the confined and overcrowded refugee camps. Bringing a diverse array of voices together, it attempts to highlight the deep rooted societal inequalities and the hierarchies assigned to the value of lives - manifesting in the politics of lockdowns, mobility, vaccines and general living conditions. While we talk about the particular case of Greece and its camps, the responses and policies also reflect the larger reality of Europe. 

Through conversations with the interviewees, the podcast also unpacks themes such as “biopower”, i.e., the ability of governments to make some people live, while letting others die; the inherent hierarchies in the value of lives, the nature of camps as those embodying spaces of alienation as opposed to those of care, the “existential colonisation” of those living within camps, and the like. The podcast on the whole, in taking the case of Greece and exploring its response policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only sheds light on the disparities that permeate the various realms of society today, but calls into question the current state of politics which sustain and reinforce such divides, and probes for a more compassionate world order.


Reflective Piece


The Covid-19 pandemic has long ceased to be an emergency demanding immediate response, and has become a difficult fact of everyday life. The same can be said of the decades-long migrant “crisis” on the border between the United States and Mexico. The conditions of these protracted crises are often examined through statistics and quantitative data, however for those living the reality on the ground, survival means a re-imagination of daily life and a constant struggle for life, belonging, and hope for a better future. Unlike government welfare programs or large non-profits, grassroots organizations and mutual aid groups bring relief to both migrants and patients, treating them as equals, not as subjects or anonymous bodies. The implications of this radical and deeply personal form of aid have deep reaching consequences.

Dr. Pablo Landa, an anthropologist and expert in migration, social housing and community organizing in Northern Mexico, joins us to discuss these issues, and to situate them in the context of movements for justice and increased social protections that have emerged at the local and national levels. Mutual aid groups have a long history in Mexico. They have provided aid and mobilized for political change in the past, notably after major earthquakes in 1985 and 2017.  This podcast delves into the realities of life at the border under overlapping and dire threats, the tradeoffs that small organizations and community groups have to make in order to meet their various goals, and the possibilities and limitations that these groups have to offer in making change. 


Reflective Piece


Managing the Covid-19 Mayhem Across Manhattan and Mogadishu


Our podcast exposes some of the challenges faced by humanitarian actors as they navigate the Covid-19 pandemic, comparing the two contrasted contexts of New York City and Somalia. To do so, we had the pleasure of hosting  Robert Cordero and Richard Crothers, who both have worked in humanitarian contexts that have drastically changed as a result of the pandemic.  

Throughout this podcast we explore how – from Mogadishu to Manhattan – Covid-19 has  destabilized organizations and required a lot of adaptation. In both settings, it appears clearly that  Covid-19 disproportionately impacts those at the margins of society, those facing a “synergy of plagues” as Robert aptly argues. In Somalia, Covid-19 seems to be just  another disease adding to an already risky environment – or as Richard puts it, a “mosaic of disasters”.  Looking ahead, our two speakers emphasize the need to further invest in public services, such as healthcare, to address structural inequalities.  

What we’ve learned from their words is that the prioritization of human lives in times of crisis  remains a highly contentious issue, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet even if a lot of light is shed on how humanitarian actors put bandages on volcanoes, little attention is given to how donors decide what they are funding and for what aims.  

Like our speakers, we hope that Covid-19 also brings positive effects in opening a debate about systemic inequalities, while revealing our human strength and resilience in the face of great adversity.