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Key Terms


We encourage the use of “celebrity” as an instrumental concept, to understand larger social relationships that constitute humanitarianism. Olivier Driessens has reviewed the literature on the various definitions of celebrity in scholarship (Driessens, Oliver 2013), and it is very helpful. Driessens (2013) presents a “tentative mapping of celebrity definitions” that is organized along the components of the “celebrity apparatus” (celebrity, the media, the public and the celebrity industry).

In our approach to celebrity humanitarianism, we focus primarily on two of these components in one book: the celebrity and the public (Richey 2016) and three in another: the celebrity, the public and the celebrity industry (Brockington 2014). Thus, theoretically, we considered defining celebrity as put forth in Boltanski and Thévenot (1991).  They define “celebrity” as a state of superiority in a world where opinion is the defining instrument for measuring different orders of “greatness.” In their approach, being a celebrity is characterized by having a widespread reputation, being recognized in public, being visible, having success, being distinguished, and having opinion leaders, journalists and the media as your testimonials (ibid. pp. 222–230). The test of celebrity is the judgment of the public – but it is useful to consider who are the publics making these judgements in the context of global celebrity advocacy, international causes and the North–South relations they entail.

Graeme Turner’s definition of celebrity (from cultural studies) hinges on the nature of interest from the public: when a person’s private life attracts more attention than their professional life, then they are a celebrity (Turner 2004, 3). This assumes a distinction between the personal and professional which is hard to maintain in, for example, musicians, politicians, royalty and reality TV stars. Another approach holds that the nature of celebrity is to commercialise both professional and personal aspects , in order to build a brand. Brockington’s book defines celebrity as ‘sustained public appearances which are materially beneficial, and where the benefits are at least partially enjoyed by people other than the celebrity themselves, by stakeholders whose job it is to manage the appearance of that celebrity’. This definition recognizes that celebrity is a product of a variety of social and economic forces and a particular configuration of institutions, companies and commercial interests. Celebrities are the employees of an industry that manages and produces fame. Part of the push towards celebrity humanitarianism is that it provides more opportunities to be seen and build brand.

However, an industrial approach to celebrity does not help us to understand how it works symbolically, semiotically, hermeneutically or, crucially, politically, in the sense of providing power, authority and legitimacy to bring, or prevent change. Olivier Driessens contribution here is useful (Driessens 2013b). Drawing on Bourdieu’s field theory he argues that celebrity constitutes a distinct form of capital that he calls ‘recognisability’ which is based on ‘recurrent media representations or accumulated media visibility’ (Driessens 2013b: 550-1). Driessens argues that celebrity capital works like other fungible capitals and can move across different fields such as economic capital (money), social capital (networks), symbolic capital (recognition) or political capital (political power). This characterizes a long-term process of ‘societal and cultural changes’ termed ‘celebritization’ that should be analyzed on par with globalization, individualization or mediatization (Driessens 2013a). Driessens’ approach fits well with current research into internet fame for which the key criterion is visibility, rather than as with Brockington the organization of that interest. 

Development and Humanitarianism

Sometimes authors distinguish between ‘humanitarianism’, concerned primarily with dealing with the problems arising from emergencies, war and disasters, and ‘development’, dealing with more mundane forms of poverty and the deeper structural causes of misfortune and inequality. Following from this, a fundamental difference between the two is that development is something that you, or your community, can do to yourself or itself. But humanitarianism requires a needy other. The history of humanitarianism begins with the recognition of the humanity of distant strangers.

However when analysing contemporary forms of development and humanitarianism that conceptual division is difficult to apply in practice. Much of the history of development is precisely a history of intervention in the lives of others, who are regarded as needing change. Many NGOs can seek to tackle both development and humanitarianism in their work for needy others. The conceptual differences are also blurred in writing about these terms.

Perhaps most importantly, development and humanitarianism are united by the contests over them. Both are marked by competing visions as to what their goals should be, and what the means should be of achieving them. And for both there are typically disputes over what the role of states, capital, NGOs and local groups should be in determining and reaching these goals. These disputes are perhaps most vigorous when governments kill people in ‘humanitarian interventions’ (in Kosovo and Somalia), or when they enrol development NGOs in the reconstruction of countries they have just invaded in the name of progress (Iraq). But such disagreements have characterised both movements since their inception.

To gain some inkling of the contests and problems with the terminology let us consider Humanitarianism in more detail.




Humanitarianism, with or without celebrities, is being conceptually debated, understood, and reworked through a large and diverse academic literature that, for the most part, we will not cover in this book (for a selected overview, see books by Barnett 2011; Fassin 2012; Waters 2001). International relations scholars use “humanitarianism” with a specific historical reference to the 1864 Geneva Convention’s recognition in international law of humanitarian principles to govern the moral practice of war . The expansion of humanitarian space from the governance of war to more nebulous interventions on behalf of an assumed shared humanity dates back to the 1970s crisis in Biafra (see Vestergaard forthcoming for an in-depth review). As suggested by its title, “The problems with humanitarianism,” Belloni (2007) argues that intervention in the domestic affairs within states on the grounds of a shared humanity, as humanitarianism is currently practiced in North–South relations, serves to support the interests of powerful elites and undermine the moral basis of human rights on which this intervention is predicated. One of the unanswered questions addressed in this book is the following: to what extent are the problems with celebrity humanitarianism actually indicative of, or derived from, ongoing problems of humanitarian intervention in general? Our empirical cases expand beyond the Western international relations scope of humanitarianism – with South Africa, Bangladesh and China in chapters 3, 4 and 5 – and thus suggest that more work is needed on the contemporary trajectory that is taken by the concept “humanitarianism” to move it from post-Westphalian notions of international versus state and into the realm of global governance of North–South relations.

However, as part of our pragmatic analytical framework, we have chosen to retain the term “humanitarianism” to signify the practices of the celebrities described in the following chapters. Kapoor notes that the terms “charity,” “philanthropy” and “humanitarianism” are often used interchangeably, but that “charity” carries an explicitly Christian genealogy, while “philanthropy” is used for secular, and typically corporate interventions (2013, p. 4). Littler used the term “do-gooding” to describe a particular type of response to suffering at a distance – one that “generates a lot of hype and PR but is relatively insignificant in relation to international and governmental policy” (2008, p. 240). This is a useful catch-all concept that works across the public–private and the religious spectrum, but our empirical examples suggest that celebrity “do-gooding” actually interacts in interesting ways with international policy and how it is understood (for example, Angelina Jolie’s work for UNHCR with Burmese refugees in chapter 1) and also with governmental policy (for example, the use of Madonna’s projects in Malawian political debates in chapter 2).

“Humanitarianism” for the authors in this book signifies the “do-gooding” response to distant suffering, whether this distance is actually geographical or geopolitical (historically-derived inequalities characterized by an economic disparity), that includes an explicit or implicit claim for the moral basis of its good-doing. In chapter 9, van Krieken, acknowledging that humanitarianism arises when the devout worry about the moral character of society, points out that “establishing the moral character of society takes on a life of its own, overshadowing the sorts of social, economic and political issues underpinning the problems being addressed” (van Krieken, chapter 9). Celebrities play important roles in representing, embodying and also in shaping the meanings of what is considered to be “moral” through the management of affect, or feelings, between audiences of donors and recipients . Thus, traditional understandings of humanitarianism help us to grasp why this realm is fertile for interventions by celebrities:

“The humanitarian imperative” is in this sense a vague, moral goal. What is the “dependent variable”? …  The basic problem, then, is that the “product” of humanitarian organizations’ activities is mushy … the product is measured in terms of what are in effect needs and “good feelings” of a distant constituency, political advantages of distant countries, and so forth. This is why publicity is so important in the manner in which relief programs are administered. The point is not the good feelings of clients, the refugees, but those on the other end of the mercy calculation, the feelings of the donors (Waters 2001, pp. 41–42).

Even authors who are deeply critical of the “actually existing practices of humanitarianism” do not neglect the moral imperatives that it, however imperfectly, attempts to manifest in the world. In his classic book on famine, De Waal argues that his critique is “not to abandon humanitarianism, which can again be a force for ethical progress. But a humanitarianism that sets itself against or above politics is futile” (1997, p. 6). Our chapters demonstrate the kinds of politics, both global and local, that are actually taking place around celebrity interventions, and the epilogue makes a strong case for how these politics can and should be taken seriously.

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