The Humanitarian Encyclopedia collectively interrogates how humanitarian concepts are used across time, geographical contexts, organizational cultures, disciplinary backgrounds, and professions. We all use specific terms in our daily work, but what are concepts?

Concepts are constituents of thoughts which are crucial to processes such as categorization, inference, memory, learning, and decision making. Concepts arise as abstractions or generalizations from experience. Studying concepts bridges linguistic divides by looking at the idea to which a concept refers. This implies studying how people use concepts and understanding, based on the analysis of the terms used, the abstract idea to which concepts refer.  Hence, compared with terms, concepts are specific constructs since they have:

  • a descriptive power: they enable us to identify the relevant and necessary dimensions to describe a specific real-life phenomenon; and
  • an explanatory power: concepts help forging explanations about specific phenomena.

The validity of concepts is only of a relative nature: they are helpful as long as they enable us to draw generalizations and abstractions from specific experiences.

Concepts salient in humanitarian practice can be defined by:

  • The challenges they raise for practice;
  • Their centrality in a specific organisation’s identity/mandate;
  • Their consensual character as they reflect a common set of principles and ideas that are specific to humanitarian practices;
  • Their contested nature linked to either their meaning or origin (i.e. when a concept is imported to the humanitarian field by a governmental donor);
  • Their recent emergence reflecting a recent evolution of humanitarian practices;
  • The fuzziness when their meaning is ill defined and their properties are unclear; and
  • Their failure if concepts which were central are either no longer used, relevant to humanitarian practice or concretely operationalized in daily practices.

The first question to answer thus is: WHAT are the most salient concepts and clusters of concepts in humanitarian practice? Contrary to existing glossaries, handbooks, and dictionaries where the selection of analysed concepts is not justified and often reflect the authors’ interests, the structure of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia is defined through a rigorous and participatory methodology, reflecting the priorities of humanitarian practitioners.


A three-pronged research approach was designed to identify the key concepts:

1. Examining the terminology used by humanitarian organizations through a content-analysis of strategic and general documents (n=478)

2. Asking humanitarian practitioners about their understanding of concepts and what they perceive as the most salient concepts through a consultative online survey (n=1060)

3. Organizing 9 workshops in various world regions to further explore: What are the most central concepts in day to day practices and why? Which concepts are lacking? Which concept groupings emerge?

The results of these research activities were integrated (triangulated) and allowed to identify 129 key concepts and many more associated concepts. Practitioners thus played a leading role in this concept selection process in 2018. They shape the Humanitarian Encyclopedia architecture. The final selection of 129 key concepts and their associated concepts was validated by the governing bodies in November 2018.