MSF Isabel Corthier, 2014


The overall objective of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia is to analyse divergences and commonalities in the conceptualization and uses of central terms applied in humanitarian action or used by humanitarian actors.

The first question the project addresses is: what are the dimensions of conceptual variation across the humanitarian sector?
If the conceptual fuzziness of the humanitarian field is well-documented, there is, so far, no common agreement on the relevant dimensions through which conceptual variation can be unpacked. The Humanitarian Encyclopedia will provide humanitarian practitioners with an analysis of both the shared and contested attributes of a concept within the humanitarian sector.

The second question raised by this research project is: what are the causes of conceptual variation? Our goal is to go beyond the mere description of conceptual variation – as traditional concept analyses do – to provide a comprehensive explanation of conceptual variation across the humanitarian sector, focusing on disciplinary, organizational and cultural factors.

The last research question to be answered in this research project is: what are the consequences of conceptual variation? The objective is to assess the impact of divergent interpretations of a concept on the effectiveness of humanitarian action. We will empirically examine how this may have consequences on inter-organizational trust, on humanitarian strategies and on the perception of the humanitarian community by local, national and international actors.

In answering these questions, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia research approach rests on interdisciplinary, comparative and participatory research methodologies.

Many dictionaries and Encyclopedias neglect to justify and explain the selection of entries. However, the scientific process is in itself a political and social process. For the Humanitarian Encyclopedia, the rationale underpinning the concept selection will be participative and fully transparent. The two-stage selection method starts with a quantitative content analysis followed by a qualitative evaluation process involving various humanitarian stakeholders.

In a first step, some 3400 strategic documents emanating from actors active in the humanitarian sector and representing a variety of stakeholders are scrutinized by computer-assisted content analysis to identify terms most frequently cited. In a second step, the results of this documentary analysis will be critically assessed by a diverse range of humanitarian practitioners in a series of workshops to answer the following questions: What are the most central concepts in day to day practices and why? Which concepts are lacking? Which concept groupings emerge? Which concepts have complementary or contradictory relationships and why?