Thesis Spotlights – International Deployments Under the Siege of Symbols

Issue 44: Opening Up Sociology Wed 5 Feb 2020 0

Diego Otegui, PhD candidate, USA

Email: dotegui [at] udel.edu
Institution: Biden School of Public Policy and Administration, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Delaware
Time: September 2015 – May 2020; defense: February 2020
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Joseph Trainor

In the developing world, in the pressing circumstances of a disaster, external aid pours in at a massive scale. This phenomenon has been extensively documented and referred to as ‘convergence’ in the disaster literature. The merit of this research lies in my allegation that humanitarian deployment decisions and the consequent convergence are not made based on the disaster event itself, nor are they made on the needs of the people. Much differently, they are structured around the underlying self-centered values, principles and societal norms of humanitarian executives. The theoretical framework selected to study this issue comes from sociology and is called institutional logics. It states that each institution (family, religion, state, market, profession, and corporation) distinguishes a set of organizing principles, practices and symbols that act as a frame of reference for how individuals and organizations make sense of things, and consequently how they make decisions.  

This research responded to the question: how do underlying beliefs, principles and societal norms influence the way humanitarian officials interpret post-disaster information and how do these in turn affect international convergence? I try to understand how multiple institutional logics affect the way individuals process information about international deployments. The response is provided in four chapters that address four sub-questions. The first one is: what are the values and principles that guide human relations in the context of a post-disaster deployment? The response comes in the format of an extension of the typology of interinstitutional systems [1] by demonstrating that ‘relations’ are an institutional order with a dominant logic which I have called relational logic. The second question is: what is the impact of institutional logics in each of the three levels of the individual, the organization, and the society at large? The rationale aligns with the rationale of the metatheoretical framework of institutional logics that considers individuals, organizations and institutions as three nested levels within one another. The third question is: how do institutional logics affect the way that the western humanitarian architecture relates to those they try to help? The focus is upon the discrepancies that exist between what humanitarians say and do, and the deepest concealed meaning they assign to local survivors and local partners. The fourth and last question is: how do institutional logics affect the relationship between the entire western humanitarian machinery and the local stakeholders? It focuses attention on the relationship that exists between humanitarians themselves and local stakeholders after a disaster. It disentangles the discrepancies that exist between what the members of these groups say and do, and how these in turn affect exchange within a new post-disaster reality.

I used semi-structured interviews to collect data from 30 top humanitarian executives which were later complemented with data collected from field research trips in Mexico, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The analysis was done through three coding cycles in which I applied a combination of deductive and inductive approaches. The most salient finding is the unnoticed negative consequences of humanitarian coordination. The desire of humanitarian workers to help others is paired by an underlying commitment to help each other and protect each other. Ironically, this natural attitude also facilitates distancing from those that they are trying to help and prevents organizations from fully understanding the disassociation that exists between them both.

Reference
[1] Friedland, Roger, and Robert R. Alford. 1991. “Bringing society back in: symbols, practices, and institutional contradictions”. The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis / Edited by Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio.

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