This essay sets out to chart a new domain of humanitarian expertise: the study, monitoring, analysis, and management of the ways in which humanitarian actions are perceived in the disaster zones where they unfold. In recent years, a “growing cottage industry of perception studies” has cast the images that humanitarian interventions project as an indispensable object of empirical investigation.1 In several case-based studies produced by humanitarian organizations and research and consulting institutes, those images were not just mapped, explained, and reproduced but also delineated as a critical substratum of the world in which humanitarians act and a goal in and of itself of an informed and reformed intervention. Local perceptions emerged as a conceptual and methodological point of anchorage for a renewed self-questioning of the humanitarian enterprise and for a more limited scrutiny of the effectiveness of particular programs. They were viewed as a new and hitherto neglected epistemic terrain that had to be superimposed on existing domains of humanitarian knowledge in order to expand the latter’s practical validity.
Perceptions monitoring and perceptions management are but one specimen of a plethora of innovative humanitarian technologies that rely on public participation to produce what is deemed invaluable operational data on crisis environments. Beyond the heightened awareness to perceptions, the “public turn” in contemporary humanitarianism is manifest in the introduction of feedback mechanisms into aid programs, and—in a very different way—in the rapidly evolving practice of crowdsourced crisis mapping.2 By casting the views of affected populations as a major concern and a vital resource of the humanitarian administration of life, these disparate devices of participation challenge much of the accepted wisdom on humanitarian power, knowledge, and representation. They demonstrate that there is more to humanitarian reason than the insulation of bare life from political existence and that its technical repertoire includes other contrivances beyond photographs, epidemiological surveys, refugee camps, standardized kits, and clinical classifications that produce and showcase mute and depoliticized vulnerability.3 Moreover, perceptions management brings into relief a largely ignored facet of humanitarian expertise, namely, the promotion, since the 1990s, of conceptual devices, institutions, and forums that cast an analytic net over the social and political environments of crises while portraying the rationalized inspection of bodies and populations as an insufficient and even potentially misleading feature of relief operations. This relatively new endeavor opens a window onto a broader and older tendency of contemporary humanitarianism to supplement the information on the scope and causes of distress, which is needed to render mass suffering malleable, by a holistic understanding of the dynamics of forces that humanitarian action itself unleashes in what is conceived as its distinctive “arenas.”4