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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: December 2016

9 - Humanitarian Refusals: Palestinian Refugees and Ethnographic Perspectives on Paternalism

from Part III - The Social Relations of Paternalism


The aim of this chapter is to develop an analysis of actually-existing paternalism. I mean this in much the same way that people talk about actually-existing cosmopolitanism, neoliberalism, and democracy to suggest that an understanding of any of these concepts requires capturing the complexity of experience and building a theory of the concept from that complexity. From an “actually-existing” perspective, the contradictions and messiness of lived paternalism (or anything else) neither needs to be explained away as deviations from a model nor does it serve as evidence that a circumstance is not a case of paternalism. Rather, this experience provides the grounds for understanding what paternalism might actually be in the world. Thinking about actually-existing paternalism can help avoid a conceptual cul-de-sac wherein paternalism is defined so narrowly as to make it essentially unreal. If one can identify paternalism only in cases where the motives for intervention are entirely altruistic (not returning any kind of benefit to the intervener), for instance, then paternalism seems more like a unicorn than a horse: something that can be described, but never encountered in the world. To capture what paternalism actually is in the world, an ethnographic perspective is, if not vital, certainly extremely helpful. Ethnography, whether the face-to-face interactions of classical fieldwork or ethnographic readings of archives and other texts, builds theory from the ground up. It starts, though does not necessarily end, with the subjects’ perspective.

Any consideration of paternalism has to think about the question of its subjects, even if these are often abstract rather than actual subjects. But most reflections on the ethics of paternalism begin from the perspective of the (potential) paternalist. It is the intervener who is the key actor in these concerns and the one who is asked to think about the ethics and politics of his or her actions and interventions. So even as the liberal theory of paternalism claims to start from a presumption of fundamental equality – each person posited as a rational actor who can expect non-interference – it is in fact ensconced in the hierarchies that make up actual people and relationships.