Dilemmas of the Long Term: An Interview with Ilana Feldman

The February 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Humanitarian Care and the Ends of Life: The Politics of Aging and Dying in a Palestinian Refugee Camp,” by Ilana Feldman, who is Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Elizabeth DeLuca conducted with Feldman about the article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda.

Elizabeth DeLuca: Burj al Barajneh, the Palestinian refugee camp you write about in this article, was founded nearly seventy years ago, and you have been studying issues of displacement and containment in the region for most of your academic career. I read your article, in part, as an attempt to theorize humanitarian chronicity by someone who has also experienced this chronicity herself as a researcher. How has the passage of time in your own life, as well as the lives of your interlocutors, directed your ethnographic attention? How might researchers with less experience in their fieldsites or topics work to investigate the rich importance of the life cycle as you did in this article? 

Ilana Feldman: Twenty-five years of engagement with Palestine has certainly shaped my research interests. I first encountered Palestine as a college student during the early years of the first intifada (uprising) against Israeli occupation. That Palestine, and Palestinian possibility, entered U.S. media in a new way at that same time that I was coming of age, intellectually and politically, proved fundamental to my trajectory. With all that has transpired in the years since, it can be difficult to recall the tremendous energy, organization, and possibility that characterized this time, but it was incredibly hopeful. My own feelings of disappointment and dismay with the deepening degradation of Palestinian life over the past few decades of course cannot compare with what Palestinians have gone through. But my experience (like any researcher’s) runs along theirs. To respond more precisely to your question about the passage of time and my ethnographic attention, though, I’m not sure there is a straightforward connection between my interests in chronicity in humanitarianism and the longevity of my engagement with the matter of Palestine.

This May marks the sixty-ninth year of Palestinian dispossession. The longevity of displacement, and therefore of the myriad responses to it, is apparent in the material conditions of camps, in the social and political dynamics among Palestinians and between refugees and host communities, and, indeed, in the life cycles of individuals. I think it would seem of pressing importance no matter the length of a researcher’s experience. When I think about the effects of this passage of time on my research attention, I see it more clearly in my interest in the changing character of collective moods and attitudes toward the future (see Feldman 2016), in part because I have experienced these changes myself. But certainly, my long experience does give me additional tools for disentangling the enduring conditions of dispossession and displacement from transformations in how these conditions are lived.

ED: Your recent work has contributed to attempts, anthropological and otherwise, to interrogate humanitarian practices of life, while drawing attention to the politics of living they enable and constrain. Your interlocutors articulate a similar project quite starkly in necropolitical declarations such as “every day we die,” as well as through local projects of care. Could you talk a bit more about this invitation to respond to humanitarian conceptions of life with this messier attention to living? How do you imagine the relevance of this shift for anthropological work outside of the realm of humanitarian aid?

IF: One of the challenges of research with refugees (or any population in precarious conditions) is how to provide an account of people’s lives and struggles without either painting a picture of utter abjection or describing a scene of unending resistance. Many anthropologists grapple with such challenges. In all my work I strive to develop analytic frameworks that can capture some of the complexity, and the often contradictory features, of people’s experiences and that also grasp their occasional coherence into enduring formations. Distinguishing between the politics of life and the politics of living is one of the ways I have tried to do this in the humanitarian context. To a certain extent the politics of life and the politics of living are two sides of the humanitarian coin. The first seems most linked to the work of relief providers and entails not only attention to the welfare of populations, but also what Didier Fassin (2009, 49) describes as a politics of distinction that entails “deciding the sort of life people may or may not live.” In claiming the value of all human life, the humanitarian politics of life also distributes value. The politics of living appears as the space of refugee action and highlights the contestations over value within recipient communities. These challenges are only directed to actors with regulatory power, whether humanitarians or host governments, but also at others in the community, advancing a sometimes coercive argument about how persons, communities, and claims should be enacted.  

While it often makes sense to think about the politics of life as the domain of humanitarian actors and the politics of living as the provenance of refugees, things do not always divide up so neatly. Not only are refugees also humanitarian workers—constituting the bulk of humanitarian providers in the Palestinian case and in others—humanitarian practice is uncertain and messy. As I explore in this article and elsewhere (e.g., Feldman 2015) the extension of aid over the long-term makes uncertainties of purpose, mandate, and capacity acute, but they are present from the first moments of intervention. The politics of life and the politics of living are necessarily intertwined. The messy politics of living is not just a response to intervention and governance, but is also a means of pursuing these goals. And the attempt to capture and fix that messiness into particular arrangements and value claims is not only a regulatory move, but a feature of the life of communities. These entanglements are not only relevant to humanitarianism. Tracking these related expressions, and the passages between them, is important to the exploration of governance at a variety of scales and regulatory work in multiple domains.  

ED: Many scholars have pointed to the exclusionary effects of so-called active aging programs, but the paradoxes and contradictions emerging from UNRWA efforts are particularly acute: the abstract and explicit aim of extending life is coupled with a concrete and explicit aim of limiting care to refugees after the age of sixty. In addition to giving insight on the humanitarian condition by thinking through aging and death, could we also see the paradoxes of Burj al Barajneh speaking back to other work on care in late life, unsettling not only humanitarian care efforts, but also the notion of active aging as a form of care outside of the refugee context?

IF: My first concern in this article was less about investigating what might constitute aging well per se, and more to think about how people, experiences, and life stages present a problem for particular forms of governance and intervention, and then to consider what these problems reveal about the character of the intervention itself. The challenges of providing care for aging refugees are directly connected to the dilemmas of long-term humanitarianism. A form of intervention that is meant to be crisis-oriented has to concern itself with chronic conditions. A practice that is meant to be short-term has to endure. And action that is resolutely present-focused has to contend with duration, both of its own presence and its recipient population. Both the existence and the specific needs of an aging refugee population push humanitarian actors to confront the multiple limits of this practice. But, as your question suggests, it is not only in humanitarian conditions that providers are confronted with such challenges. And this instance of humanitarian governance does also provide material to think about responses to aging in other contexts. Some scholars have suggested that active aging programs for citizen populations also have trouble accommodating end-of-life conditions, though these troubles have a different valence. To the extent that such programs strive to inculcate a youthful energy among the elderly, they may also be poorly equipped to really engage with this stage of life (Lamb 2014). Any practitioner whose focus is on saving or extending life can be challenged not just by how to grapple with the inevitable fact of decline, but with how to accord it value (within the politics of life) and to recognize the complex and sometimes competing values that are expressed by those experiencing this life stage (reflections of the politics of living).

ED: A sense of futures foreclosed is inescapable in your article. Yet you describe even the most cynical of your interlocutors as pushing back on this foreclosure, and you yourself comment that “the tide may yet turn again” for displaced Palestinians. Am I right in thinking that you harbor some sort of guarded hope in attending to the politics of living over the politics of life?

IF: Guarded, yes. Hope, maybe. I do remain aware that, as bleak as things seem for Palestinians today, today is not all there is. Looking at the Palestinian experience over time makes the recurring movement between possibility and impossibility evident. And there is no reason to think that our present constitutes the end of (Palestinian) history. It is true that certain futures are irretrievably foreclosed in the passage of time. As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the nakba (the catastrophe of 1948), the passing of the Palestine generation without return or resolution appears inevitable. The deepening infrastructure of occupation and settlement in the West Bank makes some political outcomes, namely a two-state solution, increasingly difficult,  many argue impossible. But even as Palestinian political leadership is at a low ebb, and therefore ill-equipped to resist these conditions, the fact of continued Palestinian existence—perhaps the signal Palestinian political achievement over these decades—means that other possibilities can still emerge. And I agree that attention to the politics of living can be a means of grasping this emergence. There are moments when you can see glimpses of future movement lurking in the politics of living, as people coalesce around certain possibilities and practices—repeating, deepening, and lengthening them. In the larger research project of which this article is a part, I explore instances of such movement, which is not only a feature of the past. 

ED: You were trained as both an anthropologist and a historian. In this article, you trace both ethnographically and historically how a specific age—sixty—becomes associated with a threshold of death and dying. In your writing these two currents emerge as related but not determinatively so, an analytical balance that is tricky to achieve. What advice would you have for anthropologists not formally trained in historical methods who nonetheless want to incorporate archival research into their scholarship? How did you feel that the archival work on this particular project contributed to your ethnographic research and, later, to the writing of this article?

IF: In large part due to my training in the program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan—and the atmosphere that prevailed at Michigan beyond the formal confines of the program—I am always attuned to the value of multiple methods and extended temporalities in anthropological research. Archival and ethnographic research have never felt distant or disparate to me. And I remain committed to the “anthrohistory” project (Murphy et al. 2011), even as it has never been as widely taken up in the field of anthropology as we at Michigan thought it should be. It can feel daunting to engage with other methodological toolkits, but anthropological analyses are always strengthened by such engagements. As for advice for working with archives: my first suggestion is to approach an archive in a manner similar to engaging a new fieldsite. You have to learn its language (both its formal language and its idiomatic expressions). You have to be prepared for, and open to, encounters that you don’t understand, just as happens in ethnographic research. From there you need to seek out forms of immersion in the world of the archive: a day spent reading documents—with their ellipses, inside jokes, and systems of internal references—can feel a lot like a day spent in conversation with people who have known each other for longer than you have known any of them (an experience familiar to most ethnographers). Ethnography in the archives (see Stoler 2010) demands the same openness to following unexpected pathways as does fieldwork.  

This article is a piece of a larger research project whose aim is to understand the dynamics of humanitarian practice and humanitarian living over a seventy-year period and for a population spread across the Middle East. This kind of investigation clearly requires multiple methods. For the book which I am now completing, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in four Palestinian refugee camps, located in three different countries (Lebanon, Jordan, West Bank), and pursued documentary research in the archives of multiple humanitarian organizations. Archival research reveals that concerns people express now—and which they often attribute to present conditions and to the longevity of displacement—were also articulated decades earlier. And still, even as many concerns are enduring (about dependency, about the limits of humanitarian possibility, about political activity in the humanitarian domain) how they are experienced, and what people identify as the causes of and possible solutions for these worries, have changed over time. The project itself has its roots in ethnographic insights and questions. During fieldwork in Gaza in the late 1990s my attention was drawn to the complex, sometimes tense, dynamic relations between refugees and natives in Gaza, all of whom were Palestinian. In order to understand how those categories came to be so important, I turned to archival records of the early days of humanitarian relief in Gaza, the founding moment for these categories (as humanitarian mechanisms and lived experiences). Archival and ethnographic work complement each other, not just in the data they produce, but in the questions they engender. 


Fassin, Didier. 2009. “Another Politics of Life is Possible.” Theory, Culture, and Society 26, no. 5: 44–60.

Feldman, Ilana. 2015. “Looking for Humanitarian Purpose: Endurance and the Value of Lives in a Palestinian Refugee Camp.” Public Culture 27, no. 3: 427–47.

_____. 2016. “Reaction, Experimentation, and Refusal: Palestinian Refugees Confront the Future.” History and Anthropology 27, no. 4: 411–29.

Lamb, Sarah. 2014. “Permanent Personhood or Meaningful Decline? Toward a Critical Anthropology of Successful Aging.” Journal of Aging Studies 29: 41–52.

Murphy, Edward et al., eds. 2011. Anthrohistory: Unsettling Knowledge, Questioning Discipline. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2010. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.