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Faith-Based Medical Humanitarianism

Many studies of medical humanitarianism focus on short-term, in-situ interventions that, like Doctors without Borders, provide emergency care during times of war or natural disaster. In this model, medical humanitarianism has a short time span defined by the urgent need for care; often features foreign technocrats and aid workers; and does not contribute to the development of locally-rooted medical institutions. My own research explores a form of medical humanitarianism less common in popular depictions of medical aid. I study long-term medical relief arrangements that supply nationally-run, private, church-affiliated hospitals and clinics in Madagascar with equipment and medical items necessary for the everyday functioning of the medical institution. This form of medical aid has no easily discernable end point, due to the entrenched global inequalities of medical commerce. Additionally, rather than foreign aid workers providing aid on site, the aid program on which I have focused emphasizes the ethical importance of Malagasy-led initiatives and features little face-to-face contact between Americans working in medical relief operations and Malagasy aid workers. I suggest these long-term arrangements, which bring together humanitarian models with the enduring global inequalities linked to neoliberalism, require greater attention as significant and growing religiously-based forms of humanitarian action.

Selected Publications:

Halvorson, B. 2018. Conversionary Sites: Transforming Medical Aid and Global Christianity from Madagascar to Minnesota. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Halvorson, B. 2020. Reassessing Charitable Affect: Charitable Affect: Volunteerism, Affect and Ethical Practice in a Medical Aid Agency. Anthropological Quarterly 93(2): 151-175.













Global Christianities, Caregiving and Companionship

What does it mean to care in the contemporary world, particularly in the context of ramifying economic inequality? I am interested in the role of Christian communities in providing social services such as health care in the context of rising economic inequality as well as how those communities conceptualize and practice foreign alliances with Christians elsewhere to achieve their aims. I study how people prioritize care-giving as a religious practice of “companionship” and valued form of global Christian identity. I am especially interested in how culturally-specific practices of Christian caregiving are reworked, taken up or submerged within contemporary notions of global humanitarian aid. Such aid relationships, like the one I have studied between Christians in the U.S. and Madagascar, are becoming a new norm of “post-colonial” global Christian engagement yet draw from and rework a broader, culturally diverse field of ideals of giving, inter-dependency, and moral personhood.

Selected Publications:

Halvorson, B. 2012. Woven Worlds: Material Things, Bureaucratization, and Dilemmas of Caregiving in Lutheran Humanitarianism. American Ethnologist 39 (1): 122-137.

<Online Commentary on "Woven Worlds" by Ingie Hovland>

Halvorson, B. 2010. Translating the Fifohazana (Awakening): The Politics of Healing and the Colonial Mission Legacy in African Christian Missionization. Journal of Religion in Africa 40 (4): 413-441.

Halvorson, B. 2021. Malagasy Art on the Move: Materiality, Home Displays, and Problems in Decolonizing Christianity. Journal of Material Culture. Online preview available here.










Waste Economies

My research has investigated the global circulation of biowaste or medical discards, such as syringes, x-ray machines and respiratory tubing, between hospitals in the U.S. and Madagascar. I am particularly interested in how these waste flows—most of which involve unused medical items discarded by U.S. hospitals and medical manufacturers—have become the focus of medical relief programs that aim to supply hospitals and clinics in the Global South adversely affected by neoliberal reforms. These medical waste economies linking sites in the U.S. and Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, entail a variety of less visible economic transactions. They also foster far-reaching global circuits of medical profit-making: through disposal, the U.S. hospital is able to revalue such items as charitable donations, a move that generates tax credits for the medical institution. When they donate such goods, U.S. hospitals can also expel the epidemiological and financial risk associated with medical materials close to reaching their “expiration dates.” Disposal also facilitates the continued influx of new technologies into the medical system by medical manufacturers. Therefore, I have analyzed globalized medical waste economies as economically productive activities, linked to other forms of capitalist exchange, and situated within rather than apart from the unequal global distribution of medical resources. I study how medical relief workers in the U.S. and Madagascar negotiate the contradictory dimensions of these forms of value in globalized medicine, as they seek to “do good” through circulating medical items previously de-valued in the U.S. medical institution.

Selected Publications:

Halvorson, B. 2015. The Value of Time and the Temporality of Value in Socialities of Waste. Discard Studies [Online Journal]. 21 September 2015.

Halvorson, B. 2012. 'No Junk for Jesus’: Redemptive Economies and Value Conversions in Lutheran Medical Aid. Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations. Catherine Alexander and Josh Reno, editors. London and New York: Zed Books/Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 207-233.


Halvorson, B. 2012. Garbage, Minimalism, and Religion. The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage. William Rathje, ed. Sage Publications.












Religion and Neoliberal Capitalism

Neoliberalism is an ill-defined umbrella term widely used to refer to economic restructuring and its effects, as these have occurred across various global sites over the past forty years. In my research, I examine how religious communities experience and respond to different contemporary economic conditions labeled “neoliberal.” These include the privatization of former public services such as health care, the rise of civil society organizations or NGOs to fill in gaps in social services, and structural adjustment reforms in post-colonial states like Madagascar. They also include sped-up global circuits of medical commerce, which generate large, secondary waste flows of medical discards (see “Medical Waste Economies”). In all of these cases, I am interested in how Christian religious communities both critique and advance some of the premises of these “neoliberal” economic activities. I view neoliberalism as something not outside of but within contemporary religious activities. In their aid and caregiving activities, religious communities participate in the formation and critique of neoliberal economies; they practice or experience neoliberalism in a variety of different ways, as it is shaped by culturally diverse notions of equity, giving, inequality, and the distribution of social and economic goods.

Selected Publications:

Halvorson, B. 2017. When God Is a Moral Accountant: Requests and Dilemmas of Accountability in U.S. Medical Relief in Madagascar.  In The Request and the Gift in Religious and Humanitarian Endeavors. Fred Klaits, ed. Palgrave Macmillan.

Waste Economies
Medical Humanitarianism
Religious Ethics and Politics of Care
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