Not available in 2020/21
MC429      Half Unit
Humanitarian Communication: vulnerability, discourse and power

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Samuel Mejias


This course is available on the MSc in Global Media and Communications (LSE and Fudan), MSc in Global Media and Communications (LSE and UCT), MSc in Global Media and Communications (LSE and USC), MSc in Media, Communication and Development and MSc in Strategic Communications. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

Today more than ever, images and narratives of vulnerable people in zones of poverty, disaster, violence and conflict routinely populate everyday lives in the West. Taking our starting point on these images and narratives produced by a number of actors (NGOs, journalists, citizens, militants or regular armies) and appearing in a large number of digital platforms (NGO websites, news networks, social media and celebrity advocacy), we explore the changing practices of humanitarian communication in the 21st century – broadly understood to encompass disaster communication, human rights appeals, and conflict reporting. We do so by addressing questions such as: What are the histories of humanitarian communication? How is it changing today and why? What are the tensions and dilemmas that organizations face as they struggle to communicate the plight of distant others? What kind of politics of visibility and voice is played out in the mediation of distant suffering? What are the ideological and ethical positions informing and informed by the digital narratives and spectacles of vulnerable others in those zones? And finally, what are the challenges of 21st century humanitarian communication and can we do it better?

To explore these issues, the course adopts an interdisciplinary and case-based approach that enables students to both debate the theoretical links between vulnerability, discourse and power, and to reflect on concrete examples of the communication of humanitarian messages and conflict news today. The course consists of three parts: the politics of mediating humanitarianism; humanitarian communication histories, practices and challenges; and case studies exploring practices of NGOs, celebrity advocacy, and war and conflict reporting.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the LT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the LT.

All students are expected to complete advance reading, prepare reading-based seminar presentations, and submit one essay of 1,500 words.

Indicative reading

Barnett M., & Weiss T. (2008). Humanitarianism in Question. Politics, Power, Ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Boltanski L. (1999). Distant Suffering: Morality, Politics and the Media.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler J. (2009) Frames of War. London: Verso.

Chouliaraki L. (2013). The Ironic Spectator. Solidarity in the Age of Post-humanitarianism. Cambridge: Polity.

Douzinas, C. (2007). Human rights and empire: the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism. New York: Routledge.

Mignolo, W. J. (2000). Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mukherjee, R., & Banet-Weiser, S. (Eds.). (2012). Commodity activism: Cultural resistance in neoliberal times. New York: NYU Press.

Richey, LA and Ponte, S (2011). Brand Aid Shopping Well to Save the World, University of Minnesota Press

Spivak, G. C. (1999). A critique of postcolonial reason. Boston: Harvard University press.


Essay (100%, 3000 words) in the ST.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Media & Communications

Total students 2019/20: 34

Average class size 2019/20: 17

Controlled access 2019/20: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication