Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Michelle Fine

Committee Members

Joshua Clegg

Cindi Katz

Subject Categories

Social Psychology


solidarity, forced migration, humanitarian aid, trauma, attunement, crisis


In this dissertation I draw on ethnographic field work and qualitative interviews with activist volunteers in Greece in 2016 to explore the conditions for ethical and affective attunement in the face of crisis and complicity. I offer a thick description of the multiple injuries to one’s senses and sensemaking capacities and the contradictions, tensions, dilemmas that undermine the capacity for attunement, a term I use to refer to the overlapping abilities to feel, to be moved, and to locate oneself and to connect to others. I begin by developing a contextual analysis of the complex and contradictory machinery of migration management that includes both the policies and practices that make up the European border regime and the humanitarian aid industry, bringing together the literatures on border regimes and the European refugee crisis, volunteers in crisis, histories and the economy of humanitarian aid, the politics of bearing witness and geographies of responsibility. I go on outline my methods and methodological knots, describing how my questions evolved across three phases of iterative analysis. In my first results chapter, I explore the questions of why these volunteers show up, what they bring with them, what they encounter, why they stay, and how they navigate the chaotic/traumatic/spectacle landscape of the humanitarian border. In my second results chapter, I sketch the limit character of the humanitarian border and explore the affective, often unspeakable, dimensions of volunteers in crisis. I describe the traumatic ruptures to volunteers’ frames of reference and meaning as they confronted multiple, ongoing limit situations and discuss a number of isolating dynamics that produced/structured a solitary solidarity. I explore some of the ways in which these isolating dynamics structured ambivalent relationships with people living in camp and produced agonizing dilemmas as volunteers found themselves caught between enacting solidarity and embodying domination and regulation. I conclude by drawing on psychoanalytic theory and theories of relational ethics to discuss the protection of the capacity for attunement as an ethical obligation when intervening in crisis, especially in the face of complicity. I argue that this obligation demands an attention to sensemaking as a fundamentally relational/affective capacity, context-oriented understandings of trauma and grief that do not demand cognitive management or mastery and which allow for the unsayable and the unknowable, and intentional relational practices for the development of an affective skin.