Symbiosis and the humanitarian marketplace: the changing political economy of 'mutual benefit'

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This article develops a diagnostic lens to make sense of the still baffling development of a ‘humanitarian marketplace’. Ambivalently hybrid initiatives such as volunteer tourism, corporate social responsibility or even fair trade do not strictly obey a distributive logic of market exchange, social reciprocity or philanthropic giving. They engender a type of ‘economy’ that must be apprehended in its own terms. The article argues that the large-scale collaborative effects of such a dispersed market can be theorized without resorting to the classical biopolitical move of simplified agency/holistic reification. The argument proceeds counterintuitively, by appropriating the notion of symbiosis as redefined by contemporary biology, contending through historical contextualization and conceptual work that nature itself offers the best example to grasp spontaneous collaboration among unrelated human beings as a non-automatically balanced and intrinsically political affair that calls for critical management through an ex post facto interventionist policy of selective cultivation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-135
Number of pages21
JournalTheory, Culture and Society
Issue number5
Early online date7 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2021


  • Foucault
  • biology
  • biopolitics
  • gift
  • market
  • symbiosis


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