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Dr Tessa Altman PhD, MA

Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Political Ethnography

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Tess Altman is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Political Ethnography, University of Southampton.

Tess conducts research on humanitarianism for and with migrants in hostile policy climates. Her ESRC Posdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Southampton extended the findings of her PhD in Anthropology at UCL, titled “The domestic humanitarian: Responsible neighbours, fairness and ambivalence in urban Australia”. Tess examined the political and moral subjectivities of volunteers supporting people seeking asylum in Australia as well as the gendered and racialised dimensions of humanitarianism.

During her ESRC Fellowship (with mentors David Owen and Jack Corbett) Tess conducted follow-up research in Australia and comparatively applied her research insights through engagement with the UK Sanctuary movement. Tess hosted a public roundtable and set up a working group to establish Southampton as a University of Sanctuary.

Tess advocates for collaborative methods and pedagogical tools, such as hosting performance ethnography workshops and helping establish a new fieldwork curriculum for PhD students at UCL Anthropology.

Tess also has experience working in government as a senior policy officer on multiculturalism and social cohesion, in NGOs and peak bodies such as the Red Cross and Volunteering Australia, and as a research consultant for NGOs.

Tess currently works as a Research and Policy Manager in the Australian migration and settlement sector, where she recently founded a Regional Settlement Research Network.

Academic Qualifications

PhD in Anthropology, University College London (2019)

MA in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, University of Leiden (2012)

Honours in Social Anthropology, University of Auckland (2009)

Bachelor of Arts, Australian National University (2007)

Research interests

My primary research interests are critical approaches to humanitarianism, citizenship, political ethnography, social justice, neoliberalism, and settler and postcolonialism.

Engaging with critical approaches to humanitarianism, I consider how humanitarianism is instrumentalised to govern marginalised populations and police borders. On the flip side, I also look at the potential for humanitarian encounters to humanise relations between volunteers and recipients, reflecting on how scale can personalise relationships.

I situate volunteer humanitarianism as a practice of performing citizenship and rejecting xenophobia and racism, which paradoxically in the Australian case draws on cultural tropes such as neighbourliness and fairness that are grounded in a settler history.

I am also interested in the gendered dimensions of humanitarianism, which is provided by a mainly female volunteer workforce.

Affiliate research groups

Centre for Political Ethnography , SCDTP Citizenship, Governance and Security Cluster

Involvement in SCDTP activities including the Citizenship, Governance and Security cluster and mentoring PhD students.

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Altman, T. (2020). Making the state blush: Humanizing relations in an Australian NGO campaign for people seeking asylum. Social Analysis 64(1), 1-23.

Altman, T., & Shore, C. (2014). Paradoxes of ‘public diplomacy’: Ethnographic perspectives on the European Union delegations in the antipodes. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 25(3), 337-356. [1035-8811] .

Altman, T. (2013). Redfern Now: Indigenous accountability, hopeful realism and intervention . The Lifted Brow.

Altman, T. (2013). The new voluntarism. Arena Magazine, 122, 22-25.

Book chapters

Altman, T. (2022). From Stranger to Neighbor: Gendered Voluntarism as Feminist Caring Politics Against Australia's Hostile Borders. In Gender, Power and Non-Governance: Is Female to Male as NGO is to State?, Eds. A Timmer and E. Wirtz, Berghahn Books.

Altman, T., & Mayes, D. G. (2013). Democratic boundaries in the US and Europe: inequality, localization and voluntarism in social welfare. In D. Mayes, & A. Michalski (Eds.), The changing welfare state in Europe: The implications for democracy (pp. 92-133). (Social And Political Science). Edward Elgar.

Altman, T., & Shore, C. (2013). Privatizing welfare. Changing the face of social protection and democracy in Europe . In D. Mayes, & A. Michalski (Eds.), The changing welfare state in Europe: The implications for democracy (pp. 134-167). (Social And Political Science). Edward Elgar.


2021. Introduction: Conversations about Scale and Space in the Anthropology of Humanitarianism

2019. Reflections on performance ethnography and public engagement

2018. The political potential of responsibility in domestic humanitarianism

2017. Who volunteers for people seeking asylum? Findings from a survey of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre's volunteers


Altman, T. and Prattis, G. (2022). Destination Ballarat: Readiness for Regional Settlement . Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council.

Altman, T., & Demetriou, F. (2016). Volunteers at the ASRC. Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

Altman, T. (2013). The state of volunteering in the ACT 2013. Volunteering ACT .


Altman, T. (2017). Engaging refugee narratives. Anthropology Today, 33(5), 32-32 .

Altman, T. (2015). Symbiotic anthropologies: Theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms. Anthropology Today, 31(3), 20-21 .


Altman, T. (2019). The domestic humanitarian: Responsible neighbours, fairness and ambivalence in urban Australia. University College London

Working papers

Altman, T., & Mayes, D. (2011). Democratic boundaries in the US and Europe: inequality, localisation and voluntarism in social welfare provision

Altman, T., & Shore, C. (2010). Social welfare and democracy in Europe: what role for the private and voluntary sectors? RECON Online Working Paper Series.

Guest lectures in humanitarianism, urban politics, race and nationalism, qualitative methods and ethnography.

Dr Tessa Altman
Reception Building 58 University of Southampton Southampton SO17 1BJ United Kingdom

Room Number : 58

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