Ronald Niezen

Ronald Niezen
McGill University | McGill · Faculty of Law and Department of Anthropology

PhD Cambridge University
New information technologies and human rights; the anthropology of institutions.

About

109
Publications
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Introduction
Ronald Niezen is Distinguished James McGill Professor of Anthropology and Associate Member of the Faculty of Law, McGill University. Much of his work is based on ethnographic research in Africa, northern Canada, and in the UN. He publishes in the anthropology of law, political anthropology, transitional justice, and intellectual history. His current research is on the use of information and communication technologies in human rights campaigns and digital witnessing.
Additional affiliations
July 2005 - August 2020
McGill University
Position
  • Professor
June 1989 - July 1998
Harvard University
Position
  • Professor (Assistant)
Description
  • Assistant and Associate Professor in Anthropology 1989-1998. Then Visiting Professor at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Anthropology, 2018-2019.
Education
September 1983 - September 1987
University of Cambridge
Field of study
  • Social Anthropology
September 1979 - May 1981
University of British Columbia - Vancouver
Field of study
  • Anthropology and Sociology
September 1977 - May 1979
Camosun College
Field of study
  • Arts

Publications

Publications (109)
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The Introduction explores discourses surrounding violence, especially the articulation of perpetrators, victims, heroes, and bystanders (whether they be individuals, groups, or institutions). In the aftermath of mass atrocity, identities shift. Many jockey for the victim position. So-called perpetrators during the conflict may find themselves prono...
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The efforts of Syrian Archive and other gathering sites of digital evidence point to something powerful in the way their crimes are being exposed and given public attention. These archives have a power of persuasion with many of the same vindicating and truth-affirming qualities as truth and reconciliation commissions. But the transitional justice...
Chapter
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Individuals can assume—and be assigned—multiple roles throughout a conflict: perpetrators can be victims, and vice versa; heroes can be reassessed as complicit and compromised. However, accepting this more accurate representation of the narrativized identities of violence presents a conundrum for accountability and justice mechanisms premised on cl...
Chapter
Individuals can assume—and be assigned—multiple roles throughout a conflict: perpetrators can be victims, and vice versa; heroes can be reassessed as complicit and compromised. However, accepting this more accurate representation of the narrativized identities of violence presents a conundrum for accountability and justice mechanisms premised on cl...
Article
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The influence of institutional mandates on knowledge can be seen particularly clearly in the preferences and absences of truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) proceedings. A recent trend in TRCs involves a shift away from the exercise of judicial powers and the quest for justice and towards more concern with affirming the experience of victims...
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Global legal institutions such as UN agencies, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization have become sites of some of the most innovative research in the social sciences, with implications that carry over into the methods and perspectives of legal scholarship. This chapter presents an outline of the history and methods of ethnography in glob...
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The author examines the current Canadian approach to the recognition of the rights of Aboriginal peoples. The discussion focuses especially on the conceptual and legal problems at the centre of the Supreme Court's cultural discourse. The Court's approach to culture, “cultural distinctiveness” and “cultural rights” does not concord with current anth...
Research
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On May 11, 2020, the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) spoke with Professor Ronald Niezen about the history of human rights, on the occasion of the release of his new book #HumanRights: The Technologies and Politics of Justice Claims in Practice (Stanford UP 2020).
Chapter
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Misinformation and control of the internet are technologically-empowered strategies of state-sanctioned informational aggression and prosecutorial immunity. In this social media-rich ecosystem, open source intelligence (OSINT) is emerging as a new source of “truth,” with implications for professional practice in journalism and international crimina...
Book
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The history of human rights can be understood not only through shifts in global moral outlook, but with reference to the technologies through which justice claims are communicated. In these terms, human rights are entering a third historical phase, human rights 3.0, facilitated by rapidly increasing amounts of online data, the growing sophisticatio...
Article
Full-text available
The history of human rights can be understood, not only through shifts in global moral outlook, but with reference to the technologies through which justice claims are communicated. In these terms, human rights are entering a third historical phase, human rights 3.0, facilitated by rapidly increasing amounts of online data, the growing sophisticati...
Preprint
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Abstract A shift has taken place over the past several decades in the dominant model of testimonial practice in public inquiries and truth and reconciliation commissions in many parts of the world, from an evidence-based “Nuremburg” model that seeks to establish the culpability of perpetrators through material evidence to a “victim-centric” model...
Article
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Much attention has been given by some to the sharpening of ethnic, indigenous, and national boundaries, while many others see cultures as impermanent, fluid, contingent, 'creolized', invented, disputed, and multifaceted. These aspects of culture, however, are not always contradictory or incompatible. It often takes the verb-like plasticity of ident...
Article
Full-text available
A shift has taken place over the past several decades in the dominant model of testimonial practice in public inquiries and truth and reconciliation commissions in many parts of the world, from an evidence-based “Nuremberg” model that seeks to establish the culpability of perpetrators through material evidence to a “victim-centric” model oriented t...
Preprint
Full-text available
While never really disappearing from the canon of postcolonial thought, Gramsci's influence faded in the 1990s and early 2000s. This paper offers an explanation of this change to the trajectory of his legacy. I pay particular attention to conceptions of power as reaching deeply and unconsciously into subjectivity, which especially dominated the int...
Article
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Anthropology differs from other disciplines in the extent to which it emphasizes the indirect and concealed manifestations of power, understood in its simplest terms as the ability to influence the decisions and behavior of others. Power is also commonly understood as influence that is generative of dominant ideas and institutional structures rathe...
Preprint
Full-text available
While never really disappearing from the canon of postcolonial thought, Gramsci's influence faded in the 1990s and early 2000s. This paper offers an explanation of this aspect of the trajectory of his legacy, paying particular attention to conceptions of power as reaching deeply and unconsciously into subjectivity, which especially dominated the in...
Chapter
Full-text available
Anthropology differs from other disciplines in the extent to which it emphasizes the indirect and concealed manifestations of power, understood in its simplest terms as the ability to influence the decisions and behavior of others. Power is also commonly understood as influence that is generative of dominant ideas and institutional structures rathe...
Article
Full-text available
This paper discusses the politics of the material commemoration of mass crime, with a focus on the Ovaherero and Nama descendants of the victims of a 1904–1908 mass ethnic killing in German Southwest Africa. My approach to monuments emphasises their place as artefacts that mark changes of regime after war or revolution, and as focal points of resis...
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Anthropologists turned the U.N. into a field site. Their studies highlight the U.N.'s fragility, but we shouldn't give up on the organization just yet.
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It is getting increasingly difficult to avoid the notion that justice claims are not limited to the formal venues of law or even the public accountability processes of journalism, but are also expressed in everyday activities of public outreach. We can see this outreach in informal efforts toward mass communication, in graffiti and Internet communi...
Chapter
The wide variety of online "communities of affirmation" reveals new conditions for permissiveness and inclusiveness in expressions of socially marginal and clinically pathologized identities. Much the same kind of discourse common to these online communities is evident in some suicide forums. Web sites with suicide as their central raison d'être, t...
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This paper considers the contradiction between two strategies toward regional autonomy by Tuaregs in the central Sahara. Tuareg representatives have been active participants in African peoples’ involvement in indigenous human rights forums starting in the mid-1990s. At the same time, the occupation of northern Mali in 2012 and 2013 by a loose coali...
Chapter
Full-text available
This paper considers the contradiction between two strategies toward regional autonomy by Tuaregs in the central Sahara. Tuareg representatives have been active participants in African peoples’ involvement in indigenous human rights forums starting in the mid-1990s. At the same time, the occupation of northern Mali in 2012 and 2013 by a loose coali...
Chapter
Full-text available
Truth commissions, by their nature, are strictly limited in their ability to take on this task of historical reform. This limitation is particularly evident in the case of Canada’s TRC. For one thing, the mandate of the commission restricted the range of inquiry through a narrow definition of the institutions known as Indian residential schools, ex...
Conference Paper
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This contribution is part of PoLAR's sixth emergent conversation, which is on the future of anthropology of law. https://polarjournal.org/ronald-niezen-mcgill-university/ I see the anthropology of law from two perspectives, one (from anthropology) centered on a critical approach to law, the other (from law) an applied approach to the tools of anthr...
Chapter
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From a discipline that once had an aversion to complex institutional space, anthropology has in recent years taken on global institutions as a legitimate source of its subject matter. The research that is being done in this field using the methods of ethnography gives a human face to these world-reforming institutions, revealing the experiences and...
Book
This volume assembles in one place the work of scholars who are making key contributions to a new approach to the United Nations, and to global organizations and international law more generally. Anthropology has in recent years taken on global organizations as a legitimate source of its subject matter. The research that is being done in this field...
Article
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In this article I use an ethnographic approach to consider the causes and consequences of a focus on ‘survivor’ experience in Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Indian residential schools. In this Truth Commission, the interconnected concepts of ‘survivor’, ‘cultural genocide’, ‘trauma’, and ‘healing’ became reference points for...
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This paper discusses some of the consequences of a truth and reconciliation commission established with a weak mandate, including the ways that ‘truth-telling’ can be influenced by the affirmation of particular survivor experiences and the wider goal of reforming the dominant historical narrative of the state through public education.
Research
Watch online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0CNhTk2lJw Ronald Niezen, Chair of Anthropology at McGill University, speaks about his current research project which looks at how cultural narratives of victimhood become articulated as a frame for mobilizing around aboriginal rights violation. In January 2012 the IPinCH Working Group on Customary,...
Article
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A debate that took place in France in the early 20th century still has much to tell us about the interpretation and strategies of intervention of suicide, particularly the "cohort effect" of aboriginal youth suicide. The act of suicide, for Durkheim, was inseparable from the problem of social cohesion, with extremes in solidarity and regulation pre...
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Résumé L'auteur examine la démarche canadienne à l'égard de la reconnaissance des droits des peuples autochtones. La discussion porte surtout sur les problèmes, autant conceptuels que juridiques, au centre du discours culturel de la Cour suprême du Canada. L'approche de la Cour envers la culture, la “spécificité culturelle” et les “droits culturels...
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La montée récente des droits collectifs a mis en place un contexte militant qui ne tient pas compte de la logique stratégique qui est à la source de la reconnaissance des droits collectifs. En particulier, le fait que le respect des droits de la personne dépend de l’opinion publique a des implications pour le militantisme universitaire, surtout au...
Article
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The recent revival of Gabriel Tarde's distinctive approach to the study of human interaction raises the issue of the possible reasons for his fall into oblivion, particularly given his prominence during his lifetime as an intellectual competitor of equal standing with the pioneering sociologist emile Durkheim in the first years of the 20(th) centur...
Article
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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada on Indian Residential Schools provides us with the opportunity to observe the process through which victims reconsider their place in the history of the state. The statements offered in this context put into relief the suffering and memories of assault and torture of children, to the detriment...
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In Côte d'Ivoire violence seems to have become kaleidoscopically inscrutable in its tendency to take on complex, shifting forms. Two volumes, both published in 2011, by Mike McGovern and Joseph Hellweg, unpack some of the background to Côte d'Ivoire's ethnic strife and civil war. Ethnography plays an important part in each of these contributions, o...
Article
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As a tool of instant information dissemination and social networking, the Internet has made possible the formation and affirmation of public identities based on personality traits that are usually characterized by clinicians as pathological. The wide variety of online communities of affirmation reveals new conditions for permissiveness and inclusiv...
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This review essay considers three recent contributions to a body of literature on human rights that take as their starting point an assertion of realism, as against established traditions of abstraction, formalism, and utopian imaginings. Amartya Sen, in The Idea of Justice, makes his argument in a general way, calling for a“practical reasoning”tha...
Book
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Social justice activism, involving outreach to unknown consumers of information who are then possible sources of sympathy and action, involves the problem of strategic representation of justice claimants.The role of publics in this process of outreach is more significant than ever before. Because of wider access to the tools of information producti...
Book
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In a series of thematically linked essays, Ronald Niezen discusses the ways new rights standards and networks of activist collaboration facilitate indigenous claims about culture, adding coherence to their histories, institutions, and group qualities. Drawing on historical, legal, and ethnographic material on aboriginal communities in northern Cana...
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This paper focuses on an area where the anthropologically oriented philosophers of the late German Enlightenment--Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Wilhelm von Humboldt--differed greatly among themselves: the value they assigned to the distinct qualities of peoples (Völker), as opposed to investment in the emergence of a cosmopolitan (wel...
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A northern Aboriginal community in Canada in the throes of a suicide crisis faced (and recognized) a broad spectrum of political neglect, which could only have worsened the pervasiveness of despair and increased the diffi culty of recovery. But more than this, community leaders, dealing with an unresponsive government, were forced to accept a situa...
Book
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Given the troubled history of aboriginal peoples' relations with the state and industries in Canada, it was not to be expected that the Crees would successfully oppose a major hydroelectric project in the early 1990s and publicly asserting claims of ‘peoplehood’ that gained wide attention during Quebec’s 1995 pursuit of national independence. This...
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This chapter considers some of the qualities of the "cohort effect" as manifested in patterns of aboriginal youth suicide in northern Canada. Drawing from the author's experience in an aboriginal community faced with a catastrophic suicide cluster, the chapter describes the way a high frequency of suicide occurred within a close group of friends, i...
Article
Full-text available
This chapter considers some of the qualities of the "cohort effect" as manifested in patterns of aboriginal youth suicide in northern Canada. Drawing from the author's experience in an aboriginal community faced with a catastrophic suicide cluster, the chapter describes the way a high frequency of suicide occurred within a close group of friends, i...
Book
Full-text available
A World Beyond Difference unpacks the globalization literature and offers a valuable critique: one that is forthright, yet balanced, and draws on the local work of ethnographers to counter relativist and globalist discourses. Presents a lively conceptual and historical map of how we think about the emerging socio-political world, and above all how...
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The Moment of DisillusionmentPostmodernism's Post-MarxismFrom Empire to Earthly CityThe End of Revolution
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A Durable IdealEarly ImaginingsScientific Discovery and Universal RightsSocio-evolutionismWorld History and World Revolution
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Cultural Particularism and UniversalismThe Colonial Condition and its AftermathThe Language of ImperialismDiversity as a Universal ProjectThe Grammar of Culture
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Rationalism, Religion, and UtopiaThe Limits of Liberal EvangelismThe Collective Rights Dilemma
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In this chapter I look in particular at what might be called the original, uncompromising versions of postmodern critique in an effort to show how this form of counter modernity or “a-modernity” has influenced current imaginings of global collective life. Postmodernism’s most successful argument is that hegemonic calls of duty, obedience, and publi...
Article
Traditional Beluga Drives of the lñupiat of Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. CHARLES V. LUCIER and JAMES W. VANSTONE. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1995. Fieldiana, 25. Illustrations, references.
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Marcel Mauss:. Biography. Marcel Fournier. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 442 pp.
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Nationalism may be one iteration of the postcolonial political imagination, but it is precisely where the recasting of the collective self into bounded, self-affirming communities is avoided or reframed on a global scale, while hopes for cultural integrity and intimacy are maintained, that we find the extension of postcolonialism into utopian aspir...
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Analyses the use of the Internet in the international "indigenous peoples" movement are few and far between, with little to guide us in the effort to identify the specific effects of the net on the indigenous activism and identities. This article brings together ethnography of the Cree and Sami peoples, with scrutiny of websites, including quantifi...
Chapter
This chapter presents the case that indigenism is a significantly distinct global phenomenon, which should not to be confused with ethnonationalism or a civil rights form of struggle for equality. It considers fragment or analytical sample of the history that involves the elaboration of “indigenous peoples” as an international legal concept and the...
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The ways that internationally active indigenous leaders are seeking to apply human rights to their own interests is to prioritize recognition by states and international organizations of indigenous self determination. This chapter discusses the implications of this strategy for the development of human rights standards specific to indigenous people...
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The main objective of this chapter is to illustrate the way indigenous sovereignty was responded to differently by the international organizations of states at the beginning and at the end of the twentieth century. This contrast of the two responses includes discussion not only of what motivated indigenous activism in the League of Nations and late...
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This chapter approaches the historical questions with ethnographic comparison between the experiences of marginalization, oppression, and claims of special rights by one indigenous society in Canada and another in West Africa. These two cases help show some of the various ways distinct societies or peoples claiming indigenous identity are marginali...
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This chapter deals with the two important theoretical/philosophical problems facing the human rights movement: relativism and collective rights. If the relativist idea of cultural contingency in moral standards is professed, and conversely rejected in any form of ethical universality, it is likely to support the notion that discrete societies are t...
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This chapter considers political implications of indigenous peoples' assertions of self-determination and the use of the symbols of statehood. It raises a few questions such as: Are indigenous claims of “nationhood” and self-determination, as some state representatives assert, likely to lead to new possibilities for indigenous secessions from state...
Book
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“International indigenism” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is indeed a global phenomenon and a growing form of activism. This book examines the ways the relatively recent emergence of an internationally recognized identity—”indigenous peoples”—intersects with another relatively recent international movement—the development of univer...
Article
Full-text available
This chapter considers some of the qualities of the "cohort effect" as manifested in patterns of aboriginal youth suicide in northern Canada. Drawing from the author's experience in an aboriginal community faced with a catastrophic suicide cluster, the chapter describes the way a high frequency of suicide occurred within a close group of friends, i...
Chapter
Full-text available
In the frontier situation of the Americas, several things combined to produce an almost insatiable appetite for the permanent acquisition of artifacts. Objects and observations were seen as imbued with information, often temporarily inscrutable facts that could eventually be illuminated through the methods of science. “Primitive” peoples were there...
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It is rare that circumstances in world history are favorable to the creation of a new kind of global political entity. Nationalism and the nation-state were novelties in the nineteenth century, as E. J. Hobsbawm (1990) convincingly demonstrates, but their connection with modernity was concealed by nationalist identifications with natural ties, perm...
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A radical shift has taken place, from selective or universal prohibition of native spiritual practices in efforts toward "assimilation" to their celebration as a solution to individualism, alienation, rampant technology—all the perceived ills of postindustrial society.The development of a mass audience outside the native community, hungering for au...
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The Heartland Chronicles. DOUGLAS E. FOLEY. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. x + 228 pp., illustrations, references, index.
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Certain parallels can be drawn between evangelical religion and biomedicine, including the conviction of each that it provides access to vital knowledge, the perceived need to change human behavior without regard to race or culture, and a tendency toward cultural intolerance. These parallels are illustrated in the history of missionary and medical...

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Projects (8)
Project
This project explores the new (and emerging) information technology (IT) ecosystem and its implications for legal claims-making and practice. In the field of human rights, information technology has become both a remedy for the most insidious crimes against humanity and a vehicle for their perpetration. I am especially curious about how new digital platforms are forming a new kind of public truth, engaging in open contests with politically motivated disinformation.
Project
This ongoing project involves reconsidering the selection and analysis of the precursors of anthropology and the social study of law. This includes a study of the leading figures of the German Enlightenment (Kant, Herder, and Humboldt) who imagined an all-encompassing study of humanity, a reappraisal of the work of Gabriel Tarde, and its connection to communication theory, and studies of various figures whose work continues to be relevant to the human rights movement and theories of globalization.