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Introduction To “Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key



In this “In Focus” introduction, I begin by offering an overview of anthropology's engagements with human rights following the American Anthropological Association's (AAA) 1947 “Statement on Human Rights.” After offering a rereading of the Statement, I describe the two major anthropological orientations to human rights that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, following several decades of relative disengagement. Finally, I locate the articles in relation to this history and indicate how, when taken as a whole, they express a new key or register within which human rights can be studied, critiqued, and advanced through anthropological forms of knowledge. This “In Focus” is in part an argument for an essentially ecumenical anthropology of human rights, one that can tolerate, and indeed encourage, approaches that are both fundamentally critical of contemporary human rights regimes and politically or ethically committed to these same regimes.
In Focus: Anthropology and Human
Rights in a New Key
Guest Editor
Introduction to “Anthropology and Human Rights
in a New Key”
ABSTRACT In this “In Focus” introduction, I begin by offering an overview of anthropology’s engagements with human rights following
the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) 1947 “Statement on Human Rights.” After offering a rereading of the Statement, I
describe the two major anthropological orientations to human rights that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, following several decades of
relative disengagement. Finally, I locate the articles in relation to this history and indicate how, when taken as a whole, they express a new
key or register within which human rights can be studied, critiqued, and advanced through anthropological forms of knowledge. This “In
Focus” is in part an argument for an essentially ecumenical anthropology of human rights, one that can tolerate, and indeed encourage,
approaches that are both fundamentally critical of contemporary human rights regimes and politically or ethically committed to these
same regimes. [Keywords: anthropology, human rights, American Anthropological Association, cultural critique, engaged anthropology]
FOR U.S. ANTHROPOLOGISTS at least, their formal en-
gagement with human rights began in December of
1947, in the pages of the American Anthropologist (AA). For all
intents and purposes, the intellectual history in which this
“In Focus” is embedded began with Melville Herskovits’s
“Statement on Human Rights” (hereafter, Statement), a
tightly argued, lucid, and greatly misunderstood and misin-
terpreted declaration of disciplinary principle. Imagine the
context. The horrors of Nazism had been fully exposed. Le-
gions of brilliant, well-meaning representatives of the na-
tions of the world (those parts not still under the yoke of
colonialism, that is) were coalescing around the idea of a
declaration of human rights, which, once ratified in politi-
cal terms, would serve as the global moral bulwark against
barbarism, nationalist-inspired murder, racism, and out-
rages of the kind that had only recently been stopped. And,
finally, academics and intellectuals, among others, were be-
ing formally asked to contribute to the production of this
transcendent statement of human dignity, thereby exalting
academic knowledge by linking it with the most pressing
questions of the day and ensuring that a statement of hu-
man rights would be as legitimate, unbiased, and truthful
as possible.
Yet, despite the fact that the UN Educational, Scien-
tific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had turned to
Herskovits as a leading representative of an academic disci-
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pline that was widely believed to be the scientific authority
on comparative cultural and human questions and the fact
that this UN agency had assumed that Herskovits would
legitimate the proposed declaration of human rights by pro-
nouncing it a necessary and proper expression of certain ba-
sic and universal moral facts, Herskovits was to disappoint.1
His Statement, which was adopted by the AAA Executive
Board and published by it as the lead article in the last AA is-
sue of 1947, refused to endorse what would become the Uni-
versal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which remains
the foundation for the entire range of legal frameworks, in-
stitutional interventions, and discourse that is captured by
the phrase human rights. Herskovits rejected the possibility
of a declaration of universal rights on three grounds, which
can be categorized as the empirical, the epistemological, and
the ethical. First, the Statement argued that anthropology,
as the “science of mankind,” had shown that moral or ethi-
cal systems varied both in form and content, such that any
assertion of universality in a statement of rights could not be
descriptive but would remain prescriptive. Second, because
anthropology was a science that described and then ex-
plained social and biological processes empirically, it could
not contribute to a project that required normative judg-
ments to be made about particular cultural practices as they
stood in relation to the set of universal rights outlined in
the proposed declaration. The Statement does not deny the
2American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
possibility that some other nonscientific way of knowing
could be the basis for making the comparative evaluations
expressed through human rights. But anthropology’s com-
mitment to the empirical study of human beings in all their
dimensions meant that anthropology was simply the wrong
place to look for guidance in making these judgments.
And finally, the Statement raised the specter of
what has recently been described as “moral imperialism”
andez-Truyol 2002). If the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights is not, in fact, a descriptive statement of a
set of universal moral facts but is, rather, a declaration of
intent by the international community (or some powerful
subset of it) to reshape the world in line with certain pre-
ferred standards, then the consequences of this reshaping
will include the denial of freedom to those individuals or
cultures whose ideas about the relationship between the in-
dividual and the collective, or the value of human life, or
the importance of private property, and so forth, are clearly
incompatible. Despite the best of intentions (a desire to es-
tablish a framework that would prevent another Holocaust),
the worldwide application of a prescriptive statement of hu-
man rights would lead to
frustration, not [the] realization of the personalities of
vast numbers of human beings . . . . Such persons, living
in terms of values not envisaged by a limited Declaration,
will . . .be excluded from the freedom of full participation
in the only right and proper way of life that can be known
to them, the institutions, sanctions and goals that make
up the culture of their particular society. [AAA 1947:543]
The Statement is, at its heart, an argument for two kinds
of irreducible pluralism: the first, a cultural pluralism that
expresses a basic fact of human diversity; the second,
a more philosophical pluralism, one that has troubled
people across a range of different traditions and ages, which
reflects the impossibility of finally reconciling competing
arguments for the proper ends of life—freedom, justice,
equality, and so on.
After the brief exchange that followed the 1947 pub-
lication of the Statement on Human Rights (Barnett 1948;
Steward 1948), there was very little anthropological inter-
est in human rights as a topic for inquiry or analysis un-
til the mid-1980s. But to say that the anthropology of hu-
man rights did not emerge until the mid-1980s is not to say
that anthropologists had not encountered human rights in
one form or another, or that human rights did not inter-
sect with several important topics for research, analysis, or
political action. Forensic anthropologists have been asked
to use their skills as part of international human rights in-
vestigations (Komar 2003; Sanford 2003). Biological anthro-
pologists and archaeologists have had to reconcile the hu-
man rights claims of Native Americans to return of remains
against the need to deepen our understanding of human ori-
gins and early cultural life in the New World (Jones and Har-
ris 1998). Linguistic and political anthropologists have stud-
ied the problem of linguistic marginalization and the efforts
of linguistic minorities to find protection through, or to
strategically appropriate, a discourse of marginalization that
is supported by international human rights instruments—
for example, the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons
Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic
Minorities (Cowan 2003). Finally, anthropologists work-
ing for environmental organizations or those studying how
the environment is “constructed, represented, claimed, and
contested” (Brosius 1999:277), in part through the language
of rights, encounter human rights in their increasingly im-
portant transnational registers (Sponsel 1995).
Moreover, even if a sustained anthropological focus on
human rights as an ethnographic category did not develop
until the 1980s, after the publication of the 1947 State-
ment anthropologists continued to practice public anthro-
pology in ways that reflected the discipline’s long-standing
concern with creating linkages between anthropological
research and projects for social justice. For example, al-
though Ruth Benedict died in 1948, the same year of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was “not be-
fore she had had the opportunity to argue strongly against
early McCarthyite persecution of progressive anthropolog-
ical colleagues, for decent treatment for the U.S.-occupied
Japanese, and for strong federal action on postwar Negro
civil rights,” as Micaela di Leonardo explains in her descrip-
tion of postwar U.S. anthropology (1998:201). And if the
horrors of the Holocaust formed the backdrop to the work
of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the genocidal
misuse of the “science of race” by the Nazis led another
UN body—UNESCO—to enlist the aid of anthropologists
in producing the four statements on race (between 1950
and 1967) that were meant to be the “definitive scientific
repudiation of racism” (di Leonardo 1998:201). Thus, when
anthropologists did begin to turn their attention much later
to human rights as a particular category of legal and political
action, or as a topic for ethnographic inquiry, these moves
must be seen in light of this broader disciplinary history.
Yet despite the different ways in which anthropologists
indirectly engaged with human rights in the decades after
the late 1940s, it remains undeniable that Herskovits’s State-
ment initiated, and indelibly marked, the long, strange his-
tory between an idea intended to protect and dignify what
Franz Fanon would later call the “wretched of the earth,”
and an academic discipline whose orientations toward hu-
man populations in crisis would swing from the heights of
scientific detachment to immersive empathy, in which only
anthropological knowledge that is politically instrumental
is worth pursuing. So it is right that AA should feature this
exchange, not, of course, by way of bringing the history
Herskovits began full circle—intellectual history is as non-
cyclical as it is nonlinear—but as a way of acknowledging
the spirit, if not the specific content, of Herskovits’s accom-
plishment, which will always rest on his commitment to
his own sense of intellectual integrity against what was, at
the time, a rising tide of public and ethical wisdom.
It is also worth underscoring the fact that this “In
Focus” forms part of a broader move by anthropolo-
gists in recent years to rethink both the relationship be-
tween anthropology and human rights and the specific
Goodale Introduction: Anthropology and Human Rights 3
anthropological topics that intersect with wider human
rights issues. Two notable examples of this more sustained
focus on anthropology and human rights appeared as “In
Focus” exchanges: the December 2002 “In Focus” that com-
pared indigenous rights movements in Africa and the Amer-
icas, and the December 2003 “In Focus,” which featured
critical analyses of the relationship between language ide-
ologies and language rights. This “In Focus” continues in
this mode by enlarging the scope of analysis beyond any
particular topic or theme within anthropology itself. Rather,
the idea here is to consider, from different theoretical and
methodological perspectives, how anthropological forms of
knowledge can newly frame the different engagements with
human rights: political, ethical, institutional, and critical.
The ideas and practices of human rights have clearly be-
come more consequential after the end of the Cold War.
This lends a certain sense of urgency to efforts like this,
which reflect both a commitment to the purposes of the in-
ternational human rights system and a sense of skepticism
and concern regarding how human rights practices have
become key markers of what I have described elsewhere as
“empires of law” (Goodale 2005).
This introduction is not the place for a full account-
ing of the relationship between anthropology and human
rights, either from a U.S. perspective or more broadly, both
of which must be pieced together from a number of dif-
ferent sources (see, e.g., Goodale in press; Messer 1993;
Nagengast and Turner 1997a; Washburn 1987; Wilson 2004;
Wilson and Mitchell 2003). Nevertheless, it is important to
contextualize this “In Focus” by describing several framing
moments within the wider intellectual history, moments
that are both symbolic of particular alignments of interests
and which represent substantive contributions in their own
Through the efforts of a small, yet passionate and influential
group of politically engaged anthropologists, U.S. anthro-
pology underwent a profound realignment, one that would
produce a distinctive anthropological reorientation to hu-
man rights.2Key moments in this new phase would be the
following: (1) the 1984 publication of Clifford Geertz’s 1983
AAA Distinguished Lecture “Anti Anti-Relativism,” which
brought renewed attention to a major theoretical issue that
is raised whenever anthropologists consider human rights;
(2) Ronald Cohen’s 1989 article in AA, in which he argued
for a new approach to human rights; (3) the Special Com-
mission created by the AAA in 1990, and chaired by Ter-
rence Turner, to investigate human rights violations against
the Yanomami by the Brazilian state; (4) the establishment
by the AAA Executive Board of a Commission for Human
Rights in 1992; (5) Ellen Messer’s programmatic 1993 An-
nual Review article on anthropology and human rights,
which argued that anthropology had influenced contem-
porary human rights through its marginalization; (6) the
1994 AAA annual meetings, at which the relationship be-
tween anthropology and human rights was a special topic;
(7) the conversion in 1995 of the Commission for Human
Rights into a permanently standing Committee for Human
Rights; (8) a 1997 special issue of the Journal of Anthropolog-
ical Research (JAR), edited by Carole Nagengast and Terrence
Turner (1997b), which served as a more systematic and com-
prehensive elaboration of Messer’s 1993 call to action; and,
finally, (9) the 1999 adoption by the AAA membership of
the Committee for Human Rights-authored “Declaration
on Anthropology and Human Rights,” which represented
a culmination of the process of realignment and a defini-
tive repudiation of Herskovits’s 1947 Statement.3
Beginning somewhat later, but overlapping with some
of these more recent developments, other anthropologists
began considering human rights in quite different ways.
From about the mid-1990s, a much more geographically
diverse group of anthropologists reengaged with human
rights by reconceptualizing the social practice of rights as
an object of ethnographic inquiry. This body of research
and analysis, which was brought together in a series of
edited volumes (Cowan et al. 2001; Wilson 1997; Wilson
and Mitchell 2003) and through several monographs (e.g.,
Merry 2005; Riles 2000; Slyomovics 2005; Wilson 2001), has
evolved into a second major current in the contemporary
anthropology of rights. As we will see below, irrespective of
personal belief or commitment to human rights activism
by individual anthropologists working in these modes,
these two overlapping but distinct recent traditions must
be located within significantly different epistemological
But before I broaden the frame to consider these two
orientations to human rights as expressions of particular
intellectual-historical moments, it would be useful to ex-
plain them in more detail. If we take Messer’s 1993 An-
nual Review article together with Nagengast and Turner’s
(1997b) JAR special issue, in which Messer (1997) also
contributes an article, a clear vision for anthropology’s re-
lationship with human rights emerges, one that is also, not
coincidentally, expressed through the 1999 declaration.4
Anthropologists should use their knowledge of specific cul-
tural processes and meanings—and the broader relation-
ships of power through which these processes and meanings
are necessarily embedded—to reinforce specific projects
for social change, to help prevent further encroachments
against particular marginalized populations, or to do both.
I emphasize specific to signal a key feature of this approach to
human rights through anthropology: the idea that because
all knowledge is necessarily contingent and, most impor-
tantly, inseparable from the structural power–knowledge
nexus, anthropologists have an ethical duty (1) to address
this contingency as a theoretical problem and then (2) to
act on—or against—it in practice by putting anthropologi-
cal knowledge to good use.
The bundle of normative, social, and political processes
that, as Upendra Baxi has said, we describe “by conven-
tion, under a portal named ‘human rights’ ” (2002:v) has
proven to be a useful mechanism for serving this ethical
4American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
duty toward populations and cultures under threat. To the
extent that this remains true, anthropologists should—
according to the vision expressed through key markers of
this approach—work to expand the definitions of human
rights to increase their effectiveness. This is not because an-
thropologists are committed to the ontological truth of hu-
man rights or a particular legal-bureaucratic vision for their
realization, but because contemporary human rights dis-
course has the ability to eliminate ethical ambiguity and
open up clear lines of resistance and recrimination. Terrence
Turner’s 1997 article captures the essence of this approach
most directly: An anthropology of human rights should
be one that engages with human rights to the extent that
such engagement contributes to an “emancipatory cultural
politics,” the normativization of culture through rights dis-
courses as a political strategy.5
The second major current in the recent anthropology
of human rights can be illustrated through a 2001 edited
volume (Cowan et al. 2001), in which anthropologists re-
flected on the relationship between culture and rights not
as a theoretical question in the manner of liberal political
theorists like Will Kymlicka or John Rawls, but as a problem
that must be studied empirically. Although there are points
of similarity between what can be understood as the “ethno-
graphic” and the emancipatory cultural politics modes of
engagement (e.g., both are finely tuned to the way power in-
fuses contemporary human rights discourses), the contrasts
are more significant. The study of the social practice of hu-
man rights reflects a set of epistemological commitments
that are neither political in themselves nor intentionally
politicized by anthropologists. Politics is relevant only to
the extent that broader political-economic factors are them-
selves forces impacting the unfolding of those “protean” as-
semblages of social action that are described with “human
rights,” to again invoke Baxi’s nimble and elastic definition.
This is not an approach to human rights that seeks in
the first instance to use ethnographic knowledge of cultural
meanings to better “refin[e] theories of culture in relation
to rights.” The editors do, however, somewhat sheepishly
make rhetorical concession to those—perhaps some of the
volume’s contributors—who express a “hope [that the] vol-
ume will contribute” to an understanding of cultural rights
that has some instrumental value (Cowan et al. 2001:21).
Rather, the heart of the ethnographic approach to human
rights is descriptive, the effort to develop a comparative
database that will tell us, for the first time since 1948, how
human rights actually function empirically, what human
rights mean for different social actors, and, finally, how hu-
man rights relate—again, empirically, not conceptually—to
other transnational assemblages. As the editors explain in
their introduction: “We think it is time that more attention
is paid to empirical, contextual analyses of specific rights
struggles. This intellectual strategy allows us to follow how
individuals, groups, communities and states use a discourse
of rights in the pursuit of particular ends, and how they be-
come enmeshed in its logic” (Cowan et al. 2001:21). In other
words, although the emancipatory cultural politics orienta-
tion to human rights is itself normative, the ethnographic
approach is inherently skeptical of normative claims;
indeed, the study of the enmeshing logics of human rights
is in part a study of normativity.
By way of locating each of these orientations in relation to
wider developments within anthropology, we can say that
the rise of the AAA as a human rights nongovernmental or-
ganization and the blurring of boundaries between research,
representation, and political action on behalf of subaltern
populations was a somewhat delayed application of key in-
sights from the period of intense epistemological critique
that began in the mid-1980s, most notably within U.S. cul-
tural anthropology. To this extent, the emancipatory cul-
tural politics approach to human rights—which, as I have
argued, crystallized through the 1997 JAR special issue on
anthropology and human rights and that was prefigured in
Messer’s 1993 call to action—was an example of how an-
thropologists could reconfigure their professional commit-
ments to eliminate the need to push against what were seen
as a set of essentially artificial or politically suspect epis-
temological barriers. Or, to make this point another way,
the anthropological contribution to human rights through
an emancipatory cultural politics became programmatic
once questions of epistemology were reframed as political-
economic questions.
The ethnographic turn cannot be completely sepa-
rated from these background intellectual-historical cur-
rents, which they also in part reflect; neither can we forget
the fact that the scholars conducting research and writing in
this mode do not reject the emancipatory cultural politics
approach in its own terms. But what does situate the ethno-
graphic approach at a different point in an overlapping
network of social-theoretical ideas is its objectification of
human rights, the insistence that human rights are a type of
politically consequential normative framework that is con-
stituted through social practice. Thus, to study what human
rights do is also to study what human right are. In recon-
ceptualizing human rights as an object that is well suited for
ethnographic modes of inquiry, this approach describes—
not deduces—the impact of political, economic, and legal
inequalities—that is, power—as these structural problems
shape the social practice of human rights. The descriptive
data produced through these studies could be used to make
the implementation of human rights more effective, or not.
This formal detachment from the uses of anthropological
knowledge is a key difference from the emancipatory cul-
tural politics framework, which expresses both a belief in
the value of anthropological forms of knowledge and, in
equal measure, a duty to make this knowledge instrumen-
tal in the service of specific political projects. The ethno-
graphic approach to human rights is a hybrid within wider
disciplinary developments, an approach that not only in-
corporates critical insights from the last 20 years but also,
just as importantly, reflects a renewed commitment to social
scientific distance and the possibilities created by a certain
Goodale Introduction: Anthropology and Human Rights 5
depoliticization of the relationship between anthropology
and contemporary human rights movements.
It is of course a risky proposition to make claims for in-
novation or novelty. If these articles, taken as a whole, ex-
press a new key or register within which human rights can
be studied, critiqued, and advanced through anthropolog-
ical forms of knowledge, they obviously do not foreclose
other possibilities or cast doubt on the value of existing ap-
proaches. We are more interested in using these articles as
a collective argument for the possibility of a broader range
of debates within anthropology and more widely regarding
problems that lie at the foundation of contemporary human
rights. These include the cultural dynamics of human rights
as a transnational regime, the relationship between human
rights and “local” ethical practices, the ethical obligations of
researchers studying human rights processes among popu-
lations at risk, the relationship between human rights prac-
tices and the consolidation of liberal and neoliberal political
and legal formations after the end of the Cold War, and so
It does no good for an academic discipline whose pecu-
liar forms of engagement have been historically marginal-
ized within the wider human rights community to repro-
duce lines of division internally in order to indicate new
spaces or modes through which human rights might be
reconceptualized, better understood, or reinforced through
the thickness of empirical research. This is the reason the
framing above does not depend on what the philosopher
Ian Hacking, in his essay on Colin McGinn’s new book
Mindsight, describes as the “dry business of referring and
refuting” (2005: 70), the tendency to work toward alterna-
tive approaches by drawing stark and invariably exagger-
ated contrasts with existing frameworks. This “In Focus” is
in part an argument for an essentially ecumenical anthro-
pology of human rights, one that can tolerate, and indeed
encourage, approaches that are both fundamentally criti-
cal of contemporary human rights regimes and approaches
that are politically or ethically committed to these same
regimes. In a sense, an ecumenical anthropology of human
rights is one that draws from an internal epistemological
pluralism to better understand the pluralism—whether ir-
reducible or not—that characterizes contemporary human
rights practice.
In this spirit, the articles in this “In Focus” are intended
to enlarge the dialogue over the relationship between an-
thropology and human rights beyond what I have described
in the preceding sections. Nevertheless, as will be seen,
the different suggestions for new spaces of engagement are
firmly anchored within the wider intellectual histories I
have invoked and are dependent on the important work
of scholars whose vision for this engagement is framed in
different terms. Moreover, the proposals arrive at different
registers in different ways: through reconceptualizing key
concepts in the debate; by combining existing approaches
in a way that achieves a potentially useful synthesis;
through the introduction of ideas from other disciplines
or bodies or work; and, at certain points, by suggesting that
the debate over the relationship between anthropology and
human rights should be radically reframed.
Jane Cowan is the coeditor of an important volume on
culture and rights and has played a leading role in what I
have described as the ethnographic turn in the anthropol-
ogy of human rights. In her article, she takes a fresh look at
the problem of culture, or, as she describes it, the relation-
ship between culture and rights “after Culture and Rights
(i.e., Cowan et al. 2001). Her article considers two devel-
opments since Culture and Rights: (1) the critiques of the
volume, or its wider implications, from outside the disci-
pline of anthropology, in particular from political and legal
theorists seeking to reconfigure liberal theory to account for
collective or communitarian rights frameworks, and (2) the
emergence of a body of empirical research on culture and
rights that was partly stimulated by the arguments and sug-
gestions in the volume. Through a consideration of these
two developments, Cowan argues for an essentially skep-
tical anthropology of human rights, one that is more at-
tuned to the potential dangers of a hegemonic human rights
regime than to the ways in which human rights can provide
a framework for protecting cultural integrity. But Cowan’s
is not a critique in the abstract. She calls for a scrutiny
that moves between critical engagement and the applica-
tion of the ethnographic imagination. In the end, Cowan’s
approach is both contingent and grounded, one that ex-
presses the contradictions at the heart of both the liberal
rights project and those framed by more normatively open
multicultural arguments. Hers is not an anthropology of hu-
man rights that will anchor political projects or movements
for cultural autonomy based on claims for cultural rights.
It is an anthropology of interrogation: pluralist, skeptical,
and penetrating.
In my other contribution to this “In Focus,” I argue
that the anthropology of human rights should be recon-
ceptualized in part by envisioning the object of inquiry to
be a subset of a slightly larger set of normative processes,
in which human rights are always embedded. This means
that anthropologists (and others) would study what I de-
scribe as “ethical theory as social practice,” in which the
anthropologist engages ethnographically with social actors
and processes through which human rights enter situated
normativities. In addition, the anthropologist also partici-
pates by “cotheorizing” with interlocutors as they struggle
to come to terms with the meanings of human rights. One
implication of this is that the anthropology of human rights
I develop draws back slightly from the ethnographic study
of human rights as social practice. This is a key point of de-
parture, and one that I argue is necessary because of both the
conceptual demands that human rights processes place on
social actors (including anthropologists) and the fact that
human rights discourse links social actors to transnational
regimes whose scope and meanings can only partially be
captured ethnographically.
Sally Merry’s contribution is a product of her transna-
tional ethnography on the regulation of violence against
6American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
women through various international human rights insti-
tutions and transnational networks. Like Cowan, Merry
has studied the relationship between culture and rights. In
Merry’s case, the sheer range of her research has forced her
to adopt an innovative methodology, one that requires her
to employ a research strategy that is mobile, comparative,
descriptively rich, and, as her article shows, willing to gen-
eralize from data to understand the translocalism of con-
temporary human rights. The result has been one of the
most detailed comparative studies of the social practice of
human rights (see Merry 2005). To draw out the more pro-
grammatic implications of her recent research, Merry de-
velops a theoretical framework in her article that explains
the different ways in which human rights are rendered in-
strumental, and experienced, by social actors at different
places in the transnational human rights network. She does
not call for this framework to be necessarily adopted by hu-
man rights elites or institutions, but one can easily see how
their work would be strengthened if it were. To this extent,
Merry’s article can be taken as an argument for an anthro-
pology of human rights that represents a commitment to
a public anthropology, which, although fully engaged with
issues of importance, nevertheless maintains some distance
from the projects or social movements toward which such
a public anthropology gestures.
Annelise Riles’s research and theorizing have straddled
the boundaries between academic law and anthropology.
Her article here brings these two together to argue for a new
kind of anthropological response to human rights, which
she calls an “ethnographic response.” She comes to this
through a critique of modes of critique, an unpacking of
the tools with which anthropologists and lawyers have at-
tempted to expose the contradictions and hegemonies that
define the modern human rights regime. Riles shows how
an anthropology of human rights can be reconceptualized
by drawing from insights and methods from the New Ap-
proaches to International Law (NAIL) movement, which lo-
cates human rights as one important genre within a wider
body of technocratic knowledge practices. In their critiques
of human rights, NAIL studies have not spared anthropol-
ogy from being treated as one among several “discourses of
self-legitimation” that are associated with human rights and
that render contemporary rights so problematic. Despite
this, Riles argues that the NAIL critique of human rights
(and anthropology) suffers from a certain detachment from
the subject, and here is where anthropology’s contribution
is restored. Riles reflects on the different intersubjective re-
lationships that come together through the anthropology
of human rights, and she concludes that the anthropologist
has a unique role to play by eliminating the distance cre-
ated by the critique of social action and by acknowledging
the ambiguities that surround the academic scrutiny of the
human rights subject.
Shannon Speed’s article raises important questions
about both the epistemological and ethical validity of any
anthropological engagement with human rights that is too
detached from the practical concerns of social actors them-
selves. These social actors are forced to labor under the range
of insidious constraints and threats; for them, human rights
discourse can never be only a topic for discussion or anal-
ysis. To show this, Speed examines the ethical ambiguities
that emerge through what she describes as a “critically en-
gaged activist research,” which in her case involves both
research on, and advocacy for, human rights in Chiapas,
Mexico. Speed’s anthropology of human rights points to the
danger in allowing critique to devolve into a final purpose,
a danger that is all the more acute for anthropologists, who
can readily apply a number of critical modes to expose the
power imbalances and hidden agendas within human rights
regimes, insights that are construed as irrelevant, arrogant,
and ethically dubious by social actors for whom such the-
oretical advances are of limited use in even the best of cir-
cumstances. Among the five articles here, Speed’s anthro-
pology of human rights comes closest to the earlier work
in the emancipatory cultural politics tradition. And even as
she emphasizes the important role of practical experience
in shaping any understanding of the meanings and pos-
sibilities of human rights, she also retains a commitment
to empirically grounded research. This is something that
links all of the articles, even if ethnography is envisioned
in quite different ways across what are, in the end, the dif-
ferent anthropologies of human rights presented in this
“In Focus.”
Finally, to close this exchange, Richard Wilson provides
an afterword. Wilson has done much to bring human rights
issues into focus for anthropologists. He is thus well placed,
particularly given his current vantage point outside of an-
thropology in an interdisciplinary human rights institute,
to look back through the articles in order to look forward.
Even as Wilson continues to insist on locating human rights
processes in context through ethnography, he has also re-
cently emphasized the fact that the anthropology of human
rights is ripe for reevaluation (Wilson 2004). His contribu-
tion here is an important reflection of this concern.
MARK GOODAL E Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolu-
tion, George Mason University, Arlington, VA 22201
Acknowledgments. In framing this introduction, I would like to ac-
knowledge the collaboration of my fellow contributors to this “In
Focus,” although the points of emphasis on matters of interpreta-
tion and history are my responsibility. So too are any errors. I am
also grateful to the co-Editor-in-Chief of the American Anthropolo-
gist, Susan Lees, for her insightful comments on a draft of the article.
Finally, the suggestions of three anonymous reviewers allowed me
to strengthen this introduction considerably.
1. For more on the circumstances surrounding Herskovits’s com-
munications with UNESCO and his submission of the “Statement
on Human Rights” to the Executive Board of the AAA in 1947,
see my article in Current Anthropology (Goodale in press). Although
I continue to conduct research in the National Anthropological
Archives in Suitland, MD, for a book I am currently writing on an-
thropology and human rights, I still have not found any evidence
that UNESCO formally responded to the AAA’s Statement. Never-
theless, because it was submitted by Herskovits after it underwent
some revisions, for now we can assume that it was in fact forwarded
to the Commission on Human Rights (as asserted by AA), which
Goodale Introduction: Anthropology and Human Rights 7
was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, for whose benefit UNESCO had
solicited opinions on what would become the Universal Declara-
tion of Human Rights (1948).
2. One of the points for debate in the historiography of anthro-
pology’s relationship with human rights is the extent to which
U.S. anthropology’s experience can represent the discipline’s rela-
tionship more generally (see Goodale in press). As I have argued,
there is very good reason for believing that the U.S. anthropologi-
cal experience, in which its different voices were practically absent
from the major developments during the emergence of the inter-
national and (eventually) transnational human rights regimes, is
at least symbolic of anthropology’s historical marginalization from
human rights. But as we will see shortly, there comes a point at
which anthropology’s reengagement with human rights becomes
too analytically and geographically diverse to use U.S. anthropol-
ogy’s experiences in this way.
3. As with anthropology’s involvement on the race question on
behalf of UNESCO between 1950 and 1967, what I describe here
as a new phase in anthropology’s orientation to human rights also
had important historical precursors. Perhaps the most significant
of these was the disciplinary conflict over the relationship between
anthropology and colonialism (which included, arguably, the de-
bates over the role of anthropologists during the Vietnam War) and,
somewhat later, the emergence of the cultural survival movement,
the founding of Cultural Survival, Inc., in 1972 by the anthropolo-
gist David Maybury-Lewis, and the publication of the first issue of
Cultural Survival Quarterly in 1976.
4. Three contributors to the 1997b JAR special issue (Messer, Na-
gengast, and Turner) were also members of the 1997 Committee
for Human Rights at the time when it was working on a draft ver-
sion of what would become the “Declaration on Anthropology and
Human Rights.”
5. This idea is not, of course, limited to the emancipatory cultural
politics orientation to human rights. Important parallels can be
found, for example, in Jean Jackson’s 1995 article on the strategic
essentialization of culture in the Colombian Amazon.
6. The general thrust of my argument for employing a critical an-
thropology to reconfigure current understandings of human rights
parallels Brosius’s (1999) recent effort to envision a different an-
thropology of environmentalism. As Brosius explains, his
suggestions for future forms of scholarly engagement
with environmentalism are premised on the belief that
anthropology has a critical role to play . . . in contribut-
ing to our understanding of the human impact on the
physical and biotic environment. . . . As environmental
concerns have come to occupy a central place in local
struggles, national debates, and international fora, there
is an important place for an analytical enterprise which
seeks to bring a critical perspective to bear on these di-
verse, often contested, visions of the environment, envi-
ronmental problems, and the forms of agency such dis-
courses conjure into (or out of) being. [1999:278–279]
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... Alteridades e (in)visibilidades: uma perspectiva antropológica sobre direitos humanos e dignidade Denise Fagundes Jardim A antropologia tem participado intensamente da ampliação dos significados das noções de direitos humanos e violação de direitos humanos. Conforme propõe Goodale (2006), a postura atual dos antropólogos é muito diversa da posição de Herzkovitz em 1947, já que tem de contextualizar e historicizar os processos de discussão sobre as formas de ampliação de sentidos da dignidade humana e analisar vetores de poder e práticas que configuram práticas sociais de justiça e violência. Meu intuito é evidenciar a abertura dos antropólogos ao debate sobre direitos humanos sob novos parâmetros apresentando sua repercussão nas maneiras com que nos relacionamos com noções de alteridade, identidade e minoria. ...
... Como observa Goodale (2006), a postura clássica de Melville Herzkovitz que marcara a imagem dos antropólogos no final do século XX, tem sofrido inúmeras transformações na disciplina. Em seu "Statement on Human Rights", Herzkovitz rejeitava a possibilidade de uma declaração de direitos humanos universais e referia-se a limites em três campos: empírico, epistemológico e ético. ...
... Percebemos essas noções sempre em aprimoramento e abertas ao debate político entre agentes que se reconhecem mutuamente e negociam sentidos. 7 Como observa Goodale (2006), a postura clássica de Melville Herzkovitz (em 1947), que marcara a imagem dos antropólogos no final do século XX, tem sofrido inúmeras transformações na disciplina. Em seu "Statement on Human Rights", Herzkovitz rejeitava a possibilidade de uma declaração de direitos humanos universais e referia-se a limites em três campos: empírico, epistemológico e ético. ...
... Indeed, as Hinton critically asserts, post-conflict models of peace, reconciliation and transitional justice presume that national and personal rehabilitation are dependent upon foreign intervention to assist in the transformative transition from violence to peace and reconciliation. However, rather than assuming that intervention in this transition is either viable or ethically legitimate (Goodale 2006), culturally sensitive ethnographic research (Wilson 2001;Shaw 2007;David 2020) has explored potential points of friction between the Human Rights (HR) model of peace and reconciliation and culturally particular conceptualisations of post-conflict rehabilitation. Nevertheless, much of the scholarship (see Bjorkdahl and Hoglund 2013) proposes that despite potential friction, emergent organic bottom-up vernacularised models or even top-down hybrid solutions signify creative forms of global-local engagement and ultimately promise mutually 'progressive' social change (Tsing 2005;Hinton 2018). ...
... The mass destruction and atrocities of WWII were watershed experiences constituting key axioms in the EW ontology of the contemporary human rights regime (Wilson 2001;Goodale 2006). Anxiety in the face of impending renewed global conflicts and emergent shared geopolitical interests facilitated the emergence of a universal 'cosmopolitan' language of conflict prevention (Levi and Sznaider 2002). ...
... Anthropologists of human rights (Goodale 2006;Merry 2006), medical/psychological anthropologists (Abramovitz 2010;Hinton 2010Hinton , 2018 and critical memory scholars (David 2020;Kidron 2020) have however critically examined the above hybrid formations. Critique has raised concerns primarily regarding the moral legitimacy of neocolonialist intervention (Hinton 2010) and the inadvertent empowerment of corrupt governments and elites (Wilson 2001). ...
Problematising the vernacularisation of key mechanisms in post-conflict Human Rights (HR) regimes, ethnographic interviews with Cambodian interlocutors present resistance to victim-perpetrator outreach and reconciliation, truth telling, and memorialisation. Resistance stems from the incommensurability between Buddhist present and future-focused perspectives and Euro Western (EW) past-focused memory work so central to the above mechanisms of post-conflict reconciliation. The vernacularisation of EW memory work is not only perceived as culturally incongruent, but appears to threaten a resurgence of genocide-related distress and strife that the HR regime hoped to assuage. Rather than calling for improved cultural competency of vernacularised memory work, accounts disclose the incommensurability of the taken for granted core EW mnemonic axiom (and scenario) that retrieval of the painful past and its public representation may somehow promote healing, rehabilitation and future conflict prevention. As common denominator embedded within multiple mechanisms of the HR model of conflict prevention, this axiom will be epistemically and historically contextualised in HR discourse on memorialisation. Implications will be considered for the future of globalised practices of memorialisation, conflict prevention and the HR regime sustaining axiomatic violence.
... It would go beyond the scope of the introduction to this special issue on religiopolitical activism in southern Africa, especially in its Christian variety, to discuss in detail the historical origins, sociopolitical contexts, and wider ramifications of these developments on a global horizon. It suffices to note here that the so-called third wave of democratisation (Huntington 2012; for Africa see Young 1999;Lynch and Crawford 2011), processes of citizens' neoliberal (self-) responsibilisation (Ganti 2014; for Africa see Comaroff and Comaroff 2001;Ferguson 2006), the rise of identity politics of different sorts (Eriksen 2002; for Africa see Comaroff and Comaroff 2005), the global diffusion of human rights discourses (Merry 2005(Merry , 2006 for Africa see Goodale 2006aGoodale , 2006bWilson 1996), and the increasingly politicised awareness of socioeconomic inequalities both within and between countries, among other factors, are all contributing to the emergence of new social movements and forms of activism. In recent years activist initiatives have therefore attracted increased attention from social scientists examining the ways in which activism has become a powerful tool to launch societal and political transformations outside, cutting across, and to some extent undermining existing formal institutions. ...
... What has lately attracted heightened attention from social scientists is activism that addresses humanitarian and human rights issues that are also promoted by transnationally active institutions (Goodale 2006b;Nelson and Dorsey 2008;Fassin 2012). As is well known, humanitarian issues have long been on the agenda of Christian organisations, which in recent decades have increasingly begun to incorporate human rights discourses as well. ...
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The introduction to this special issue argues that in many countries in southern Africa a new phase in the entanglement between the religious and the political has set in. Increasingly, activists in political fields are borrowing from religious registers of discourse and practice, while conversely, activists in the religious domain are adopting discourses and practices originating in the political domain. We suggest that this religiopolitical activism is simultaneously the product of a climate of profound social change and an important transformative force within it. In order to do justice to the complex dynamics of southern African religiopolitical activism in its manifold manifestations, we draw on the concept of ‘family resemblances’. This allows us to examine how the boundaries between religious and political registers are made the object of situated social negotiations. The family resemblances explored in this special issue range from religiopolitical activists’ habitus and their communication strategies via religious leaders’ self-positionings in relation to the political, to the creation of specific religiopolitical spaces.
... The justifications for this assumption are to be found in both the historical absence of anthropology from the development of contemporary human rights, and the more recent attempts by individual anthropologists and the discipline's largest professional association to reengage with human rights as both an object of study and a vehicle for emancipatory political practice. Although some aspects of this history have already been related in different places (see e.g., Engle 2001 ;Goodale 2006aGoodale , 2006bMes ser 1993 ;Wilson and Mitchell 2003 ), this chapter provides a full and critical accounting. ...
... If the Statement on Human Rights played a limited or (more likely) no role in the deliberations around the drafting of the UDHR, its status among anthropologists has also at times been misconstrued. With the exception of my own recent writings on the relationship between anthropology and human rights (see e.g., Goodale 2006aGoodale , 2006b, there were two earlier extended attempts to characterize this history, one by an anthropologist (Messer 1993 ) and the other by a law professor (Engle 2001 ). Both leave what I would suggest is the wrong impression about both the events surrounding the production of the Statement on Human Rights, and, more importantly, the impact of the Statement on anthropologists who might have participated more actively in the development of human rights theory and practice in the early post-UDHR period. ...
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It is necessary to examine the curious history of anthropology’s ambivalent relationship to human rights for at least two reasons. First, this history illuminates certain basic dilemmas associated with the emergence of the postwar human rights project and the ways in which particular political and philosophical approaches to human rights became more powerful than other alternatives. Indeed, there is a distinct irony in the fact that a legal and ethical regime that was conceived in order to prevent or redress the violent assertion of illegitimate power within international relations itself came to be defined by subtle forms of power. The study of anthropology’s exile from the early and formative development of human rights reveals how this shift in function was possible. Although this is not widely appreciated, either within the wider human rights community or in academia, the exclusion of anthropology from the critical moments in the emergence of the postwar human rights system would have lasting consequences. As we will see, at mid-twentieth century anthropology had established itself as the preeminent source of scientific expertise on many empirical facets of culture and society, from law to kinship, from religion to morality.
... These critiques foreshadowed contemporary debates about ethnographic positionality vis-à-vis extractive companies and other powerful actors. Such debates generally pivot on the politics of engagement in power-laden fields, and they parallel other well documented debates concerning the relationship between anthropology and advocacy (Goodale 2006;Abu-Lughod 1990); the role of applied anthropologists (Stewart and Strathern 2005); or the division between so-called "pure" and "profane" forms of anthropology which locates academic anthropology "in a 'sacred' space that is distinguishable from applied research occupying a less pure intellectually inferior and more morally profane domain" (Trigger 2011: 233). ...
... Anthropological studies of human rights more broadly also inform the way research on the situated practices can contribute to the effective implementation of those international legal frameworks (see, for instance, Goodale, 2006;Jean-Klein and Riles, 2005;Merry, 2006). As law is a normative discourse that aims at regulating an often elusive reality, the local always supersedes the universal (Alves, 2000: 491, 299). ...
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This article provides empirical evidence on children’s agency and capacity in making the decision to marry. Case studies from my fieldwork in Bali contrast the commonly represented image of child marriage as a forced marriage, by demonstrating that in many cases children themselves make the decision to marry. However, considering social power dynamics, is such a decision really the child’s? The analysis shows that the current international child marriage framework fails to walk the thin line between empowerment and protection of children. Policies instead should be designed to encourage their participation in decision making and stimulate their resilience in their life after marriage.
Violence against Muslim minority communities in Myanmar has brought the issue of human rights to international and domestic attention. Burmese democratic leaders, activists and Buddhist monks have attracted sharp international criticism for their seemingly neglectful responses to widespread human rights violations. Yet little attention has been directed towards understanding how these leaders make sense of “human rights.” This article argues that the shift in international attention from the problem of military authoritarianism to the marginalisation of religious minorities precipitated new ways in which human rights has been given meaning by Burmese Buddhist political and religious leaders. Examining their use of human rights language through interviews conducted between 2016 and 2017, we highlight contrasting responses to “human rights.” Some respondents rejected human rights language outright, while others imparted the phrase with their own meaning, presenting a variety of hybridised visions of human rights that sometimes supported, rather than opposed, the exclusion of Muslim minorities. Finally, others strategically avoided human rights language as they sought to promote human rights aims amidst popular rejection of the discourse. These findings highlight the importance, for actors seeking to promote human rights in Myanmar, of sensitivity towards divergent meanings of human rights.
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This article explores the idea that law has become newly constitutive in a postmodern transnational system in which modernity's classic polarities have become obscured, the discipline of late capitalism has become widely if partially internalized outside of institutional domains, liberalism's foot soldiers (rights, citizenship, nation statism, 'free' markets) have gained new forward momentum despite a period of supposed ideological hybridity described by that overheated but ill-theorized concept 'globalization', and, finally, most arguments for socialist/egalitarian revolution or system transformation must now be seen as anachronisms. The article locates these processes as essential features of a particular disciplinary regime in which the grandeur of liberal legality is used to create loyalty to the wider project of liberalism within the consolidation of late capitalism. These regimes are called 'empires of law', and the theoretical framework within which empires of law are rendered intelligible as actual sociolegal phenomena draws from, but critically reframes, insights found in Hardt and Negri's book Empire (2000).
Some anthropologists criticize United Nations "universal" human rights as ethnocentrically Western. But all sociocultural groups define some concept analogous to human rights, and multiple political and philosophical cultures have contributed to the evolving UN framework. This essay traces the four major sources of modern human rights (Western political liberalism, socialism and social welfare principles, cross-cultural rights traditions, and the UN instruments) and focuses on points of agreement in the evolving framework. The evidence is used to argue for a pluralist approach to human rights (rather than narrower universal, Western, or broader cultural relativist approaches) and suggests points for additional anthropological contributions.
This book hopes to further contribute to teaching, research, and activist contention about the uncertain futures of human rights in a hyperglobalizing world. The issue of politics - the combined and uneven labours of practices of domination and governance and of counter-power - is addressed in this work. Power and resistance have articulated themselves in terms of alternate languages of normative politics in a pre-human rights epoch through various notions such as 'justice', 'righteous' conduct (both on the part of the rulers and the ruled), moral responsibility to avoid causing harm to others in everyday conduct, the virtues of honour and chivalry (upon which even until this day thrive the genre, texts, and corpus of international law of humanitarian intervention and of warfare), and fidelity to the divine being rendered intelligible only through the pious interpretation of God's word. This book also further addresses some ways in which politics of production (inter/intra-governmental labours as well as a wide variety of related social practices) bears upon the production of politics. Human rights activism, the politics of identity and difference, relativism, human rights movements, human rights markets, and business ethics are also discussed. © Upendra Baxi and Oxford University Press, 2006. All rights reserved.
The concept of universal cultural features or principles is not in itself incompatible with some forms of cultural relativism, but the idea of universal human rights poses special problems. "Rights," in the specific sense, cannot be universal attributes of "humanity," as anthropologically conceived, but general principles of right or justice may be so. Anthropology may be able to provide knowledge of universal attributes of humanity with ethical or moral implications that can help to define such concepts. More specifically, anthropological activism in defense of human difference provides an important lead for the formulation of a universal right to difference. This argument converges with a historical analysis of the social and historical origins of the concept of human rights and the ways the concept has become transformed and reoriented in the context of the contemporary crisis of the state and the rise of ethnic and identity politics. In this historical conjuncture, the criterion of difference has emerged as a central focus of rights struggles and discourses.
Africa Today 49.1 (2002) 119-121 Richard Wilson’s book on the politics of truth and reconciliation in South Africa is a refreshing addition to the literature on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. Not only is it the first book-length anthropological treatment of the commission to appear; it also represents the beginning of a comprehensive, critical sociological interpretation of its work. Wilson’s principal argument begins with the claim that the TRC was designed to centralize and legitimize postapartheid state power. The TRC process was used to secure South Africa’s new political identity as a defender of human rights and liberal democracy. Wilson argues that the TRC tried to secure popular support by acrobatically linking human-rights talk (its predominant discourse) to notions of restorative justice and ubuntu (or “African humanism”) and thus to “African” notions of justice. He describes this unexpected conjoining of liberal and African humanism as part of the “ideological promiscuity” of human rights talk. However, the principle failure of the TRC was that it did not recognize or engage with the fact that for most local actors and communities in South Africa, notions of vengeance and responsibility are far more salient than notions of reconciliation and forgiveness. Thus, if the TRC was an attempt to legitimize state power, the TRC’s inability to meaningfully engage with notions of justice relevant to local contexts actually undermined the legitimization project. This book is not only about the TRC, however, and therein lays one of its main strengths. Wilson extends his analysis by examining two well-known, conflict-riddled communities in South Africa and contrasting their approaches to dealing with the local problems of order and justice to the TRC’s rhetoric of human rights. In his account of the first community, Sharpeville, he describes a chaotic space of urban violence and terror, driven by an ethic and cycle of revenge. In Sharpeville, criminal gangs have taken advantage of the lack of legitimate community structures (and of a strong state) which might have served as local institutions of social order and justice. Few places could seem further from the “abstract, cerebral and bloodless” language of the TRC’s frequent appeals for forgiveness and reconciliation. The second community profiled, Boipatong, has been able to develop a much more stable and widely accepted mode of local justice, in the form of a “traditional court.” Though this court has managed to channel individual emotions of vengeance into more community-mediated forms of “retribution,” this community’s perspective remains different from the discourse of human rights and reconciliation advocated by the TRC. In the end, Wilson uses this material to pursue an argument about legal pluralism. He describes early theories which viewed the realms of state (or colonial) law and social (or indigenous) norms as separate fields of power and influence. Legal centralists, in contrast, argued that state power is the only true power, and that all forms of local justice are merely forms of coopted local practice, forms that serve the logic and practice of state power. Wilson argues that state and local forms of justice are always in the process of interacting and transforming. Local and state forms of justice emerge in response to each other, working with and against each other, often at the same time. He argues for a “revised” legal pluralism, one that understands the existence of multiple forms of social ordering and justice as a reflection of the ongoing interplay between state and local forms of power. The many abstract and inconsistently defined terms and concepts that populate (or plague) the literature on the TRC can make reading a dizzying experience. At one point in this book, in the section entitled “Reconciliation, Retribution and Revenge,” in a chapter called “Reconciliation in Society: Religious Value and Procedural Pragmatism,” I came across a subheading labeled “Legal Pluralism and Human Rights in South Africa.” The “ideological promiscuity” of human-rights talk is matched only...