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Abstract

Some 17 years after the end of the cold war, the international and transnational human rights regimes that emerged in the wake of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are at a crossroads. On the one hand, the political openings created by the end of the bipolar postwar world have allowed what Eleanor Roosevelt described as the curious grapevine of nongovernmental actors to carry ideas and practices associated with universal human rights into different parts of the world as part of broader transnational development activities. On the other hand, this spread of human rights discourse has only magnified the different problems at the heart of human rights, problems that are theoretical, practical, and phenomenological. Anthropology has an important part to play in addressing these problems and in suggesting ways in which human rights can be reframed so that their original purposes, those embodied in documents like the UDHR, stand a better chance of being realized.
2006 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2006/4703-0004$10.00
Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006 485
Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human
Rights
by Mark Goodale
Some 17 years after the end of the cold war, the international and transnational human rights regimes
that emerged in the wake of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are at a crossroads.
On the one hand, the political openings created by the end of the bipolar postwar world have allowed
what Eleanor Roosevelt described as the “curious grapevine” of nongovernmental actors to carry
ideas and practices associated with universal human rights into different parts of the world as part
of broader transnational development activities. On the other hand, this spread of human rights
discourse has only magnified the different problems at the heart of human rights, problems that are
theoretical, practical, and phenomenological. Anthropology has an important part to play in ad-
dressing these problems and in suggesting ways in which human rights can be reframed so that their
original purposes, those embodied in documents like the UDHR, stand a better chance of being
realized.
This article is both an exercise in historiography, a reanalysis
of the ways in which American anthropology’s relationship
to human rights has been represented, and an argument for
a different anthropological orientation to human rights. It
uses the intellectual history of American anthropology to il-
lustrate one way in which human rights has been understood
within the broader discipline. The effects of the process of
engagement-disengagement-reengagement that characterizes
American anthropology’s ambivalent history with human
rights can be seen in the relative anthropological silence in
broader human rights debates for almost 40 years. The an-
thropological voice was absent during the rise of the inter-
national and (eventually) transnational human rightsregimes,
and the case of American anthropology both symbolizes and
reflects this intellectual absence. As the argument for a critical
anthropology of human rights proper is developed, the in-
tellectual history of anthropology’s engagement with human
rights becomes more diverse, such that American anthro-
pology can no longer stand in for the broader discipline, even
for heuristic purposes.
Histories
American anthropology and its practitioners have had a long,
strange relationship with international human rights theory
Mark Goodale is Assistant Professor of Conflict Analysis and An-
thropology at George Mason University (Fairfax, VA 22030-4444,
U.S.A. [mgoodale@gmu.edu]). The present paper was submitted 23
IX 04 and accepted 24 VIII 05.
and practice. Although it must be hard for anthropologists
of the most recent generation to imagine, there was a time
when the discipline, through its representatives, was consid-
ered a source of authoritative and scientific opinion weighty
enough that it was asked to issue public statements on matters
of great moment. It was natural, then, that the United
Nations—through the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—would ask a well-
known member of the American Anthropological Association
(AAA) to submit a statement to assist the UN Commission
on Human Rights, which was in 1947 working on a draft
version of what would eventually become the 1948 Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.
1
By the mid-twentieth century,
all three major Western sociocultural anthropological trajec-
tories (“schools” is certainly too strong)—American cultural
anthropology, British social anthropology, and French social
anthropology—had firmly established themselves, taken to-
gether, as the undisputed scientific database of cross-social
and cross-cultural research findings, including cultural uni-
versals. Thus, apart from the obviously political and philo-
sophical dimensions of the declaration both as a statement
of intent by the international community that genocide would
never again be tolerated and as an international ratification
of the values of liberalism, its proponents were understandably
confident that professional anthropologists would endorse
and then publicly substantiate the declaration’s central em-
pirical conclusions: that human beings are naturally endowed
1. For an account of the drafting of the declaration, see Morsink
(1999); see also Roosevelt (1948).
486 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
with certain rights and that these rights are, in fact, universal,
coextensive with humanness irrespective of the subjectivities
embedded in history and culture.
2
But this confidence would turn out to have been misplaced.
After a period of some uncertainty, the executive board of
the AAA, under the guiding influence of Melville Herskovits,
authorized the publication of a “Statement on Human Rights”
in late 1947 and its submission to the UN Commission on
Human Rights.
3
The statement rejected the validity of a uni-
2. Despite the antiuniversalist tendency that characterized American
anthropology up through the 1930s, by mid-century a new emphasis had
emerged that sought to refocus research on more generalizable or sci-
entific purposes. The problem of cultural universals, which the early
Boasians had rejected as crypto-evolutionist, was invested with greater
importance. This tendency culminated in the Human Relations Area Files
and the eventual rise of the neo-evolutionist schools of cultural ecology
and materialism. In Europe this period (1945–55) overlapped with the
growing influence of the superuniversalism of French structural anthro-
pology (Le´vi-Strauss 1949) and the continuing emphasis in British social
anthropology on pursuing a “science of mankind,” that is, applying sci-
entific epistemologies to the study of human societies.
3. The full text of the statement was printed in the American An-
thropologist (AAA 1947). There is still some mystery surrounding the
exact sequence of events of 1946 and 1947 that culminated in the AAA
statement. Following the lead of the late Wilcomb Washburn, who pub-
lished the results of some of his research in 1987, I am conducting research
in the AAA archives, which are housed within the National Anthropo-
logical Archives at the Smithsonian Institution’s museum support center
in Suitland, Maryland. Although this work is ongoing and is being used
for a book-length manuscript, there have already been some important
findings. I have studied most of the presidential and executive board
correspondence and the minutes of the executive board meetings for
1946, 1947, and 1948. I have not found any official correspondence
between the president or the executive board and either UNESCO or the
UN Commission for Human Rights or any correspondence by other
parties that refers to an official request by the UN to the AAA to draft
a statement on human rights. What can be documented, however, is the
following: (1) In 1945 Melville Herskovits was named chairman of the
Committee on International Cooperation in Anthropology of the Na-
tional Research Council, a committee made up of AAA members that
acted as the association’s de facto committee for international outreach
and engagement, particularly with international institutions like the UN.
(2) On June 12, 1947, Herskovits sent a draft copy of the statement,
written by him without any collaboration, to the president of the AAA
(Clyde Kluckhohn) with a note reading, “Here is the draft of the statement
I sent to the UNESCO Committee, revised in accordance with the idea
that it would be forwarded to the Commission on Human Rights of the
United Nations, from the Association.” (3) In the late summer and early
fall of 1947 Kluckhohn corresponded regularly with J. Alden Mason, the
editor of the American Anthropologist, in order to ensure that the final
statement, which had been only slightly and nonsubstantively revised (by
Herskovits himself), would be published as soon as possible. (4) In Oc-
tober 1947 Ralph Beals and Kluckhohn took steps to stop the production
of Volume 49, Number 4, because Mason had mistakenly placed the
statement in the journal’s “Brief Communications” section, whereas the
executive board wanted it to appear as the number’s lead article (which
it eventually did). (5) The statement was published at the end of 1947
without, as far as I could discover, a formal resolution (or ratification)
from the AAA executive board at its 1947 meetings. Thus it appears that
UNESCO approached the National Research Council and not the AAA
for the “official” American anthropological view on human rights, even
though Herskovits’s NRC committee eventually acted for and through
versal declaration of human rights on both empirical and
ethical grounds. The executive board observed that anthro-
pologists had amply documented a richness of diversity in
moral systems and that the cross-cultural data did not support
the assertion of a universal set of substantive rights. Thus it
agreed that anthropology could provide objective information
about the existence or not of universal normative values such
as those asserted in the declaration but simply came to the
opposite conclusion from the one necessary to legitimate the
UN Commission’s project.
4
But, as important, it opposed a
universal declaration of human rights because of its imperi-
alistic irony. No matter how well-intentioned the Commis-
sion’s effort, the end result of any internationally sanctioned
statement of rights would be the imposition of hegemonic
moral values on less powerful groups of people whose patterns
of behavior were misunderstood and reviled by Western elites.
In other words, a charter that was intended to protect the
powerless from the outrages of fascism and totalitarianism in
their various forms would have the unintended consequence
of compelling individuals and cultures outside the majestic
arc of Western liberalism to bring social practices into line
with what was hoped would be a set of legal rights backed
up by the mechanisms of international law.
5
Within less than a year of the statement’s publication in
the American Anthropologist, two critiques by prominent an-
thropologists appeared in the same journal (Barnett 1948;
Steward 1948), followed by one more short comment the
following year (Bennett 1949). Tellingly, neither Barnett nor
Steward actually discussed the main bases for the executive
board’s rejection of the legitimacy of what would become the
1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—what I have
characterized as the empirical and the ethical critiques. Rather,
their critiques were concerned almost exclusively with what
I consider something of a red herring: the statement’s second
proposition and related elaborations, in which it is asserted
that “respect for differences between cultures is validated by
the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating
cultures has been discovered” (AAA 1947, 542). In other
words, (1) anthropologists are scientists, and scientists are
the AAA. It is to this extent only that it is correct to say that the UN
“asked” the AAA to comment on a declaration of human rights.
4. As the statement says in its significant third proposition:“Standards
and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any
attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral
codes or one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability
of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole” (AAA 1947,
542).
5. The board’s fear that a universal declaration of human rights would
lead to a kind of moral imperialism was not simply prospective; it drew
upon historical precedents such as the fact that “so noble a document
as the American Declaration of Independence, or the American Bill of
Rights, could be written by men who were themselves slave-owners, in
a country where chattel slavery was a part of the recognized social order.
The revolutionary character of the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’
was never more apparent than in the struggles to implement it by ex-
tending it to the French slave-owning colonies” (AAA 1947, 542).
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 487
epistemologically barred from validating moral propositions
such as those contained in the declaration; (2) therefore, an-
thropologists must remain forever agnostic as to the scientific
truth or falsity of claims regarding universal human rights;
and (3), given this, anthropologists cannot, as anthropologists,
endorse any intellectual or political position that assumes the
existence (or nonexistence) of a universal set of rights that is
coextensive with humanness. I consider this a red herring
because it does not go the merits of the issues that are sub-
stantively addressed elsewhere in the statement and, moreover,
transforms what was in fact the promising beginning of a
concrete (and critical) anthropological engagement with hu-
man rights into yet another intradisciplinary debate—andnot
a very important or lasting one—over epistemology.
After 1949, the phrase “human rights” did not appear in
the title of any article published in the AAA’s flagship peer-
reviewed journal until 1987, when Wilcomb Washburn of the
Smithsonian published a very brief comment on cultural rel-
ativism in which he described, also very briefly, some of the
deliberations of the AAA executive board as it drafted and
revised the 1947 statement. The absence of “human rights”
from the title of any full article published in American An-
thropologist until 1988,
6
while not evidence per se, is at least
symbolic of the fact that American anthropology had spent
the preceding 40 years in exile from the most important de-
bates over human rights theory and practice.
Despite what my research into this period has indicated,
however, there are notable counterpositions in the histori-
ography of American anthropology’s engagement with and
disengagement from human rights. In 2001 Karen Engle, a
law professor, published an account of the relationship be-
tween human rights and the AAA, a relationship that she
characterized as moving from “skepticism to embrace.” Al-
though her analysis of recent developments is useful, there
are several difficulties with her argument. First, the history
of this relationship simply does not support her assertion that
anthropologists “have been embarrassed ever since” the pub-
lication of the 1947 statement (2001, 536). As I have shown,
there was virtually no formal response by members of the
AAA either in support of or in opposition to the statement
after 1947, hardly what one would expect if there had been
a general outcry of indignant embarrassment over a document
that misrepresented the general will of the association’s mem-
bers on this issue. Second, as have several others who have
described this history, Engle makes the mistake of eliding the
years between 1947 and the 1980s and then representing them
in terms of the past 15 years. Thus, for example, she writes
that “for the past fifty years, the Statement has caused the
AAA great shame. Indeed, the term ‘embarrassment’ is con-
tinually used in reference to the Statement” (p. 541). She does
6. And it was a political scientist, Alison Dundes Renteln, who pub-
lished the first article in the American Anthropologist after the 1940s to
engage directly with human rights, although in this case only in order
to explore the meanings of cultural relativism (Renteln 1988).
not reinforce this claim with any citations that reflect this
“continual reference,” even if this way of describing the 1947
statement would become commonplace during the 1990s. In
a sense, Engle commits a logical fallacy—post hoc, ergo propter
hoc—in making this argument: that the sea change during
the 1990s among some anthropologists was caused by a
buildup of simmering “embarrassment” during the preceding
40 years. And finally, Engle does not mention that the AAA
of 1999 was a profoundly different association from the AAA
of 1947; in other words, she (mis-)interprets this history by
holding the nature of the AAA (its size, stated mission, com-
position of membership, etc.) constant, much as legal scholars
hold the institutional nature of the U.S. Supreme Court con-
stant in order to track changes in its jurisprudence.
7
During the period from 1947 to the mid-1980s, the Uni-
versal Declaration on Human Rights served as the foundation
for the creation of an entire framework of international and
transnational human rights discourse, within which the most
important human rights instruments,
8
nongovernmental or-
ganizations,
9
and international publications
10
were established,
developed, and grew in power and influence. While the with-
drawal of American anthropology and anthropologists from
human rights debates and practice did not exactly create a
vacuum, the development and increasing hegemony ofhuman
rights were facilitated by the ongoing participation of aneclec-
tic mix of intellectuals and nonelites dominated by interna-
tional legal scholars, legal philosophers, political scientists,
diplomats, social activists, career bureaucrats and civil ser-
vants, politicians, and journalists. Although this article is not
the place for a full analysis of the impact of this discursive
history on current human rights theory and practice and its
implications for current anthropology, it is enough at this
7. In fact, recent archival research shows that the AAA in 1947 would
be nearly unrecognizable to AAA members today. For example,according
to AAA executive board minutes from 1946, even though there were 600
professional anthropologists in the United States at that time, the asso-
ciation had only 200 members, and of these a “majority” (apparently
more than 100) were nonanthropologists: “amateurs, students, [and] in-
terested persons from other fields, and libraries” (Minutes of AAA Ex-
ecutive Board, March 1946–May 1954, Box 192, National Anthropological
Archives). This means that the universe of professional anthropology was
dramatically smaller at mid-century, and within this world the AAA
played a much less significant role than it would later. This would also
explain why it appears that the National Research Council, not the AAA,
was approached by UNESCO.
8. For example, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), the
Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and
Peoples (1961), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and
Cultural Rights (1966), the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (1966), the International Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966), and the Convention on the Elim-
ination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1976).
9. For example, Amnesty International (1961), Helsinki Watch/Hu-
man Rights Watch (1978), and Peace Brigades International (1981). One
important exception is the founding of Cultural Survival by David and
Pia Maybury-Lewis in 1972.
10. For example, Human Rights Quarterly (1978).
488 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
point to observe that current human rights discourse bears
the traces of its genealogy’s first 40 years.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, the formal relationship
between American anthropology and human rights changed,
and the period from about 1987
11
to the present marks the
current and third distinct era in this uneasy engagement.
12
Apart from the resurrection of the earlier debates over uni-
versalism and cultural relativism, as a matter of practice the
discipline of anthropology underwent a much more profound
realignment in its orientation toward human rights. Partly on
the basis of the work of the earlier cultural-survival anthro-
pologists and those involved in the emerging indigenous-
rights movements, the AAA began to consider ways in which
it could employ anthropological knowledge to advocate for
indigenous peoples who were either direct targets or indirect
victims of state and multinational corporate abuses.
13
This
intent was signaled by the appointment by the AAA of a
special investigating commission in 1990, chaired by Terrence
Turner, to investigate the aggressive encroachments by the
Brazilian state on traditional Yanomami territory.
14
The cre-
ation of this commission and its subsequent report (1991),
which, according to the Committee for Human Rights (2001),
“appears to have played a role in stopping the appropriation
of all but small, isolated reserves in the Yanomami area and
precipitating Brazilian agreement to a very large, contiguous
Yanomami homeland,” led institutionally to theestablishment
by the AAA executive board in 1992 of a Commission for
Human Rights, which was directed “to develop a human
rights conceptual framework and identify relevant human
rights issues, to develop human rights education and net-
working, and to develop and implement mechanisms for or-
11. The mid- to late 1980s was the time when, partly stimulated by
the 1984 publication of Clifford Geertz’s 1983 AAA DistinguishedLecture
“Anti Anti-Relativism,” the discipline suddenly rediscovered the com-
plexities of some of the early issues surrounding anthropology andhuman
rights, specifically the problem of universalism and cultural relativism.
Other indications of this renewed intellectual interest are Washburn’s
1987 article and Ronald Cohen’s 1989 article in the American Anthro-
pologist, in which he argues for a “new approach” to human rights from
anthropology. Cohen’s characterization of the period between the crea-
tion of the Universal Declaration and the time of his article reinforces
my own. He asks, rhetorically, “What for instance has anthropological
research (not simply pious pronouncements) to say about the rights de-
scribed in the U.N. Charter, or the African Charter . . .?” (1989, 1015).
The answer, I have argued for this period, is not much.
12. Just to be clear, I see three distinct eras or phases in American
anthropology’s (dis-)engagement with human rights: (1) 1945–50: formal
and public consideration of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,
rejection of it, denial of possibilities for engagement; (2) 1950–87: an-
thropological absence from important developments as an international
and transnational human rights discourse emerged and became pre-
eminent; and (3) 1987–present.
13. Perhaps coincidentally, much of the most important early cultural-
survival work involved indigenous groups in Amazonia (the Yanomami,
the Kayapo, the Xerente).
14. The following information is drawn from the five-year evaluation
report of the AAA’s Committee for Human Rights (2001).
ganizational action on issues affecting the AAA, its members,
and the discipline.”
15
During this time period (1992–94), one of the founding
members of what would become the Committee for Human
Rights (the permanent standing committee created from the
Commission), Ellen Messer, published in the Annual Review
of Anthropology something of a manifesto for this latest phase
in anthropology’s engagement with human rights (Messer
1993). In it she made the somewhat curious argument that
even though anthropologists had been largely absent from
most of the political and intellectual development of human
rights, this absence had actually “contributed to the expansion
of the human rights concept” (1993, 222). In other words,
even though, as she admitted, a search of “computerized da-
tabases and major human rights journals such as Human
Rights Quarterly . . . uncover[s] few articles by anthropolo-
gists” (pp. 223–24), the “editors and authors of some collec-
tions on human rights in cross-cultural perspective that ap-
peared over the past decade . . . are predominantly political
theorists, legal scholars, and philosophers” (p. 224), and
“these nonanthropological disciplines also appear to dominate
the ongoing UN process of defining, advocating, and advo-
cating human rights” (p. 224), anthropology’s marginalization
from the core of human rights theorizing and practice had
allowed it during the 1980s to research and advocate for what
were either ignored issues within long-standing human rights
doctrine (e.g., linguistic or ethnic rights) or issues that had
not yet been accepted as human rights issues per se (e.g.,
cultural rights or rights of indigenous peoples).
What made Messer’s article historically significant was ex-
actly what transformed it into a call to action. In attempting
to “counter” the “conventional wisdom” that anthropological
knowledge and praxis had been insignificant in the devel-
opment of human rights, she compressed the history of this
relationship so that what I have called the second period
(1950–87) was subtly elided, with the result that the events
immediately prior to and including what I have described as
the third and current phase (1987–present) came to represent
the history of the relationship between anthropology and hu-
man rights itself. In doing this, Messer was both right and
wrong. She was wrong to the extent that she created the
impression that anthropological research or theorizing had
had any noticeable impact on the development of interna-
tional human rights theory and practice between 1950 and
the early to mid-1980s; she was absolutely right that anthro-
pology had had the impact she described—participation in
the development of new categories of collective rights and the
15. In the introduction to a 1997 special issue of the Journal of An-
thropological Research, guest editors Carole Nagengast and Terrence
Turner acknowledge the important role played by Patrick Morris in the
creation of the permanent Committee for Human Rights.
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 489
pursuit of new epistemologies that fused anthropological
knowledge with human rights activism.
16
The programmatic nature of Messer’s article received rat-
ification by the AAA itself in 1999, when a new “Declaration
on Anthropology and Human Rights” was formally adopted
by the general AAA membership. This declaration was the
culmination of a process that began in the mid-1980s and,
in the event, marked the definitive repudiation of the 1947
statement.
17
The declaration is a relatively short and ambi-
guously worded document, but its central point is that the
AAA now affirms that the weight of anthropological knowl-
edge demonstrates that “people and groups have a generic
right to realize their capacity for culture” (Committee for
Human Rights 1999). Far from rejecting the validity of in-
ternational human rights instruments such as the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, the AAA’s declaration em-
phatically subsumes the putative human right to realize a
capacity for culture within a set of as-yet-to-be-articulated
human rights that go beyond those currently recognized in
international law. As the declaration states, this new position
“reflects a commitment to human rights consistent with in-
ternational principles but not limited by them.” I will discuss
the declaration’s allusion to the capabilities “solution” to the
rights “problem” in greater detail below, but it is enough here
to reiterate that practical and ethical commitments on the
part of a group of anthropologists led not only to a reversal
by the AAA of its earlier position on human rights but to
something much more: the emergence of the AAA as a major
human rights advocacy NGO in certain world regions focused
on leading-edge issues in human rights practice.
Finally, in 2000 the Committee for Human Rights aug-
mented its original set of guidelines and objectives, and this
list remains the current (as of 2005) set of operating principles
for the committee: (1) promote and protect human rights;
(2) expand the definition of human rights within an anthro-
pological perspective; (3) work internally with the member-
ship of the AAA to educate anthropologists and to mobilize
their support for human rights; (4) work externally with for-
eign colleagues, the people and groups with whom anthro-
pologists work, and other human rights organizations to de-
velop an anthropological perspective on human rights and
consult with them on human rights violations and the ap-
propriate actions to be taken; (5) influence and educate the
media, policy makers, NGOs, and decision makers in the
16. Messer went on to serve as an original member of the AAA’s
Committee for Human Rights between 1995 and 1998 at the same time
as continuing to play an important international role in efforts to have
a distinct human right to food recognized and institutionalized, most
recently through her directorship of the World Hunger Program at Brown
University.
17. In this regard it is interesting that no mention is made of the 1947
statement at any place on the committee’s web site, the section entitled
“Documents of Historical Value” being limited to the small number of
historically important documents produced by the committee itself since
1995.
private sector; and (6) encourage research on all aspects of
human rights from the conceptual to the applied (Committee
for Human Rights 2001).
If we divide what I have called the third phase (1987–pre-
sent) into two subperiods, 1987–93 (from the late 1980s to
Messer’s review article) and 1994–present, it is clear that Mes-
ser’s argument for the discipline’s influence on human rights,
which was, even in 1993, still incipient, has been strengthened
over the past 15 years, partly through the direct involvement
of the Committee for Human Rights
18
but also through the
collective work of a small but growing group of anthropol-
ogists who have begun to study human rights as cultural
practice. Nevertheless, with respect to the development of
human rights theory—the expansion and deepening of what
Michael Perry (1998) calls the “idea of human rights”—an-
thropology’s contributions remain marginal at best. In other
words, despite the fact that the 1992 AAA Commission of
Human Rights was directed “to develop a human rights con-
ceptual framework and identify human rights issues” and the
commission’s successor is under an ongoing mandate to “ex-
pand the definition of human rights within an anthropological
perspective,” even a generous evaluation of the vigorous con-
ceptual and analytical debates over the content and meaning
of human rights reveals that the AAA’s goals for these areas
remain as yet unrealized.
As with the use of American anthropology to symbolize
the anthropological engagement with human rights more gen-
erally, this is a debatable point, but a consideration of a cross
section of major works in human rights theory during the
past decade shows how little the definition of human rights
has been expanded “within an anthropological perspective.”
A list of these works would include the various writings from
the “capabilities” perspective (e.g., Nussbaum 2000 [law/phi-
losophy]; Sen 2000 [development or welfare economics]; Ig-
natieff 2003 [history/journalism]; Perry 1998 [legal philoso-
phy]; and Shute and Hurley 1993 [law and philosophy]). Even
more revealing, anthropologists have been absent from many
of the major works in “culture and human rights” or “human
rights in cross-cultural perspective,” including Bell, Nathan,
and Peleg (2001 [no anthropologists among 14 contributors])
and An-Na’im (1992 [2 anthropologists among 15 contrib-
18. It is, of course, difficult to measure degrees of “influence” in this
sense with any degree of certainty, but if one simply restricts the unit of
analysis to the actions of the AAA through the Committee for Human
Rights one can point to several cases in which anthropologists and the
AAA were partly responsible for either influencing human rights practice
by states or major institutions or took the lead in bringing what were
considered violations of international human rights law to the attention
of the global media. The most prominent example of this is the case of
the Yanomami, in which the active intervention of the special commission
mentioned earlier played a major role in forcing a change in policy by
the Brazilian government favorable to the Yanomami nation. At the same
time, when the alleged human rights violators are not nation-states or
multinational corporations but anthropologists themselves, the record of
the Committee for Human Rights and the AAA is more ambiguous, as
in the infamous Darkness in El Dorado affair (see Borofsky 2005).
490 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
utors]).
19
Other anecdotal evidence of a relative anthropo-
logical silence in the development of human rights theory
includes the fact that only 2 of the 31 fellows of Harvard’s
Carr Center for Human Rights, a major human rights think
tank, have been anthropologists; the fellowships, predictably,
have overwhelmingly gone to lawyers, philosophers, histori-
ans, and political scientists. And finally, it can hardly be gain-
said that anthropology has contributed little to the much
broader and older debates about rights in general—human
rights being a category of the general with unique properties—
in moral philosophy and political theory. If Dworkin (1977)
urged us to take rights seriously, the same cannot be said of
anthropology as a source of moral or ethical theory, which
is, I would argue, ironic given that anthropology remains the
academic discipline best suited to understanding the human
experience in its fullest terms.
In light of the above, this article is necessarily a sally from
the theoretical margins of human rights debates. But in order
to develop what I understand to be a critical anthropology
of human rights, I will suggest several ways in which the
conceptual framework of human rights can be expanded so
as not merely to take account of but rather to rely on the
peculiar anthropological blend of cultural critique, ethnog-
raphy and other hybrid methodologies, and intersubjectivity.
In this sense, the arguments in this article are meant to
point to an anthropological “third way” in relationship to
human rights. Since at least Messer’s 1993 article, anthro-
pologists on both sides of the Atlantic (if not elsewhere) have
sought to clear new ground on which anthropological knowl-
edge could contribute to expanded articulations of human
rights. The first move is perhaps best represented by Terrence
Turner’s argument (1997) that anthropologists have an ob-
ligation to use their knowledge of cultural difference and
richness to help form the foundation for an “emancipatory
cultural politics,” and his own inspired and pathbreaking writ-
ings and activities on behalf of the Kayapo are a clear ex-
pression of how an anthropologist can link anthropological
knowledge with a rights-based framework within which in-
digenous people can advance claims.
20
The second move was
to transform the social practice of human rights into an object
of anthropological inquiry. An important recent example of
this approach is Sally Merry’s (2005) book on the regulation
of violence against women through human rights, in which
she employs a transnational and mobile ethnography in order
to track the production and localization of human rights dis-
course in China, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, Switzerland, and the
United States. My call for a critical anthropology of human
19. This has began to change (see Cowan, Denbour, and Wilson 2001;
Goodale and Merry 2006; Wilson 1997; Wilson and Mitchell 2003).
20. See also Messer (1997), Nagengast (1997), and Zechenter (1997).
The special issue that contains all these articles began as a panel at the
1995 AAA annual meetings in which human rights were a topic of focused
interest. More recent work in the “emancipatory cultural politics” tra-
dition can be found in Nagengast and Ve´lez-Iba´n˜ez (2004), which re-
ceived a commendation from former president Jimmy Carter.
rights is intended to complement these efforts. Although I
argue for a type of anthropological engagement that is quite
distinct from both the cultural/political and the ethnographic/
descriptive and although the goals of the alternative orien-
tation I develop are also directed outside of anthropology
itself, my efforts here are part of a broader intellectual history,
one which makes a new formulation possible and (ideally)
credible.
To say this is also to ground the remaining sections in the
foregoing reinterpretation of this intellectual history. In other
words, any arguments I develop must be contextualized both
in relation to the particular history I describe above and in
relation to broader human rights currents outside of anthro-
pology toward which my argument for a critical anthropology
of human rights is ultimately directed. A recast historiography
of American anthropology’s relationship with human rights
is, therefore, both a necessary starting point and an episte-
mological resource for what follows.
Before moving to a discussion of my proposals for a critical
anthropology of human rights, however, it may be useful to
make explicit the way I have been employing “human rights”
throughout this article. By “human rights” I do not mean
exclusively a body of positive international law that forms the
“starting point for a process . . . intended to render certain
kinds of argument successful before judges in international
courts,” as one reader defined “human rights” in a review of
an earlier draft of this article. This is an entirely reasonable
way of understanding “human rights,” one that limits the
usage to the narrow confines of positive law as informed by
an analysis of this law’s ability to demonstrate that (again in
this reader’s words) it has “acquired teeth.” This way of de-
fining and studying human rights is best left to international
lawyers and others for whom the analysis of processes of
justicialability is within their competence. I use “human
rights” much more broadly: the phrase captures the constel-
lation of philosophical, practical, and phenomenological di-
mensions through which universal rights, rights believed to
be entailed by a common human nature, are enacted,debated,
practiced, violated, envisioned, and experienced. When I de-
scribe “human rights discourse” I am referring to the coteries
of concepts, practices, and experiences through which human
rights have meaning at different levels, levels which are prior
to and go beyond the merely instrumental or legal, important
as these levels are. My understanding of human rights is not
quite as broad as Upendra Baxi’s (“protean forms of social
action assembled, by convention, under a portal named ‘hu-
man rights”’ [2002, v]), but conceiving of human rights as
discourse does, obviously, broaden the referent beyond any
one of its most consequential parts (e.g., international human
rights law).
21
21. Conceptualizing human rights in these broader terms makes it
clear why the period 1948–89 is so important, as this was the period
when human rights discourse was developed and embedded conceptually
and institutionally. Indeed, the post-1989 emergence of international hu-
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 491
Proposals
To begin with, what do I mean by a “critical” anthropology?
It is critical in two senses, the first mundane but essential,
the second more complicated and not as self-evidently nec-
essary for reconfiguring our understanding of human rights.
First, by calling it “critical” I do not mean simply to distin-
guish this application of anthropology from those that might
be seen as either dogmatic or naı¨ve, but there is an important
kernel of truth in this. In other words, I do not intend this
approach to signal the strategic adoption of what Andrew
Collier, in discussing the “critical realism” of Roy Bhaskar,
calls “a term of approval in philosophical contexts” (Collier
1994, xi), but a critical anthropology is indeed one that self-
consciously creates space between itself and ideas and prac-
tices that have become coextensive with or, in fact, constitute
the experience of everyday life. An anthropology that is critical
in this sense is especially salient in relation to human rights,
which has become, I would argue, the most (necessarily) ax-
iomatic of (neo-)liberalism’s global discourses. A critical an-
thropology represents a mode, a tone, an ongoing orientation
which is not intended to supplant other possibilities—an in-
tention that led to the hubristic errors made by some of the
pioneering anthropological reformers in the 1980s—but re-
served for ideas that have become ideology andsocialpractices
that have come to form part of the collective habitus.
But there is a second sense in which an anthropology can
be critical. This is a purposive criticality whose task is to effect
what Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (2002, 230), in his discussion
of Horkheimer and Adorno’s (2001[1944]) Dialectic of En-
lightenment, calls a “change in function”: the identification,
contextualization, and, most important, practical employ-
ment of (in this case) normative principles in order to explain
their “failure to be realized in existing society.” For critical
theorists, of course, this is the criticality that tends toward an
enlightenment of the Enlightenment—the recovery of the
originally progressive nature of eighteenth-century reason,
which had regressed into self-destruction during the inter-
vening years—and is—apropos of human rights discourse—
the “fate which has always been reserved for triumphant
thought. If it voluntarily leaves behind its critical element to
become a mere means in the service of an existing order, it
involuntarily tends to transform the positive cause it has es-
poused into something negative and destructive” (Horkhei-
mer and Adorno 2001[1944], xv). A critical anthropology of
human rights, then, is one that seeks to uncover the latent
progressive potential underlying their core principles, which
have become repressed as human rights discourse has become
reified so that all that remains is an impenetrable granite
surface that blocks from view all of the “mediated conceptual
moments” that actually constitute human rights.
A critical anthropology of human rights is necessarily pro-
man rights as a legal strategy with teeth would not have been possible
had the discourse of human rights not already been firmly established.
gressive in that it assumes that (1) there is a set of potentially
emancipatory principles underlying human rights discourse
that (2) have become co-opted by institutional structures of
power so that human rights, ironically, tend toward what a
recent volume describes as “moral imperialism” (Herna´ ndez-
Truyol 2002) and that (3) formal reflection on this process
of co-optation and regression in some form is required before
the potentials embedded in human rights theory and practice
can be “realized in existing society.” And a critical anthro-
pology of human rights is progressive in another sense: its
purpose is to point to the possibility of a middle spacebetween
the reified normativity of a regressive human rights and the
chaos of contemporary human rights praxis, where, as with
the essence of the Enlightenment itself, according to Hork-
heimer and Adorno, there is now a false “choice between
alternatives, and the inescapability of this choice is that of
power” (2001[1944], 25).
22
In other words, a critical anthro-
pology of human rights can explain in context why the current
international and transnational human rights regimes have
failed to fulfill their promise and, if anything, have been
pushed into the spiral of regression described above.
Anthropologists of human rights working in this mode will
therefore use the various techniques available to them to
bracket human rights—to convert into the first object of cri-
tique the processes by which the origins, development, and
transnationalizion of human rights discourse are eclipsed dur-
ing the discourse’s passage into hypernormativity. What I
propose here is not the use of anthropological methodologies
to facilitate the introduction (or consolidation) of human
rights discourse as it now exists (as Messer [1999], Nagengast
[1997], Turner [1997], Sponsel [1995], and others argue);
rather, a critical anthropology of human rights assumes that
reified, hypernormative human rights—human rights in their
current hegemonic, transnational forms—cannot serve as the
basis for realizing their aim, the creation of just communities
committed to the full realization of both individuals and col-
lectivities. To a certain extent, this application of a critical
anthropology to human rights parallels the “diatopical her-
meneutics” of Raimon Panikkar (1996[1982]) and Boaven-
tura de Sousa Santos (1995). As Panikkar argues, “critique
does not invalidate the Declaration of Human Rights, but
offers new perspectives for an internal criticism that setslimits
of validity for human rights, offering . . . possibilities for
enlarging [their] realm” (1996[1982], 92).
23
22. The alternatives in this case for both nation-states and smaller
collectivities being either the embrace and incorporation of international
human rights norms as such or a refusal.
23. According to Panikkar, “Diatopical hermeneutics stands for the
thematic consideration of understanding the other without assuming that
the other has the same basic self-understanding as I have. The ultimate
human horizon, and not only differing contexts, is at stake here” (1974,
4). This provides a way of envisioning how understanding could be
framed across or between different normativities, for example, between
human rights and other types of normative systems that might incor-
porate or otherwise adapt provisions of international human rights.
Christoph Eberhard is another scholar whose work on intercultural legal
492 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
But the real contribution of a critical anthropology for
human rights theory and practice is that it proposes an al-
ternative to the false choices described above. The pursuit of
this middle space means that the alternative paradigm for
human rights I am suggesting can never be merely either
normative or descriptive but is based on what anthropologists
can say comparatively: that social actors across the range of
history and place seek to create meaning in their relations
with others, with greater or lesser degrees of success (de-
pending on an array of contingencies), by striving toward a
normative humanism.
24
“Normative humanism,” a central
finding of legal anthropological research in particular, con-
stitutes a central analytical framework for a critical anthro-
pology of human rights. Normative humanism is a way of
describing a basic cross-cultural fact of collective ordering:
that, given the right circumstances, people will organizethem-
selves so as to establish conditions for meaningful interactions
that are both patterned and prescriptive but that recognize
and formally incorporate a basic set of human-centered val-
ues, values that balance the whole breadth of local cultural
and social possibilities with common cognitive, physical, and
emotional imperatives. A reconstituted human rights, to be
effective and legitimate, would be dependent on the capacity
freedom from constraint—of collectivities to organize them-
selves on these terms.
By “capacity of collectivities to organize themselves on these
terms” I mean something quite different from what is meant
by those who have developed the “capabilities” alternative
(or, perhaps, supplement) to international human rights,
most notably Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum
is not prepared to reject the idea or practice of human rights
because she articulates a theory of capabilities that leaves hu-
man rights where they are: as a set of international standards
that at worst do no harm and at best play “an instrumental
role in preventing material disaster (in particular famine)”
(Nussbaum 2000, 96, referring in part to Sen 1981). She also
argues that there is still a place for the language of rights—
apart from their ontological dimensions—because it (1) im-
bues human capabilities with normativity, (2) underscoresthe
importance of human capabilities, (3) emphasizes that people
can choose to realize their capabilities or not, and, less plau-
sibly, (4) “preserves a sense of the terrain of agreement, while
we continue to deliberate about the proper type of analysis
at the more specific level” (Nussbaum 2000, 100–101).
While the central human capabilities that Nussbaum lists
(2000, 78–80) may very well overlap with some of the basic
theory reinforces my arguments here (see, e.g., Eberhard 2001a, 2001b,
2003).
24. After I had finished this article, I discovered that the German-
American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm had used the phrase “normative
humanism” first in a 1954 Dissent article and then in his 1955 book The
Sane Society. As used by Fromm, however, the phrase means something
much different from my development of it here. Fromm used it to refer
to a set of universal criteria for measuring whether individuals were“sane”
in terms of the degree to which they met their own basic needs.
human-centered values that form part of the patterned and
prescriptive orderings I describe, I think it is premature to
enumerate them in the way Nussbaum does. Indeed, values
differ from capabilities in that they represent a second-order
cultural reflection on cognitive, physical, and emotional im-
peratives that are actually closer to what Nussbaum means
by “capabilities” even though her list contains capabilities that
go beyond them (e.g., “affiliation,” “other species,” and “con-
trol over one’s environment”). Nevertheless, the approach I
develop here assumes that what is most important is not basic
human functioning—important though this is—but the fact
that, in the absence of constraints, collectivities will create
normative systems that are based on the recognition of a basic
set of human-centered values.
There are several important dimensions to normative hu-
manism that need underscoring. First, normative humanism
does not anticipate particular results (i.e., specific types of
legal, moral, or other normative orderings) except within a
broad range informed by collective anthropological and other
analytical experience and a general sense of the limits imposed
by common cognitive, physical, and emotional imperatives.
In other words, normative humanism assumes that specific
“rights” or “obligations” or “duties” or “laws” cannot be pre-
dicted in advance; indeed, it can say relatively little about even
the likelihood or desirability of the adoption of certain cat-
egories—rights versus duties or some combination of these
or others altogether—at particular places and points in time.
It is clear from this that the fact of normative humanism
means a rejection of immanent or metaphysical versions of
universal human rights, but this does not mean that inter-
national human rights might not be adopted as a normative
system at certain places and times. In other words, human
rights can legitimately function as a local normative frame-
work, but their legitimacy will be derived not from their uni-
versality—as is assumed by all of the major foundational in-
struments of international human rights—but from the
conditions through which they emerge or are incorporated.
Second, normative humanism does not imply a radical plu-
ralism or relativism, because the range of possible rights or
duties, for example, is constrained by cognitive, physical, and
emotional requirements. This is the reason normative sys-
tems—again, those able to develop without consequential
constraints—are roughly patterned. Third, normative hu-
manism does not say anything about the scale at which col-
lectivities will organize themselves in this way or the likelihood
that normative orderings will endure; in other words, it is not
a theory of culture per se but relies on the fact that social
groupings will organize themselves so as to establish condi-
tions for meaningful interactions. Fourth, normative human-
ism is based on the assumption that human interests and
desires, articulated individually but necessarily within collec-
tivities of equally construed individuals, can be fully realized
only when the socially constituted orderings that place limits
on individuals are inherently dynamic, historically rich, and
capable of change. Again, to this extent universal human
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 493
rights in their current hegemonic forms, as both idea and
practice, cannot serve as a framework in which social actors
will thrive irrespective of the actions of nation-states or
institutions.
25
Fifth, normative humanism, although primarily a descrip-
tion of actual social practices, is also necessarily progressive
in that it assumes that collectivities will, in fact, create pat-
terned humanistic orderings unless constrained from doing
so. And although history, reevaluated in these terms, reads
like one long catalogue of insidious constraints—military,
ideological, political—on the capacity of individuals in col-
lectivities to realize themselves through the production of
ideal normative systems, when the capacity is present the
necessary—though not sufficient—conditions exist for hu-
man emancipation and some approximation of social justice;
indeed, the emergence of normative humanism in practice
can be seen as emancipation. This way of describing collective
ordering is admittedly optimistic in that it assumes that un-
constrained normative systems will reflect a balance between
the individual and the collective,
26
a balance that nevertheless
can have meaning only in light of local historical and cultural
imperatives.
27
“Power” is thus reconceptualized to mean—in
relation to normativity—the presence of constraints which
prevent the striking of this balance. The ever-presence of
power in these terms is evidence that normative humanism,
as an ideal process of collective social ordering, is not dom-
inant or universally inevitable and must struggle against other
normative possibilities which lack legitimacy as I have defined
it here.
Finally, despite the fact that it also functions as an alter-
25. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, human rights discourse in its
current international and transnational forms tends toward a kind of
moral imperialism that results when the disciplinary power of human
rights discourse is employed in the service of transnational capitalist
relations of production (see Goodale 2005 and below).
26. In saying this, I should emphasize that I conceive of the relation-
ship between the individual and the collective differently from, for ex-
ample, Michael Ignatieff, whose theorizing on this point reinforces the
position of the individual within human rights practice (see Ignatieff
2001). “Normative humanism” expresses my understanding of the re-
lationship between the individual and the collective under unconstrained
circumstances in that it describes the importance of the collective in
articulating normative meanings but assumes that these meanings will
reflect a basic human-centeredness. It goes without saying that by de-
scribing the relationship between the individual and the collective in
these terms I do not intend to link normative humanism with a particular
moment in Western intellectual history; its use here is, in a sense, literal
and intentionally ahistorical. Simply put, “humanism” is the best way to
describe human-centeredness as a basic cross-cultural value.
27. I think it is obvious, however, that the assumptions underlying
normative humanism are much less “optimistic” than those underlying
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which assumes (1) that
everyone is essentially the same by virtue of a common nature, (2) that
this human nature can be objectively described in detail, (3) that this
common human nature entails quite specific normative consequences
(i.e., rights), and (4) that a global framework erected through law is the
best mechanism for ensuring that these enumerated rights will be rec-
ognized and protected in practice.
native analytical framework to, for example, human rights,
normative humanism is above all a theory of social praxis.
Moreover, it very explicitly collapses the etic into the emic,
not vice versa. In other words, it assumes that ordinary social
actors will themselves, given the capacity to do so, construct
the normative frameworks that establish the conditions for
meaningful interactions, with the result that anthropological
knowledge about these local processes consists partly in sim-
ply rendering these preexisting frameworks. By describing
normative humanism in these terms I necessarily locate it
within a much broader and older social theoretical tradition
that similarly explored empirical frameworks within which
moral or ethical systems could be studied and understood.
The most obvious example of this earlier foundational work
is Durkheim’s Ethics and the Sociology of Morals (1993), in
which he sought a break from the twin intellectualconstraints
of Kantian and utilitarian approaches to ethics. As does Durk-
heim’s discussion of comparative ethics, my description of
normative humanism assumes that the search for or assertion
of a single dominant ethical principle is counterproductive
and, even more, unnecessary for a particular normativity—
for example, human rights—to achieve its purposes(freedom,
emancipation, justice, etc.). Moreover, along with recent neo-
Durkheimian attempts to break out of stifling and ultimately
counterproductive dichotomies (e.g., Douglas and Ney 1998),
normative humanism represents a way of describing certain
important facts of ethical practice that avoids the two most
common theoretical errors in contemporary human rights:
rational individualism, on the one side, and a narrow cul-
turalism, on the other.
28
Although this is not the place for a full discussion of this,
it can be said preliminarily that a reconceptualization of hu-
man rights in these terms has certain implications for political
and social practice. First, human rights are preserved as a
potential framework for facilitating meaningful interactions
only if their legitimacy does not depend, as it does now, on
their formal transcendence (i.e., their immanent universal-
ism)
29
and their Roman ahistoricity. Rather, nation-states or
28. Nevertheless, there are important differences between normative
humanism and Durkheim’s approach to ethical issues. Despite the fact
that he deemphasized this in later writings, Durkheim’s sociology of
morals was conceived as a way to generate empirical data that could be
used for “improvement.” The study of social facts was therefore always
instrumental. As I have argued, a theory of normative humanism is,
rather, both a way of describing the conditionsfor potentialemancipation
through collective ordering and an explanation of how “human rights”
can be reconceptualized as a legitimate normative possibility. Emanci-
pation and legitimacy are not universally applicable “goals” in the strict
sense but rather the effects of a contested, relatively uncommon but actual
type of ethical practice.
29. By “immanent universalism” I mean a theory of normativity which
makes the individual, rather than culture, society, or institutions, the
ultimate source of rights, obligations, duties, and so on, and these rights,
obligations, etc., are immanent in all individuals, everywhere, irrevocably.
International human rights doctrine is, in substantial part, on this def-
inition, an immanent universalist normative theory. Describing human
rights as an immanent universalist normativity does not mean that, from
494 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
institutions interested in intervening in or, at a larger scale,
directing the process by which collectivities create humanistic
orderings should characterize any resulting set of entitlements
or duties or normative suggestions as ultimately provisional
even if certain basic values (such as the value of life), as
interpreted in “local”
30
cultural and historical terms, will al-
most always merit a central position among them. Second,
this alternative framework for normative systems such as hu-
man rights inverts the direction from which legitimacy flows.
Normative humanism’s rejection of the possibility of im-
manent universalism entails a rejection of doctrines of polit-
ical practice that repose the ultimate authority for legitimately
restraining individuals or otherwise imposing restraints in an
overarching sovereign. In other words, even though ideal col-
lective orderings, given the right conditions, will achieve some
measure of local predictability (social objectivity), a normative
system’s legitimacy is never detached from the ongoing set
of cultural and historical processes that constitute it. The
implication is that a sovereign, of whatever kind, can act only
as a kind of facilitator by taking steps to create the conditions
for the emergence of normative humanism in social practice.
Finally, the establishment of conditions for meaningful in-
teractions, the ways in which resulting orderings change and
are reconfigured, and what can be understood as “local ju-
risprudence”—the contextualized rationales for the emer-
gence of certain patterned and prescriptive frameworks—all
require formal understanding, and this means the study of
social practice. Anthropologists can play a fundamental role
in the production of knowledge about these processes, al-
though a thoroughly intersubjective anthropology will require
them to collaborate with activists, local intellectuals, and the
whole range of social actors who strive to enact normative
humanism. To this extent, it is more accurate to say that the
kind of study of social practices that I am referring to should
be anthropological without having to make claims about dis-
ciplinary authority (on this point, see Ferguson 1999). Besides
the broader epistemological dimensions of a critical anthro-
pology of human rights that I have already developed at some
length, there are three more that must be examined in greater
detail: cultural critique, ethnography (and other hybrid meth-
odologies), and intersubjectivity.
another angle, one could not also say that human rights “transcend”
culture, history, society, and so on. But since what makes human rights
“transcendent” is precisely their immanence, it is confusing to describe
human rights as anchored in a theory of transcendence, partly because
of the old debate in philosophy and religious studies over immanence
and transcendence but also because such a theory rests on false onto-
logical premises.
30. I mean to signal that I am not making an argument at this point
about social scale—about the size or type of collectivity to which the
idea of normative humanism applies. Scale in this sense is certainly salient,
but its importance relates to matters of institutional and bureaucratic
organization.
Cultural Critique
Like most productive anthropology over the past 20 years, a
critical anthropology of human rights is also anthropology as
cultural critique in the traditional sense (Marcus and Fischer
1986), but there are two other more specific ways in which
cultural critique is essential for those studying human rights
and other normative orders. First, there is a need for a critical
anthropology of human rights to participate in a cultural
critique of human rights as both an international regime of
legal and quasi-legal doctrine and institutional practice and
a hegemonic transnational discourse, the latter being what I
have described elsewhere (Goodale 2005) as an expression of
the only global superliberalism. In other words, to the extent
that “human rights” does not characterize the result of the
localized processes I describe above but rather refers to the
presence of a hegemonic normative system based on a theory
of immanent universalism, a cultural critique becomes in-
strumental in the sense that it seeks to contrast the disciplinary
tendencies that animate international human rights with the
social praxis I have described as normative humanism.
But there is a second way in which cultural critique is
relevant, and we can call this human rights as cultural critique.
When collectivities organize themselves so as to create the
conditions for meaningful interactions in such a way that
“human rights” characterizes the prescriptions that are an-
chored in a basic set of human-centered values, human rights
in this sense both resist attempts to constrain the capacity to
alter these conditions and serve as a ongoing critique of al-
ternatives, especially those in the service of the various trans-
national imperialisms. When human rights becomes cultural
critique in this way, anthropologists participate as cultural
interpreters along with local actors to draw the contrasts—
through both resistance and critical reflection—sothathuman
rights become actually emancipatory to the extent that in-
dividuals in collectivities are able to engage in meaningful
interactions
31
free from constraint.
Ethnography (and Other Hybrid Methodologies)
In order to be effective as cultural interpreters,
32
anthropol-
ogists, alone among the disciplines that study human rights
as idea and social practice, can employ an ever-shifting rep-
ertoire of methods that includes focused observation, long-
31. At the risk of being unduly repetitive for the sake of clarity, when
I speak of “meaningful interactions” I refer only to those that are “pat-
terned and prescriptive” and recognize the importance of a basic set of
human-centered values mediated by common cognitive, physical, and
emotional imperatives.
32. In describing the work of critical anthropologists of human rights
as cultural interpretation, I locate the study of the social practice of
normativity along the spectrum of the interpretative tradition within
anthropology and, more specifically, point to anthropologists’ indis-
pensable role in articulating the orderings of collectivities so that their
“lessons” can be employed in wider dialogues of economic and political
consequence.
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 495
term interviewing, archival research (both historical and eth-
nohistorical), oral history, discourse analysis, film and
multimedia, network analysis, cyberresearch, institutional eth-
nography, mobile ethnography,
33
and contextualized combi-
nations of these, as well as other techniques and strategies for
collaborating in the production of cultural knowledge and
knowledge about culture. Despite the fact that the anthro-
pological study of human rights is still embryonic and focused
almost entirely on the description of the social practice of
human rights, one can point to examples of the kind of tech-
nical eclecticism I am referring to.
34
But apart from the ability to employ and adapt a wide
range of methods, critical anthropologists of human rights
benefit from something even more fundamental: a reliance
on hybrid methodologies. If methodologies are the systems
of explanation that justify the use of certain research methods
and not others, then hybrid methodologies are those that
consciously blur the boundaries between otherwise discrete
systems on the assumption that the practice of everyday life—
if not its ideational representations—cannot realistically be
objectified in the ways that rigid theories of method require.
Methodological hybridity in this sense is especially important
for the kind of anthropology of human rights I envision be-
cause it mirrors the social practices I have described as nor-
mative humanism in that local culture and history are me-
diated by a set of common imperatives.
33. By “mobile” I mean something different from “multisited,”which,
I would argue, is often used redundantly when joined with “ethnography.”
This distinguishes my usage from that in Marcus (1995), in which “mo-
bile” and “multi-sited” are used interchangeably. Doing focused obser-
vation and interviews in several sites for relatively long periods of time
can simply be described as “ethnography” and captures what most cul-
tural and social anthropologists have always done. (Wasn’t the study of
the kula ring “multisited ethnography”?) Mobile ethnography responds
to the fact of space-time compression and the attendant rapidity with
which ideas and practices, not to mention people themselves, enter and
reenter transnational currents. A mobile ethnography is in this sense an
ethnography of the chase, tracking ideas and practices where they lead
until some clarity is achieved. An ethnography of this kind is particularly
useful for research on transnational discourses like human rights.
34. Prominent among them would be Merry’s ambitious work, in
which she has been tracking the production of human rights discourse—
and, in the process, the production of culture—across a wide spatial and
intellectual range (see Merry 2005 but also 2001, 2003). A good example
that combines what I have called mobile ethnography with network and
institutional analysis is Annelise Riles’s 2000 book based on her study of
the “artifacts” that constitute and then reconstitute transitional human
rights discourse. Richard Wilson makes use of several innovative methods
in his recent study of the intersections between human rights discourse,
the politics of memory, and the shifting meanings of “truth” and “rec-
onciliation” in postapartheid South Africa (Wilson 2001). Other examples
can be found among the essays on “practicing ethnography in law” in
Starr and Goodale (2002), for example, those of Goodale on intellectual
biography, Griffiths on life histories, Hirsch on feminist participatory
research, and Merry on ethnography in the archives. For a history of the
emergence of eclectic methods, especially among anthropologists of law,
see Nader (2002) and, in particular, her discussion of the need to draw
from a range of techniques in researching “hegemonic processes in law”
(2002, 166–67).
To complete this discussion of the different dimensions of
a critical anthropology of human rights, it is necessary to
pursue the question of methodology somewhat further and
reflect on the problem of knowledge as it relates to the study
of human rights, because the relationship between anthro-
pology and its purposes is also a question of epistemology.
Intersubjectivity
In my brief history of the relationship between American
anthropology and human rights I indicated that the first stir-
rings of what would eventually become a profound shift in
this relationship could be seen in the early to mid-1980s.
35
This movement accelerated with the establishment of a dis-
tinct section concerned with human rights in the AAA and
was reflected in Messer’s 1993 programmatic review article.
The reconstitution of anthropology’s formal orientation to-
ward human rights was most clearly (perhaps symbolically)
marked by the adoption by the AAA of the 1999 Declaration
35. My history of the relationship between anthropology and human
rights differs from the brief one given in the introduction to Wilson and
Mitchell’s recent edited volume (2003, 1–3). Their basic point is that
what they call the “cultural turn”—the moment of disciplinary critical
reflection that began in earnest in the 1980s, although it was presaged
by stirrings of dissent associated with postcolonial struggles and the U.S.
war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, at least for U.S. anthro-
pologists—was the peak of relativist, antiuniversalist, and, by extension,
anti–human-rights writing and activity among anthropologists. This be-
gan to change, according to Wilson and Mitchell, only during the mid-
to late 1990s because of the greater efficacy—and thus legitimacy—of
what they call a “new humanitarianism,” as reflected in various war-
crimes tribunals with teeth and the incorporation of human rightsnorms
into the constitutions of a number of new nation-states. They are exactly
right on the topic of international human rights and the emergence of
a powerful new global justice discourse, but to the extent that they relate
these developments to the history of anthropology’s engagement with
human rights their analysis is difficult to reconcile with the history I have
already discussed above. To take only one example, in 1995, just after
the point when, according to Wilson and Mitchell, cultural relativism
was most effective in leading anthropologists to treatwith“criticaldisdain
many basic conceptions of the human rights framework” (2003, 1), the
AAA converted the former Commission for Human Rights into a per-
manent standing committee, an action which, as I have said, was the
culmination of a process of transformation that had begun in the mid-
1980s. I can think of two possible explanations for our different histories.
First, I have argued that critical reflection in anthropology led not to a
heightening of cultural relativism (which, at least as a topic fortheoretical
inquiry, had diminished since the 1950s) but to the pursuit of new epis-
temologies that had the effect of integrating anthropological researchwith
social activism, including movements based on human rights. Second,
perhaps this history looks different when viewed from the perspective of
British social anthropology (I am referring to the influence of anthro-
pology’s different geo-intellectual traditions, not the nationality of in-
dividual scholars). I have relied, justifiably I would argue, on the activities
of the largest association of professional anthropologists in the world,
the AAA—which includes many British scholars—as a marker for the
relationship between the discipline and human rights, but of course Brit-
ish anthropology has followed its own trajectory, particularly in theo-
retical areas, and scholars based in Britain (such as Wilson himself,though
he is now at the University of Connecticut) have been pioneers in the
ethnographic study of human rights practices.
496 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
on Anthropology and Human Rights. There is an important
dimension to this shift that I have not examined until now
but that bears directly on this recent history and on a future
critical anthropology of human rights. At the same time that
anthropology as a discipline was reorienting itself in relation
to human rights, anthropologists were beginning to conduct
research and theorize in ways that reflected new positions on
the potential for anthropological knowledge. During this pe-
riod (i.e., from the 1980s on) anthropologists explored the
epistemological possibilities of intersubjectivity, which,
though it carried somewhat different meanings in linguistics
and discourse analysis, was taken to mean that the anthro-
pologist-as-subject no longer carried out research on objects
of knowledge—as the traditional scientific method assumed—
but rather participated in a collaborative process in which
anthropologists served as (perhaps, at times, more skilled) co-
subjects with the social actors with whom they interacted.
36
As is well known, the emergence of intersubjectivity as a
replacement paradigm of anthropological knowledge led to
parallel movements that, among other things, critiqued the
subject-object conventions of traditional ethnographic writing
(e.g., the absence of the anthropologist from the narrative,
the abuse of the ethnographic present, and so on) and, more
important for my purposes here, decentered the anthropol-
ogist from a position of intellectual and scientific privilege.
37
A recognition of intersubjectivity carries several implica-
tions for a critical anthropology of human rights. First, it
avoids the problem of agnosticism first raised in the 1947
statement: that because no techniques existed for scientifically
evaluating the content or meaning of normative systems like
human rights, no anthropological knowledge about them was
36. The emergence of intersubjectivity as an alternative way of un-
derstanding the production of anthropological knowledge can be seen
throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, though fewer anthropologists
over the past five years have made this idea explicit in their monographs
or articles (perhaps because it has become canonical?) (see, e.g., Csordas
1990; Dumont 1986; Hastrup 1990; Shore 1991). And just as the rea-
lignment of anthropology to human rights was presaged by Geertz’s
article, during the late 1970s and very early 1980s anthropologists dis-
covered (or rediscovered) the more general epistemological implications
for anthropology of developments in linguistics and laid the foundations
for the seismic rumblings of the mid-1980s (see, e.g., Crapanzano 1980;
Dwyer 1982; Tedlock 1983).
37. I realize that, as a problem in metaphysics, most discussions of
subject versus object are approached as a question of ontology, but I am
interested in the disappearance of the anthropological object and the
proliferation of subjects to the extent that a formal recognition of the
reality of current anthropological practice has changed the terms with
which knowledge is defined and legitimated. Likewise, in highlightingthe
importance of intersubjectivity for a critical anthropology of human rights
I do not mean to enter into a full-blown consideration of what are
otherwise very important debates over, for example, the relationship
between a “philosophy of the subject” and reason. Thus I can only signal
here that in the longer work that is in process I am considering how
what Ju¨ rgen Habermas (1987) calls an “alternative way out of the phi-
losophy of the subject” (i.e., a theory of communicative action) sheds
light on the way anthropologists and their co-subjects collaboratively
produce knowledge about local normative orderings.
possible. The result, as we have seen, was first a long period
of anthropological absence, then a period of reengagement
marked by political and social activism by individual anthro-
pologists and eventually its largest professional association,
38
and, finally, during the past five to ten years, a reconcep-
tualization of human rights as a cultural process and the be-
ginning of research on this basis.
39
Yet intersubjectivity intro-
duces a qualitatively different set of possibilities. Because it
represents a theory of knowledge that imparts truth value to
the social process of knowledge production itself (which in-
cludes the anthropologist) rather than to what results—what
is understood as an “object” in a different framework—an-
thropologists are able to study the constitution of normativity
holistically without needing to distinguish artificially between
“structure” and “agency” or the “culture of human rights”
and human rights themselves. This means, among other
things, that the idea of human rights is now a central topic
for anthropological inquiry (see Goodale 2006b).
Second, intersubjectivity, as I understand it here, has the
potential to mediate between political action and knowledge
(both self- and social). This explains in part the mechanism
that transforms human rights into cultural critique when hu-
man rights emerge in the absence of constraints. Anthropol-
ogists have a role to play here, again, as perhaps more skilled
co-subjects or at least as professionally interested collabora-
tors. When human rights form the basis for resistance to
attempts to alter the conditions necessary for meaningful in-
teractions, then knowledge overlaps with political action, and
when human rights in practice serve as the basis for critical
reflection on social conditions, then political (or legal) action
actually constitutes knowledge.
Finally, the position on knowledge I develop here is im-
portant for a critical anthropology of human rights because
it lays a theoretical foundation—for those who feel one is
needed—for anthropology’s formal engagement on behalf of
or in collaboration with individuals and collectivities who are
unable to resist. In other words, new possibilities for activism
are created when anthropology moves away from a high sci-
entific epistemology, a reliance on which framed the disci-
pline’s orientation to the practice of human rights until re-
cently. In this sense, it is possible to view the ambivalence
38. An activism that was, in most cases, distinguished from actual
anthropological research even if it was necessarily associated with or
motivated by it. In other words, until recently anthropologists did not
have epistemological grounds for engaging in human rights activism as
a legitimate sphere of anthropological inquiry.
39. Some good examples of research on “human rights as culture and
the culture of human rights” would be, again, Merry’s work (2001, 2003,
2005) and the essays in three recent edited volumes led by RichardWilson
(Wilson 1997; Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson 2001; Wilson and Mitchell
2003), who has recently been named director of an interdisciplinary
human rights institute at the University of Connecticut—a development
which also marks the shift in anthropology’s relationship to humanrights
and, perhaps more important, a nascent openness on the part of non-
anthropologists in the human rights community to anthropological
perspectives.
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 497
that all but a small group of anthropologists felt toward hu-
man rights activism not as a question of motivation (or a
lack thereof) but as a problem of epistemological validity. To
this extent, my appeal to intersubjectivity parallels some of
the developments in action or engaged anthropology (or what
Roy Rappaport [1993] calls “the anthropology of trouble”
and Nancy Scheper-Hughes [1995] styles, with Guevaran rel-
ish, “militant anthropology”), though it rests on different,
and, I would argue, more sustainable grounds.
40
Loomings
There is a final dimension to human rights that I wish to
examine, one that anthropology is also well placed to address.
This combines a focus on what can be understood as the
political economy of human rights discourse with its instru-
mental disciplinarity. Although the recent anthropological en-
gagement with human rights has been limited to topics or
questions considered more properly “anthropological”—the
implications for culture of human rights and vice versa, hu-
man rights as a framework for cultural survival, the ethnog-
raphy of human rights as social practice, the ethnography of
human rights as political strategy—I would argue that, as with
the type of inquiry into the practical philosophy of human
rights I have outlined above, a critical anthropology of human
rights should be broadened to include topics and questions
that encompass the instrumental and ideological aspects that
make human rights one of the most consequential of trans-
national regimes.
A political economy of human rights discourse is one that
studies the ways in which human rights ideas and practices—
which are rendered discursively inseparable in specific social
contexts—have become preeminently constitutive, so that
collective identity, social meanings, and personhood cannot
be understood in other terms even when—perhaps especially
when—moves are made to suggest alternatives. In their book
on “writing science,” Halliday and Martin (1993) employ a
political economy of discourse to reveal the constitutive pro-
cesses behind contemporary science education. Employing
their framework, it would be possible to show how the as-
sumptions embedded in human rights discourse are “chained
together into sequences of . . . relations and consequences”
and to recognize that “the work of [human rights] is nec-
essarily grammatical: naming, constructing and positioning
the [normative], and doing so in a way which builds social
40. In other words, there is an important difference between an al-
ternative epistemology that is based on strongly nonrational grounds and
one that continues to rely on the possibilities enabled by rationality, even
if (as with intersubjectivity) the conditions under which rationality
emerges in social practice—indeed, the nature of rationality itself (cf.
Habermas’s communicative rationality)—are critically reconceptualized.
The “emancipatory cultural politics” approach to human rights that I
have already described is clearly indebted to the epistemological inno-
vations of Rappaport, Scheper-Hughes, and others whose writings call
into question the nature of rationality itself.
relationships of power and knowledge” (Halliday and Martin
1993, xii). In order to critically frame the processes through
which human rights discourse “builds social relationships of
knowledge and power”—rather than, as international human
rights doctrine presupposes, discovers them within the natural
order of things—anthropologists must consider which inter-
ests (political, economic, military) are served through the
apotheosis of human rights and how a supposedly universal
set of rights (and perhaps corresponding duties) derived from
our supposedly universal humanness is transformed into what
Laura Nader would call a “controlling process” (1997).
Understood in this way, a political economy of human
rights discourse must be distinguished from several related
frameworks. When Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman
adopted a “political economy of human rights” (1979a,
1979b) as a general approach to their critique of the “Wash-
ington Connection and Third World fascism” and the print
media’s culpability in the mischaracterization of postwar In-
dochina, they meant that “justice” was an ideological mask
behind which the United States exercised its often brutal pol-
icies designed to expand and protect foreign markets for pri-
vate corporate interests. A political economy of human rights
discourse is also not the same as an analysis of the “politics
of human rights” (e.g., Evans 2001; Obrad 2002). Evans, for
example, is an advocate for a strong international human
rights regime and argues that the politics of globalization are
a barrier to the enforceability of human rights laws because
states place the highest value on open markets and interna-
tional trade, even if individual rights are violated as a result.
41
Finally, there is Ignatieff’s (2001) extended essay exploring the
problem of human rights as politics, by which he means some-
thing close to Chomsky and Herman’s “political economy of
human rights” but much less conspiratorial. He refers to a
set of failures by the United States to pursue a human rights
agenda consistently, failures which result more from the vi-
cissitudes of realpolitik than from any conscious effort to use
human rights as an excuse for economic expansion or to
facilitate what Chomsky and Herman call the “reconstruction
of imperial ideology” (1979b).
Yet each of these important analytical approaches begins
and ends at the level of structure or focuses on the broadest
frame within which human rights ideas and practices are
merely impacted—to greater or lesser degrees of both con-
sequence and intentionality—by political-economic forces.
The kind of political economy of human rights discourse that
41. In much the same way, the Dutch scholars Berma Klein Goldewijk
and Bas de Gaay Fortman (who is Professor of the Political Economy of
Human Rights at the University of Utrecht) study the political, economic,
and social contexts within which “traditional human rights strategies are
of limited effectiveness in responding to violations of economic, social,
and cultural rights” (Goldewijk and Forman 1999, vii). Their main ar-
gument is that a political economy of human rights demonstrates that
articulating underlying human needs in human rights language invests
these needs with social importance, which is the first steptowardmeeting
them.
498 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
I have in mind is one that requires anthropologists to trace
the connections between political-economic structures and
the disciplinary processes that both constitute liberal citizens
(and the notion of citizenship itself) and reinforce thosestruc-
tures. This strategy for research and analysis assumes that the
rights-bearing liberal citizen is a social and historical category
rather than primarily a type of social actor associated with
certain political and economic developments, and this cate-
gory is marked by the extent to which it is self-constituting.
In other words, if the emergence of the liberal citizen is a
necessary precondition for the rise, expansion, and eventual
consolidation of a transnational capitalist mode of produc-
tion, then a pressing area for anthropological inquiry is the
way in which human (and other) rights discourses produce
the thing they assume—a citizen endowed with irrevocable
rights that are entailed by a universal humanness. A critical
anthropology of human rights engages, therefore, in the wider
debates over the relationship between human rights and the
imperatives of hegemonic political-economic structures but
adds a dimension that has been missing: the specific ways in
which human rights discourse attracts social actors and com-
pels them to employ their capabilities in the service of trans-
national capitalist networks outside of the classic “institu-
tional architectures” that typically frame the sites that have
received most of our recent attention—the prison, the hos-
pital, the university, and so on.
Finally, what makes a political economy of human rights
discourse so urgent is the same thing that lends immediacy
to a critical anthropology of human rights more generally. As
my recent research in Romania and Bolivia demonstrates,
international human rights have become the vanguard in the
global consolidation and naturalization of (neo-)liberalism, a
process that most now agree has quickened because of the
demise of credible alternatives. There is, therefore, a current
need for an anthropological critique in the sense I have de-
veloped above. But there is also a need to pursue the possi-
bility of a reconstituted human rights, one that does not serve
as an ideological barrier to emancipation in practice but rather
resists the tendency toward moral imperialism associated with
immanent universalist normative theories, is able to “center”
(actually “recenter”) “personhood in international narrative”
(Herna´ ndez-Truyol 2002), and, perhaps most important, cre-
ates a permanent framework for the realization of human
capabilities.
Acknowledgments
This article took shape during a nine-month study leave made
possible through a Fulbright scholarship, and I would like to
thank the Council for International Exchange of Scholars
(CIES) for their assistance and generosity. During 2004 and
2005, portions of this article were presented at University
College London, the London School of Economics, and at
the University of Bergen. I am indebted to the faculty and
students at these institutions for their lively and productive
engagement during these events. My wider thinking about
anthropology and human rights has benefited from numerous
conversations over the years with friends and colleagues, al-
though I alone am responsible for any inferences or proposals.
Finally, I would like to thank Benjamin Orlove and five anon-
ymous reviewers, whose suggestions and comments allowed
me to strengthen the article considerably.
Comments
Upendra Baxi
Faculty of Law, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL,
UK (baxiupendra@aol.com). 11 I 06
Goodale addresses two distinct but related tasks. Besides of-
fering a stunning critique and reconstruction of the “ambiv-
alent” engagements constituting the AAA’s public-policy re-
gime shifts with regard to human rights, Goodale also
reimagines the tasks of “a critical anthropology of human
rights.” Given rigorous space constraints, I here brieflyengage
the second theme, recast by Goodale as “normative human-
ism.”
The “progressive” agenda of a critical anthropology of hu-
man rights contests the appropriation of human rights via
co-optation and repression and aims at the recovery of “a set
of potentially emancipatory principles underlying human
rights discourse.” This entails a wider understanding of hu-
man rights as “coteries of concepts, practices, and experi-
ences” at “different levels,” constituting always-contingent re-
minders of ethnographic locations. Goodale gently resists
traveling with me as far as to maintain that the field refers
to “protean forms of social action assembled, by convention,
under a portal named as ’human rights.’” Even so, it is not
clear how this larger landscape of meaning may address di-
verse human rights languages in their intertextuality and
paratextualties. The performative truths of these languages
enact the “core” meanings differently as ethical imperatives
and national and global governance, trafficking in the symbols
of shared sovereignty, juridical production, and cultures (Baxi
2002, 2005).
A critical anthropology of human rights privileges anthro-
pology as a unique discipline identifying “a middle space
between the reified normativity of a regressive human rights
and the chaos of contemporary human rights praxis.” But
how may it persist in these binary contrasts in the face of
non-reductive understandings both of anthropology and of
human rights? In terms of a hermeneutics of human rights,
it certainly benefits by going beyond the staid invocation of
Pannikar’s “diatopical hermeneutics” to a more nuanced re-
course exemplified in corpus of Gadamer, Betti, Rorty, Dall-
mayr, and Ricoeur. Equally, a critical reading of the violence
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 499
of the writing of the “political economy of human rights”
holds more promise when it moves beyond the ritual polem-
ical recourse to the “Washington Connection and Third World
fascism” to various pluralist habitus that contest the “apoth-
eosis of human rights” via narratives tracing the dialectical
relation between the politics of dominant and insurrectionist
human rights desire that I have called the politics of and for
human rights.
Might not the critical anthropology of human rights more
fruitfully address human suffering (see, e.g., Herzfeld 2001
and literature there cited), named differently by Arendt in
terms of the recurrent production of human rightlessness and
by Agamben in terms of the zone of indistinction between
“violence and right”? How might its offering cognize the di-
vergent anthropology genres constituted by, for example, phil-
osophical anthropology (Rorty), theological/literary con-
structions of human suffering (Scarry), medical anthropology
(Kleinman and Das), and anthropology of religion (Asad)?
These too coequally address and interrogate the “legitimacy”
of the vaunted, fractured, or fake universality of contemporary
human rights paradigms and the tasks of construction of a
“normative humanism.”
How is one to read a project constructing spontaneous
“collectivities” that “will, in fact, create patterned humanistic
orderings unless constrained from doing so,” especiallywithin
the logic of celebration of benign conceptions of sovereignty
which recast the state as “a facilitator” for the “emergence of
normative humanism in social practice”? How might this
speak to anthropology “at the margins of state” (Das and
Poole 2004)? Without gainsaying the tasks of “a theory of
social praxis” that ought to avoid the twin errors of “rational
individualism, on the one side, and a narrow culturalism, on
the other,” it is not clear how histories of contingent uni-
versality embedded in local histories might promise better
futures for human rights than those celebrated by universality
claims. How might this new project celebrating collectivities
of “equally construed individuals” and socially constituted
orderings that “place limits on individuals” and still pursue
future worlds that are “inherently dynamic, historically rich,
and capable of change” escape remystification, despite the
charismatic plenitude of its Rousseau-like appeal? I here per-
force cryptically suggest the inherence of the dystopic within
that utopic.
At stake in this envisaged theory and practice of “norm-
ative humanism” remain the tasks of resituating ethnogra-
phies of “terror” and the craft of human-rights-oriented jus-
tifications of the “terror” of the law and the law as “terror.”
How may we pursue, outside the contexts of terror or the
global politics of mass cruelty (Baxi 2005 and the literature
therein cited), a “reconstituted human rights” paradigm in
terms of “freedom from constraints” for self-determining col-
lectivities? Goodale makes a singular contribution in inviting
us to contemplate a utopic critical anthropology of human
rights that even more fully revisits the violent nomos/anomie
of contemporary human rights theory, movements, and
markets.
Jane Cowan
Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex, Falmer,
Brighton BN1 9SJ, UK (j.cowan@sussex.ac.uk). 6 II 06
I share with Goodale a “critical” stance towards human rights
in the first of the two senses he has helpfully distinguished:
insisting on a “distance” between rights and the anthropo-
logical analysis of them. I am also attracted by the second
sense of criticality he invites, drawn from Horkheimer and
Adorno, which involves tracing what has conspired to trans-
form human rights into a reified norm in the service of global
neoliberalism in order to recover their original critical im-
pulse. I applaud the bold attempt to retheorize human rights
in light of our anthropological knowledge—the accumulated
experience of our comparative endeavors, as well as our meth-
odological and epistemological reflections.
I remain intrigued, however, rather than (yet) convinced,
by “normative humanism” as an “alternative paradigm for
human rights.” I find the term infelicitous. Although not
against redefining terms as such—the struggle over termi-
nology characterizes the work of theorizing as much as of
everyday politics—I think that “humanism” carries too much
connotational baggage. This includes its European pedigree
in the Renaissance shift from a God-centred to a human-
centred universe, a shift that “humanism” both describes and
advocates. Goodale retains this orientation, along with the
Enlightenment ideal of the just community “committed to
the full realization of both individuals and collectivities,”while
seeking to loosen such notions from their European moorings.
To be sure, its human-centredness is likely to render this
reformulation unpersuasive for societies and groups for whom
the source of moral authority lies outside or beyond “the
human.” Still, as adherents of various fundamentalisms sys-
tematically insinuate themselves into power (not least in the
United States), we should be wary of abandoning this human-
centredness. At the same time, I find increasingly compelling
those “deep green” arguments that definitions of the “good”
and the “just” must take into account the whole of planetary
life and its future and that human-centrednesss (at least a
particular version of it) is to blame for our present ecological
malaise. Reconceptualizing human rights could be an op-
portunity to rethink how humans are and should be situated
vis-a` -vis nature in rapidly transforming contemporary con-
ditions and how that relation impinges on human “rights.”
What is implied when Goodale formulates a way of de-
scribing, an analytical framework for, and a theory of social
action as an “ism”—a suffix associated with ideological move-
ments and grand explanatory models? The adjective “nor-
mative” reinforces the hunch that the phrase refers more to
a project or program than to description/analysis/theory. In
the end, it seems to be both: its ambiguity is symptomatic of
500 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
an intervention that oscillates between theorization and mis-
sion. On the one hand, Goodale starts from a set of anthro-
pologically informed claims about human societies: that
“given the right circumstances” people will organize them-
selves, that they will seek to create “meaningful interactions
that are both patterned and prescriptive,” and that their prac-
tices “will recognize and formally incorporate a basic set of
human-centered values.” The formulation has the merit of
acknowledging a wide array of forms of normatively ordered
human sociality. It also explicitly recognizes the socially ne-
gotiated, historically dynamic, and open-ended nature of so-
cietal forms and values. On the other hand, Goodale’s de-
scription/analysis/theory is not philosophically agnostic. It
expresses a faith that collectively created orderings will be,
under the right conditions, “humanistic” and “progressive”
and, indeed, that only those which are so deserve the des-
ignation. In this second sense, normative humanism stands
as “an ideal process of social ordering” (my emphasis) in ten-
sion with other normative possibilities.
I would query two elements of Goodale’s formulation. First,
assuming that values will tend to be human-centred begs
important questions. Goodale never defines “human-centred”
but treats it as roughly equivalent to “humanistic”—hardly a
more self-evident term—as well as implicitly good. We might
take the value that anthropologists gloss as “honor,” still per-
vasive in many societies, and ask in what ways it is human-
centred and for which humans. Values and norms are better
conceptualized as socially centred; rather than necessarily en-
hancing human capacities, they may as easily underpin so-
cietal ordering processes which differentiate humans, cate-
gorically and individually, in terms of their position, status,
and putative worth. Goodale’s attempt to explain disruptions
to normative systems that impede human self-realization as
products of “constraint,” implicitly external, similarly under-
estimates endogenous dynamics. Even though we must ac-
knowledge the distortions imposed by externally directed pro-
cesses, it is hardly adequate to reconceptualize power as—in
effect, to reduce power to—”the presence of constraints.”
I appreciate Goodale’s project of reinvestigating the history
of anthropological engagement with human rights—both his
empirically grounded archival scholarship and his creative
reinterpretations—and I endorse his effort to reconceptualize
human rights in terms of myriad forms of human sociality
rather than a singular, immanent humanness. But I am not
ready to cede my more tragic and ambiguous reading of hu-
man sociality to Goodale’s Enlightenment optimism.
Ulf Johansson Dahre
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Lund,
Lund, Sweden (soc-ujo@cassandra.net.lu.se). 11 I 06
Goodale’s attempt to bring anthropology back to the global
human rights scene is ambitious, but his is certainly not an
easy task. His examination of the relations between anthro-
pology and the human rights scene since Herskovits, on behalf
of the AAA, formulated the now (in)famous relativistic cri-
tique of the universal rights in 1947 is interesting and relevant,
although it underestimates the human rights interest of Amer-
ican anthropologists during this period. The AAA was silent,
but not all anthropologists were silent. We may also recall
that human rights did not become an object of extensive
public debate, at least in Europe, until the 1980s. Therefore,
one might argue that anthropologists did not arrive as late
on the scene as Goodale argues. However, the practical in-
volvement of anthropologists in human rights has not had
the same theoretical ramifications as that of politicalscientists,
lawyers, and philosophers. Given today’s integration of theory
and practice, I agree with Goodale that anthropologists may
certainly make a contribution to the question why the concept
of human rights still does not seem to work according to its
premises in a world that is more democratic than ever.
The historiography serves as the background for introduc-
ing the concept of “normative humanism,” which Goodale
argues will bring anthropology back to the human rights
scene. Although the effort is well intended, I doubt that it
will succeed. Normative humanism is, according to Goodale,
a “central analytical framework” and both a way of describing
social reality and a ground for normative conditions. It con-
tains human-centered values that people will establish if we
let them. It is a bottom-up approach to human rights, re-
constituting the discourse to make it both effective and le-
gitimate in the eyes of people living their local lives. This is
nothing less then a fundamental critique of the global liberal
elitism constituting the UN human rights regime. For Goodale
human rights are just another Western imperial project, the
West against the rest. This critique seems to be just another
version of the relativism put forward by Herskovits. Realizing
where his argument is leading, Goodale argues that his new
concept is not relativism but a better tool for analyzing and
discussing human rights, a theory of social praxis. He argues,
however, that “normative humanism rejects immanent uni-
versalism.” Is not the advantage of universalism the possibility
of comparing, measuring, and criticizing local and national
violations? Is he not implying that we cannot really criticize
a local practice from the horizon of another practice, and, if
this is so, do we not have to accept female genital mutilation
because it is a local tradition built on local values?
There is no such thing as a particularly anthropological
orientation to human rights, and launching a new concept
that no one but a few anthropologists will understand is not
the right path. Discussing human rights, whether we like it
or not, requires concepts that other disciplines and praction-
ers in the UN, governments, and NGOs are using. There is
nothing outside the current human rights text, and the text
is already written. I agree with what Goodale implies—that
human rights are too important to be left to law and politics—
but there is no way between universalism and relativism that
anthropologists can carve out for themselves, and even if there
were one, what would we be gaining if we could still only
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 501
talk to anthropologists? Since the problem is that we are not
discussing human rights with other disciplines, we have to
take part in the discussion with our experiences, our praxis-
grounded theories, and what-not if we want to be taken
seriously.
When Goodale turns, in closing, to the application of po-
litical economy to human rights discourse, he makes a point
on which we can agree, and it is here that anthropology may
make the contribution he hopes for.
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
P. O. Box 1091 Blindern, N-0317 Oslo, Norway
(t.h.eriksen@culcom.uio.no). 19 XII 05
What is missing in Goodale’s sensible and useful article about
American anthropology and human rights, apart from telling
empirical examples, is a full appreciation of the shifting social
and cultural contexts of the period he is dealing with and
their implications for anthropological thought and practice.
The necessity to rethink and eventually abandon anthropol-
ogy’s tendency towards moral relativism was not a result of
internal developments in the discipline but a response to
changes in the rest of the world. Although many anthropol-
ogists were in the 1980s happy to discuss and debunk cultural
essentialism—characteristically dodging the riskier and murk-
ier field of human rights—there were also many, as Goodale
points out, who accepted and indeed embraced a new set of
normative obligations.
This development was forced upon most anthropologists,
not chosen by them. When Roger Keesing (1994) wrote, in
the late 1980s, about Kwaio appropriations of concepts of
culture which echoed the dominant anthropological culture
concept, he came close to depicting a society which no longer
needed anthropologists to identify it: it was now perfectly
capable of doing it ifself. Similarly, people we meet as eth-
nographers in non-Western societies often have radical agen-
das favouring social change and cultural reform, and many
of them would regard the relativist approach of classic an-
thropology as reactionary pap in defence of the status quo.
What has made normative cultural relativism in the vein of
the 1947 AAA statement indefensible is the impact of global-
ization and transnationalism on societies almost everywhere,
not least in the countries where most anthropologists live. Es-
pecially in Western Europe but also in North America, the
debates about human rights and cultural pluralism with respect
to immigrants and their descendants have led some anthro-
pologists to take normative positions while others (presumably
a majority) have been forced to “revise and resubmit” their
ideas about cultural differences. In Norway, a debate about
female circumcision among immigrants from North-East Africa
involved the wholesale condemnation of social anthropologists
for irresponsible cultural relativism in a leading article in the
country’s largest newspaper. The main target of the attack, the
respected Africanist Aud Talle, responded a year later with a
book (Talle 2003) which exemplifies Goodale’s “critical an-
thropology of human rights” by combining a superb account
of the cultural rationale and social forces maintaining the prac-
tice with original policy advice. Around the same time, the
murder of a Swedish woman of Kurdish origin by her father
elicited heated debate in the Swedish media, with important
contributions from the cultural anthropologist Mikael Kurkiala.
Arguing that a Kurdish cultural script encompassing notions
of honour, gender, etc., had to be taken into account in any
attempt to understand the murder, Kurkiala was met by angry
reactions from Swedish feminists who claimed that he was
acting the role of the useful idiot for the anti-immigrant extreme
right (see Eriksen 2006 for a full account of both cases). His
view, elaborated in a recent book (Kurkiala 2005), was simply
that no understanding of the individual and his/her rights is
complete without a certain familiarity with the relevant social
and cultural contexts, that such contexts vary, and that it would
be foolish and dangerous to pretend otherwise.
These examples indicate that anthropological sensitivity to
local contexts and respect for cultural systems different from
our own have long since ceased to be merely quaint and
charming in the public sphere. Moreover, they show that the
critical anthropology of human rights advocated by Goodale
is being practised already, often in situations where anthro-
pologists engage with a wider public sphere (but also in
interdisciplinary settings such as the Human Rights Institute
directed by Richard Ashby Wilson at Connecticut).
The challenge posed around the middle of Goodale’s article,
where he states that “reified, hypernormative human rights
. . . cannot serve as the basis for realizing their aim, . . . the
creation of just communities,” is well taken. It may not be a
very original observation, but the subsequent discussion, in-
voking the cultural critique inherent in the anthropological
project as well as dismissing neoliberalism as inadequate on
humanist grounds, showcases the emancipatory potential of
anthropology and reveals the importance of anthropologists’
engagement with a wider public sphere characterized by ig-
norance and misrepresentations of what contemporary an-
thropologists are trying to do. Neoliberalist propaganda and
the globalization of fast capitalism, which may be consistent
with a superficial understanding of human rights, need the
counterweight of local knowledge, but this time its normative
underpinning is a universalist humanism (in the tradition of
Rousseau rather than Voltaire) instead of cultural relativism.
Michal B. Likosky and Joy E. Mooberry
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of
London, London, UK (ml29@soas.ac.uk) / School of Law,
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK. 6 II 06
Goodale’s piece combines a history of the uneasy relationship
between certain elements of the American Anthropological
Association and the international human rights movement
with a proposal for a critical anthropology of human rights.
502 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
His critical anthropology aims to reconcile some of the long-
standing tensions between normative universalism and cul-
turally situational conceptions of human rights. Goodale ex-
amines anthropologists’ struggle to resolve the episte-
mological, methodological, and ideological controversies that
have shaped twentieth-century academics’ attempts to engage
with contemporary human rights movements. These are
murky, turbulent waters, and he does us a service by at-
tempting to chart them.
He rightly points out the contribution that anthropologists
have made to broadening the definition of human rights to
include culture and collective rights, and it would have been
useful to flesh this point out. Besides the areas Goodale ref-
erences, anthropologists have played an important role in
rearticulating social demands against international financial
institutions as human rights claims, work done from both
within and outside of institutions such as the World Bank
Group. However, their manifold contributions raise ques-
tions: What is the significance of understanding the diverse
roles that anthropologists play in creating human rights in
varied subject areas, geographies, and issue arenas as a co-
herent, concerted movement? Can something more broadly
be said about how anthropologists reconcile epistemological
considerations with social action aimed at broadening the
docket of human rights?
The discussion of the role of anthropologists in relation to
political movements falls mainly within the first half of Good-
ale’s article. The second half aims to address what he sees as
an impasse reached by anthropologists and the human rights
movement. Goodale identifies a conflict between the imma-
nent universalism of international human rights and an ap-
proach which sees human rights as a social and cultural prac-
tice. In attempting to resolve this conflict, he presents a
“critical anthropology of human rights” that aims to com-
plement the human-rights-as-social-praxis approach while
maintaining an engagement with the underlying normative
character of human rights that the international human rights
movement propounds. Moreover, he seeks to displace the
movement’s immanent universalism with a comparative em-
pirical approach to human rights norms. Specifically, he pro-
poses a “normative humanism” by which he means that “in
the absence of constraints, collectivities will create normative
systems that are based in the recognition of a basic set of
human values.”
One of the article’s explicit aims is to speak to a larger
audience outside of anthropology. An example of Goodale’s
theory at work would have helped to clarify the benefits of
his approach. It would allow readers outside of anthropology
to understand how his proposal fits within previous episte-
mological and methodological controversies framing anthro-
pology’s relationship to human rights and suggest its broader
implications for human rights movements. This would pro-
vide more continuity between sections and notonlyilluminate
his proposal but also clarify the underlying logic of the article.
At times the “critical anthropology of human rights” is am-
biguous (perhaps purposefully so), and examples would make
more concrete what he has in mind. If a critique of the in-
ternational human rights movement is its tendency toward
“immanent universalism” and a “Roman ahistoricity,” then
the proposed solution should be grounded in concrete ex-
amples even in its exposition. The article does reference key
works in the anthropology of law, which has certainly ad-
vanced our understanding of the relationship between human
rights movements and critical theory. Limited mainly to a
brief discussion of Merry’s important work and n. 36, the
relationship between this subdiscipline’s contribution and
Goodale’s proposed framework is underdeveloped.
Many of the controversies Goodale discusses are more
broadly applicable. When questions of social justice and
equality are at stake, the classic struggle between the descrip-
tive and normative, the “is” and the “ought,” can divide ac-
ademic disciplines. Pulled by social movements, academics
question the relationship between a description of the world
and its use in policy-making arenas shaping the very world
they seek to describe. In the twentieth century, this struggle
can be seen in many disciplines. Theory once propounded
can take on a life of its own. Law, lawyers, and judges can
and do draw from these disciplines in an attempt to shape
legal doctrine. Thus, Goodale’s research furthers our under-
standing of the reciprocal relationship between disciplinary
and policy arenas—a relationship that can have consequences
not only for the discipline but also for legal doctrine.
Ellen Messer
144 Lake Shore Rd#3, Brighton, MA 02135, U.S.A
(emesser@gwu.edu). 15 I 06
In 1988–90, as background to my contribution to the Wenner-
Gren-sponsored panels on anthropology and public policy
(“engaged anthropology”), I explored why anthropologists
seemed to have been left out of human rights policy for-
mulations and discussions. As an anthropologist, I proposed
that the real challenge to assertions of universality in human
rights was not that there did not exist in all cultures some
concepts of rights and duties that could be compared to hu-
man-rights codes or basic ideas that social membership car-
ried with it certain rights and obligations guaranteeing phys-
ical protection and subsistence. Instead, the main challenge
was who was classified as fully human and therefore deserving
of rights and who was not. This “human classification” fram-
ing and formulation of the human rights problematic met
resistance both from legal experts such as Philip Alston, who
informed me that it destroyed the very concept of human
rights and this was why international lawyers struggling to
develop human rights formulations and legal covenants from
the 1940s had marginalized anthropologists (and also phi-
losophers like Maritain), and from anthropologist critics,who
preferred to blast human rights as hegemonic transnational
discourse.
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 503
Nevertheless, cross-cultural discussions of rights (and du-
ties), their substantive contents and prioritization, and com-
parative notions of “human being” and “social person” are
demonstrably part of the anthropological (Messer 1993,
1996a, 2002), Latin American (Messer 1995, 2001), food
(Messer 1990, 1996b, 2004), and more general (Messer 1997,
1998) human rights literature and document from a “human
classification” perspective that anthropologists have been ac-
tively engaged in debating human-rights-relevant theory and
contributing to its formulation and practice, especially in the
arenas of economic, social, and cultural rights (nutrition and
health) and the rights of collectivities and of women but also
in those of basic civil-political rights and genocide. Precedents
include Boas’s studies of in-group–out-group dynamics and
his effort to conceptualize how to create global citizens of the
world, Durkheim’s attempts to define moral education and
to understand the constraints of social classification, and later
theoretical and ethnographic studies of ethnicity and plural-
ism (see Stavenhagen 1990, 2004) and of the disparate sources
of violence and genocide that are consequences of this human
classification process (e.g., Tambiah 1992 versus Kapferer
1998; Kuper 1986), and all contribute to this background
(Messer 1996a, 167–69). Yet their perspectives remain mar-
ginal to the writings of Goodale and colleagues. Why?
Anthropologists usually publish in anthropology journals,
not those refereed by legal and political scholars. Prior to the
1990s, furthermore, many did not publish human classifi-
cation studies as “human rights.” In the 1990s, as anthro-
pologists encountered human rights claims and counterclaims
at all social levels, they engaged human rights more directly
in multileveled, pluralistic ethnographies, which also tend to
be multisited in space and time. A watershed was the 1995
AAA annual meeting, with its human rights theme and hun-
dreds of papers that addressed human rights in theory and
practice. Around this time, as Goodale notes, anthropologists
began to contribute critical cultural-political theory (Turner
1997) and more contextualized studies (Wilson 1997) as well
as to write on the process of pluralist human rights formu-
lation (Messer 1997) and the political uses (and abuses) of
human rights rhetoric (Schirmer 1998; Scheper-Hughes
1997). Anthropologists also became more politically involved
in the human-rights/development encounter, becoming
“scholars as activists” (Nagengast and Ve´lez-Iba´n˜ez 2004) or
professionals as activists (Farmer 1999) both within the AAA
and in the world.
Some of these discussions incorporate demands for “cul-
tural relativism” but in its “soft” form. These recent writings
seek not to hide findings of rights in conflict but to understand
them, especially where multiple notions of individual and
collective rights pose ethical dilemmas for populations, pol-
iticians, and anthropologists (e.g., Dean and Levi 2003) and
where official human rights approaches do little to relieveand
sometimes aggravate state-supported oppression and socio-
economic inequalities (e.g., Schirmer 1998). All suggest that
anthropologists have important roles to play in explicating
and facilitating pluralist interpretations of human rights, roles
that may or may not correspond to Goodale’s “normative
humanism,” “the requirements of a thoroughly intersubjective
anthropology,” and the “political economy of human rights
discourse.”
1
Annelise Riles
Department of Anthropology, Cornell University, Ithaca,
NY 14853, U.S.A. (ar254@cornell.edu). 16 I 06
In this and related pieces, Goodale has done the discipline a
service by raising important questions about the nature of
anthropology’s contribution to human rights issues. Although
he is not the first to argue that anthropology as a discipline
is not sufficiently engaged with human rights concerns, I
strongly agree with him that it now stands to make a distinct
and imperative contribution. I differ with him only on exactly
what that contribution might be. His argument for an ap-
proach he terms “normative humanism” proceeds from the
premise that what is missing from human rights is a proper
theory of human capacities and the nature of human eman-
cipation and a proper set of critiques of human rights doc-
trines and institutions. It would be convenient if this were
so, since what anthropologists do most comfortably is pro-
duce such theories and critiques, but in my view this as-
sumption suffers from a misunderstanding of the nature of
the social production of human rights knowledge.
Although the article never explicitly answers the question
why anthropology has been “exiled” from the human rights
regime, the implicit claim is that anthropologists’ own lack
of interest is to blame. Will anthropologists’ newfound desire
for relevance in itself be enough to bring us into the human
rights mainstream, then? I think not. It is not that the kinds
of critiques and arguments that Goodale proposes are absent
in the human rights world. On the contrary, as I and others
have shown (Riles 2006; Redfield 2005; Rosga 2005), a skep-
tical, critical, self-reflexive, and theoretically informed un-
derstanding of human rights regimes is almost a hallmark of
human rights expertise. In my experience, all sophisticated
human rights actors take it as a starting point of their expert
competence that while one talks as if rights were absolute,
one understands that in practice they are always constructed
and, unfortunately, compromised by people like themselves.
The problem (for human rights actors as much as anthro-
pologists) is that such critiques cannot, in their given form,
become part of human rights documents and policy propos-
als. As I have argued elsewhere (Riles n.d., 2006), human
rights administrations are technocratic, instrumentalist forms
1. As a professional, I find that the most productive inter-(multi-or
pluri-)disciplinary engagement with human rights is one that explores
the promise and practice of human rights as a framework for justice and
development from legal, political-economic, and sociocultural perspec-
tives in clear language. Examples of such instructional materials areavail-
able under “human rights” resources (syllabi, Messer) at aaanet.org.
504 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
of knowledge that work according to a very different logic
from humanistic and social theory. Hence, when anthropo-
logical theory encounters these regimes, it is generally either
ignored or, worse, digested into fodder for further techno-
cratic interventions (ethnographic descriptions get churned
into “facts” about abuses that the human rights regime could
take on; critical perspectives such as gender get turned into
a word to be inserted in human rights documents without
any rethinking from a gendered perspective of the larger tech-
nologies of human rights intervention). Most disturbing, per-
haps, is that anthropologists themselves, when they engage
these regimes, often seem to translate themselves in ways that
seriously compromise the originality and integrity of their
larger commitments (Jean-Klein and Riles 2005).
Our unique contribution lies not in new theories but in
the commitments that define our unique method, ethnog-
raphy. Ethnography is not one of many “hybrid methodol-
ogies”; it cannot be, since it entails an ethical commitment
to stay engaged in precisely the sort of intersubjective acts of
knowledge production that Goodale describes, even if that
collaboration takes us far afield theoretically from the debates
of mainstream human rights discourse or, for that matter,
mainstream anthropological theory. It is precisely this kind
of commitment and this kind of humility and empathy that
are lacking in the human rights regime.
In this respect, I read the 1947 AAA “Statement on Human
Rights” somewhat differently from Goodale, as a historically
situated and hence circumscribed effort to make a stand
against the arrogance and epistemological imperialism of the
human rights regime. Its willingness to name the hegemonic
ambitions of legal and technocratic knowledge is refreshing,
even moving, and for this reason it has had considerably more
currency in human rights circles than anthropologists realize.
Indeed, I first encountered it as required reading in a course
on international law at the Harvard Law School.
Today as in 1947, human rights discourse needs humility,
and the best ethnography represents the fruits of methodo-
logical humility—the insights of the ethnographer’s coming
to terms with what he or she could not comprehend from
the start. From this point of view, what is needed is not
another “permanent framework for the realization of human
capacities”—that is precisely the kind of project the human
rights apparatus takes on and absorbs with gusto—but rather
a model for the human rights world of how to listen to and
engage with the terms of those outside it. But we will have
to practice what we preach, and that requires listening, also,
to the practices of human rights administrators. In other
words, perhaps before we can debate how best to intervene
in human rights issues we need to give further ethnographic
attention to the very nature of such interventions.
Jennifer Schirmer
Centre for Development and the Environment, University
of Oslo, Box 1116 Blindern, 0317 Oslo, Norway
(jennifer.schirmer@sum.uio.no). 10 I 06
Although Goodale raises important issues about the role an-
thropologists can and should play in addressing human rights
discourse, his discussion of the history of the way anthro-
pologists have engaged in this discourse remains incomplete.
What he fails to acknowledge is that anthropologists have in
many different ways implicitly addressed issues of rights even
as they have been reluctant to fit social practices into pre-
established categories of international law and philosophy.
Arguably, anthropologists have been among the most active
of professions in placing the issues of rights and the practices
associated with them in context; they simply have not called
them human rights or taken on the issue explicitly. When a
group of us put together a short bibliography in 1987 (Schir-
mer, Reteln, and Wiseberg 1987, 1988) and a book in 1988
entitled Human Rights and Anthropology (Downing and Kush-
ner 1988), it was to encourage anthropologists to enter the
world of human rights discourse and practice more directly
and explicitly. In that work, many of the questions raised by
Goodale were addressed in the articles and in a suggestive yet
far from complete 70-page selected bibliography of works
related to anthropology and human rights. It was a call to
see human rights “within . . . the ancient social language of
reciprocity, community, relations, and moral obligations”
(Schirmer 1998, 92). This discussion also provided a critique
of the liberal humanist call for universal human rights as a
product of a particular society and culture.
While it is a disappointing that Goodale ignores these ef-
forts, it is heartening that he has reengaged the issue of human
rights in anthropology and called for a critical and ethno-
graphic approach to the constitution of human rights dis-
course. He makes explicit the nuanced contributions anthro-
pologists can make by broadening the very definition of
human rights, plagued by legalistic formulas and philosophic
naturalisms. Nonetheless, as in so many discussions of human
rights, we are still left with an underlying essentialism that
Goodale himself attacks in the work of other writers: through-
out his own article there is an underlying assumption that
there is a knowable set of “human capabilities” and a set of
rights that will lead to some abstracted idea of human eman-
cipation. He assumes, rightly, that universalistic human rights
discourse often operates in the service of particular structures
of power (capitalism, imperialism, etc.) and that anthropology
can serve as a corrective cultural critique. Yet his answer to
universalistic standards is a claim that this critique along with
that of local actors can become emancipatory and allow in-
dividuals “to engage in meaningful interactions free from con-
straint.” Is this not yet another vague universalism that begs
the question whether there is a society free of constraint? And
if no such society exists, does this not raise the further ques-
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 505
tions whose interactions are to be freed from which con-
straints and how this is to be decided? And does not Goodale’s
emphasis on individual rights, ironically, reveal a particular
liberal humanist political and cultural predilection?
We as anthropologists need to recognize that the debate
about whether human rights are culturally specific or uni-
versal takes us in the wrong direction; whose rights and which
rights will always be up for debate. But as the discussionabout
human rights makes clear, the ability of various groups and
claims to be heard and heeded is not equal, and that should
lie at the heart of the question of human rights discourse.
Thus it may be that we need a universal standard that helps
to underscore and guarantee open dialogue about the issue
of rights and cultural specificity. As I argued in 1988, the issue
of rights is the issue of power, especially state power, and it
is important for us as anthropologists to remind others what
that means. As I said then and still believe, we need universal
standards but universal standards that support “contextual-
ized diversely informed human rights standards, [for] those
struggling with perceptions and ideas . . . about human re-
lations that reflect an ancient social language and are thus
incompatible with the dominant legal and cultural logics in
which they find themselves living and dying—with little
choice or voice” (Schirmer 1998, 102). Without this under-
lying premise, anthropology becomes just another discipline
that hinders human rights from becoming relevant social
practice.
Richard Ashby Wilson
Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut,
U-1205, Storrs, CT 06268, U.S.A. (richard.wilson@
uconn.edu). 9 I 06
Goodale is to be commended for his lucid history of an-
thropology’s initial repudiation of and then eventual engage-
ment with international human rights and for his clear man-
ifesto for a “critical anthropology” of human rights. His
blueprint for the future relies upon a predominantly cultur-
alist theory of human rights inspired by cultural critique and
anthropological formulations of intersubjectivity. Here, hu-
man rights are apprehended as primarily ideational represen-
tations embedded in other systems of ideational representa-
tions—“human-centered values” that play a key role in
“normative systems,” in contrast to structural formulations
of rights, which draw attention primarily to the exercise of
coercive power by state and intergovernmental institutions.
Goodale encourages us to embark upon a comparative an-
thropology of human rights, and he finds value in Pannikar’s
“diatopical hermeneutics,” an approach that seeks to identify
corollaries to human rights in local cultural and religious
contexts. There are echoes here of Geertz’s (1983) “law is
culture” essay, which examines core concepts within three
different legal traditions (”Indo,” Islamic, and Malaysian) in
order to unlock the grand schema of cultural thought hidden
within them. Here, as in Goodale’s view, anthropologists of
law and rights emerge as cultural interpreters, and their role
is to translate between integrated cultural systems.
It is important, however, to acknowledge the possible lim-
itations of a culturalist approach. In Geertz’s essay there was
very little examination of how local ideas of law had been
embedded within and refashioned by long experiences of co-
lonial rule and subjected to political contestation within the
cultures concerned. And Pannikar’s essay elides the fact that
dharma is a central part of a caste system which denies full
human and jural status to “untouchables” and has faced sig-
nificant opposition from an Indian Supreme Court that jus-
tifies its affirmative-action rulings on human rights grounds.
Cultural translation occurs between Western rights and Indian
religion, but only at the expense of actual Indian politics since
independence.
By drawing upon this hermeneutic tradition, Goodale de-
fines human rights in a way that may underemphasize the
well-established anthropological concern with the nation-state
and international institutions. This comes through most
clearly in his discussion of “normative humanism,” an avow-
edly optimistic vision that appears to be directly descended
from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s in its contention that social
collectives are wholly progressive and emancipatory in a state
of nature. The concept is also counterhistorical in that it takes
insufficient note of inequality, imperial conquest, global eco-
nomic integration, and the rise of the nation-state over the
past 500 years.
Goodale’s culturalist vision has much to commend it, but
it needs to be augmented by a historical concern withpolitical
contestation between individuals, social groups, and state and
transnational elites and the role that human rights as social
ideas and as legally enforceable claims play in these struggles.
To complement Goodale’s emphasis on the normative, ethical,
and descriptive, we could add more analytical and political
questions such as what kinds of nation-states commit gen-
ocide. We might also profitably return to Hannah Arendt’s
central question of the origins of totalitarianism. How and
why do political elites mobilize absolutist versions of race,
ethnicity, and the nation, and what is the relationship between
nationalism and violence? How do nation-states deploy ideas
of human rights and the law to depoliticize conflict and neu-
tralize social movements, and how might social groups either
resist or acquiesce in their own co-optation?
Charting this political contestation over human rights at
the level of the nation-state and the international human
rights regime also involves examining what Moore (2001, 111)
called the “legal production of political consequences.” Good-
ale rejects the sphere of international law as a legitimate site
of anthropological interest, but it is an area where innovative
and stimulating research is being done by anthropologists of
law including Anders (2005) Clarke (n.d.), Dembour (2004),
and Eltringham (2004).
Ultimately a theory of human rights also has to be theory
of law as well as a theory of inequality and political violence.
506 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
This is especially necessary in that this is precisely what the
international human rights regime itself patently lacks. Of
course, Goodale is right to reject analyses in which human
rights are conceived of in wholly instrumental terms andreally
matter only insofar as they channel the rational interests of
competing groups. Yet that structural constraints are not de-
terminant in all instances does not mean that we can afford
to bracket the influence of nation-states, a globalized econ-
omy, and a transnational structure of governance. Anthro-
pologists must engage with human rights both as cultural
interpreters and as analysts of a new and emerging area of
political contestation. It is of course possible to pay attention
to the usual concerns of cultural critique as well as to analyze
the operation of the coercive power and disciplinary regimes
of nation-states and intergovernmental bodies, and the most
persuasive and compelling accounts of human rights will in-
tegrate all of these elements.
Reply
I must first express my appreciation to all of the commen-
tators for taking the time to grapple with my article. It is one
piece of a larger effort on my part to expand the collective
conversation about both the relationship between anthro-
pology and human rights and the ways in which anthropo-
logical forms of knowledge can be used to make potentially
transformative interventions in human rights theory and
practice, interventions that will take place largely outside of
anthropology itself (see Goodale 2006a, 2006b, n.d.; Goodale
and Merry 2006). This effort of mine is, in turn, part of a
movement both within anthropology and outside of it in
which critiques of different parts of the international and
transnational human rights regimes are combined with a
search for new ways of envisioning frameworks for achieving
many of the goals that motivated the postwar emergence of
human rights in the first place: a reduction of human suf-
fering, the protection of human dignity, a more just distri-
bution of wealth and resources, the end of neocolonial re-
lations of production, and so on (see, e.g., Baxi 2002;
Rajagopal 2003; Speed 2006). As I have argued more exten-
sively elsewhere (Goodale 2006b), existing anthropological en-
gagements with human rights can be divided into two broad
categories. The first, represented by scholar-activists like Terr-
ence Turner and the other founders of what became the Amer-
ican Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human
Rights, emerged from a longer tradition of anthropological
participation in projects for social justice. Here anthropolog-
ical knowledge is mobilized on behalf of specific groups strug-
gling against specific forms of marginalization, oppression,and
systemic violence. Beginning in the 1980s, anthropologists
found that human rights discourse had taken on a new and
increasingly more effective currency within these broader
struggles, and they were urged to participate in what Turner
called an “emancipatory cultural politics” (1997) by dem-
onstrating the ways in which cultural difference itself could
be reframed as a human rights issue.
The second category into which anthropological engage-
ments with human rights can be sorted is characterized by
ethnographic studies of human rights practices (see, e.g.,
Merry 2005, 2006; Slyomovics 2005; Wilson 2001). The eth-
nographic turn in the anthropology of human rights is
marked by a certain ambivalence or even skepticism toward
human rights claims and the political and legal processes in
which they are made (Cowan 2006). These studies have shown
contemporary human rights practices to be riddled with con-
tradictions, contingencies, and conceptual Gordian knots.
Nevertheless, these lessons have not been fully taken up by
international lawyers, legal philosophers, or policy makers,
despite the fact—as Riles notes —that certain pockets of crit-
ical academic lawyers (in particular) have been equally vexed
by the dilemmas at the heart of contemporary human rights
discourse.
Although the emancipatory cultural politics and ethno-
graphic approaches to human rights through anthropology
are not irreconcilable, they do reflect different epistemological
orientations and, even more important, different understand-
ings of the intersections between anthropology and ethics. A
certain distance is inevitably created when human rights prac-
tices become an object of ethnographic inquiry; likewise, an-
thropologists who are deeply engaged in human rights strug-
gles would find the mere study of human rights practices
irrelevant at best, unethical at worst. In other words, although
I have argued that anthropologists should pursue an “ecu-
menical anthropology of human rights” (2006a), in part for
practical reasons, I think it is also important not to ignore
what are often profound differences in the ways in which
anthropologists study, advocate for, and critique human
rights.
A critical anthropology of human rights is, in part, a syn-
thesis of these two approaches. On the one hand, it is meant
to be a framework through which anthropologists can employ
the analytical and methodological tools at their disposal to
intervene in actual social struggles in which human rights are
invoked. On the other hand, it is a theory of normative or-
dering that is derived from the complexities of normative
praxis, in which human rights norms emerge as part of a
broader process that I have described as “ethical theory as
social practice” (2006b). Unlike many ethnographic studies
of human rights, however, a critical anthropology of human
rights is not simply another approach to documenting the
empirical dimensions of human rights practices. Rather, it
uses the ethnography of human rights as the basis for artic-
ulating the grounds on which human rights can be cross-
culturally legitimate without having to resort to the kinds of
abstracted theories of universality that underpin major human
rights instruments and institutions. And unlike the emanci-
Goodale Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights 507
patory cultural politics approach, a critical anthropology of
human rights remains skeptical of the international and trans-
national human rights regimes that have emerged since the
end of cold war, in part because of the way they have been
appropriated by state and corporate actors within the broader
trajectory of late-capitalist consolidation but also for more
philosophical reasons. This skepticism and the critiques that
are derived from it are not, however, the purpose of a critical
anthropology of human rights itself, nor is it the expression
of the kind of “sophistication” that Riles alludes to in her
comment, let alone an example of “self-reflexiv[ity]” (again,
Riles) on my part (analytical solipsism is perhaps even less
justifiable in the area of human rights than in others because
of the stakes involved). Instead, the critique of human rights
through anthropology—a critique that must be, crucially, an-
chored in the ethnography of human rights practices—is a
means thorough which the idea of human rights can be re-
conceptualized in a way that is neither “relativist” (pace
Dahre) nor “dystopic” (pace Baxi).
This, then, is the basic thrust of my article, which brings
together different arguments in a necessarily rather condensed
form. For example, Eriksen would like to see more “telling
empirical examples” from the literature on anthropology and
human rights, and Likosky and Mooberry quite sensibly ob-
serve that “example[s] of Goodale’s theory at work would
help to clarify [it].” It seemed to me that I would have space
in the article either for a relatively full theoretical exposition
or for a brief development of one or two main ideas embedded
in a discussion of my own ethnographic research and the
research of others but not both. Given these options, I chose
the first, but for those who would rather see the idea of a
critical anthropology of human rights explained through eth-
nographic examples such examples are on the way in a book
that I am currently finishing. There are, however, a number
of critiques across the comments that are not so easily dealt
with. In the space I have left, I will address what I feel are
the most important of these.
Several commentators feel that my discussion of normative
humanism—which is, to reiterate, a way of describing certain
cross-cultural patterns across quite diverse normative prac-
tices—does not take full account of the different forms of
power that act to constrain collectivities from creating rules
for themselves, rules that can include human rights. Wilson,
in particular, argues that this description of normative or-
dering “takes insufficient note of inequality, imperial con-
quest, global economic integration, and the rise of the nation-
state.” Cowan finds fault from the other direction: she claims
that, instead of failing to take account of the range of external
factors, my description of normative ordering fails to reflect
an understanding of the way “endogenous dynamics” impose
constraint from within collectivities. Regarding the external
dimensions of power, I quite clearly say in my article that
“history . . . reads like one long catalogue of different and
insidious constraints—military, ideological, political—on the
capacity of individuals in collectivities to realize themselves
through the production of ideal normative systems.” And
although I quite agree with Wilson that external historical
and political factors will necessarily enter into any political-
analytical intervention within the framework I develop, if legal
anthropology (in particular) has demonstrated anything it is
the enduring richness and persistence of culturally embedded
normativities despite the presence of the kind of large-scale
global processes to which he refers. As for Cowan’s argument
that “it is hardly adequate to reconceptualize power as—in
effect, to reduce power to—‘the presence of constraints’ ” (in
part because such a reconceptualization simplifies local power
dynamics), I can only say that it is not my intention to reduce
power tout court in the way Cowan implies. Rather, I make
it clear that my reconceptualization of “power” is limited to
the specific dimensions of normative practice that “reflect a
balance between the individual and the collective, a balance
that nevertheless can have meaning only in light of local his-
torical and cultural imperatives.”
I had anticipated resistance to my reinterpretation of the
history of anthropology’s relationship with human rights, es-
pecially since much of the anthropological reengagementwith
human rights was accompanied by the construction of a par-
ticular narrative about this history. But as I show in thearticle,
this narrative becomes problematic in light of the archival
reconstruction of the role of the AAA during the writing of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subse-
quent absence of anthropologists during the emergence of the
postwar human rights regime. Nevertheless, I have no interest
in offering my reconstruction of this history as a more “truth-
ful” account than the master narrative of anthropology and
human rights I describe in some detail. Instead, the coun-
ternarrative I propose is used to show that current engage-
ments with human rights are both politically complicatedand
analytically incomplete. In other words, this historical coun-
ternarrative is meant to expand the range of potential an-
thropological contributions to human rights debates—in-
cluding philosophical contributions—in part because the
meanings to be drawn from this history are much more am-
biguous than has been supposed. As for the differences that
remain between me and some of the commentators (especially
Schirmer) on the question of this history, I leave it to others
make their own judgments. But I think the burden of proof
for showing real anthropological influence on the develop-
ment of human rights theory and practice must remain with
those who assert it, since the impact of this putative influence
is difficult to find in any of the major human rights philos-
ophy, institutional development, and jurisprudence between
1948 and the 1980s. I agree completely with Schirmer that
anthropologists “implicitly addressed issues of rights” (though
she makes this claim without reference to the specific time
frames that are important for my argument), but this kind
of earnest underground activism hardly qualifies as influence
on the development of human rights theory and practice in
the way I mean. Yet I must underscore a point I make in the
article: in offering a counternarrative in which anthropology
508 Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 3, June 2006
and anthropologists were absent from the development of
human rights during this time period, I certainly do not mean
to criticize anthropologists themselves. The intention is ac-
tually quite different: I want to show that potential anthro-
pological contributions to human rights are much broader
and conceivably more transformative than previously
imagined.
1
I do not have space either to address all of the commen-
tators’ concerns point by point or to acknowledge the en-
couraging signs of agreement from different members of the
group. Yet I cannot end this reply without addressing several
critiques that seem to be based on fundamental misunder-
standings of the article. Although I have learned—and con-
tinue to learn—much from Annelise Rile’s important writings
on the “social production of human rights knowledge,” the
kind of critical anthropology of human rights I envision is
not directed toward the “network” of elite international law-
yers and transnational human rights activists that she has so
thoroughly described and critiqued. Rather, I am concerned
with the much more mundane—and, I would argue, more
potentially significant—settings in which human rights dis-
course is taken up by ordinary social actors in the course of
the production of ethical theory as a form of social practice.
And this focus is not theory-driven in the way Riles suggests
but a description of an analytical framework that is itself
derived from the ethnography of human rights practices, a
framework which, moreover, implies a radically different hu-
man rights ontology and grounds for legitimacy. I agree with
Riles that more humility is needed but disagree about what
“humility” means in this context. I would think an approach
to human rights that is based on the assumption that “human
rights knowledge” is tightly circumscribed by the logics and
technocratic imperatives of a tiny group of transnational elites
is rather less humble than one that sees these same elites as
much less consequential than the millions of social actors
whose rough-and-tumble ethical theorizing remains, in the
end, the only means through which the idea of human rights
will ever be legitimately and persuasively expressed.
Finally, there is the suggestion by several commentators
that a critical anthropology of human rights—informed, as
it is, by a historically and discursively deracinatedunderstand-
ing of “humanism” (pace Cowan)—expresses a certain uto-
pianism. If this is true, it is because my own implicithesitation
is the precise opposite of Cowan’s: if she is not willing to cede
1. On this point, Messer introduces some new information that goes
some way toward answering a question that Riles asks in her comment
(and that I avoid trying to answer in my article): why were anthropologists
largely absent from the development of human rights after 1948 Universal
Declaration? Messer argues that the group of international lawyers (she
mentions Philip Alston) that dominated this process consciously mar-
ginalized anthropologists because it was feared that the cultural analysis
they provided would “destroy the very concept of human rights.” This
raises all sorts of intriguing questions. Who were these anthropologists
who were intentionally marginalized? How exactly did this marginali-
zation occur? Were calls not returned, requests to participate in document
drafting turned down?
her tragic and ambiguous reading of human sociality, I am
equally unwilling to ignore what the ethnographic evidence
tells us about the enduring capacity and desire of collectivities
to create rules for themselves that express a basic optimism
and recognition of the fragility of human dignity.
—Mark Goodale
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... 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. ...
... To a great extent it seems that anthropologists have definitively confronted the limits of cultural relativism without shying away from adopting a critical approach on their own discipline. Goodale (2006) and Good and Merry (2017) have successfully re-claimed the important role of anthropology both scrutinizing the ways in which international human rights should be framed in order to serve their original purpose, and the part it plays in law making and expert witnessing. ...
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