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Anthropology Between Reason and Intuition

Anthropology News October 2006
With these fi ve an-
swers to its fourth,
and fi nal, question,
the series “Anthro-
pology and Human Rights—An
Open Exchange” comes to a close.
In many
ways, in its
ity, substan-
tiveness and
with contem-
porary issues,
the exchange
went well
beyond even
our most op-
timistic ex-
pectations. For this I would like to
offer my warmest thanks to both
the series contributors and the edi-
tor of AN, Stacy Lathrop, who man-
aged the project and has otherwise
made AN into a venue where an ex-
change of this kind can take place.
Pleas and Provocations
I hesitate, as the series guest editor,
to try and offer a set of systematic
conclusions, to draw out implica-
tions, or to locate the exchange,
taken as a whole, in relation to
wider current debates over the re-
lationship between anthropology
and human rights. Certainly read-
ers will draw their own conclu-
sions about what were intended
as short and provocative essays on
specifi c and admittedly idiosyn-
cratically chosen topics.
I encouraged the contributors
to frame their responses beyond
the conventions of traditional aca-
demic exchange, which neverthe-
less continue to be necessary as
anthropologists try and ply their
trade within wider and less for-
giving epistemological waters, but
which also often lead to knowledge
production through a kind of inter-
textual bickering, what a mentor
(and one of the series contributors)
always describes as the “he said, she
said” approach to scholarship.
What the contributors offered
instead has been a collection of open
and unencumbered anthropological
reflections on different aspects of
one of the most significant develop-
ments of the last 20 years: the rise
of viable international and trans-
national human rights regimes and
their impact on the practice of social,
economic and political life, from the
truth and reconciliation commis-
sions that have come to dominate
the international management of
so-called post-conflict zones, to the
explosion in “local” appropriations
of transnational human rights dis-
course as part of broader struggles
over cultural identity, the control of
resources, biogenetic integrity, and
other sites of contestation, both new
and old.
It would do a kind of violence,
in other words, to hover over this
collection of ideas, provocations,
insights, and passionate pleas, and
attempt to impose conceptual order
on it, or to try and bend it to my
own intellectual purposes. In the
event, as would be expected across
such a range of views, I can find as
many places of convergence with
my own emerging position on the
relationship between anthropol-
ogy and human rights as I can
points of radical divergence.
The wide spaces between perspec-
tives on anthropology and human
rights point toward the continuing
problem of what Gerald Hyman, in
his April essay, described as anthro-
pology’s “ambivalence” toward
human rights, at the same time
they reflect the tremendous poten-
tial of what I have called, in a similar
“In Focus” in the March 2006 AA,
an “ecumenical anthropology of
human rights.” So in keeping with
the open, fragmented and essen-
tially indeterminate spirit of this
exchange, I add what amount to
reflections on reflections—certainly
nothing that adds up to anything as
dignified as a formal argument.
tee for Human Rights and culmi-
nated in the 1999 adoption by the
general membership of the “Dec-
laration on Anthropology and Hu-
man Rights,” a strong statement
of principle that had the effect—
among other things—of defi ni-
tively repudiating the AAA’s 1947
“Statement on Human Rights.”
The wording of the question
was intentionally ambiguous; the
contributors were asked to con-
sider the relationship through the
twin lenses of relevance and useful-
ness. Victoria Sanford, whose own
research and activism have taken
her into the deepest and most trag-
ic corners of Guatemala’s killing
fields, issued a full-throated plea
for anthropologists to look beyond
the siren song of critical academic
discourse and do everything possi-
ble to improve the conditions that
are so “tangible and immediate to
the lives of those who live in the
communities where we work.”
Veena Das, by contrast, urged
us to consider the “conditions of
possibility” that would enable a
more robust anthropological par-
ticipation in what she describes as
“emancipatory projects” (includ-
ing those structured by human
rights discourse). While she can
see how human rights “can be used
to destroy carefully knitted social
arrangements in local worlds,”
she also knows that human rights
discourse is often “translated in
practices on the side of justice.”
But despite this promise, she is
highly skeptical that the institu-
tional conditions can be created
that would allow anthropology to
formally contribute to these pro-
cesses of translation.
The second question raised
the problem of universality.
Anthropologists have traditionally
avoided participating in the differ-
ent debates over the ontological
status of human rights. Implicit in
this question was both a critique
of this absence, and a suggestion
that anthropology had something
innovative to say about what have
been considered problems best left
to the philosophy of human rights.
The question was not, however,
meant to imply that anthropolo-
gists have something important to
contribute within the philosophy
of human rights. Rather, the recent
study of human rights practices
has actually called into question
the status of the philosophy of
human rights itself, and what it
means to ask and answer basic
questions about rights (human
or otherwise), such as, Where do
they come from? How can they
be legitimate? Are they essentially
political? And so on.
In a sense, the next question
was intended to explore different
implications of the same body of
research on human rights prac-
tices. By invoking the specter of
“moral imperialism,” respondents
were asked to consider the com-
plex ways in which power radi-
ates through transnational human
rights networks. Laura Nader’s
essay examined the normative
blind spots that emerged as a con-
sequence of the growing power
of the international human rights
system. These weaknesses were
not the result of anything within
the idea of human rights itself;
as Nader says, it was “definitely a
paradigm open to interpretation.”
Rather, these deficiencies were the
product of the distorting political
contexts through which the idea
of human rights was introduced in
different parts of the world.
Richard Wilson sees something
sinister in the question itself.
Abstract debates over power and
human rights conceal the fact
that local actors are the ones who
have an urgent “desire to resolve
concrete local problems” with the
help of human rights discourse.
The concreteness and even sim-
plicity behind the globalization of
human rights are totally obscured
in what becomes for Wilson a kind
of promiscuous criticality, which,
for good measure, gets evocative-
ly described as a “high-handed
Leninist vanguardism.”
Epistemological Humility
The fi nal question of the series
assumed that the fi rst three ques-
tions and responses would lead
to the conclusion that anthropol-
ogy does, in fact, have something
important to contribute to both
debates over human rights, and
political and social struggles in
terms of them. It therefore asked
contributors to consider some-
thing beyond questions of mere
methodology or intellectual his-
tory: whether anthropologists had
an ethical obligation to promote
human rights.
Mark Goodale
Anthropology Between Reason and Intuition
Reflections On Reflections
The exchange began with an open-
ended question that was intended
to take the measure of current
understandings of anthropology’s
relationship to human rights. The
implication was that these under-
standings have changed dramati-
cally since the early 1990s, when
the AAA recast itself for certain
purposes as a transnational hu-
man rights NGO, a move that be-
gan with the creation of what later
became the permanent Commit-
October 2006 • Anthropology News
The Danish anthropologist Ida
Nicolaisen argues that the disci-
pline must never bite the hand
that has fed it, that whether
through human rights or other-
wise, anthropologists do indeed
have an ethical obligation to
“stand up for the … basic human
rights” of “indigenous peoples and
other marginalized groups.” In a
sense, Jane Cowan would agree,
at least with the basic premise:
anthropologists should develop
more engaged forms of political
and professional practice. But she
would sharply disagree about the
role of human rights in “long term
efforts to rebuild societies on a
basis of peace and justice.” Instead,
she argues that anthropologists
should think beyond the narrow
individualism of human rights dis-
course in order to “[c]ultivat[e] a
more inclusive ethical imagina-
tion and an attitude of responsible
agency beyond the self.”
Yet perhaps the response that
best reveals a common thread that
binds the many together is Terence
Turner’s. This is most fitting, since
he has played a crucial role in reori-
enting at least American anthro-
pology in relation to human rights,
in part through his institution-
al activities within the AAA, but
also through his broader research,
scholarship and passionate public
anthropology. There is a profound
humility in his essay, which (at
least for me) sheds new light on the
sources of anthropology’s histori-
cal insecurity within wider human
rights debates. His position on
the relationship between human
rights and human difference is
well-known; it is expressed quite
clearly, for example, in the 1999
Declaration. But there is some-
thing else here. Beyond any con-
ceptual framework that might, at
least theoretically, reposition it in
relation to human rights, Turner’s
essay points to a different level at
which anthropology and human
rights are inextricably bound.
Anthropology has never been
a company discipline, especially
compared to those whose sense of
epistemological mission and will-
ingness to perform sacrifices to
the gods of certainty and enlight-
ened progress have made them
darlings of public policy and have
landed their musings on the gen-
eral nonfiction bestseller lists (see
Freakonomics, currently #6 at TBR).
This is because anthropologists
have always been too close to the
practices of everyday life to feel
comfortable within the modern
project that, somewhat ironically,
gave birth to their profession.
Like Groucho Marx, most anthro-
pologists have, in the end, refused
to join the club that would (with
some arm twisting) have them as a
member, even as they continue to
look on with envy as the masters of
the dismal science (among others)
walk proudly through the club’s
front door. And when this close-
ness with the practices of every-
day life is also closeness with the
kind of oppression, violence, and
tragedy that defy rational com-
prehension, then anthropologists
have found themselves at a loss to
abstract from it.
This is the existential dilemma
that comes through so clearly in
Turner’s, and, to a certain extent,
many of the other essays in this
exchange. This is why anthro-
pology did not take its place
alongside political philosophy
and law among the academic
disciplines that laid the intellec-
tual foundations for the postwar
human rights system. But this
epistemological humility, which
for Turner expresses itself as a
“matter of moral and intellectual
principle,” is more than anything
else a recognition that those dark
moments in the human expe-
rience, moments that are only
partially contemplated by human
rights, can really only be appre-
hended—and thus understood—
in the phenomenological spaces
between reason and intuition.
In the end, anthropologists
must surrender to what they can-
not conceptualize and find ways
to act on what Turner describes as
“our sense” of what seems right,
of what a (culturally conditioned)
conscience whispers in our ears,
and of the “anthropological idea
of humanity as an open-ended
process of realization of capacities
common to all.”
Mark Goodale is assistant professor of
confl ict analysis and anthropology at George
Mason University. He is the author of two
forthcoming books, The Anthropology
of Human Rights: Critical Explorations
in Ethical Theory and Social Practice
and Dilemmas of Modernity: Bolivian
Encounters with Law and Liberalism,
and editor (with Sally Engle Merry) of The
Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law
Between the Global and the Local, in ad-
dition to recent articles on anthropology and
human rights in Current Anthropology
and American Anthropologist.
Anthropology and Human Rights
An Open Exchange
April 2006 AN
Anthropology and Human Rights—An Open Exchange (Mark
Goodale, George Mason U)
Do Anthropologists Have Anything Useful or
Relevant to Say About Human Rights?
Conditions of Possibility (Veena Das, Johns Hopkins U)
Anthropology Can and Should Be Relevant (Victoria Sanford,
Lehman C, CUNY)
Possible Anthropological Contributions (Sheila Dauer,
Program Director, Amnesty International USA Women's
Human Rights)
A Call to Words (Janet Chernela, U Maryland)
Challenges in Transitional Justice (Victoria Baxter, Senior Program
Associate, AAAS Science and Human Rights Program)
Ambivalence Leads to Limited Relevance (Gerald F Hyman,
Director, USAID Office of Democracy and Governance)
May 2006 AN
Should Anthropologists Try to Answer Whether
Human Rights Are Universal?
Fluidity of Human Rights in Practice (Sally Engle Merry,
New York U)
The Globalization of Human Rights (Kamari Maxine Clarke, Yale)
Anthropology and the Philosophy of Human Rights (Mark
Goodale, George Mason U)
September 2006 AN
Is the Spread of Human Rights Discourse Since the
End of the Cold War a Form of Moral Imperialism?
Human Rights and Moral Imperialism: A Double-Edged Story
(Laura Nader, UC Berkeley)
The Moral Imperialism Critique Is Not Valid (Richard A Wilson,
U Connecticut)
The Value of Liberalism and Truth Standards (David Stoll,
Middlebury C)
Human Rights and State Violence (Sara Mahmood, UC Berkeley)
October 2006 AN
Do Anthropologists Have an Ethical Obligation to Promote
Human Rights?
The Special Relationship Between Anthropology and Human Rights (Terry Turner,
Cornell U)
Anthropologists Are Obligated to Promote Human Rights and Social Justice:
Especially Among Vulnerable Communities (Laura R Graham, U Iowa)
Advocacy is a Moral Choice of "Doing Some Good," But Not a Professional
Ethical Responsibility (Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Rhode Island C)
Anthropology Should Actively Promote Human Rights (Ida Nicolaisen,
Copenhagen U)
An Obligation to "Support Human Rights" Unconditionally is Misguided
Moralism (Jane K Cowan, U Sussex)
Final Thoughts
Anthropology Between Reason and Intuition (Mark Goodale, George Mason U)
All contributions to the AN series on Anthropology and Human Rights are
accessible through AnthroSource ( for teaching and
research purposes.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
AN Do Anthropologists Have an Ethical Obligation to Promote Human Rights?
  • Sara Mahmood
  • Berkeley
Human Rights and State Violence (Sara Mahmood, UC Berkeley) October 2006 AN Do Anthropologists Have an Ethical Obligation to Promote Human Rights? The Special Relationship Between Anthropology and Human Rights (Terry Turner, Cornell U)