ArticlePDF Available

Anthropology and Human Rights-An Open Exchange

Anthropology News April 2006
There is no doubt that the
relationship between
American anthropology
and human rights con-
tinues to intrigue anthropologists
and others. At the same time, this
remains in ma-
ny ways the
subject of in-
tense debate
and controver-
sy. Are anthro-
pologists still
committed to
cultural relati-
vism, and if so,
how can this
commitment be reconciled with uni-
versal human rights? Do anthropolo-
gists have an ethical obligation to
promote human rights in some way?
The AAA—through its commit-
tees, sections and interest groups,
and as an association—functions as a
human rights NGO in certain
instances. However, the official “mis-
sion and goals” of the AAA remain
those set out in the original AAA con-
stitution. The most important of
these is the following: “to advance
anthropology as the science that
studies humankind in all its aspects,
through archeological, biological,
ethnological and linguistic research;
and to further the professional inter-
ests of American anthropologists;
including the dissemination of
anthropological knowledge and its
use to solve human problems.”
Yet, how does the AAA’s human
rights activism “advance anthropolo-
gy as the science that studies
humankind in all its aspects”? Or are
these activities an example of the
“dissemination of anthropological
knowledge and its use to solve
human problems”? Is there a differ-
ence between AAA activism on
behalf of anthropologists whose
human rights have been violated
hegemonic since the end of the Cold
War, and bundled with larger eco-
nomic and even military projects (as
with the war in Iraq), it should be
treated with skepticism and subject-
ed to critical scrutiny. All of these
competing and divergent perspec-
tives on anthropology and human
rights make this one of the areas of
anthropology that is ripe for renewed
attention, especially in light of the
underlying stakes involved.
Anthropology and Human Rights—
An Open Exchange
and activism that seeks to promote
or advance human rights more gen-
erally? For example, the American
Association for the Advancement of
Science (AAAS) has an active science
and human rights program, which
was first established in 1977 to
address cases in which the human
rights of scientists in different parts of
the world were threatened or had
been violated. Although the AAAS
program has been expanded since
then to include a number of public
and interdisciplinary human rights
education initiatives, this primary
focus on the rights of scientists raises
certain questions. What about these
scientists’ students? Or the general
population in places where scientific
freedom is restricted? How can scien-
tific knowledge really “advance”
without the active and fully in-
formed engagement of the popula-
tion for whose benefit scientific
knowledge is ultimately produced?
Multiple Narratives
Part of what makes the debate over
the relationship between anthropolo-
gy and human rights so controversial
is that its history is itself the subject of
dispute. Some anthropologists argue
that the AAA’s 1947 “Statement on
Human Rights” was both an episte-
mological and political barrier to any
significant anthropological influence
on human rights until about the
1980s. Others say that although this
might be true, anthropologists never-
theless worked to further human
rights behind the scenes, or through
issues that were at first marginal to
international human rights activities
until only very recently, such as the
focus on indigenous rights or the
“right to culture” (which was later
formally recognized by the AAA
through its adoption of its
“Declaration on Anthropology and
Human Rights” in 1999).
Still other anthropologists main-
tain that because human rights dis-
course has become increasingly
Between now and next October, anthropologists and others will engage with current issues surrounding the relationship between
anthropology and human rights. People from a range of different backgrounds and perspectives will respond to one of four ques-
tions: Do anthropologists have anything useful or relevant to say about human rights? Should anthropologists try and answer
whether human rights are universal? Is the spread of human rights discourse since the end of the Cold War a form of moral
imperialism? And, do anthropologists have an ethical obligation to promote human rights?
Mark Goodale
Rights, Activism and Politics
Any discussion of the relationship
between anthropology and human
rights necessarily takes place within a
wider political context. This has been
true since the mid-1940s, when the
AAA’s Statement on Human Rights
was produced at a time when
anthropologists were actively partici-
pating in the building of postwar
institutions and knowledge regimes.
A good example of the ways in
which anthropological knowledge
[C]ompeting and divergent perspectives
on anthropology and human rights make
this one of the areas of anthropology that
is ripe for renewed attention ...
has intersected with broader political
movements was the series of
UNESCO statements on race, which
were produced in the shadow of the
horrors of World War II.
Interestingly, the main thrust of
the first UNESCO Statement by
Experts on Problems of Race (1950),
which was largely written and
revised by anthropologist Ashley
Montagu, was quite different than
that of the 1947 AAA Statement on
in which anthropologists discuss
and engage with human rights.
Did the debate over the cancelled
2004 AAA meeting in San Francisco,
for instance, reflect an underlying
consensus among members that the
AAA should intervene more vigor-
ously in human rights struggles?
Conversely, was the lopsided vote
by AAA members to rescind the El
Dorado Report an implicit rejection
of the AAA’s human rights activism
Human Rights. In the statement on
problems of race, “race” as a biologi-
cally fixed concept, which led to
such devastating consequences in
Europe in the first part of the 20th
century, was definitively rejected; in
the Statement on Human Rights,
however, it was the idea of universal
human rights that was rejected.
Through the statement on problems
of race, anthropology stood on what
was understood at the time to be the
politically progressive side of the
issue; with the Statement on Human
Rights, American anthropology
became a political outlier from what
was a growing movement to erect an
international legal and ethical bul-
wark against the outrages of total war
and nationalism run amok.
It might seem a great leap
between the political and ethical
issues facing the AAA in the mid-
20th century and those of today,
but perhaps the renewed focus on
human rights and human rights
activism by anthropologists should
also be read in light of wider con-
troversies. There is no question that
the AAA continues to be fragment-
ed along a series of epistemological,
political and other lines, and these
fissures—though perhaps not quite
as deep as they were 20 years ago—
inevitably shape the different ways
April 2006 • Anthropology News
See Human Rights on page 6
on behalf of indigenous peoples? Or
did this vote really have nothing to
do with the AAA’s human rights
activism? It is difficult not to sense
that the underlying divisions within
the AAA were not, in some ways,
reflected in these two recent events.
But how?
An Open Exchange
Between now and next October,
anthropologists and others will
respond briefly, frankly and, at
times, provocatively to some of
these issues (and others) in AN. We
have asked people from a range of
different backgrounds and perspec-
tives to respond to one simply stat-
ed question in each issue. The ques-
By Veena Das (Johns Hopkins U)
Does anthropology have anything
useful to contribute to the discourse
and practice of
human rights?
The era in
which it was
considered to
be the particu-
lar burden of
to generate an
of “other cul-
tures” within
the broader field of social sciences
and humanities is long over.
There is a much more sophisti-
cated understanding of the many
dispersed centers in which the dis-
cipline was shaped. For instance, in
countries such as India there was a
close relation between disciplinary
engagements and political engage-
ments. The work of anthropologists
in preparing testimonies for land
rights issues in courts in North
America, Canada and Australia, and
many other such moments in
anthropology, show that there is
nothing inherent in the discipline
that would align it with colonial
projects or chauvinist projects of
ethno-nationalism, though there
are plenty of such examples.
What are the conditions of possi-
bility that would enable anthropol-
ogy to be engaged in emancipatory
projects, however these are defined?
tions are meant to be conceptually,
politically and ethically ambiguous.
We hope that respondents will
find the AN format liberating. We
also hope this five-part exchange
will make a substantive contribu-
tion to the broader collective con-
versation over the relationship
between anthropology and human
rights, which is also taking place in
more traditional venues, such as the
In Focus in last month’s American
Anthropologist, “Anthropology and
Human Rights in a New Key.”
For the first question in the series
“Anthropology and Human Rights
—An Open Exchange,” six people
respond to the following question:
By Victoria Sanford (Lehman C,
Unequal power relations produced
by wealth enable anthropologists to
travel the wor-
ld to carry out
our research
and present
our findings.
We are few
and we are
And, we must
struggle with
this position
of privilege as
we seek to understand the often
marginalized communities we
study. Recognition of these unequal
power relations can enable us to
problematize not only the condi-
tions in the communities in which
we work, but our own condition as
researchers and our role in these
relations of inequality. Our ethno-
graphic method gives us access to
the lived experiences of those hid-
den behind the numbers of docu-
mented human rights violations. It
also sensitizes us to the nascent
threats to life and liberty in the
communities that comprise our
field sites.
Anthropologists should be cog-
nizant of and critique globalizing
discourses, including international
human rights instruments and
their deployment. Nonetheless, we
must also recognize that human
rights law remains the only inter-
nationally recognized legal frame-
work available for many communi-
ties to seek out, secure and protect
their political, socioeconomic and
cultural rights. I believe anthropol-
ogists can and should make useful
Veena Das
Do anthropologists have anything useful
or relevant to say about human rights?
Six Perspectives
Unfortunately, institutional tran-
sformations in the universities in
the US and elsewhere are threaten-
ing the kind of free inquiry on
which critical understanding rests.
An obvious example is the increas-
ing tendencies of IRBs to define eth-
ical issues in research on the model
of biomedical sciences so that the
individual is fore-grounded to the
exclusion of the social. If I am writ-
ing on ethnic violence and the
state’s complicity in it, how am I to
assure the IRB that my interviews
with police officers who were in
charge of maintaining peace and
failed to do so will not constitute a
risk to their professional reputa-
tion? How do we balance the prin-
ciple of “no harm” to individuals
with our obligation to contest the
power to define away evidence of
harm done to the marginal or
threatened communities? I see a far
greater threat to anthropology’s
capabilities for engaging politically
difficult questions based upon good
evidence from everyday practices
that govern research in universities
than from direct censorship.
Are human rights projects always
for the good? The answer is obvi-
ously in the negative—the US State
Department can use this discourse
with as much facility to discipline
other societies as victims of a riot or
a pogrom to claim justice. Emile
Durkheim stated long ago that any
contract must be surrounded by a
penumbra of the non-contractual
Conditions of Possibility
Anthropology Can and Should Be Relevant
and relevant contributions to
human rights in the communities
in which we work.
Initiating Dialogue
A unique contribution of anthropo-
logical writing is our ability to bring
the people of our field sites back
into the conversation in our self-
conscious struggles with the un-
equal power relations and contra-
dictory privileges that took us to
the field in the first place. In places
where daily life is marked by
human rights violations, we en-
counter the additional conundrum
that if the violations get too close to
us, unlike our marginalized friends,
we can pack up our passports and
leave. This becomes all the more
problematic when we find that the
people with whom we work can be
easily labeled as subversive, deviant
or criminal for seeking to defend
their human rights, and sometimes
just for talking to us. In such cir-
cumstances, most anthropologists,
regardless of the original intentions
of their research project, feel per-
sonally compelled to take a posi-
tion on the legitimacy of commu-
nity demands for justice as well as
the veracity of the truth claims of
rights violations.
Our field experiences often push
us beyond the self-conscious reflec-
tion of the anthropologist in the
field to the status of expert observer
challenging official discourses about
development, democracy and hu-
man rights. This new status shifts
the role of the anthropologist as well
as the outcomes of anthropological
research because violence, experi-
Victoria Sanford
Commentary Policy
AN Commentaries are designed to explore diverse views of the discipline from an anthropological per-
spective. Commentaries reflect the views of the authors; their publication does not signify endorse-
ment by AN or the AAA. Authors are expected to verify all factual information included in the text.
to be defined as contract. Similarly,
human rights discourses and prac-
tices can only be understood if we
analyze how these become embed-
ded in the social rather than as
abstract rules or claims.
As abstract formulations, dis-
courses of human rights can be
used to destroy carefully knitted
social arrangements in local worlds
—but as one among other resources
that are actively used by social
actors and given new
forms, the same discours-
es could be translated in
practices on the side of
justice. An anthropological rather
than a purely juridical understand-
ing of human rights then can con-
tribute to a deeper understanding
of the contemporary world. But
whether we are able to secure con-
ditions for generating this research
is somewhat doubtful.
... direitos humanos, videGoodale, 2006, bem como a série de publicações da AAA que esta integra.12Wiessner (2011, p. 140) comenta que os governos não deveriam criar museus vivos de pessoas (living museums of peoples). ...
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.