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This article represents a search for a different analytical language through which anthropology can engage with human rights. This effort is intended to contribute to what is an expanding range of ways in which anthropologists conceptualize, advocate for, and critique contemporary human rights. Its central argument is that current ethnographic studies of human rights practices can be used as the basis for making innovative claims within human rights debates that take place outside of anthropology itself. To do this, ethnographic description that captures the contradictions and contingencies at the heart of human rights practices is not enough. What is needed is a different understanding of how the idea of human rights comes to be formed in context. In this article, I suggest several possible ways that an anthropological philosophy of human rights can accomplish this. I conclude by locating this approach in relation to a longer history of anthropological skepticism toward universalist discourses.
Ethical Theory as Social Practice
ABSTRACT This article represents a search for a different analytical language through which anthropology can engage with human
rights. This effort is intended to contribute to what is an expanding range of ways in which anthropologists conceptualize, advocate
for, and critique contemporary human rights. Its central argument is that current ethnographic studies of human rights practices can be
used as the basis for making innovative claims within human rights debates that take place outside of anthropology itself. To do this,
ethnographic description that captures the contradictions and contingencies at the heart of human rights practices is not enough. What
is needed is a different understanding of how the idea of human rights comes to be formed in context. In this article, I suggest several
possible ways that an anthropological philosophy of human rights can accomplish this. I conclude by locating this approach in relation
to a longer history of anthropological skepticism toward universalist discourses. [Keywords: human rights, anthropology, philosophy,
intellectual history, ethical theory]
As we now know, anthropology got off on the wrong foot
with human rights. But at the time the American Anthropol-
ogist published the American Anthropological Association’s
“Statement on Human Rights” (1947; hereafter, Statement),
there was no awareness at all within the very tightly knit
group of leading U.S. cultural anthropologists that the UN
draft statement of universal rights would eventually become
the foundation for a dominant transnational moral dis-
course, or that anthropologists would be fated to experience
the development of the human rights regime as passive ob-
servers. One of the only people who had an inkling of the fu-
ture was the author of the Statement, Melville Herskovits.1
His eminence within anthropology at midcentury was the
reason he was approached by UNESCO and asked to com-
ment on the idea of a statement of universal human rights
as well as the reason his “Statement” was quickly moved
into publication in AA and adopted by the AAA’s Execu-
tive Board. However, there is no way to actually character-
ize the anthropological sentiment toward human rights at
this time, because there was no sentiment. After the 1947
publication of the Statement, there was a very brief set of
exchanges, again in the pages of AA, and then the topic of
human rights slipped from the U.S. anthropological radar.2
But even if Herskovits’s doubts would, in retrospect,
prove farsighted, the fact remains that intellectual history,
like nature, abhors a vacuum, and despite the absence of
major anthropological contributions to human rights de-
AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 108, Issue 1, pp. 25–37, ISSN 0002-7294, electronic ISSN 1548-1433. C
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bates during the wilderness years, anthropology was never-
theless positioned—in absentia. As the domain of academic
expertise on culture, anthropology became synonymous
with cultural relativism, and cultural relativism became
synonymous with the categorical rejection of universal
human rights. When the specter of anthropology was
raised, it was as a sober reminder that the richness of the
world’s ethical diversity meant that one could not simply
weigh a culture’s values—or actions—against the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (1948; hereafter, Universal
Declaration) as if it were a straightforward and objective
normative metric. Yet it was not anthropologists them-
selves who were injecting cultural relativism into human
rights debates at the United Nations, within the conference
rooms of Amnesty International, or in the pages of Human
Rights Quarterly. The symbolic anthropological voice had
been transformed into a discursive weapon, one wielded by
opponents of human rights—real or imagined—from Marx-
ists to the political advocates of so-called Asian values. By
the time anthropologists began to reengage in greater num-
bers with human rights in the 1980s, it was almost too
late. In relation to human rights theory and practice, an-
thropology had been consigned to the savage slot: episte-
mologically exotic, fated to push against the universalizing
discourses of the Cold War, incapable of contributing any-
thing of scientific value to a global project of enlightened
In this article, I take up this “almost” and argue for a
different kind of anthropological relevance in relation to
26 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
human rights, one that at least theoretically can frame in-
terventions into human rights theory and practice proper.3
The types of interventions I am referring to are primarily—
although not exclusively—philosophical. As the recent an-
thropology of human rights has shown, it is the idea of
human rights in all of its conceptual lucidity, simplic-
ity, and universalism that has emerged as a normative
ordering principle around which social practices are in-
creasingly organized and invested with meaning. Even if
anthropologists have documented how the practice of hu-
man rights unfolds within the messiness of everyday life,
it is the idea—and not the many contradictions—of hu-
man rights that compels social actors and, at times, leads
to a shift in different forms of identity: legal, political, and
In this article, I suggest different ways in which an
anthropological philosophy of human rights might con-
tribute to contemporary human rights. However, my main
assumption is that the idea of human rights must be
studied ethnographically and, as important, conceptual-
ized as one among different—and at times competing—
normative ideas that come together within social prac-
tice. As recent ethnographies of human rights have shown,
the idea of human rights is always embedded within a
broader category of ethical theories, and the anthropo-
logical engagement with human rights in these terms is
the study of what I describe as “ethical theory as social
practice.” To study and conceptualize the idea of human
rights as a particular ethical theory constituted through
social practice is not to deny the other ways in which hu-
man rights theory and practice can be studied, concep-
tualized, or implemented. But it is a central argument of
this article that anthropology is uniquely positioned to
both reconceptualize the analytical terms through which
the idea of human rights is understood (and made under-
standable) and develop culturally and historically specific
knowledge about the idea of human rights at the same
As the introduction to this “In Focus” makes clear, an-
thropological approaches to human rights since the mid-
1980s can be roughly sorted into two broad categories. First,
there was the series of moves by a group of anthropologists
who had been associated with both the cultural survival
and indigenous rights movements. Here, anthropologists
worked to eliminate the disciplinary obstacles to direct par-
ticipation on behalf of indigenous or other populations
under threat; the engagement with human rights was po-
litical as much as it was analytical (see Messer 1993). These
movements gained momentum when the important set of
interventions, either individual (as with Terrence Turner’s
on behalf of the Kayapo, see, e.g., Turner 1991) or collec-
tive (e.g., the AAA’s actions on behalf of the Yanomami in
1990 and 1991; see AAA 2001), were not forced into existing
categories of anthropological knowledge. In effect, this era
in anthropology’s relationship with human rights served
as a bridge to the present—ironically, one might argue—by
shifting the terms of the engagement away from method-
ological and theoretical concerns within mainstream an-
In the second development, which has been both
transatlantic and more recent in time, the social prac-
tice of human rights has emerged as a topic of ethno-
graphic inquiry. This work has been documented in a se-
ries of edited volumes (Borneman 2004; Cowan et al. 2001;
Wilson 1997; Wilson and Mitchell 2003), in more tradi-
tional research monographs (Malkki 1995; Povinelli 2002;
Riles 2000; Slyomovics 2005), and, most recently, in Sally
Merry’s (2005) pioneering comparative ethnography of the
regulation of violence against women through human
rights. All of this work has made significant contributions
to leading-edge debates within anthropology over, among
other things, the contested meanings of culture and the
empirical dynamics of transnationalism. Yet this research,
which provides a unique kind of data set on human rights
as a social practice, has so far not been used—by anthro-
pologists or others—as the basis for making claims within
the robust and ongoing human rights debates, which en-
compass a diverse set of philosophical, institutional, and
phenomenological interests and perspectives.
In light of this, this article can be taken as an argu-
ment for the following: Instead of using innovative hu-
man rights research primarily to advance debates within
anthropology (over culture, the role of the state, the chal-
lenges of transnational research, etc.), anthropological re-
search on human rights should also be used to make formal
contributions to debates outside of anthropology over the
institutional, conceptual, and political problems that con-
tinue to plague the contemporary idea of human rights.4
By formal contributions, I refer to both the intention of
anthropological research on human rights and its impact.
When legal or political philosophers or political scientists
carry out studies of human rights they intend—in the best
of circumstances—to expand or modify the idea of human
rights itself: What are human rights? Where do they come
from? Are they universal or the products of specific times
and places? And so on. And there is every expectation that
these formal contributions to our understanding of human
rights will transform the way important human rights ac-
tors do their work. When the legal philosopher Michael
Perry (1998) argues that the idea of human rights is “in-
eliminably religious,” his main goal is not to bring closure
to a series of old debates within liberal theory over the
provenance of human rights; rather, his efforts are meant
to reestablish the idea of human rights on firmer ground so
that international human rights practice will be expanded.
And when Michael Ignatieff (2001:164) says that “human
rights are essentially designed to validate and enhance hu-
man agency,” his hope is that human rights policy makers
will recognize and then act on the “culturally relative idea
of human dignity and worth” that underlies international
human rights. But where are the anthropological analogues
of these two (and many other) studies of human rights, the
first of which rests on the techniques and styling of abstract
legal philosophy, and the second of which is structured by
Goodale Ethical Theory as Social Practice 27
Ignatieff’s use of history, political science, and journalism?
Why should anthropology and anthropologists be content
to make what I have called formal contributions to human
rights at best tangential to what are either detailed descrip-
tions of human rights practice or impassioned arguments
for employing anthropological knowledge in the course of
human rights struggles?
The potential contributions of anthropology to hu-
man rights theory and practice have become even more
urgent during the last 15 years, in which the end of the
Cold War has seen the emergence of an active and in-
creasingly dominant transnational human rights regime,
the ever-increasing linkage of human rights with the global
consolidation of a late-capitalist mode of production,5and,
even more recently, the political use of human rights dis-
course by the United States during its wars of imperialism
in Afghanistan and Iraq.6Clearly, the current human rights
regimes, which have emerged without major contributions
from anthropological forms of knowledge but which have
now been adequately described in their different registers
by anthropologists (among others), are ripe for a different
kind of critical engagement. This is not an engagement that
is prefigured in any way—either in its stance toward human
rights as a basis for normative ordering and possible human
emancipation, or in the way it is positioned in relation to
the unresolved philosophical and political dilemmas that
remain at the center of human rights. But the kind of an-
thropology of human rights I have in mind is one that must
develop a different orientation to human rights, an orien-
tation that can encompass both cultural critique and po-
litical engagement, ethnographic study and philosophical
reflection, and that is reflexive about its place within the
broader trajectories that makes its emergence both possible
and timely.
As a modest contribution to this process, I draw
out some of the implications of recent ethnographic re-
search on human rights—including my own ongoing
research on human rights in Bolivia—to make several gen-
eral claims (each of which I develop through more spe-
cific subarguments).7First, I argue that anthropology has
a key role to play in wider debates over human rights,
and that anthropologists of human rights should consider
how their research and analyses can contribute to these
debates, the most consequential of which take place out-
side of anthropology. The potential contributions of an-
thropology lie partly in the way that anthropologists are in
a position to ask questions that they are perhaps uniquely
qualified to answer nondogmatically. But anthropologists
of human rights also contribute through a distinctive blend
of theory and practice, which is something that has been
largely missing from human rights debates over the last 50
Second, I suggest that the anthropology of human
rights can be reconceptualized as a type of “critical intel-
lectual history”: the sustained analytical engagement with
the idea of human rights as it emerges within social prac-
tices in different cultural and historical contexts. This is
not an anthropology-as-intellectual history that privileges
particular intellectuals (peasant or otherwise, see Feierman
1990), although as my own research shows (2002a, 2002b),
when human rights discourse becomes a key component
of local ethical practice, it is usually through the efforts of
certain individuals who are compelled by the grandeur of
human rights, by their promise of emancipation from tra-
dition and tyranny, and by the way they elevate the indi-
vidual as against the collective. Rather, this is an anthro-
pology that studies the social force of the idea of human
rights, the way different actors encounter and shape the
idea of human rights as part of broader forms of social and
legal practice. Human rights embody a set of ideas about
the world that have become dominant, and a critical in-
tellectual history of this development would locate the ap-
propriation, vernacularization, politicization of, and resis-
tance to human rights within the broader histories that
help explain these “local” encounters.8One can say that
anthropologists actually participate in these intellectual his-
tories by narrating them, and the detailed study associated
with ethnographic research and analysis means that an-
thropologists of rights will often participate even more di-
rectly by cotheorizing with interlocutors as they struggle
to come to terms with human rights discourse and recon-
cile it with existing ethical and legal frameworks. This is
not the same as an anthropology of direct political activism
(see Speed this issue), but it does suggest an anthropology
of human rights that is both descriptive and analytical,
one that is positioned to make claims outside of anthro-
pology within the interdisciplinary field of human rights
And finally, an anthropology of human rights is also
an anthropology of very specific, and at times cross-cutting,
vectors of power. This includes both forces that condition—
and at times cause—human rights violations across the
range, and the social, political, and economic forces within
which reactions to human rights violations are shaped. This
is the real legacy of Herskovits’s—and then the AAAs—1947
“Statement on Human Rights,” one that has been ignored
in the nonanthropological caricature of an anthropology
obsessed with cultural relativism.9Although the 1947 State-
ment found several areas in which a proposed declaration
of universal human rights was problematic, it emphasized
at some length how universalist claims become politicized
at the moment at which they are appropriated by power-
ful actors. And as recent ethnographic studies of human
rights have confirmed, power, knowledge, and violence do
indeed come together in an intense and often dangerous
swirl in the legal and political contexts in which univer-
sal human rights discourse is invoked. An anthropology of
human rights can shed light on this multiplicity of power
within human rights processes. Moreover, if an anthropol-
ogy of human rights is, by definition, an anthropology of
power–knowledge–violence, then it will lend itself to a kind
of cultural critique that has been missing within interna-
tional human rights theory and practice, especially over the
last 15 years.
28 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
This article represents a search for a different analytical
language through which anthropology can engage with
human rights. The consequences of these efforts are pri-
marily epistemological. The cultural survival movement
within anthropology, which was associated with the first
sustained anthropological commitment to human rights af-
ter the long period of disengagement, was not based on the
emergence of a new analytical orientation toward the idea
of human rights itself. Rather, the engagement with hu-
man rights was reconceptualized as an instrumental means
to a formally political end: the empowerment of indige-
nous populations caught up in different webs—military,
economic, ethnic, and ideological—of exploitation and
The second and more recent current in anthropol-
ogy’s relationship with human rights has been firmly an-
chored in preexisting frameworks: Human rights practices
are studied ethnographically as merely one—perhaps more
consequential—type of social process. The innovations de-
rived from this research and analysis, although intention-
ally limited to anthropology and related academic disci-
plines, have nevertheless been profound. Important ad-
vances been made in the methodology of transnational pro-
cesses (see, e.g., Merry 2005; Riles 2000; Wilson 2001). In
addition, the ethnographic study of human rights in prac-
tice has yielded insights into the following, among other
things: the contested meanings of “culture” (Cowan 2003;
Merry 2005); the enduring power of the nation-state to de-
fine citizenship, despite its supposed waning influence in
the post-1989 era (Navaro-Yashin 2003); and the capacity
of peasant intellectuals to appropriate transnational human
rights discourses as part of wider legal and political strate-
gies (Goodale 2001, n.d.; Povinelli 2002).
But despite these contributions, the ethnographic study
of human rights has not been associated with an alternative
theoretical approach to human rights as such. In pursuing a
different analytical language through which anthropology
can engage with human rights, I argue that the relatively
recent ethnographic study of human rights provides the
foundation on which anthropology can make serious and
transformative claims on human rights, particularly in their
theoretical or philosophical registers. In their edited volume
Culture and Rights (2001), the editors are right to claim that
the still-emergent anthropology of human rights serves a
valuable function by showing how universal principles like
human rights are contextualized by different social actors
in different settings. But if the empirical study of human
rights they advocate “reveals the moral ambiguities that are
not always noticed in purely theoretical accounts [of human
rights], as well as the unavoidable messiness of social life,
where competing claims and contestation over meaning are
not a sign of cultural or community failure, but, rather,
part of the human condition” (Cowan et al. 2001:21), I
think it is important to pose the question: What then? As
the editors also admit, despite the complex picture of hu-
man rights revealed by their (and other) empirical studies,
“claims around culture and rights show no sign of abating”
(Cowan et al. 2001:21). By using the word claims, they refer
not to a recognition by social actors that the “unavoidable
messiness of social life” renders assertions of cultural rights
morally or legally ambiguous, but, instead, as my own re-
search in Bolivia has shown, something quite the opposite.
Cowan and her colleagues use claims to describe the attempt
to find a new kind of clarity in this messiness through the
appropriation of what has become a preeminent universal-
ist discourse, the power of which is derived precisely from
the way it transcends (at least conceptually) all of those
practical contingencies that recent books like Culture and
Rights describe so well. So it is the idea of human rights,
and legal or political claims based on this idea, that shows
no signs of abating. Anthropology should have a way of
characterizing the nature and implications of this idea that
is neither unduly abstracted from social life in the manner
of traditional legal or political theory nor artificially circum-
scribed by the complexity of ethnographic description.
A basic dichotomy has structured human rights since the
creation of the Universal Declaration and the beginnings of
an international human rights regime in the late 1940s. This
dichotomy is a modern version of a philosophical bound-
ary that was also applied to the natural rights ancestors of
contemporary human rights. This dualistic way of under-
standing human rights is not confined to one type of ap-
proach but pervades every dimension of modern human
rights theory and practice. When applied to the idea of hu-
man rights, this dichotomy opposes the ontological univer-
sal with the relative, so that human rights either embody a
set of natural rights entailed by a common human nature,
or not, in which case their ontological status will always
be multiple, historically contingent, and ultimately derived
from the range of contextualized ethical systems that must
either produce (or reveal) an idea of human rights (as in
Paris in 1789, Philadelphia 1791, Geneva 1948, Cape Town
1996, etc.), or confront human rights in some other way
(through resistance, willful ignorance, strategic appropria-
tion, wholesale incorporation, etc.). As a matter of philos-
ophy, or perhaps logic, this way of understanding human
rights is accurate enough. There does seem to be only two
possibilities: Either human rights are, in fact, universal, or
they are not.
When the human rights dichotomy is applied outside
of the philosophy of human rights, it takes the form of a
global–local opposition. Here the problem is not so much
a logical one, in which either the proposition P (“human
rights exist as natural rights”) or its negation P (“human
rights do not exist as natural rights”) is true but, rather, one
of scale and value. In the most common and consequential
approach to contemporary human rights (which elsewhere
Goodale Ethical Theory as Social Practice 29
I call the “practical,” see Goodale n.d.), the idea of human
rights is simply irrelevant.10 When human rights are un-
derstood to embody a wide variety of practical political, le-
gal, economic, institutional, and bureaucratic problems—
problems that are empirical and material and thus re-
solvable through the application of technical knowledge—
human rights actors categorize these difficulties as either
“global” or “local” and then proceed to address them on
this basis. By framing practical human rights issues as ei-
ther “global” or “local,” these scales are thereby privileged,
which has the effect of excluding a consideration of other
ways of analyzing the social practice of human rights.
Although anthropologists of human rights have only
begun to theorize their ethnographic studies in this
way,11 their research has demonstrated that the different
engagements with human rights—social, academic, and
institutional—do not involve a clash or stark contrast be-
tween the global and the local or, within ethical-theoretical
terms, between the universal and the relative. For example,
community leaders in rural Bolivia have recently worked
with representatives of transnational human rights NGOs
to establish an awareness of human rights through com-
plicated alignments of interests. These alignments include
multiple political and legal authorities whose jurisdictions
span different cantonal and provincial boundaries, bu-
reaucrats from the Bolivian state, western European de-
velopment organizations, international organizations like
UNESCO, and, finally, cosmopolitan elites who often as-
sume a certain critical distance from these processes. The
result is the production of what I have been calling “ethical
theory,” the development of normative ideas through the
dynamic interaction between the many different sources
reflected in these complicated alignments. As anthropolo-
gists have shown, one key source is international human
rights, whether in the form of translated versions of the
Universal Declaration, as in rural Bolivia, or through the
more fluid representations of human rights used by differ-
ent advocates and actors in the course of their daily work.
But in the formation of ethical theories by peasant intel-
lectuals in Bolivia, the impact of human rights is never
separate from the swirl of other sources of normative in-
spiration, which include unwritten community rules of be-
havior, Bolivian state law, principles drawn from peasant
union mission statements, and, increasingly, standards as-
sociated with evangelical Christianity. All of this means,
among other things, that the sites of ethical theorizing can-
not be categorized as either “global” or “local”; rather, they
must be reconceptualized in less scalar and more temporal
Despite this, the fact that the global–local division has
proven so powerful within the wider human rights com-
munity is evidence of at least two processes. First, the
prevailing dichotomy, in which human rights are either
universal or relative, has structured both the activities of hu-
man rights actors and the social scientific study of human
rights. Because there appear to be only two conceptual pos-
sibilities, and one of these possibilities—the universal—has
been adopted by the international community through the
Universal Declaration and made the foundation for the en-
tire postwar international human rights regime, the global
as a scale of reference has become a goal rather than merely
a (contested) description of the current scope of interna-
tional human rights. As a matter of practice, human rights
activism and policy must work toward a truly global aware-
ness or culture that reflects the underlying truth of human
rights. Conversely, for those who question the universality
embedded in the idea of human rights, the tendency is to
turn away from the global and focus on the local, which
is an equally vague point of reference but is usually taken
to mean the most culturally bounded locations in which
human rights are invested with practical meaning.
And second, the universal–relative and global–local op-
positions are evidence of another phenomenon, one that
is not limited to human rights: the enduring power—
analytical, political, and ethical—of dichotomies as such.
The sheer persistence of this reductive way of understand-
ing human rights—within academic communities, despite
the emerging richness of research data on human rights
practices—must be caused, in part, by the facility with
which two-part analytical frameworks can be used to resolve
even the most complicated social and philosophical dilem-
mas. This facility is even appreciated by social actors them-
selves, so that we must be careful to distinguish between
a critique of analyses that adopt the global–local opposi-
tion and the possible ways in which this opposition enters
into human rights discourse itself. One of my closest cosub-
jects in Bolivia, Lucio Montesinos, has often remarked that
the coming of human rights consciousness to his province
(Alonso de Iba˜
nez, in the north of Bolivia’s Potos´
ı Depart-
ment) has given him the ability to expose his fellow citi-
zens to a set of timeless and universal truths, which is the
first step toward moving beyond what he describes as local
problems.12 But Montesinos, who, as the province’s only
titled lawyer, exerts a profound influence through his role
in weddings, funerals, and in the local state court, comes
into contact with human rights language and procedures
by virtue of his position in the horizontal and translocal
network of interests I have already described.
A reconfigured anthropology of human rights points
to a more nuanced approach to scale, one that rejects the
two-sided framework, except to the extent that the persis-
tence of the global–local or universal–relative itself becomes
a subject for critical scrutiny or part of the functioning set
of ideas about human rights—as with my example from
Bolivia. Instead, both the conceptual and practical dimen-
sions of human rights should be studied and analyzed in the
amorphous spaces between the global and the local. It is im-
portant that my argument here is not taken to mean that
the kind of anthropology of human rights I envision sim-
ply replaces one rigid analytical framework with another.
This is the kind of supposed theoretical advance that essen-
tially deductive approaches to social processes frequently
assert, in which the “global system” is divided into global,
regional, and local, or macro-, meso-, and microlevels. But
30 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
even though I am skeptical of the reductionism of these an-
alytical frameworks, I also do not want to ignore the prob-
lem of scale. I recognize the difficulty of conceptualizing
contemporary human rights networks, because they open
up at different levels at the same time and, to complicate
matters even more, are temporal.13 Nevertheless, we cannot
solve these difficulties by denying the relevance of scale
itself in light of globalization, transnationalism, or some
other supposedly transformative contemporary force; nei-
ther can we do so by converting these difficulties into epis-
temological ones, as problems that are created by, or limited
to, the range of knowledge practices associated with human
rights. Rather, we must be attuned to the interplay between
scale and the knowledge practices that constitute human
rights, even if we refuse to adopt simple analytical devices
that have the effect of actually mischaracterizing the nature
of this interaction.
So what are the implications of moving toward a net-
work or nodal understanding of the relationship between
scale and the production of ethical knowledge through hu-
man rights? To begin with, it creates much more clarity in
the ethnographic data, which is a good start. In her recent
book on the regulation of violence against women within
the international and transnational human rights regimes,
Merry (2005) describes the various groups of actors who
encounter, resist, strategically employ, and otherwise en-
gage with human rights theories and practices as part of
their different activities. These actors include the follow-
ing: cosmopolitan elites who travel around the world ad-
vocating for women’s rights; government bureaucrats in
different nation-states who work in agencies charged with
complying with human rights; intellectuals of various kinds
who take on a public and “directive” role—as Antonio
Gramsci (1971) would have described it—in developing a
culture of human rights; and, finally, the range of commu-
nity, neighborhood, and other group-based leaders, whose
interest in human rights depends on a series of ethnic, reli-
gious, political, and other factors. Yet in studying the re-
sults of Merry’s transnational ethnography, it is obvious
that none of the ways in which human rights become a
part of social practice can be categorized as exclusively ei-
ther “global” or “local.” She documents a complicated set of
interlocking practices that reveal social actors acting, think-
ing, and imagining in reference to multiple points within
the human rights network at the same time (on this point,
see also Riles 2000). Community leaders embrace a trans-
lated version of a statement of human rights, one that pur-
ports to describe a universal ethical framework, and they
are assisted by NGOs that operate within multiple nation-
states and whose activities are literally transnational. These
same NGOs then modify their practices in light of a set
of evolving knowledge practices that are partly specific to
particular places and times but that also embody general-
ized knowledge extracted from their work over time. How
is it possible to locate the global and local dimensions in
this complexity or to parse these processes into one or the
And finally, the anthropological study of human rights
between the global and the local leads to the development
of analytical frameworks that reflect the practice of human
rights without having to account for supposed gaps between
the idea (or theory) of human rights and the messiness of
human rights practice. This means that if the anthropology
of human rights is positioned to contribute theoretically to
debates over human rights—which largely take place out-
side of anthropology itself—it will largely be on the basis of
what it can say about the different ways in which the idea
of human rights is constituted as an important type of eth-
ical practice. To do this a different orientation to human
rights is needed, one that goes beyond ethnographic de-
scription to problematize the idea of human rights without
simply replacing one abstract model of human rights with
another. In other words, the anthropological study of hu-
man rights in the translocal settings in which human rights
emerge points to the need for a different philosophy of hu-
man rights. This philosophy must respect the universality
(or universalism, see below) of human rights while main-
taining the idea of human rights itself as a permanently
open and specific question, and one that can only be an-
swered through the study of the idea of human rights in
different contexts.
During the second period (1998–99) of my ongoing research
in Bolivia, I was forced to adopt what I understood at the
time to be a nontraditional approach to ethnographic field-
work (see Goodale 2002b). I had expected to study law and
legal processes in rural Bolivia by observing dispute reso-
lution mechanisms, interviewing social actors about legal
norms and processes, and conducting research in commu-
nity legal archives. However, it soon became clear that these
methods, although necessary in light of the types of ques-
tions I was pursuing, would not be sufficient in themselves.
This was because during the mid- to late 1990s, rural Bo-
livia had been the site of transnational development ac-
tivities that were justified within a broader human rights
framework. This had represented a profound qualitative
shift from the earlier first phase of postwar development
in Bolivia, which, as elsewhere in Latin America, was the
product of the Green Revolution and its mission to bring
the fruits of a neutral and objective science to people most
in need. But the introduction of a human rights framework
changed the terms of the encounter. Instead of simply de-
livering the goods of modernity without any ideological or
normative strings attached, human rights development de-
mands that people transform their identities and radically
reenvision their place in relation to other members of the
community across the range of possible bases—gender, so-
cioeconomic, political, and, of course, legal.
The complications of this repositioning for anthropo-
logical research were perhaps most apparent through my
attempts to understand the meaning and effects of a legal
Goodale Ethical Theory as Social Practice 31
services center. The Centro de Servicio Legal Integral (here-
after, Legal Services Center, or Center) was authorized in
Bolivia during the mid-1990s as part of a wave of neoliberal
political and legal reforms, which had selectively adopted
key provisions from the collection of international human
rights instruments. One important part of this reform legis-
lation, the Law of Popular Participation (Law 1551, 1994),
articulated a theory of decentralization of power and recog-
nition of indigenous political and legal organizations that
mirrored portions of International Labor Organization Con-
vention 169. That convention describes the rights of “In-
digenous and Tribal Peoples” as human rights and requires
nation-states to consider these rights when formulating na-
tional policy (see Goodale 2001; Van Cott 2000). The Legal
Services Center, however, was the reflection of yet another
type of human rights concern in Bolivia during the mid-
1990s: the problem of violence against women. The specific
national legislation that authorized the creation of rural le-
gal services centers as part of a nationwide strategy for pro-
tecting women’s human rights was entitled the “National
Plan for the Eradication, Prevention, and Punishment of Vi-
olence Against Women” (Resolution 139, passed in 1994).
The language in this plan was intended to implement pro-
visions of both the UN Convention on the Elimination of
All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) and the
less legally consequential UN Declaration on the Elimina-
tion of Violence against Women (1993).
The adoption of national legislation in Bolivia authoriz-
ing the creation of legal services centers specifically focused
on violence against women as a human rights issue under-
scores at least two important facts about the emergence of
human rights discourse in Bolivia during the 1990s: (1) the
key role played by Bolivian feminists in reframing the gen-
dered nature of violence within a different ethical and le-
gal framework and (2) the transnational nature of these ef-
forts, which unfolded within broader networks of feminist
activism. The mid-1990s was an important time for both
Bolivian feminists and human rights activists. As in other
parts of Latin America (see Espinosa 1997) and beyond (see
Merry 2003, 2005; Riles 2000), the 1995 UN Fourth Confer-
ence on Women in Beijing both symbolized and shaped
the convergence between feminism and human rights
The Legal Services Center in the province Alonso de
nez, in Bolivia’s Potos´
ı Department, was open between
1995 and 1998. It formed part of a larger movement in the
region in which human rights discourse altered the norma-
tive terms through which both women and men reimag-
ined themselves in relation to each other, the different
regional collectivities with which their lives were interwo-
ven, and larger units of inclusion, some of which had only
been nominal in the past (like national citizenship). Because
the Center had closed just before I arrived, I was not able to
study it through more orthodox ethnographic methods. But
in pursuing the emergence of human rights in the province
through other means, I reached a certain insight into the an-
thropology of human rights more generally. In talking with
people who had different relationships with the Center—
the director, town officials who had either supported or
opposed it, and women who had used its services—it even-
tually became clear that the meaning of the Center de-
pended neither on its effectiveness in actually preventing
violence against women nor on its success in getting local
courts to punish men who had violated women’s human
Rather, in contributing to the emergence of human
rights discourse in the region, the Center formed one node
of articulation through which social actors could reconsti-
tute their identities in line with the assumptions expressed
through human rights language. I emphasize the contin-
gency of this shift in identity because what I observed was
not a monolithic or predictable shift, but one that depended
entirely on the range of choices that individuals confronted
in different circumstances. Moreover, the decision to em-
brace human rights discourse cannot be understood merely
strategically, like making the decision to use genetically
modified potato seed to increase crop yields. Rather, for
many people in rural Bolivia, the shift in consciousness it-
self is the purpose of human rights discourse. This shift is
compelled by the universalism of human rights (although
not its universality, see below) and cannot be easily mea-
sured or studied through the techniques of conventional
Even so, the analytical and technical difficulties that
are entailed by this kind of shift in consciousness can be
partly met by employing a “mobile ethnography,” one that
responds to the fact of space–time compression and the flu-
idity with which contemporary ideas and practices—like
human rights—enter and reenter transnational flows. A mo-
bile ethnography is, in this sense, an ethnography of the
chase, tracking where ideas and practices lead until some
clarity is achieved.14 But as my research in Bolivia (and
Romania, see Goodale 2005) demonstrates, a more flexi-
ble approach to ethnography is not enough. I follow hu-
man rights discourse in Bolivia where it leads, and it seems,
at times, to lead everywhere. It is merely the limitations
of money, energy, and time that have (so far) prevented
me from broadening my study of the emergence of hu-
man rights in Bolivia to include relevant developments in
New York, Brussels, Amsterdam, and the other places where
human rights NGOs reconfigure their knowledge practices
in light of their ongoing projects in Bolivia (and elsewhere).
Nevertheless, the use of ethnographic observation can only
ever capture part of the story. How does one observe the
internalization of the grandeur of human rights or the way
human rights compel social actors in part by locating them
within a different intellectual history, by connecting them
through a shift in consciousness and identity with alterna-
tive historical narratives? How can observation—which, no
matter how unorthodox or flexible, still heavily leans to-
ward the explanatory side of the great causal–interpretative
divide—capture the ways in which the anthropologist en-
counters and theorizes human rights alongside social actors
whose activism, analysis, and imaginaries also help define
32 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
human rights in a way that is neither normatively universal
nor culturally relative?
Within the type of anthropology of human rights that
I am envisioning, ethnography would continue to serve the
function of providing firsthand information about how so-
cial actors come to terms with the ideas expressed through
current human rights discourse: the idea of a universal eth-
ical and human equality; the idea that the individual is
ethically primary; the idea that rights, and not some other
framework, are the consequence of a timeless and common
humanness; the idea that if human beings owe duties to
each other or to the collective, that these duties are not
coequal with human rights but are, at best, an occasional
and contingent corollary of some of them; and so on. But
the collection of ethnographic data must be seen as only
one dimension of an anthropology of human rights, which
would be better described as a “critical intellectual history”:
the sustained engagement with consequential ideas as they
emerge within, and at times transform, social practice. By
engagement, I mean not only a commitment to studying
human rights ethnographically, with all this entails; but
equally important, the anthropologist must analyze the dif-
ferent registers through which the idea of human rights is
conceived, including the philosophical traditions that hu-
man rights are most closely associated with as well as all of
the different ethical traditions that the anthropologist en-
counters in the course of tracking human rights in practice.
The anthropologist of human rights must also step back
from both the intimacy of ethnography, and the analysis
of ethical theory as social practice, and consider the dif-
ferent histories through which the emergence and unfold-
ing of human rights have deeper resonance. These are the
histories both traditional and marginal, written and oral,
real and imagined—in short, the whole range of types of
narratives that historical anthropology has uncovered over
the last decades. And finally, an anthropology of human
rights reconceptualized as intellectual history is necessar-
ily “critical,” in that it maintains a skeptical distance from
the exalted claims of human rights. This has become es-
pecially important in light of the fact that human rights
have become tightly bundled over the last 15 years with
wider political-economic projects, including those in which
military intervention is partly justified on human rights
grounds (as in Iraq), or where human rights “concerns” are
expressed by EU nation-states at the same time as they po-
sition themselves to take advantage of exploitative trade
and labor relationships with the same recently (or soon-
to-be) admitted eastern European countries whose human
rights records are supposedly so problematic (as in the case
of Romania, see Goodale 2005).
An anthropological approach that continues to depend on
ethnographic engagement would seem incompatible with a
formal analysis of the different philosophical questions that
are embedded in the Universal Declaration and other key
symbols of contemporary human rights. In fact, though,
recent empirical studies demonstrate that the idea of hu-
man rights tends to structure human rights practice. This
perspective either inverts the relationship between theory
and practice—in which ideas are constituted through so-
cial practice—or serves as an exception to the generally ac-
cepted framework established by theorists of practice like
Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, in which ideas and
practice exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship. As Merry
(2005), Elizabeth Povinelli (2002), Susan Slyomovics (2005),
Richard Wilson (2001), Shannon Speed and Jane Collier
(2000), and I myself (Goodale 2001, 2002b) have recently
shown, the idea of human rights itself becomes an indepen-
dent social variable, which individuals, institutions, states,
and other actors put into play for a wide range of purposes.
Furthermore, this research has revealed that at least one key
part of the idea of human rights is much more complex than
has previously been realized.
Although academics, activists, and others within the
human rights community have a tendency to conflate the
two, the type of anthropology of human rights I develop
here makes a distinction between universal and universalism.
I see this difference as a major point of analytical departure.
On the one hand, universal refers to the basic philosoph-
ical claim on which current international human rights
are based: that human rights are coextensive with human-
ness, so that everywhere there are human beings they are,
have always been, and will always be possessed of rights.
In other words, universal must be understood as a descrip-
tive claim about a particular fact of nature, in this case
the fact of human rights. Now we can disagree with this
claim or argue that it is false—that is, that human rights
are not universal in this sense—but in relation to human
rights, the most basic meaning of universal is ontological
and, quite literally, objective. Universalism, on the other
hand, has been shown by anthropologists of human rights
to refer to something quite different than, although related
to, the universal in universal human rights. When anthro-
pologists study human rights in practice, they are, in part,
studying the nuances of universalism as it expresses itself
through a particular ethical framework. Universalism, as I
employ it here, refers to the whole range of ideas and so-
cial practices that emerge in relation to universal claims.
It is not quite accurate to describe universalism as an ideol-
ogy of universal claims, but this gives some sense of what I
So when rural–legal intellectuals in Bolivia come to in-
corporate human rights discourse within communities, the
anthropologist spends a considerable amount of time learn-
ing about the effects of this new set of universal claims, and
their relation to other community normativities that are
anchored in their own assumptions of universality.16 For
example, another important cosubject of mine in Potos´
Department, the corregidor auxiliar of an influential regional
hamlet, Molino T’ikanoma,17 speaks articulately about the
different universal frameworks that are represented by the
four major sources that come together to form the universe
Goodale Ethical Theory as Social Practice 33
of “interlegality” (Santos 1995) through which he must nav-
igate. First, there are community rules of right conduct and
thought. Second, there are principles derived from Bolivian
state law (itself a jurisprudential hodgepodge with links to
Roman law). Third, there is the historical materialism em-
bedded in peasant union discourse. Finally, there are the
universal claims of human rights, which insert themselves
in rural Bolivia not only, or most importantly, through spe-
cific provisions of international human rights law but also
more generally, as a set of background moral assumptions
whose effects are both less obvious and potentially more
transformative. Indeed, as Sally Merry (2005) has recently
described in other parts of the world, human rights lan-
guage can, under certain circumstances, become a replace-
ment discourse that evacuates other alternatives.
To learn about the effects of the passage from universal
to universalism, to ask questions about their importance
within broader social processes, is quite a different thing
than to ask whether human rights are, in fact, universal,
or whether any competing normativities are, or whether
any of the competing universal claims are objectively true.
If the anthropology of human rights shows that univer-
salism is a key social process that shapes the different in-
tellectual histories within which human rights emerge in
practice, a consideration of the universal claims of human
rights would not normally fall within the range of problems
that anthropologists of human rights take up. Nevertheless,
the production of ethical theories by social actors, which
often includes the substantive contributions of anthropolo-
gists in their positions as researchers and social participants,
often resembles detached philosophical inquiry, especially
when the incorporation of human rights is accompanied
by an analysis of their universal claims in relation to other
possibilities (see Goodale 2002a). But it is the idea of uni-
versality as expressed through human rights that is being
considered in relation to other ethical principles, not the
fact of universality, which makes the process an indicator of
universalism. Although it is difficult to say whether or not
universalism—the tendency of ethical practices to revolve
around universal claims—is itself a cross-cultural universal,
legal anthropologists (in particular) can, I think, say with
some confidence that universalism is common enough that
its dimensions deserve much closer scrutiny even outside
of the study of human rights. In any case, an anthropology
of human rights is in part an anthropology of universal-
ism, and this means its nuances are an important topic for
I began this article by suggesting that anthropology got
off on the wrong foot with human rights. This is not be-
cause anthropology was a much narrower and smaller dis-
cipline at mid-20th century, although it is true that the
total number of professional anthropologists—of whatever
nationality—was just a fraction of what it would be in
the 1960s,18 and the epistemological range of anthropol-
ogy was limited to just a handful of competing paradigms.
Herskovits understood that anthropology could contribute
to a general understanding of human rights by asking ques-
tions that anthropology was uniquely positioned to answer.
So the problem was not that Herskovits posed questions that
exposed different dilemmas at the heart of human rights.
The problem was that his later interpreters have (inten-
tionally or not) mischaracterized his—and, by extension,
anthropology’s—contributions to the development of hu-
man rights theory and practice in the postwar period. By
reducing his contribution to a simplistic exercise in cultural
relativism, the other more critical and enduring aspects of
Herskovits’s response to a declaration of universal human
rights—which I have already described—were elided.
The anthropology of human rights that I have in mind
is one that, among other things, rehabilitates Herskovits.
I do not mean that Herskovits’s Statement needs rescuing
from the waves of embarrassment that historians have at-
tributed to it; the 1947 Statement has proven prescient in
a number of different particulars and deserves more than
to function as a simple relic of an earlier and more naive
anthropology.19 What I mean is that an anthropology of
human rights reestablishes its relevance to human rights—
with the spirit of Herskovits hovering close by—not only
by studying human rights in practice ethnographically,
which is itself a major advance. Anthropology must also po-
sition itself to ask certain metaquestions of human rights,
or questions that are prior to, or which frame, all of the
many inquiries that have occupied the recent ethnography
of human rights.
For example, there is no doubt that anthropologists of
human rights would have some difficulty trying to answer
the question, “Do human rights exist as natural rights that
are universal, timeless, irrevocable, and entailed by a com-
mon nature?” This would require anthropologists to link
a determination of “human nature” with its supposed nat-
ural ethical implications. One must admit that this ques-
tion is important in its own right, and not only because its
supposed resolution in the affirmative underpins the Uni-
versal Declaration and the entire conceptual framework of
contemporary human rights practice. Nevertheless, such a
question is more comparable to “Does God exist?” than “Do
black holes exist?” Thus, the question “Do human rights ex-
ist?” is, and will always be, as Jeremy Bentham recognized
200 years ago, a fundamentally metaphysical question and,
therefore, not answerable by an anthropology dependent
on the results of close ethnographic study.
But if anthropologists of human rights can willfully
ignore the metaphysical problems of human rights, they
can nevertheless create productive new spaces of inquiry
by only slightly modifying and then pursuing some larger
questions. For example, no one has really asked the question
“How do human rights exist?,” a topic that anthropologists
of human rights are well qualified to explore (i.e., in part
by reconceptualizing the anthropology of human rights as
the study of universalism). The question “Why do human
rights exist?” has already been answered by historians, who
34 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
have simply documented a sequence of events (see, e.g.,
Morsink 1999). However, this question can be reframed so
that it refers to at least two issues of importance for an-
thropologists of human rights (and others): (1) the ques-
tion of why human rights emerge within particular ethical
practices and not others and (2) the relationship between
political-economic power and the ascendance of human
rights discourse over the last 15 years, both of which sug-
gest that the study of human rights ontology must also be
critical. Both of these are topics that are (perhaps uniquely)
within anthropology’s range of competencies, which means
that anthropology has both a role to play within wider hu-
man rights debates and that this role is not limited to ethno-
graphic description. By combining the only real database of
information about human rights in social practice with the
ability to critically locate human rights within wider intel-
lectual histories, an anthropology of human rights in this
key can reframe its relevance and position itself to make
potentially transformative claims.
By way of conclusion, let me underscore three further
points. First, the anthropology of human rights, as I see it,
forms part of a somewhat broader anthropological frame-
work that bridges the legal and the political: the an-
thropology of ethical theory as social practice. It is not
possible to isolate human rights from other ethical frame-
works with which they necessarily become interwoven; this
would not be desirable even if it were possible, even theo-
retically. What is so valuable for a reconfigured anthropol-
ogy of human rights is its potential to shed light on how
specific ethical theories reflect the interplay between impor-
tant ideas and social practices, including the ideas and prac-
tices embedded in contemporary human rights. Although
the rapid rise of human rights over the last 15 years means
that anthropologists and others must pay close and criti-
cal attention to this emerging transnational discourse, an
anthropology of human rights that contexualizes this de-
velopment within its intellectual history also, somewhat
paradoxically, points to its ultimate contingency.
Second, the transformative potential of a reconceptual-
ized anthropology of human rights means that critical en-
gagement can never be an end unto itself. If I have argued
for a different approach to human rights through anthro-
pology, it is not because I take issue with the purposes of
human rights, even those expressed in the Universal Decla-
ration. From Bolivia to Romania, I have seen the systemic
socioeconomic conditions and personal suffering that the
Universal Declaration was designed to prevent. Yet as I have
argued elsewhere (Goodale in press), there are reasons to
think that the current human rights regime can no longer
serve its purposes in its existing forms. I certainly do not
mean to exaggerate anthropology’s potential contributions
to contemporary human rights. But I do think that there
has been an inverse correlation between anthropology’s
potential to contribute to ethical frameworks like human
rights and anthropology’s actual historical influence in such
projects. My hope is that a retooled anthropology of human
rights would be able to reverse this imbalance.
Finally, the ethnographic study of ethical theories (like
human rights) as a form of social practice means that the an-
thropologist will inevitably be required to cotheorize about
categories of basic importance for social actors at different
levels. During my own research, I have participated in dis-
cussions of human rights and their relation to other norma-
tive frameworks. I have done so both in general terms and
with more specific reference to recent attempts by the Boli-
vian state to modify state law to comply with human rights
norms, for example through the Law of Popular Participa-
tion (as I have described above) and the new Article 28 of
the Bolivian Code of Criminal Procedure (Law 1970, 1999),
which recognizes “customary indigenous law” in matters
of community criminal justice. In cotheorizing with com-
munity leaders and others about the meaning of these ex-
pressions of human rights, I was also reconceptualizing my
understanding of the role of anthropology, or at least an an-
thropology of human rights. This fact does not imply, how-
ever, that the anthropologist will—or should—necessarily
serve as a conduit for human rights consciousness or act as
the voice of victims as they seek to come within the pro-
tections of human rights. Rather, the anthropologist con-
tributes by conceptualizing the grounds on which ethical
theories take hold at what is misleadingly referred to as the
“local” level.
Human rights can be made part of the broader pro-
cess by which social actors encounter what has become an
array of competing normative frameworks (human rights,
social justice, religious law, citizen security, etc.), but there
are no grounds on which to insist that they must. And I am
not even sure that it is the job of anthropology to search
for these grounds. As the inimitable Clifford Geertz put
it, in casting doubt on anthropological arguments in sup-
port of other universalist proposals (the Structure of Reason,
the Constitution of Man, Human Mind, Human Nature,
Looking into dragons, not domesticating . . . them,
what anthropology has been all about. At least, that is
what it has been all about, as I, no nihilist, .. .understand
it. We have, with no little success, sought to keep the
world off balance. ...It has been the office of others to
reassure; ours to unsettle.[2000:63–64]
So, in studying human rights, in searching for a differ-
ent analytical framework through which human rights
can be understood, anthropologists must also come to
terms with the fact of irreducible ethical pluralism, which
nevertheless reflects a diversity that can be at least un-
derstood in terms of the historical, political, legal, and
other factors that determine it. In other words, there is
much to gain—epistemologically and politically—by letting
MARK GOODAL E Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolu-
tion, George Mason University, Arlington, VA 22201
Goodale Ethical Theory as Social Practice 35
Acknowledgments. This article took shape during a recent nine-
month study leave made possible through a Fulbright scholar-
ship, and I would like to thank the Council for International
Exchange of Scholars (CIES) for their assistance and generosity. Sec-
tions or arguments in the article were presented in public lectures
between 2003 and 2005, and I would like to thank faculty and
students at the following institutions for their willingness to en-
gage constructively with my ideas on anthropology and human
rights: London School of Economics (Department of Anthropol-
ogy, 2005), University College London (Department of Anthropol-
ogy, 2005), University of Amsterdam (Institute for Metropolitan
and International Development Studies, 2005), University of Ed-
inburgh (Faculty of Law, 2004), University of Bergen (Faculty of
Law and Faculty of Social Anthropology, 2004), Institute for Public
Policy (Bucharest, Romania, 2003), and George Mason University
(Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, 2003). Finally, I re-
vised this article significantly on the basis of the insightful, and at
times critical, suggestions of six anonymous reviewers at American
Anthropologist, in addition to the detailed comments of co-Editor-
in-Chief Susan Lees. This input allowed me to refine my thinking
and writing on anthropology and human rights, for which I am
1. For a detailed discussion of the events of 1946–49 within the
American Anthropological Association, the process by which Her-
skovits came to write the Statement on Human Rights in 1947, and
the abbreviated reaction that followed, see my forthcoming article
in Current Anthropology (Goodale in press).
2. I have argued recently (Goodale in press) that anthropology
had very little influence during the decades in which the post-
war international and then transnational human rights regimes
emerged. Almost without exception, all of the key human rights
instruments, international institutions, nongovernmental organi-
zations (NGOs), philosophical theory, and forums for interdisci-
plinary analysis and debate (such as the journal Human Rights
Quarterly) were developed in the absence of anthropological con-
tributions. This is not because anthropology was primarily an aca-
demic discipline; several academic disciplines did make impor-
tant contributions, notably academic law (esp. international public
law), public policy studies, legal and political theory, and various
subfields of political science (e.g., international relations). In fo-
cusing on U.S. anthropology, I am also making the argument that
its absence from the development of human rights symbolizes the
lack of anthropological influence more generally. Even though this
is an admittedly ethnocentric argument—as various commentators
at public lectures in Europe have reminded me—the fact remains
that there is very little evidence of anthropological influence on
human rights during the period in question (from 1947 through
the 1980s), whether from U.S. anthropology or from any of the
major European traditions.
3. As Richard Wilson has said recently, “The anthropology of hu-
man rights is still an area of political and legal anthropology which
is in its infancy. More .. . and better theorization [is] needed of hu-
man rights talk and rights institutions and their practices” (Wilson
4. As will be seen, my call for a different type of anthropological
engagement parallels in form, but not in substance, earlier efforts
to realign anthropology in relation to human rights, most notably
Messer 1993 and Turner 1997. See also articles by Messer and Na-
gengast in the same Journal of Anthropological Research special issue
in which the Turner article appears.
5. One could argue that late capitalism is better characterized by
the rise of noneconomic ordering principles like “corporate respon-
sibility” and “corporate citizenship and human rights” than by the
supposed cultural logics that determine it (e.g., postmodernism,
see Jameson 1991). References to human rights are now liberally
splashed across multinational corporate annual reports. See, for
example, the Starbucks 2004 Corporate Social Responsibility An-
nual Report, which reads like a document produced by a working
body of the United Nations, suffused as it is with human rights lan-
guage. And Starbucks, like Dupont, Gap, Nike, and Pfizer, is a mem-
ber of the United Nations Global Compact, which was hatched at
the 1999 World Economic Forum. This voluntary accord, by which
some of the most powerful multinational corporations in the world
agree to follow ten principles (numbers 1 and 2 of which are human
rights principles), is perhaps the best example of the late capitalist–
human rights linkage.
6. For a clear and cogent analysis by an anthropologist of the re-
lationship between contemporary human rights and wider hege-
monic (esp. economic) forces, see Laura Nader’s 1999 article in
Horizontes Antropol´ogicos. Nader describes a major consequence of
what she calls “the role of Euro-American human rights activism
as a hegemonic project” (1999:61): “normative blindness.” She de-
fines this concept as the tendency of human rights institutions to
intentionally ignore some human rights abuses—weapons testing,
the commodification of the body through genetics, and the role
of capitalist medicine in creating a demand for cosmetic surgery—
because these types of abuses occur neither in the stereotypical
ways nor in the marginalized places, where an incomplete mod-
ernization creates the conditions for political, legal, and economic
7. Although I make reference to ongoing research in Bolivia to
illustrate different points of emphasis or arguments, this article is
not intended to be a detailed account of this research, which can
be found in Goodale 2001, 2002a, and 2002b. I have carried out
research on different aspects of Bolivia’s encounters with law and
liberalism—including human rights discourse—in 1996, 1998–99,
and, most recently, in 2005. For a good overview of the role of
human rights mobilization during the recent social uprisings in
Bolivia, see Nancy Postero’s (2005) article in the PoLAR Symposium
on “Critical Perspectives on Human Rights and Multiculturalism in
Neoliberal Latin America.”
8. Excellent recent studies of the cultural and political nuances
of human rights on the ground are Merry 2005, Povinelli 2002,
and Slyomovics 2005. For a more theoretical treatment of the
gap between the rhetoric of international law (including human
rights law) and the reality of its implementation in the developing
world, see Balakrishnan Rajagopal’s International Law from Below
9. Indeed, we were reminded recently just how much “relativism”
remains a discursive flashpoint through which other battles are
fought, both within and outside the academy. In this incarnation,
relativism stands for the evils of secularism, moral degeneration,
and much else. In his first homily after becoming the new pope,
Benedict XVI announced that he would do his best to save Eu-
rope from the “dictatorship of relativism” (Goodstein and Fisher
2005). For a recent attempt from within anthropology to restore
credibility to earlier arguments for cultural relativism, see Hatch
10. The idea of human rights may be seen as irrelevant because it
is believed to be firmly established, because human rights are self-
evident, because the idea of human rights is considered intractable,
because it would be politically expedient to act as if the idea of hu-
man rights were self-evident, or because the alternatives to human
rights would be much worse, etc.
11. For example, Sally Merry and Rachel Stern have an article forth-
coming in Current Anthropology that examines the interface between
the global and the local in the context of female inheritance in
Hong Kong (Merry and Stern in press; see also the introduction to
Goodale and Merry 2006). See also Merry’s article in this “In Focus,”
in which she describes the process by which human rights discourse
is translated by intermediaries, including academics, transnational
human rights NGOs, and community human rights activists. Be-
sides problematizing the global–local as an analytical device, these
recent studies also underscore how feminist research and critique
have increasingly converged with human rights activism over the
last 15 years, as the consequences of gendered sociolegal categories
like inheritance law were reconceptualized through human rights
12. In describing Don Lucio as a “cosubject,” I mean to acknowl-
edge the role he plays, through both his intellectual autonomy and
agency, in the production of knowledge about legal cultures in Bo-
livia that is reflected in this and other writings.
13. By this, I mean that they do not permanently exist in the same
places, at the same scales, in the same ways.
14. For the most recent example of a mobile ethnography of hu-
man rights, see Merry 2005.
36 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
15. There has long been a tension between claims for universal
reason and the defense of collective uniqueness, which has run
through anthropology on both sides of the Atlantic since its emer-
gence as a distinct discipline. One important implication of this
move from universal to universalism is that this tension is at least
partly resolved, at least for purposes of an anthropology of human
rights. This does not mean that the broader set of political and ide-
ological contradictions that have resurfaced in recent debates over
multiculturalism are resolved, as Alain Finkielkraut argues in his
long essay The Defeat of the Mind (1995). However, this is because
my argument for a distinction between universal and universalism
is based on a belief that assertions of universality are, in essence,
metaphysical ones, and this means that they cannot ever be re-
solved empirically. The study of the passage from universal to uni-
versalism is the study of the impact of ideas in practice, which does
not depend on a decontextualized evaluation of the underlying
universal claims themselves.
16. It must be emphasized that human rights discourse in Bolivia
is only the latest in a long line of universalist discourses that have
shaped Bolivian (and pre-Bolivian) history: Catholicism, liberal-
ism, nationalism, Marxism (and other counterliberalisms from the
Left), indigenism, and, more recently, the different (and compet-
ing) versions of evangelical Protestantism. Indeed, the emergence
of Bolivia itself as an independent nation-state was the work of
a group of rough-and-ready Enlightenment soldier–philosophers
who were, to bring this historical digression full-circle, committed
to an early-19th-century version of universal human rights.
17. It has been my practice not to use the real name of this am-
bitious politico-legal authority in Alonso de Iba˜
nez, even though
I have received permission by him to do so. A corregidor auxiliar is
what is understood in rural Bolivia as a “state” authority position,
one with historical links to a system of patronage and surveillance
that dates from the early colonial period.
18. Even so, the total number was still relatively small. A recent
report by the American Anthropological Association, “The Growth
and Changing Composition of Anthropology, 1966–2002” (2005),
shows that in 1966 there were only 111 Ph.D.s awarded in the dis-
cipline in the United States, of which—we can assume—only a cer-
tain percentage went on to become professional anthropologists.
By 1976, this number had ballooned to 445.
19. On this point, see Herbert Lewis’s recent efforts to reorient the
politics of anthropological historiography, for example, Lewis’s in-
augural sally, which was published in AA as “The Misrepresentation
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This essay offers a ‘state of the art’ of the study of human rights practice. It begins with delineating human rights practice as an academic perspective, defining its distinct research questions and approaches, and noting in particular the influence of sociological and anthropological standpoints on its development. The essay proceeds by exploring the study of human rights practice as a form of activist-scholarship—bridging the world of academia and practice—and the strengths and risks that such a position entails, and later by characterizing this type of research as a self-critical project, utilizing an insider perspective to identify the weaknesses of the human rights framework but also to avoid abstract gloomy generalizations. The concluding section identifies the themes of pragmatism and radical hope and introduces the contributions to this special issue.
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