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Anthropology has had a curious and contested disciplinary relationship with the postwar human rights project. This article analyzes the history of this relationship from the period of the drafting of the University Declaration of Human Rights to the present. After describing both political and critical approaches to human rights by anthropologists, the article discusses contemporary anthropology of human rights that emerged after the end of the Cold War. This article reviews the major topics and areas of theoretical contribution in the anthropology of human rights and concludes with a discussion of future directions.
International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences
(Second Edition)
2015, Pages 360–366
Human Rights, Anthropology of
Mark Goodale
University of Lausanne
Abstract: Anthropology has had a curious and contested disciplinary relationship
with the postwar human rights project. This entry analyzes this history from the
period of the drafting of the University Declaration of Human Rights to the present.
After describing both political and critical approaches to human rights by
anthropologists, the entry discusses the contemporary anthropology of human
rights that emerged after the end of the Cold War. The entry reviews the major
topics and areas of theoretical contribution in the anthropology of human rights and
concludes with a discussion of future directions.
Keywords: human rights, cultural relativism, United Nations, power, transnational
advocacy, international law, indigenous rights, engaged anthropology, critical
anthropology, anthropological theory
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2015, Pages 360–366
1. Overview
Although anthropologists took an interest in human rights from the creation of the
modern human rights system after the Second World War, it has been only recently
that it has been possible to speak of an anthropology of human rights. Unlike the
anthropology of religion, kinship, politics, or law, for example, the anthropology of
human rights developed almost accidentally as a response to changes in historical
and geopolitical conditions that took place largely after the end of the Cold War.
Anthropologists in the field in the midst of ongoing research on problems such as
social change, legal identity, transnational networks, and indigenous mobilization
found themselves confronting emergent forms of political, legal, and cultural
practice that were being shaped by a suddenly urgent discourse of human rights.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, anthropologists tracked this rapid expansion of
human rights from a number of different methodological and theoretical
perspectives. As the liminal period of the post-Cold War arguably gives way to a
historical phase of re-differentiated hierarchy and constraint in which human rights
play an important—though not globally hegemonic—role in politics, social ethics,
and legal regulation, the anthropology of human rights will continue to develop as
an important disciplinary subfield and mode of critical analysis.
This entry on the anthropology of human rights is structured as follows. In the next
section, the history of anthropology’s often fraught relationship with human rights
is surveyed and a timeline of key turning points in this history is described. As a
matter of historiography, the emphasis on a particular chronology is meant to
provide an interpretative framework rather than establish a set of unassailable
historical facts. The historical narrative of anthropology and human rights has itself
been a matter of some dispute. Some of this contention will be explained and an
effort will be made to achieve some measure of balance among the most notable
differing perspectives. After examining the history of anthropology’s various
engagements with human rights, the article will then identify and describe key
themes that emerge from this dynamic subfield and which mark off the
anthropology of human rights as a distinctive source of ideas for human rights
scholars, practitioners, and policy-makers. Much of the early anthropological
skepticism toward certain aspects of the postwar human rights project has been
carried forward in the form of a growing body of critical anthropological theory.
Nevertheless, this has not created a divide between the findings that have emerged
from the ethnography of human rights practices and the demands of human rights
activists and policy-makers for human rights theory with wider application. Instead,
somewhat surprisingly, recent work in the anthropology of human rights has been
taken up in policy documents and commissioned reports among a range of
international institutions, including the Office of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Bank, and the Committee on the
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Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Even the President of Ireland,
Michael D. Higgins, a noted human rights activist and author, has made several
works in the anthropology of human rights central to policy speeches and annual
addresses. Finally, the article will consider future directions in the anthropology of
human rights with a focus on promising avenues for new research and public
2. History
Outside of anthropology, a debate is currently raging between scholars who view
the development of ideas and practices of human rights over the longue durée and
those who see human rights as a much more recent and unprecedented
phenomenon. To the former, the history of human rights must be analyzed as part of
an incremental, centuries-long process in which conceptions of universal rights
were extracted from an even longer intellectual history with roots in classical
antiquity and then ecclesiastical Europe; these ideas were eventually made the basis
for political ideologies with practical consequences for politics and modes of
governance; and, finally, these ancient ideas of human rights found expression in the
1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which must be understood as
both a culmination and an apotheosis. For the latter, the so-called revisionists, the
story of human rights is much more contemporary. As a rhetoric of political activism
and moral outrage, the history of human rights really begins in the 1970s. On this
view, the UDHR is merely a relic with little relevance for understanding the set of
historical and political factors that made the emergence of human rights both
possible and, in a sense, inevitable. (For examples of these debates, see Alston 2013;
Bass 2010; Glendon 2001; Hunt 2007; Moyn 2010)
The history of the relationship between anthropology and human rights is marked
by a similar debate, not over origins, but over the role anthropologists played during
the drafting of the UDHR, the extent to which anthropology as a discipline had a
distinct perspective at all on human rights in the aftermath of the Second World War
and throughout the early years of the Cold War, and the form and implications of
more recent orientations to human rights by individual scholars and professional
The creation of the UDHR
The devastation of the Second World War formed the backdrop to the effort to
create an international system that would once and for all prevent global war,
military imperialism, and genocide. Much like the earlier and short-lived League of
Nations, the new United Nations system was predicated on a set of universal moral
propositions, the most important being the proposition that all human beings are
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born equal in dignity. As a consequence of this proposition, leading proponents of
the postwar settlement thought it necessary to go a step further and draw up a
declaration of universal rights that would serve as the framework through which
human dignity would be enshrined, promoted, and eventually protected.
An international drafting committee was assembled, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt.
During the contentious process of forging consensus around a working draft of what
become the UDHR, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) was asked to help the drafting committee by conducting a
comprehensive survey of world opinion on the question of the types of universal
norms that should be represented in a declaration of human rights (see, e.g.,
Morsink 1999). UNESCO convened a panel of leading philosophers, theologians,
writers, and diplomats and this group—which has come to be known as the
“Philosophers’ Committee”—designed a lengthy questionnaire, which was
distributed to individuals around the world. The responses to this questionnaire
were collected and analyzed during a 1947 meeting of the panel at UNESCO
headquarters in Paris. After this meeting, a report was sent to the drafting
committee to assist it as it neared completion of a first draft of the UDHR (UNESCO
One of the individuals who responded to the UNESCO questionnaire was the
American cultural anthropologist Melville Herskovits. (The questionnaires were
sent to individuals based on their cultural backgrounds, scientific expertise, and
religious affiliations. They were not sent to institutions or representatives of nation-
states.) Herskovits participated in both the American Anthropological Association
(AAA) and the US National Research Council and was a leading international
anthropologist of the time who was strongly influenced by his former professor
Franz Boas’s theory of cultural particularism. He sent his formal response to the
UNESCO questionnaire to the Executive Committee of the AAA and it then asked the
editor of the AAA’s scientific journal, American Anthropologist, to publish
Herskovits’s “Statement on Human Rights” in the journal’s December 1947 edition,
which he did (see Goodale 2009). In publishing the Statement, the Executive
Committee adopted it on behalf of the AAA without consultation or a vote of the
general membership (the AAA was a much different organization at mid-twentieth
The Statement on Human Rights rejected the legitimacy of a universal declaration of
human rights on three distinct grounds: the epistemological, the empirical, and the
ethical. First, it argued that the claims of human rights involved abstract moral
assertions that could not be scientifically demonstrated by anthropology. It was
therefore impossible to know whether or not the universal propositions of human
rights were true through the techniques of scientific investigation. Second, the
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Statement suggested that the weight of anthropological research could not be used
even for indirect support for the claims of universal human rights. Anthropologists
had conducted a wide range of studies of legal and political systems by the middle of
the twentieth century and this research revealed a panorama of cultural diversity. It
was simply not possible, according to the Statement, to read this body of
anthropological research as evidence of preexisting normative universality. And
finally, the Statement dwelled at some length on the broader political economy of
human rights and the role of Western powers in promoting particular legal and
political approaches to social problems. It argued that regardless of good intentions,
an overarching declaration of human rights from the new United Nations would
eventually work against the vitality of the local value systems that held together
small-scale societies (AAA 1947).
Regardless of these concerns from at least one prominent member of the discipline
that was widely regarded at mid-twentieth century as the primary source of
scientific information about the world’s cultures, the Drafting Committee finalized
the UDHR and it was presented to and adopted by the General Assembly on
December 10, 1948 (for a general history of the drafting process, see Morsink
The publication of the Statement on Human Rights in American Anthropologist led to
three brief comments in 1948 and 1949 (Barnett 1948; Steward 1948; Bennett
1949). But from then on, there is scant evidence that anthropologists from any
national tradition took an active research interest in human rights for at least
several decades. Indeed, it is true enough to say that anthropologists played almost
no role in the development of human rights in the initial decades after 1948 and that
the discipline had no discernable position toward or interest in human rights, the
Herskovits-authored Statement on Human Rights notwithstanding. Nevertheless, it
has been common for scholars in more recent years to assert that the Statement on
Human Rights represented a widespread anthropological position on human rights
at the time and that this early orientation was the source of decades of shame and
disciplinary embarrassment (see, e.g., Engle 2001; Messer 1993). But archival and
historical research revealed that despite active academic and political involvement
in the debates over race in the 1950s, the civil rights and anti-war movements in the
1960s, and the anti-nuclear and environmental movements of the 1970s,
anthropologists were largely silent on the question of human rights and its relation
to the discipline until the 1980s (Goodale 2009).
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The 1980s were a time of epistemological ferment for anthropology, particularly in
the United States, where critical scholars built on earlier interests in political
economy and broader Marxist approaches to social theory to scrutinize the
institutional orientation of the discipline toward the often marginalized peoples that
were its traditional objects of knowledge. Although this crisis of representation in
anthropology was more often than not articulated through the language of then-
cutting edge social and critical theory, typically continental German or French, the
debates at the time had an indirect implication for the anthropology of human
rights. The auto-critique of anthropological positivism during the 1980s created
cover for the emergence of much more formally political forms of anthropological
knowledge, even more so than earlier movements toward Marxist anthropology,
which, at least in its well-defined British version, remained largely an innovation
confined to anthropological theory.
At the same time, by the 1980s, human rights had become a much more visible
framework through which grievances, social struggles, and projects for justice could
be articulated. From the global anti-apartheid movement to the anti-nuclear green
movements of western Europe, “human rights” entered the political and social
vocabulary at the same time that the ratification of major international human
rights documents accelerated and new human rights laws were drafted. For the
history of anthropology and human rights, the most important of these was
International Labor Organization Convention No. 169, the so-called indigenous
people’s “Bill of Rights.”
As early as the 1970s, anthropologists like David Maybury-Lewis had used their
anthropological expertise to advocate for the “cultural survival” of small-scale
populations, many of whom lived in isolated, resource-rich areas that made them
vulnerable to exploitation and displacement. Throughout the 1980s, the expanding
indigenous rights movement within the broader human rights coalition provided a
further opening for anthropologists to become involved politically as advocates and
cultural experts. Reflecting on this shift in the discipline during this period, scholars
like Terry Turner argued that human rights became a means through which
anthropologists could participate in an “emancipatory cultural politics” on behalf of
indigenous populations (Turner 1997). This heightened awareness of human rights
paved the way for a series of institutional shifts, again, primarily within American
anthropology, which included the creation of a standing Committee for Human
Rights within the American Anthropological Association (1995) and, most
importantly, the drafting of the 1999 “Declaration on Anthropology and Human
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This official statement of the Association’s (if not the discipline’s) orientation
toward human rights was—unlike the 1947 Statement on Human Rights—approved
by a majority of Association members through a general vote. And, at a substantive
level, the 1999 Declaration was an explicit and dramatic repudiation of Herkovits’s
1947 Statement. Not only does the Declaration recognize the cross-cultural validity
of human rights; it maintains that anthropologists have a disciplinary obligation to
use their research expertise to expand the definition and meanings of human rights
even beyond those established in current international law (AAA 1999). Following
on the promulgation of the Declaration, the Association became increasingly active
in human rights advocacy on behalf of vulnerable populations and victims of human
rights abuses (including academics) around the world.
In the years leading up to the 1999 Declaration, some of the same activist-
anthropologists who played key roles in the drafting of the Declaration and its
promotion within the discipline prepared a special 1997 issue for the Journal of
Anthropological Research that laid the intellectual and disciplinary groundwork for
this new orientation and understanding of anthropology’s responsibilities toward
human rights advocacy (see essays by Hatch, Messer, Nagengast, Turner, and
Zechenter). Among other things, these essays reflected a certain defensiveness by
some anthropologists about the way in which concepts like cultural relativism had
come to be associated with justifications for human rights abuses. Despite the fact
that the danger that human rights advocacy could devolve into cultural imperialism
“chill[ed] the anthropological soul,” as Nagengast argued in her contribution (1997:
349), the path had been cleared—both institutional and intellectually—for a new
phase in anthropology’s engagement with human rights.
At the same time that anthropologists were developing institutional and
epistemological frameworks that made anthropology newly relevant to human
rights advocacy, and vice versa, another quite different process of historical
importance was taking place. The end of the Cold War was a geopolitical watershed
moment for the broader international human rights movement. The dissolution of
the Realpolitik logics of the Cold War conflict created a vacuum in international
relations in which new (or recreated) transnational forms of moral practice and
political struggle could emerge. In just over a decade, human rights discourse
saturated everything from constitutional reform to international development
projects. By the mid-1990s, the rhetoric of human rights had already become the
“only legitimate language of democratic transition,” as Richard A. Wilson put it
(2001: 1); many countries, particularly in Latin America, had implemented
international human rights norms through wide-ranging domestic reforms in
women’s health, bilingual education, and rural development; and a movement to
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create a permanent international criminal court to prosecute gross human rights
violations culminated in the adoption of the Rome Statute by the UN General
Even as some anthropologists participated in this proliferation of human rights as
advocates, cultural experts, and witnesses, other scholars responded by developing
methodologies of critical analysis that coalesced into a proper anthropology of
human rights. Here, ethnographers studied the close details of human rights
advocacy and political reform across an ever-widening range of regional and social
scale. The critical ethnography of human rights was largely agnostic about the
social, political, and moral claims of the broader human rights project that it
documented across a rich cross-cultural panorama. Important examples of this first
extended period in the anthropology of human rights would include Richard A.
Wilson’s study of human rights in the creation of a post-apartheid South Africa
(2001); the edited volume on culture and rights that collected early essays that were
the fruits of the first sustained ethnographic study of human rights in the post-Cold
War period (Cowan, et. al., 2001); Sally Engle Merry’s (2006b) innovative multi-
sited and transnational ethnography of the system used to monitor compliance with
the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
(CEDAW); Harri Englund’s provocative study of the ways in which the hegemony of
human rights discourse made Malawians “prisoners of freedom” (2006); and
Winifred Tate’s ethnographic account of the “culture and politics” of human rights
advocacy in conditions of civil war, post-conflict negotiation, and transnational
criminality (2007).
As a matter of disciplinary recognition and development, the emergence of the
anthropology of human rights as a mode of critical reflection on the rise and
increasing hegemony of human rights around the world (which included the
individual and institutional participation of anthropologists as activists) culminated
in both a major 2006 retrospective in American Anthropologist entitled
“Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key” (with essays by Cowan, Goodale,
Merry, Riles, Speed, and Wilson) and a volume of ethnographic essays on the
“practice of human rights” (Goodale and Merry, eds., 2007) that would come to
shape debates on human rights outside of anthropology and in the field of
international human rights itself.
2007- present
The anthropology of human rights has continued to mature and play a part in wider
debates in the discipline from the late-2000s to the present. Evidence for this can be
found in the number of doctoral dissertations and junior research projects that are
self-consciously located within an anthropology of human rights; the growth in
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conferences, association panels, and workshops in this new subfield; and in the
move by anthropology departments and interdisciplinary fields to develop
specialisms that emphasize the anthropological study of human rights.
The next generation ethnographies of human rights practices build on the
theoretical and disciplinary foundation established during the 1990s and 2000s.
They are marked by increasing levels of methodological and epistemological
innovation, as human rights discourse becomes further naturalized within what
James Ferguson (2006) called the “neoliberal world order.” Among the more notable
of these recent works are Harri Englund’s ethnography of human rights and popular
media in Malawi (2011); Galit Sarfaty’s study of the fight by human rights lawyers to
change the internal culture of the World Bank (2012); Kamari Maxine Clarke’s
ethnographic critique of the “fictions of justice” that reinforce the legitimacy of the
International Criminal Court (2012); Karen Faulk’s ethnography of tensions
between neoliberal citizenship and human rights advocacy in Argentina; and Lori
Allen’s account of the way a culture of cynicism shapes human rights activism in
Occupied Palestine (2013).
3. Major Topics
As an emergent and increasingly influential subfield of social and cultural
anthropology, the anthropology of human rights has made contributions to theory
and methodology in a number of different areas. It has also made its mark outside of
anthropology and the academy as international lawyers, policy-makers, and
government officials turn to the anthropology of human rights as a source of
information and ideas about human rights in policy documents, reports to
governing agencies, and in major public speeches (see, e.g., Higgins 2012, 2013).
As a category for organizing difference, culture was problematic for human rights
from the very beginning. In his 1947 Statement, Herskovits worried at length that
existing cultural diversity and richness were not compatible with countervailing
universalisms like human rights, which asserted transcultural patterns of normative
belief and practice that both flew in the face of anthropological evidence and
threatened to homogenize culture within the broader political economy of the
postwar settlement.
But despite these concerns, cultural diversity was not affected by the promulgation
of the UDHR in 1948, in large part because the broader influence of human rights,
not to mention the kind of global transformation imagined by Herskovits, stalled out
almost immediately within the Cold War. Even Eleanor Roosevelt herself recognized
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that the project of human rights would be years, even decades, in the making, and
that cultural patterns would not begin to shift until what she called a “curious
grapevine” could take root and spread to places where “governments are not so
anxious for it” (quoted in Korey 1998). By the time this kind of large-scale change
did begin, anthropologists of human rights observed that the impact on culture
defied stark dichotomies between particularity and universality and culture itself
facilitated the transnationalization of human rights norms.
In the groundbreaking volume Culture and Rights (2001), anthropologists reflecting
on a decade of ethnographic research after the end of the Cold War noticed two key
phenomena at work. In the first, existing cultural practices and modes of normative
understanding served as mechanisms for what Sally Engle Merry (2006a) would
later describe as “vernacularization”: the translation of increasingly hegemonic
international human rights norms into forms of ethical and political practice rooted
in the particular. And in the second, scholars in Culture and Rights described and
theorized the emergence of a transnational culture of human rights. Here, an
anthropological account of culture proved useful in understanding the formation of
new categories of collective action within international agencies, transnational
NGOs, and in political and social movements shaped by the logics of human rights. In
both, the use of the culture concept by anthropologists of human rights to
understand human rights praxis moved against the grain of wider trends in
anthropological and social theory, which had become skeptical of the analytical
utility of culture in the face of the supposed hybridization of globalization.
Human rights, as Burke might have said, acting through people, is power; and
“considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is
made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of
whose principles, tempers, and dispositions they have little or no experience”
(Burke 1919 [1790]: 7; emphasis in original). Anthropologists of human rights have
been keenly attuned to another problem originally identified by Herskovits: the
ways in which a global project of human rights creates heightened tensions at points
of existing conflict by overwhelming alternative forms of social change and dispute
resolution. Of course, from the perspective of human rights advocacy, this is power
exercised for the good; indeed, as expressed most forcefully in international treaties
like CEDAW, the postwar human rights project demands change, replacement, even
the suppression of modes of cultural practice that remain unaccountable and
therefore illegitimate. As CEDAW’s oft-cited Article 5 puts it, states parties to the
international women’s bill of rights shall “modify the social and cultural patterns of
conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices
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and customary and all other practices” that are based on local theories of gender
But as anthropologists have shown, there are often costs to the ways in which
human rights tends to bracket and then marginalize other cultural logics of social
justice, development, conflict transformation, and public ethics. And this extension
of power can have unintended consequences. One of the more far-reaching
examples of the way anthropologists have explored the implications of the
unpredictable power of human rights is Harri Englund’s (2006) ethnography of
development in Malawi. As he explains, the concept of human rights was officially
translated in the local language with a phrase that meant “the freedom one is born
with” (2006: 51). Over time, people took this emphasis on human rights-as-freedom
to mean the freedom to challenge existing cultural norms around fashion, obedience
in public schools, and sexual behavior, rather than the structural economic and
political conditions that reinforced a legacy of inequality and public corruption. The
result, according to Englund, was that Malawians were eventually “disempower[ed]
through translation.” Human rights discourse saturated every aspect of public life in
Malawi, which is what government officials and transnational aid workers sought.
But as human rights was (mis-)rendered in a local moral vernacular, it was
transformed beyond recognition in ways that foreclosed its use as a language of
much needed social change.
When Herskovits argued that anthropology was not able to make definitive claims
about universal human rights because it was a “science of mankind” and therefore
concerned only with empirical questions of human behavior as expressed through
“patterns of culture,” he could not have foreseen the epistemological innovations in
the discipline that would expand its objects of knowledge and transform its domains
of inquiry. This is not to say, however, that in later decades anthropologists brushed
aside Herskovits’s early arguments in order to confront the basic ontological and
philosophical problems that remained essential to human rights. Much of the
intellectual labor devoted to human rights remained within spheres like critical
legal studies, political theory, and moral philosophy. Rather, anthropologists used
ethnographic research to make a subversive case for broadening the grounds on
which the fundamental moral and theoretical questions of human rights could be
asked and answered. This, in turn, carried important implications for the
epistemology of human rights, especially in the post-Cold War, when human rights
discourse become increasingly interwoven into everyday forms of legal, political,
and social practice.
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Anthropologists of human rights observed early on that ideas about human rights
were fundamental to human rights praxis. Ordinary social actors, often caught up in
moments of crisis or dislocation, were never able to simply harness human rights
instrumentally or coopt its imaginaries of justice as if it were a normative toolkit
waiting to be opened when needed. Instead, the logics of human rights advocacy
demanded self-consideration as much as social change; people were invited,
encouraged, compelled to remake themselves as citizens of a different moral
universe. Ethical theorizing in terms of this often radically alternative moral
universe became a distinct form of social practice and the anthropologist became
both a witness to and co-participant in this transformation as part of the
ethnographic encounter (see Goodale 2006).
What resulted was an ethnographic record of innovative, and potentially
transformative, folk models of human rights that were deeply embedded in the
circumstances of their creation. Perhaps the best example we have of a fully
articulated local account of human rights is Shannon Speed’s ethnography of the
aftermath of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas (2007). Both during and after the
violence, international and transnational human rights organizations flooded into
the Chiapas region. Those promoting indigenous rights-as-human rights were
particularly influential in shaping the way Zapatista resistance was expressed.
Indigenous political leaders formed “good governance councils” in which the ideas
of human rights were debated at length, remade, and then used to represent
Zapatista moral values as these grounded Zapatista political action.
Transnational advocacy
The transnational human rights networks that emerged after the end of the Cold
War did precisely what Eleanor Roosevelt had expected them to do: they challenged
the sovereignty of the state and made it possible to create new public spheres that
were both translocal and firmly rooted in sites of intimate contestation. Scholars
like Annelise Riles (2000) studied these networks from the “inside out” and helped
shape the broader understanding of the global assemblages that were changing the
ontology of social relations during a time of geopolitical and global economic
But anthropologists of human rights also revealed the extent to which networks of
human rights advocacy are shaped by the political economies of local conflict in
ways that can change their normative valence and render them, in certain
circumstances, incapable of fulfilling their broader mandate for social change and
moral transformation. For example, Winifred Tate’s (2007) long-term ethnography
of the ongoing conflict between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC) shows how human rights activists struggle to translate
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the language and moral logics of universal human rights into a category of
instrumental action, one that can respond to the challenges of historical trauma,
multiple and ambiguous accounts of culpability for atrocity, the legacy of structural
violence, and enduring patterns of economic inequality with roots in the colonial
And Sally Engle Merry’s (2006b) study of the institutions that monitor national
compliance with CEDAW illustrates in rich detail the ways in which human rights
activists themselves must navigate multiple and not always overlapping cultures of
advocacy and resistance. Representatives of national human rights ministries often
find themselves in the position of having to advocate at the same time for both
compliance with an international human rights treaty and the integrity and
legitimacy of cultural practices that would seem to violate the treaty. Nevertheless,
these kinds of dichotomies do not negate the reach of international human rights
law into national and local conflicts. Instead, as Merry argues, they reflect the ways
in which the practice of human rights creates its own categories of contested
identity and power with uncertain implications for both transnational human rights
advocacy and the promotion of national(-ist) heritage.
Critique and engagement
Finally, the anthropology of human rights, perhaps more than other academic
orientations towards human rights, grapples uneasily with the dilemma of how to
develop a rigorous and ethnographic account of human rights that is both critical
and ethically attuned to the conditions of vulnerability that lead to abuse and
exploitation. This tension has expressed itself in different ways for different
anthropologists, some of whom (like Winifred Tate and Shannon Speed, for
example) began their careers as human rights activists before making the social and
political processes they were committed to the objects of ethnographic research and
But the tension between critique and engagement, skepticism and advocacy, and
resistance and commitment, is not only a challenge for anthropologists of human
rights. As ethnographic research has demonstrated, it is a fundamental social and
moral fact for the practice of human rights itself. This is in part because as a working
theory of both social practice and political change, the idea of human rights
demands a form of self-reflection and self-constitution that is meant to sow doubt—
about existing cultural practices, about folk theories of the person, about hierarchies
of power. Yet the transition from the old and now suddenly illegitimate to the new
and now suddenly authentic is fraught with moral slippage and unanticipated
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An important recent example from the ethnography of human rights practice is Lori
Allen’s (2013) study of the role of human rights discourse within the politics of
Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Although the language
of human rights was used as early as the late-1970s in Palestine as a grassroots
rhetorical strategy to advocate for victims of the occupation to an international
audience, a professional cadre of activists and NGOs eventually came to restrict the
use of human rights within tightly controlled social and political spaces. At the same
time, the set of Palestinian grievances went unmet for decades, including the
continued violation of human rights, the failure to achieve political independence,
and an inability to shift favorably political opinion within Israel.
The result was that ordinary Palestinians came to view the claims of human rights
with cynicism and even suspicion. But rather than rejecting human rights entirely,
locals within the struggle made an organic critique of human rights part of a broader
critical and emancipatory discourse in support of Palestinian autonomy, anti-
imperialism, and grassroots (as against interventionist) advocacy. With decades of
engagement with human rights part of the history of the Palestinian struggle against
occupation, activists were able to appropriate, or push against, the logics and
expectations of human rights with a high degree of contextual awareness and
political realism.
4. Future Directions
The anthropology of human rights is now well-established as a distinct area of
research and source of anthropological theory. Institutionally, scholars and
graduate students who work in the anthropology of human rights commonly, but
not exclusively, come from the ranks of legal and political anthropology. Because
human rights has become an increasingly pervasive mode of contemporary world-
making, anthropologists encounter traces of this influence across a wide range of
cultural practices, political movements, and moral projects.
This is not to say, however, that the status of human rights is uncontested—quite
the contrary. As the liminal period of the post-Cold War gives way to cultural
redifferentiation, the establishment of new hierarchies, and the narrowing of spaces
of political and social experimentation, human rights will continue to jostle with
alternative forms of moral praxis and collective- and self-constitution. While the
postwar project of human rights matures through its translation into mundane,
even banal, processes of constitutional reform, good governance, and neoliberal
economic restructuring, its potential for catalyzing radical transformation and
moral upheaval will likely diminish. The anthropology of human rights will become
less the study of a political and moral discourse during a time of often giddy
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Full-text available
While the rhetoric of human rights is now globally pervasive, the reality of rights implementation patently lags behind and violations continue to escalate worldwide. An examination of recent books demonstrates that rights talk occupies an increasingly central place in all subfields of anthropology. Problematically, anthropologists are excessively invoking “human rights” to imply a higher order of magnitude for the cases they study than if those cases were framed in terms of other rights and claims. Labeling everything a fundamental human right is detrimental to both ethics and accuracy, especially in the face of acknowledged differences in cultural and historical contexts.
Full-text available
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.
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How do transnational ideas such as human rights approaches to violence against women become meaningful in local social settings? How do they move across the gap between a cosmopolitan awareness of human rights and local sociocultural understandings of gender and family? Intermediaries such as community leaders, nongovernmental organization participants, and social movement activists play a critical role in translating ideas from the global arena down and from local arenas up. These are people who understand both the worlds of transnational human rights and local cultural practices and who can look both ways. They are powerful in that they serve as knowledge brokers between culturally distinct social worlds, but they are also vulnerable to manipulation and subversion by states and communities. In this article, I theorize the process of translation and argue that anthropological analysis of translators helps to explain how human rights ideas and interventions circulate around the world and transform social life.