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Becoming Irrelevant: The Curious History of Anthropology and Human Rights



It is necessary to examine the curious history of anthropology’s ambivalent relationship to human rights for at least two reasons. First, this history illuminates certain basic dilemmas associated with the emergence of the postwar human rights project and the ways in which particular political and philosophical approaches to human rights became more powerful than other alternatives. Indeed, there is a distinct irony in the fact that a legal and ethical regime that was conceived in order to prevent or redress the violent assertion of illegitimate power within international relations itself came to be defined by subtle forms of power. The study of anthropology’s exile from the early and formative development of human rights reveals how this shift in function was possible. Although this is not widely appreciated, either within the wider human rights community or in academia, the exclusion of anthropology from the critical moments in the emergence of the postwar human rights system would have lasting consequences. As we will see, at mid-twentieth century anthropology had established itself as the preeminent source of scientific expertise on many empirical facets of culture and society, from law to kinship, from religion to morality.
It is necessary to examine the curious history of anthropology’s ambivalent relationship to
human rights for at least two reasons. First, this history illuminates certain basic dilemmas asso-
ciated with the emergence of the postwar human rights project and the ways in which particu-
lar political and philosophical approaches to human rights became more powerful than other
alternatives. Indeed, there is a distinct irony in the fact that a legal and ethical regime that was
conceived in order to prevent or redress the violent assertion of illegitimate power within
international relations itself came to be defi ned by subtle forms of power. The study of anthro-
pology’s exile from the early and formative development of human rights reveals how this shift
in function was possible. Although this is not widely appreciated, either within the wider
human rights community or in academia, the exclusion of anthropology from the critical
moments in the emergence of the postwar human rights system would have lasting conse-
quences. As we will see, at mid-twentieth century anthropology had established itself as the
preeminent source of scientifi c expertise on many empirical facets of culture and society, from
law to kinship, from religion to morality.
Yet it was at precisely this moment, when anthropology as a discipline was reaching the peak
of its legitimacy and self-confidence, that it was blocked from contributing in any meaningful
way to the development of understanding about what was – and still is – the most important
putative cross-cultural fact: that human beings are essentially the same and that this essential
sameness entails a specific normative framework. It was as if everything we know – or think we
know – about the evolution of Homo sapiens included contributions from every discipline except
biological anthropology, which, despite having been excluded, nevertheless continued to pro-
duce knowledge that spoke directly to the problem. In examining the history of anthropology’s
relationship to human rights, therefore, we will be able to better understand both how and why
human rights developed as they did and, by extension, the ways in which they might have
developed had the insights of anthropology played a role.
But the examination of this intellectual and political history is not only, or most importantly,
retrospective. A basic assumption is that anthropological forms of knowledge and practical
engagement can and should be used as part of a wider project of reconceptualizing the meaning
and potential of human rights. The justifications for this assumption are to be found in both the
historical absence of anthropology from the development of contemporary human rights, and
Becoming irrelevant
The curious history of anthropology
and human rights
Mark Goodale
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The curious history of anthropology and human rights
the more recent attempts by individual anthropologists and the discipline’s largest professional
association to reengage with human rights as both an object of study and a vehicle for emancipa-
tory political practice. Although some aspects of this history have already been related in differ-
ent places (see e.g., Engle 2001 ; Goodale 2006a , 2006b ; Mes ser 1993 ; Wilson and Mitchell
2003 ), this chapter provides a full and critical accounting.
If the wider engagement of anthropology is a necessary precondition for the transformation
of contemporary human rights, this is in part because anthropology as a discipline is commit-
ted to the systematic and comparative investigation of social practices, including normative
practices. The examination of human rights in terms of anthropology’s troubled history is
meant to reveal both profound potential and basic limitations – not within anthropology, but
within a reconfigured human rights.
A curious history
In 1947 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which was chaired by Eleanor
Roosevelt, sought statements on the draft version of what would become the 1948 Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). These statements were solicited in a variety of ways
and through a variety of institutional channels, but perhaps the most important were the efforts
of the United Nations Educational, Scientifi c, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
UNESCO solicited statements on a proposed declaration of universal human rights from differ-
ent academic, cultural, and artistic institutions and individuals. Although the essentially colonial-
ist milieu within which the United Nations emerged after World War II made any attempt to
achieve universal consensus through its working bodies utopian at best, the outreach efforts by
UNESCO prior to the adoption of the UDHR were intended to gauge the diversity of world
opinion about what Johannes Morsink describes as the “aggressive” push to forge an “interna-
tional consensus about human rights” (1999, p. 12).
Within anthropology, it has become conventional wisdom to say that the American
Anthropological Association (AAA) was one of those institutions that was solicited by UNESCO
(see e.g., Messer 1993 ). This is because the American Anthropologist , the flagship journal of the
AAA, published something called the “Statement on Human Rights” as the lead article in the
October–December number of the journal (Vol. 49, No. 4, 1947). The Statement was prefaced
by a note that indicated that it was submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights by the
Executive Board of the AAA. And it was not surprising that this Statement appeared in 1947,
or that UNESCO had apparently turned to the AAA for an advisory opinion from anthropol-
ogy on a proposed declaration of universal human rights.
1 By the mid-twentieth century, all
three major anthropological traditions – “schools” is perhaps too strong a description – had,
taken together, established themselves as an important source of scientific knowledge about the
range of both diversity and unity in human culture and society.
But the evidence indicates that most of the conventional wisdom about the Statement on
Human Rights is wrong. For example, there is the question of the actual relationship between
UNESCO, the Commission for Human Rights, and the AAA. As I have said, the common
understanding is that the AAA – as the representative of anthropology – was asked to write an
advisory opinion on human rights, which it (through one or more of its members) did in 1947,
after which this official AAA “Statement on Human Rights” was simultaneously published in
the American Anthropologist and submitted to the Commission for Human Rights by the AAA
Executive Board on behalf of its membership.
Yet according to documents in the US National Anthropological Archives,
2 there is no
record of UNESCO making a request to the AAA for an advisory opinion on a declaration of
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Mark Goodale
human rights. Instead, it appears that one anthropologist, Melville Herskovits, was approached
by UNESCO in his capacity as chairman of the Committee for International Cooperation in
Anthropology of the National Research Council (NRC), a post which he assumed in 1945.
Herskovits was a prominent American anthropologist, a member of the AAA’s Executive Board
during this time, and chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University.
Herskovits had been a student of Franz Boas at Columbia University, where he earned his
PhD in Anthropology in 1923. Although his research and writings present a more complicated
theoretical and political picture than has been supposed, there is no question that Herskovits’s
orientation to culture and society was shaped by his training in what is known as American
historical particularism, an anthropological approach developed by Boas that placed the empha-
sis on studying the evolution of particular cultural traditions within their historical contexts (see
Stocking 1989 ).
In focusing so intensely – and ethnographically – on particular cultures within what was
believed to be their unique historical trajectories, American cultural anthropologists such as
Herskovits became associated with a distinct outlook toward social phenomena. Two aspects of
this outlook are relevant to the history of anthropology’s relationship with human rights. First,
the detailed study of cultures within history revealed the ways in which particular dimensions of
culture – law, politics, religion, morality – were the result of a process of situated evolution, one
that could not be understood in general terms or through the use of universal analytical catego-
ries. There might be “patterns of culture, as Ruth Benedict, another Boasian, described them;
but these patterns were only rough outlines, ways of describing the fact that all cultures are in
fact patterned in their own terms. The content of these patterns, however, the features that
made a particular culture “Japanese, say, and not “Norwegian,” was the result of the entire
range of historical contingencies that could never be either reproduced again or predicted for
other places and times. And it was only a short step from this essentially empirical approach to
culture to something more normative: if each culture is unique, the result of a particular and
contingent history, then it was not possible to evaluate or measure cultures in terms of some set
of standards that could be justified in a way that was itself not part of a particular cultural tradi-
tion, or interplay between cultural traditions. This normative implication of American historical
particularism is what is usually described as “cultural relativism.
Second, there was a political dimension to American historical particularism and the kind of
anthropology pursued by the Boasians. Although Boas believed anthropology to be the “science
of mankind,” he also believed that it provided a valuable social function by documenting the
richness of cultures that were either under threat of destruction, or tragically misunderstood, or
both. American cultural anthropology at mid-century – less so British and French social anthro-
pology – was concerned with the condition of what today would be described as marginalized
or subaltern populations, and this concern was the result of both epistemological and political
imperatives within American anthropology and of individual anthropologists. So when Melville
Herskovits was approached by UNESCO through the National Research Council’s Committee
on International Cooperation in Anthropology, he also considered the ways in which a declara-
tion of universal human rights would affect the cultural traditions and political standing of those
populations that seemed to stand apart from the confluence of legal, political, and social forces
that were behind the “aggressive” drive for an international human rights system.
Although Herskovits was contacted by UNESCO by virtue of his position as head of an
influential NRC committee dedicated to fostering both international collaboration between
anthropologists and other scientists, and the development of what today would be called “public
anthropology” (i.e., the use of anthropological knowledge within consequential public debates),
it is historiographically important to acknowledge that this NRC committee acted as a de facto
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The curious history of anthropology and human rights
committee of the American Anthropological Association, or at least coordinated its activities
with the AAA Executive Board. Most of the members of the NRC committee during the mid-
1940s were also members of the AAA, including (in 1946, the year before Herskovits drafted
the Statement on Human Rights) one past and one future president of the AAA (Robert Lowie,
1935, and Frederica de Laguna, 1967).
Nevertheless, the documentary record shows that the AAA was not first contacted by
UNESCO; rather, Melville Herskovits’s committee at the NRC was the entity solicited for a
representative anthropological opinion on a declaration of human rights.
4 Herskovits worked on
his Statement on Human Rights in early 1947 and began communicating with the AAA leader-
ship about their intentions regarding it. By June 1947, Herskovits had already sent the Statement
to UNESCO on behalf of both himself and the NRC anthropology committee. At the same
time, Ralph Beals, an AAA Executive Board member, was writing to Clyde Kluckhohn, the
AAA president, with a recommendation that Herskovits’s “rights of man” statement be adopted
by the Executive Board and published as the lead article in the forthcoming American
Anthropologist .
5 To underscore the importance given to the Statement by the Executive Board,
Beals recommended that the AAA order 1,000 reprints (with special covers) of the Statement
for public relations purposes.
Although the Statement was published in American Anthropologist in late 1947 with a note
indicating that the Statement was forwarded to UNESCO, this must be seen as a post hoc ratifi-
cation of what Herskovits had already done some four to six months earlier. Although Herskovits
was pleased that the AAA chose to re-submit the Statement on Human Rights on its behalf, there
is very little evidence that the Statement was considered by the Commission for Human Rights
during its deliberations. Further, despite the fact that the AAA was a much smaller and less rep-
resentative organization at mid-century, it still functioned as a democratic association, in which
major initiatives were voted on by the membership. With the Statement on Human Rights,
however, no such vote took place and, except for correspondence between several high-
ranking AAA members, there is no indication that association members had any knowledge of
the Statement until its publication in American Anthropologist .
This brings me to a second way in which the relationship of American anthropology to
human rights has been fundamentally misconstrued. In Morsink’s otherwise excellent history of
the “origins, drafting, and intent” behind the UDHR, he foregrounds the 1947 AAA Statement
on Human Rights in a way that gives a distorted impression of its – and, by extension, anthro-
pology’s – impact on the emergence of human rights after World War II. In fact, he begins his
history with a detailed discussion of the Statement’s content; the implication is that the
Commission on Human Rights went ahead with its work despite the objections and criticisms
made in the Statement. As he says, in “1947 the UN Human Rights Commission that wrote
the Declaration received a long memorandum from the American Anthropological Association
(AAA)” (1999, p. ix). And then later, after reviewing different parts of the Statement, he
observes that the “drafters of the Declaration went ahead in spite of these warnings” (1999,
p. x). But as Morsink’s own comprehensive account of the drafting process makes clear, it is
more likely that even if received in some technical sense – either on behalf of the NRC or,
later, the AAA Executive Board – the Statement on Human Rights played almost no role what-
soever in the drafting of the UDHR.
If the Statement on Human Rights played a limited or (more likely) no role in the delibera-
tions around the drafting of the UDHR, its status among anthropologists has also at times been
misconstrued. With the exception of my own recent writings on the relationship between
anthropology and human rights (see e.g., Goodale 2006a , 2006b), there were two earlier
extended attempts to characterize this history, one by an anthropologist (Messer 1993 ) and the
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other by a law professor (Engle 2001 ). Both leave what I would suggest is the wrong impression
about both the events surrounding the production of the Statement on Human Rights, and,
more importantly, the impact of the Statement on anthropologists who might have participated
more actively in the development of human rights theory and practice in the early post-
UDHR period.
Although Messer and Engle have different agendas, and approach the issues from different
vantage points, they both tend to read the early history of anthropology’s relationship to human
rights in terms of its much more recent history. So, for example, Engle says that anthropologists
“have been embarrassed ever since” the publication of the Statement in 1947 (2001, p. 536). And
she is even more direct in characterizing the impact of the Statement on the AAA itself. As she
writes, “[f]or the past fifty years, the Statement has caused the AAA great shame. Indeed, the term
‘embarrassment’ is continually used in reference to the Statement” (p. 541). The problem is that
with the exception of three brief comments on the Statement published soon after (Barnett 1948 ;
Steward 1948 ; Bennett 1949 ), both the Statement, and, more important, human rights, vanish
from the anthropological radar for almost forty years. It is difficult, in other words, to demon-
strate that that Statement on Human Rights caused widespread shame or embarrassment after its
publication. Indeed, there was very little reaction at all, either in the period immediately after its
publication, or over the decades in which the international, and eventually transnational, human
rights regimes emerged. Why and how this happened will be described in more detail below; but
the fact remains that American anthropology, not to mention the wider discipline, played almost
no role in the formal development of human rights theory or institutional practice in the impor-
tant first decades of the postwar period.
Melville Herskovits’s statement on human rights
I have said that the conventional wisdom about both the Statement on Human Rights and the
early relationship between anthropology and human rights more generally has been largely
wrong: in the details surrounding the origin of the Statement; in the impact of the Statement on
both anthropology and key fi gures in the early postwar development of human rights; and in
the supposed dark shadow that the Statement cast over anthropology in the decades since those
early, formative, post-UDHR years. But what about the Statement itself? It too, perhaps more
importantly, has been poorly understood. The most common way in which the Statement is
construed – especially by scholars who have rewritten the early history of anthropology’s rela-
tionship to human rights in order to make a clean break – is as an example of cultural relativism
run amok, something made all the more unpardonable by the events that led to the founding of
the United Nations and the “aggressive” push to create an international political and legal order
based on universal human rights.
The intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin has written in several of his essays on the nineteenth-
century Russian intelligentsia that what characterized the group of disaffected young people
who would eventually become revolutionaries was their proclivity to borrow ideas from
Western Europe and then take them to their logical, absurd, and violent extreme. This is how
Herskovits’s Statement on Human Rights is usually characterized: yes, he was well meaning;
yes, cultural relativism was developed as an intellectual buffer against colonialism, racism, and all
other universal systems that had the effect of oppressing some human populations while elevat-
ing others; yes, the principles of the Universal Declaration cannot be understood apart from the
political and economic interests associated with its creation; nevertheless , what about the Nazis?
How could anthropologists employ their services against the Nazis during the war (as they did
in considerable numbers, in different capacities), yet lack a legitimate moral basis for doing so?
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The curious history of anthropology and human rights
Shouldn’t the contrarian Statement on Human Rights be simply dismissed as either the misap-
plication of certain ideas about cultural diversity, or as a piece of bad logic, or both?
But Herskovits’s (and then the AAA’s) Statement on Human Rights is much more compli-
cated, and thus revealing, than the caricature of it would suggest. The Statement makes three
distinct critiques of a proposed declaration of universal human rights. These can be divided into
the epistemological, the empirical, and the ethical. First, Herskovits made the observation that
because the Commission on Human Rights was interested in gathering opinions on human
rights from different perspectives and approaches to knowledge, he was required to consider the
idea of universal human rights as a scientist . And because the “sciences that deal with human
culture” (AAA 1947, p. 539) had not developed methods for evaluating a proposed list of
human rights in relation to the many other moral and legal systems that exist in the world, many
of which would appear to conflict with the set of human rights emerging from the Commission,
anthropology was unable to provide the tools necessary for proving – or disproving – their
scientific validity.
Yet Herskovits also played both sides of the problem, assuming, for the sake of argument,
that the anthropological evidence could be used to make claims about the validity (or not) of a
proposed declaration of human rights. As he quite sensibly explained:
Over the past fifty years, the many ways in which man resolves the problem of subsistence,
of social living, of political regulation of group life, of reaching accord with the Universe
and satisfying his aesthetic drives has been widely documented by the researches of anthro-
pologists among peoples living in all parts of the world. All peoples do achieve these ends.
No two of them, however, do so in exactly the same way, and some of them employ means
that differ, often strikingly, from one another.
(AAA 1947, p. 540)
This has been taken as a rigid and dogmatic expression of cultural relativism, which all but guar-
anteed that Herskovits would reject the idea of universal human rights. But what is ignored is
what comes soon after. The real problem, he argues, is not with the idea of human rights itself;
rather, the problem is that for political and economic reasons, proposals for human rights (so far)
have always been conceived for the wrong purposes and based on the wrong set of assumptions.
As he says, “defi nitions of freedom, concepts of the nature of human rights, and the like, have
been narrowly drawn. Alternatives have been decried, and suppressed where controls have
been established over non-European peoples. The hard core of similarities between cultures has
been consistently overlooked” (AAA 1947, p. 540; emphasis in original). In other words, he
seems to be suggesting here that the empirical question is still open: a declaration of universal
human rights might be drafted that is legitimate across cultures, one that codifi es and expresses
this “hard core of similarities.” But the Anglo-European proposals of 1947, which became the
UDHR, did not speak to this “hard core of similarities” – whatever these might be, Herskovits
does not elaborate – and so they should be rejected.
Finally, and arguably most importantly, Herskovits raised a number of ethical objections to
the proposal for a declaration of human rights by the United Nations. This critique, more than
any other, has been ignored in the subsequent rush to pigeonhole Herskovits as the anthropo-
logical equivalent of one of those Russian revolutionaries who could not wait to take abstract
principles to their logical, if absurd, conclusions. Apart from the substance of the ethical cri-
tiques in the Statement on Human Rights, taken together they underscore a basic fact about the
Statement that is rarely acknowledged: that it was, above all else, an act of moral and intellectual
courage. Imagine the context: the horrors of the Holocaust and the violence of World War II
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were being fully exposed (through the ongoing Nuremberg trials, among other sources); there
was broad consensus among the major powers around at least some kind of international legal
and political order based on some version of human rights; and, behind all of this, scholars,
experts, political leaders, and influential public figures across the range were hurrying to lend
their services in order to bring this new legal and political order to fruition.
Despite all of this, Herskovits (and then the Executive Board of the AAA) forcefully dis-
sented. Instead of serving as a bulwark against fascism and the oppression of the weak, a declara-
tion of human rights would, eventually, no matter how well intentioned, tend toward the
opposite: it would become a doctrine “employed to implement economic exploitation and
deny the right to control their own affairs to millions of people over the world, where the
expansion of Europe and America has not [already] meant the literal extermination of whole
populations” (AAA 1947, p. 540). And this concern was not only, or most importantly, pro-
spective; Herskovits drew from history in making the argument that declarations of human
rights were often legal smokescreens for the oppression of one group of humans by another. For
example, the “American Declaration of Independence, or the American Bill of Rights, could be
written by men who themselves were slave-owners, and the revolutionary French embrace of
the rights of man only became legitimate when extended “to the French slave-owning colo-
nies” (p. 542). And regardless of the growing international consensus, regardless of the stated
intentions of what claimed to be a diverse and representative Commission on Human Rights
(and, more generally, United Nations), and regardless of the democratic nature of the UN
Charter, Herskovits refused to see the proposed declaration of human rights as anything other
than a set of aspirations “circumscribed by the standards of [a] single culture” (p. 543). Such a
“limited Declaration,” Herskovits argued, would exclude more people than it would include,
because of – not despite – its claims of universality.
The wilderness years
After 1948 the international human rights system emerged only haltingly, in part because the
imperatives of the bipolar Cold War world imposed a whole series of constraints – political,
ideological, cultural – on the realization of what was clearly a competing vision for international
affairs. So even though Eleanor Roosevelt had hoped that the idea of human rights would be
carried along what she called a “curious grapevine” behind the walls of repressive states and
ideologies, to reach those most in need of its protections, her dream would have to be deferred
(see Korey 1998 ). In the meantime, anthropologists were participating in the development of
postwar institutions and knowledge regimes, but not those that were framed in terms of human
rights. A good example of this public anthropology during the 1950s and early 1960s was the
formative role played by anthropologists – in particular Alfred Métraux, Ashley Montagu, and
Claude Lévi-Strauss – in the series of UNESCO statements on race, which called into question
the biological concept of race and described in some detail the ways in which race should
instead be seen as a social construct (see UNESCO 1969). This was a provocative and progres-
sive reframing of the race issue at a time when, in the United States for example, the traditional
biological understanding of racial differences was still codifi ed in law and refl ected in patterns of
political and social inequality.
Yet human rights did not frame this work on race, despite the fact that the basic idea of
human rights assumes that human beings are essentially the same, both biological and morally.
Even more telling, anthropologists were active in the civil rights movement in the United
States throughout this period, including Melville Herskovits himself (see Gershenhorn 2004 ).
But civil rights were understood in a quite different way from human rights, within a different
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The curious history of anthropology and human rights
system of political and legal legitimacy, and anchored in a different set of assumptions about
human nature and the foundations of citizenship. And apart from the fact that anthropologists
during the 1950s and 1960s did not frame their different political interventions in terms of
human rights, the anthropological voice was equally absent from developments in the philosophy
of human rights, especially to the extent that such evolving ideas influenced the content of the
important instruments that followed the UDHR.
For anthropology, these were the wilderness years, the period in which the international
human rights system was established as a set of ideas, practices, and documents, despite the fact
that the actual protection or enforcement of human rights by nation-states and international
institutions was often minimal throughout much of the world. The emergence and eventual
transnationalization of human rights discourse after the end of the Cold War would not have
been possible without these preexisting institutional and philosophical foundations, which were
laid without contributions from anthropological forms of knowledge and methods of studying
social practices.
Social justice and other universalist projects
The political and cultural climates changed dramatically during the mid- to late 1960s, and
anthropologists were again active participants in these changes. But a major difference between
the mid-1950s to early 1960s and the late 1960s through the 1970s was the fact that the anthro-
pological contributions to the political and cultural movements of the latter period were fueled,
in part, by correspondingly dramatic intellectual shifts within the wider discipline. Nevertheless,
the idea of human rights was still not used by anthropologists in their writings to justify their
participation in these political and cultural movements; rather, the most common intellectual
(and political) rationale for the anthropological participation in anti-colonialism, or protests
against the war in Vietnam, was some version of Marxism or neo-Marxism. What is important
for my purposes here about the incorporation of the Marxist critique in anthropological writings
on social justice issues is that it offered an alternative universalizing framework for addressing
these pressing political and social problems, one that, at least theoretically, was as hostile to the
cultural relativism of the 1947 Statement on Human Rights as the competing claims of the
UDHR itself.
That is, during the 1960s and 1970s anthropology underwent a profound shift – one mir-
rored in other academic disciplines, both in the United States and elsewhere – that had the effect
of creating formal epistemological links between scholarship and political activism. The Marxist
(or neo-Marxist) emphasis on the inevitability of conflict, the role of intellectuals in political
movements, and the importance of understanding structures of inequality within broad histori-
cal contexts, among others, made it an ideal source of inspiration for anthropologists desperately
seeking a way out of the box created by the dominant theoretical approaches of earlier genera-
tions, which either ignored the dynamic interplay between cultures (American historical par-
ticularism), downplayed the wider historical, economic, and political forces that shaped
particular cultures and societies (British functionalism and structural-functionalism), or denied
the influence of history altogether (French structuralism). So although human rights did not
figure into the profound shift in the way many anthropologists justified their participation in
movements for social justice, an opening was inadvertently and ironically created by the influ-
ence of Marxism through which another (and essentially liberal) universalizing project could
pass. By the end of the 1970s, anthropology was ready for human rights. But were human rights
ready for anthropology?
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The prodigal son returns
Although it would not be until the 1980s that anthropology as a discipline took a sustained
interest in human rights for the fi rst time, there was an earlier event that foreshadowed the shape
this new interest would take. In 1972 the anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis and his wife Pia
Maybury-Lewis co-founded Cultural Survival, Inc. Cultural Survival was not established as a
research institution, but rather as a non-governmental organization dedicated to the survival of
indigenous cultures through political advocacy, education, and public awareness programs.
There is some question, however, about the extent to which Cultural Survival was founded
initially as a human rights organization or an indigenous cultures organization that only later
made indigenous rights a centerpiece for education and advocacy. Although Cultural Survival
now makes “indigenous peoples’ rights” the basic framework through which they work to
ensure the survival of indigenous cultures in different parts of the world, this focus apparently
did not emerge within the organization until the 1980s. Nevertheless, the plight of indigenous
peoples eventually became the issue on which anthropology staked a claim within human rights;
it was a small claim at the beginning, to be sure, but as an indigenous rights discourse took on
greater importance later in the 1980s, anthropology’s involvement suddenly became more
noticeable and politically consequential.
The 1980s were turbulent times for anthropology. Especially in the United States, the
epistemological shifts of the 1960s and 1970s, in which scholarship and political action were
connected within one of several variations of Marxist/neo-Marxist social theory, came home
to roost in the form of a period of intense disciplinary self-critique and eventual fragmenta-
tion. By the mid-1980s, anthropology as a discipline was in a state of crisis, with clear lines
forming between anthropologists who wanted to reaffirm the scientific foundations of the
discipline, and those who saw these same foundations as a symbol of a longer history of
Western colonialism, Orientalism, and the assertion of technocratic power against vulnerable
populations. The critics of scientific anthropology (see, e.g., Fox 1991 ; Marcus and Clifford
1986 ) came close to dismantling American cultural anthropology in particular; at the very
least, they made a series of arguments about research methods, ethnographic writing, and the
nature of anthropology as a neo-colonial encounter that had the effect of painting anthropol-
ogy into a corner.
There were two major ways out of this corner, one theoretical and the other political. For
some anthropologists, the period of intense critique was both revelatory and liberating. Finally,
here was a public debate within anthropology about the basic questions of scientific legitimacy,
the relationship between science and economic and political exploitation, and, even more
abstractly, the questionable assumptions about the nature of social reality on which the “science
of mankind” depended. But if this public debate was a revelation for many anthropologists, the
path toward liberation quickly became highly theoretical and disconnected from the concerns
with social practice that figured, at least symbolically, in some of the earlier critical writings.
Instead, the earlier discussion of the problematic nature of the great object–subject divide within
social science evolved into an extended debate about subjectivity itself (see Spiro 1986 ); the
critique of ethnographic writing was transformed into a debate over the politics of writing
genres (e.g., Sanjek 1990 ); and concerns over the way anthropologists chose places to conduct
fieldwork evolved into an excursus into the definitions and implications of “space,” “place, and
“the field” (e.g., Amit 1999 ).
But there was another response to the disciplinary crisis within anthropology in the 1980s and
early 1990s. Since much of the critique of anthropology focused on the ways in which anthro-
pologists were unwitting actors in larger political and economic projects, some anthropologists
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The curious history of anthropology and human rights
reacted not by trying to eliminate the political from anthropology, but by making anthropology
more political. The idea was to put anthropological knowledge to work at the service of specific
groups of people struggling against specific forms of systematic oppression and violence. For
anthropologists working with indigenous peoples this was an obvious move, since many indig-
enous groups found themselves suffering under a range of new or intensified constraints as the
era of neoliberalism took root in places like Latin America. And parallel to the politicization of
anthropology, and the increase in violence against indigenous peoples as a result of neoliberal
political and economic restructuring during the mid- to late 1980s, there was another develop-
ment during this time that made the anthropological embrace of human rights possible: the
advent of “indigenous rights” as a distinct and recognized category within the broader human
rights system.
For some anthropologists, indigenous rights discourse provided a means through which their
understanding of an essentially political anthropology could be put into practice. What eventu-
ally became a transnational indigenous rights movement provided a way out of the human rights
wilderness for anthropology. The discipline that embodied the most promise as a source of
knowledge about the meanings and potential of human rights in 1948, but which had spent the
intervening decades in exile as the idea of human rights was refined conceptually and elaborated
institutionally, could now return home. The problem for anthropology was that this way home,
while creating new openings for political and institutional action, had the effect of obscuring
other possible ways in which anthropology might contribute to human rights theory and prac-
tice. But as we will see, this narrowness in anthropology’s (re)engagement with human rights
would prove to be only temporary.
The new orientation of anthropology toward human rights can be symbolized by major
shifts within the American Anthropological Association. In 1990 the AAA established a Special
Commission, chaired by Terence Turner, to investigate the encroachments on traditional
Yanomami territory by the Brazilian state.
6 The creation of this commission and its subsequent
report (1991) led to the establishment by the AAA Executive Board of a Commission on
Human Rights (1992), which was charged “to develop a human rights conceptual framework
and identify relevant human rights issues, to develop human rights education and networking,
and to develop and implement mechanisms for organizational action on issues affecting the
AAA, its members and the discipline” (AAA 2001). In 1995, the Commission on Human
Rights was converted into a permanent standing committee of the Association – the Committee
for Human Rights (CfHR). Among other activities, the members of the CfHR began working
on a new statement of principles that would have the effect of definitively repudiating the 1947
Statement on Human Rights. These efforts culminated in the 1999 “Declaration on Anthropology
and Human Rights.This declaration, unlike the Statement on Human Rights, was formally
adopted by a majority vote of the general AAA membership.
The Declaration’s most important assertion is that “[p]eople and groups have a generic right
to realize their capacity for culture” (AAA 1999). Far from expressing any doubts about the
cross-cultural validity of human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration, the 1999
Declaration locates a putative human right to realize a capacity for culture within a set of as-
yet-to-be-articulated human rights that actually go well beyond the current rights recognized
within international law. As the Declaration states, its new position “reflects a commitment to
human rights consistent with international principles but not limited by them” (1999). The
Declaration was thus a clear reversal by the AAA of its earlier position on human rights. But it
also signaled something else: the conversion of – at least a subset of – the world’s largest asso-
ciation of professional anthropologists into a human rights advocacy NGO focused on vulner-
able populations and emerging rights categories.
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Mark Goodale
Finally, in 2000 the Committee for Human Rights augmented its original set of guidelines
and objectives and this list remains the current (as of 2008) set of operating principles for the
Committee: (1) to promote and protect human rights; (2) to expand the definition of human
rights within an anthropological perspective; (3) to work internally with the membership of the
AAA to educate anthropologists, and to mobilize their support for human rights; (4) to work
externally with foreign colleagues, the people and groups with whom anthropologists work, and
other human rights organizations to develop an anthropological perspective on human rights
and consult with them on human rights violations and the appropriate actions to be taken;
(5) to influence and educate the media, policy makers, non-governmental organizations, and
decision makers in the private sector; and (6) to encourage research on all aspects of human
rights from conceptual to applied (AAA 2001).
Toward an ecumenical anthropology of human rights
After the ratifi cation of the 1999 Declaration by the AAA, the Association continued to
transform its orientation toward human rights. The Committee for Human Rights became one
of the most visible and active of the Association’s working bodies through a series of high-
profi le investigations and interventions, a website dedicated to human rights activism and edu-
cation, and collaborations with other human rights bodies embedded within other professional
The work of the Committee for Human Rights after 1995 was not simply political. Apart
from the 1993 review essay by Ellen Messer that I have already mentioned – which was as
much a programmatic call to action as a review of anthropology and human rights – several
founding members of the Committee brought their arguments for a robust engagement with
human rights together in a special issue of the Journal of Anthropological Research (1997). One of
these articles, by Terence Turner, encapsulated both the importance and tone of this period in
anthropology’s relationship with human rights. Turner, whose own activist scholarship on
behalf of the Kayapo has come to embody anthropology’s rediscovery of human rights, and its
repudiation of what are understood to be the mistakes of the 1947 generation, argued that
anthropologists should contribute to an “emancipatory cultural politics. By this he meant that
much of the emerging cultural rights discourse has been, and should continue to be, supported
through a kind of anthropological research that is conducted in terms of specific projects for
social change. And because human rights – for example, the “right to culture” that was
described in the 1999 Declaration (which Turner played a major role in drafting) – had become
essential to these projects, especially those involving indigenous people, anthropological
knowledge could prove useful in making legal and political claims in the increasingly dominant
language of rights. This emancipatory cultural politics approach to human rights through
anthropology remains the primary orientation for anthropologists interested in human rights,
including those who work outside academia in high-profile roles within the non-governmental
and activist communities.
But beginning in about 1995, another anthropological approach to human rights emerged.
Here anthropologists converted the practice of human rights into a topic for ethnographic research
and analysis. Human rights were reconceptualized in part as a transnational discourse linked to the
spread of neoliberal logics of legal and political control after the end of the Cold War. As such,
anthropologists working in this analytical mode remained ambivalent, or even skeptical, about
the use of human rights discourse by social actors in the course of struggles for social change. This
research and analysis, which were made possible by the rapid rise in human rights talk and
institutional development since the early 1990s, both documented the contradictions and
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The curious history of anthropology and human rights
contingencies that surround the practice of human rights, and led to the creation of a
cross-cultural database on the meanings of human rights (see e.g, Clarke 2009 ; Cowan
et al. 2001 ; Englund 2006 ; Goodale 2008 , 2009 ; Goodale and Merry 2007 ; Merry 2006 ; Riles
2000 ; Slyomovics 2005 ; Speed 2008 ; Tate 2007 ; Wilson 2001 ; and Wilson and Mitchell
2003 ).
Finally, even more recently, yet a third approach to human rights through anthropology
can be distinguished. To a certain extent, a critical anthropology of human rights synthesizes
both the emancipatory cultural politics and ethnographic approaches: it is committed at some
level to the idea of human rights, though in some cases a radically reconfigured idea, and it
makes information derived from the practice of human rights the basis for analysis, critique,
policy making, and political action (see e.g., Clarke 2009 ; Cowan 2006 ; Eriksen 2001 ; Goodale
2006b ). There are profound implications to making the practice of human rights both the
conceptual source for understanding what human rights are (and can be) and the source of
legitimacy for claims based on human rights, not the least of which is the fact that it calls into
question many of the basic assumptions of postwar human rights theory and practice. Moreover,
to the extent that the international human rights system is a reflection of these assumptions,
then it too must be reconsidered.
There can be no doubt about the important contributions by the range of legal scholars,
philosophers, ethicists, and others who were instrumental in creating the modern human rights
system (and the ideas that supported and then flowed from it). Nevertheless, the critical ethnog-
raphy of human rights suggests both a different human rights ontology and grounds on which a
potentially global normative project like human rights can be justified. In other words, there is
still a tremendous reservoir of untapped potential in the idea of human rights, even if there are
also certain basic limitations that must be acknowledged and institutionalized.
A previous version of this chapter appeared in Mark Goodale, Surrendering to Utopia: An
Anthropology of Human Rights , Stanford University Press, 2009. Reprinted here with permission.
1 The Statement on Human Rights was published almost exactly one year before the UDHR was adopted
by the UN Third General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
2 These are currently housed in a Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. I thank
the administrator of the NAA for allowing me to conduct research in the archives and for guiding me
through the documentary sources of the AAA.
3 NAA, Box 23, General File, 1930–1949.
4 I have not been able to uncover any evidence that other professional anthropological associations were
solicited by UNESCO during this time.
5 NAA, Box 192, AAA Executive Board Minutes, March 1946–May 1954.
6 The following is drawn from the 1995–2000 Cumulative 5-Year Report published by the Committee for
Human Rights, American Anthropological Association (AAA/CfHR 2001).
American Anthropological Association . 1947 . “Statement on Human Rights. American Anthropologist ,
Vol. 49 , No. 4 , p p. 539 543 .
American Anthropological Association, Committee on Human Rights . 1999 . Declaration on Anthropology
and Human Rights . At : .
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Mark Goodale
American Anthropological Association, Committee for Human Rights . 2001 . 1995–2000 Cumulative
5-Year Report . At : .
Amit , Vered , ed. 1999 . Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World ( London :
Routledge ).
Barnett , H. G . 1948 . “On Science and Human Rights. American Anthropologist , Vol. 50 ,
pp. 352 355 .
Bennett , John W . 1949 . “Science and Human Rights: Reason and Action.” American Anthropologist, Vol.
50 , p p. 329 336 .
Clarke , Kamari Maxine . 2009 . Fictions of Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Challenge of Legal
Pluralism in Sub-Saharan Africa ( New York : Cambridge University Press ).
Cowan , Jane. 2006 . “Culture and Rights after Culture and Rights .” American Anthropologist, Vol. 108 , N o.
1 , pp. 9 24 .
Cowan , Jane , Marie-Bénédicte Dembour , and Richard A. Wilson , eds. 2001 . Culture and Rights:
Anthropological Perspectives ( Cambridge : Cambridge University Press ).
Engle , Karen . 2001 . “From Skepticism to Embrace: Human Rights and the American Anthropological
Association from 1947–1999. Human Rights Quarterly , Vol. 23 , p p. 536 559 .
Englund , Harri . 2006 . Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor ( Berkeley : University of
California Press ).
Eriksen , Thomas Hylland . 2001 . “Between Universalism and Relativism: A Critique of the UNESCO
Concept of Culture. In Jane Cowan , Marie-Bénédicte Dembour , and Richard A. Wilson , eds. Culture
and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives ( Cambridge : Cambridge University Press ).
Fox , Richard G. , ed. 1991 . Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present ( Santa Fe, NM : SAR Press ).
Gershenhorn , Jerry . 2004 . Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge ( Lincoln : University of
Nebraska Press ).
Goodale , Mark . 2006a . Introduction to “Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key. American
Anthropologist , Vol. 108 , N o. 1 , pp. 1 8 .
Goodale , Mark . 2006b . “Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights.” Current Anthropology , Vol.
47 , N o. 3 , p p. 485 511 .
Goodale , Mark . 2008 . Dilemmas of Modernity: Bolivian Encounters with Law and Liberalism ( Stanford, CA :
Stanford University Press ).
Goodale , Mark . 2009 . Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights ( Stanford, CA : Stanford
University Press
Goodale , Mark , ed . 2009 . Human Rights: An Anthropological Reader ( Oxford : Blackwell ).
Goodale , Mark and Sally Engle Merry , eds . 2007 . The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the
Global and the Local ( Cambridge : Cambridge University Press ).
Korey , William . 1998 . NGOs and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights: “A Curious Grapevine” ( New
York : St. Martin’s Press ).
Marcus , George and James Clifford , eds . 1986 . Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography
( Berkeley : University of California Press ).
Merry , Sally Engle . 2006 . Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice
( Chicago : University of Chicago Press ).
Messer , Ellen . 1993 . “Anthropology and Human Rights.
Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 22 ,
pp. 221 249 .
Morsink , Johannes . 1999 . The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, Intent ( Philadelphia :
University of Pennsylvania Press ).
Riles , Annelise . 2000 . The Network Inside Out ( Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press ).
Sanjek , Roger , ed . 1990 . Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology ( Ithaca, NY : Cornell University Press ).
Slyomovics , Susan . 2005 . The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco ( Philadelphia : University of
Pennsylvania Press ).
Speed , Shannon . 2008 . Rights in Rebellion: Indigenous Struggle and Human Rights in Chiapas ( Stanford, CA :
Stanford University Press ).
Spiro , Melford . 1986 . “Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology. Cultural Anthropology , Vol.
1 , N o. 3 , p p.
259 286 .
Steward , Julian . 1948 . “Comment on the Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 50 ,
pp. 351 352 .
Stocking , George , ed . 1989 . A Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883–1911
( Chicago : University of Chicago Press ).
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The curious history of anthropology and human rights
Tate , Winifred . 2007 . Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia
( Berkeley : University of California Press ).
Turner , Terence . 1997 . “Human Rights, Human Difference: Anthropology’s Contribution to an
Emancipatory Cultural Politics. Journal of Anthropological Research , Vol. 53 , pp. 273 291 .
United Nations Educational , Scientifi c , and Cultural Organization . 1969 . Four Statements on the Race
Question ( Paris : UNESCO ).
Wilson , Richard A . 2001 . The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa ( Cambridge : Cambridge
University Press ).
Wilson , Richard Ashby and Jon P. Mitchell , eds. 2003 . Human Rights in Global Perspective: Anthropological
Studies of Rights, Claims, and Entitlements ( London : Routledge ).
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
By taking up the challenge of documenting how human rights values are embedded in rule of law movements to produce a new language of international justice that competes with a range of other formations, this book explores how notions of justice are negotiated through everyday micropractices and grassroots contestations of those practices. These micropractices include speech acts that revere the protection of international rights, citation references to treaty documents, the brokering of human rights agendas, the rewriting of national constitutions, demonstrations of religiosity that make explicit the piety of religious subjects, and ritual practices of forgiveness that involve the invocation of ancestral religious cosmologies - all practices that detail the ways that justice, as a social fiction, is made real within particular relations of power. © Kamari Maxine Clarke 2009 and Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Full-text available
Some 17 years after the end of the cold war, the international and transnational human rights regimes that emerged in the wake of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are at a crossroads. On the one hand, the political openings created by the end of the bipolar postwar world have allowed what Eleanor Roosevelt described as the curious grapevine of nongovernmental actors to carry ideas and practices associated with universal human rights into different parts of the world as part of broader transnational development activities. On the other hand, this spread of human rights discourse has only magnified the different problems at the heart of human rights, problems that are theoretical, practical, and phenomenological. Anthropology has an important part to play in addressing these problems and in suggesting ways in which human rights can be reframed so that their original purposes, those embodied in documents like the UDHR, stand a better chance of being realized.
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 50 years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, its principal architect, predicted that a 'curious grapevine' would carry its message behind barbed wire and stone walls. This book tells the extraordinary story of how NGOs became the 'grapevine' she anticipated - sharpening our awareness about the violations of human rights, 'shaming' its most notorious abusers and creating the international mechanisms to bring about implementation of the Declaration. Korey traces how NGO's laid the groundwork for the destruction of the Soviet empire, as well as of the apartheid system in South Africa, and established the principle of accountability for crimes against humanity. The notion of human rights has progressed from being a marginal part of international relations a half century ago to stand today as a critical element in diplomatic discourse and this book shows that it is the NGOs that have placed human rights at the centre of humankind's present and future agenda.
At a time when a global consensus on human rights standards seems to be emerging, this rich study steps back to explore how the idea of human rights is actually employed by activists and human rights professionals. Winifred Tate, an anthropologist and activist with extensive experience in Colombia, finds that radically different ideas about human rights have shaped three groups of human rights professionals working there--nongovernmental activists, state representatives, and military officers. Drawing from the life stories of high-profile activists, pioneering interviews with military officials, and research at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Counting the Dead underscores the importance of analyzing and understanding human rights discourses, methodologies, and institutions within the context of broader cultural and political debates.
The concept of universal cultural features or principles is not in itself incompatible with some forms of cultural relativism, but the idea of universal human rights poses special problems. "Rights," in the specific sense, cannot be universal attributes of "humanity," as anthropologically conceived, but general principles of right or justice may be so. Anthropology may be able to provide knowledge of universal attributes of humanity with ethical or moral implications that can help to define such concepts. More specifically, anthropological activism in defense of human difference provides an important lead for the formulation of a universal right to difference. This argument converges with a historical analysis of the social and historical origins of the concept of human rights and the ways the concept has become transformed and reoriented in the context of the contemporary crisis of the state and the rise of ethnic and identity politics. In this historical conjuncture, the criterion of difference has emerged as a central focus of rights struggles and discourses.