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Mark Goodale and Alison Brysk—A Debate (2010)



This book review is part of an interdisciplinary special issue of PoLAR titled “At Disciplinary Edges.” We asked scholars to review books from disciplines other than the ones in which they were trained or taught.The author of this book review, Alison Brysk, teaches in the Political Science and International Studies Departments at the University of California, Irvine. She reviews Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights, written by Mark Goodale, who is an Associate Professor of Conflict Analysis and Anthropology at George Mason University.
May 2010 Supplement Page 151
about justice at all. I critique the sociolegal enterprise, rather, for writing about in-
justice and law as if social power offered the only and complete terms with which
to carry out its critique. If my book has, however indirectly, given “voice to justice”
through a critique of silence, as Conley’s review states, then it has – despite Conley’s
own bafflement – in some sense succeeded. It has moved – or, more modestly, it
has raised the possibility of shifting – interdisciplinary discussion of justice away
from the potential stranglehold of social power toward consideration of limits and
possibilities in the speaking and silences of modern law.
References Cited
Conley, John
2010 Review of Just Silences. PoLAR 33:143–148.
Foucault, Michel
1994 The Order of Discourse. In Language and Politics. Ian McLeod, trans.
Pp. 108–138. New York: New York University Press.
Garth, Bryant and Austin Sarat, eds.
1998 Justice and Power in Sociolegal Studies. Evanston, IL: Northwest-
ern University Press.
Alison Brysk
University of California- Irvine
This book review is part of an interdisciplinary special issue of PoLAR
titled “At Disciplinary Edges.” We asked scholars to review books from
disciplines other than the ones in which they were trained or taught.
The author of this book review, Alison Brysk, teaches in the Politi-
cal Science and International Studies Departments at the University of
California, Irvine. She reviews Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropol-
ogy of Human Rights, written by Mark Goodale, who is an Associate
Professor of Conflict Analysis and Anthropology at George Mason
Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights
Mark Goodale (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009)
Mark Goodale makes a signal contribution to the practice of human rights, the epis-
temology of social theory, and a new vision of “engaged scholarship” in his powerful
new book, Surrendering to Utopia. He aspires to advance an anthropological notion
of human rights in two senses: to develop a dialectical ethnographic universalism
of human rights and to show that anthropology offers a unique contribution to the
Page 152 PoLAR: Vol. 33, No. S1
construction of such a sustainable, “well-tempered humanism.” Goodale’s thoughtful
interrogation of the construction and application of human rights succeeds on both
counts. Goodale deserves plaudits for marrying a serious engagement with the power
of ideas with a pragmatist’s willingness to push beyond critique to a positive agenda.
His book is a welcome complement to scholarship and analysis based in law, political
science, sociology, ethics, and the humanities.
Goodale provides a series of interventions toward an anthropology of human rights.
First, he argues that anthropology is a kind of dialectical social theory that constructs
the universal in dialogue with the particular, which should contribute to the protection
and empowerment of human dignity. Next, Goodale revisits and revises the history
of anthropology’s critique of human rights and consequent estrangement from the
international human rights regime. He goes on to argue that this history created a false
dilemma of cultural relativism vs. universalism. Furthermore, Goodale contends, the
marginalization of anthropology from the cosmopolitan project left culture reified,
ignored, or misunderstood by human rights scholars and practitioners. According
to Goodale, this marginalization has reinforced the statist features of the human
rights regime and diverted attention from postnational normative projects that might
have lead the way towards a more pluralistic and inclusive form of human rights.
More affirmatively, when anthropology belatedly enters international discourse in
defense of indigenous rights, it constructively stretches existing frameworks towards
an inductively derived notion of collective rights, and a reengagement with culture.
However, Goodale’s far-sighted vision blurs around the edges when he dismisses
the contributions and relevance of other disciplines. In so doing, he misses some
of the need for continuing strategic efforts to restrain the power of abusive states,
to harness potentially principled interventions by international institutions, to use
scattered humanitarian foreign policies of global promoter states, and to empower
social movements organized within existing citizenship and international regimes.
Goodale’s prologue grounds his analysis in solidarity with refugees whose lives
depend on good old-fashioned international law, humanitarian intervention, and anti-
imperialism – yet his analysis periodically falls into a kind of disciplinary triumphal-
ism that privileges the analysis of culture over the indivisibility of rights. He goes so far
as to say that “human rights scholars should not be too concerned with these rela-
tively tiny segments of the world’s population.... populations in diaspora, elites,
well-traveled bourgeoisie (whether from the “West” or elsewhere), those regularly
on the information superhighway, and others, [for whom] the world does seem to
be a smaller, less divided place,” compared to those for whom “the stubborn fact of
culture remains” (p. 90). It should come as a great relief to the “tiny segment” of the
world’s tens of millions of refugees, tortured Iranian bloggers pulled off the informa-
tion superhighway, assassinated “well-traveled bourgeois” dissidents and journalists
in Russia, and other insufficiently exotic “elites” that Goodale considers their level of
cultural globalization sufficient to provide protection through existing international
Moreover, this myopia undercuts the full emancipatory potential of a pluralistic so-
cial science for those situated further along the range of cultural difference, which
May 2010 Supplement Page 153
Goodale himself glimpses at the horizon. In my own fieldwork study of indigenous
rights and globalization in Ecuador (see Brysk 2000), I was surprised to find that a
wide variety of indigenous leaders preferred to talk to me as a political scientist – or
as some insisted, a journalist or historian – than an anthropologist. As one Amazonian
leader described to me his own mobilization and consciousness-raising, “I discovered
that my problem is not folklore, my problem is politics.” The best anthropologists of
the new wave Goodale crystallizes use the anthropological standpoint to show pre-
cisely how some anthropologists and states constructed “folklore,” how indigenous
peoples reconstructed new politicized identities that were both local and global, and
how such identities have been culturally consumed by the international human rights
regime. In this vein, Goodale’s own achievement comes to fruition in his discussion
of the emergence of collective rights through anthropology’s involvement in the inter-
national human rights regime. Chapter 6, in particular, provides thoughtful insights
about the relationship between deductive epistemology and the limited effectiveness
of international law.
While Goodale’s account of the marginalization of anthropology from the inter-
national human rights regime is instructive and merits redress on both sides, it is
somewhat lopsided and incomplete. Although he carefully traces competing currents
within anthropology and their self-exile from the cosmopolitan international, Goodale
misses two larger trends. First, in the wider ambit of scholarship beyond the Universal
Declaration, the disciplines entered the human rights arena in a sequence that added
cumulative layers of paradigms – and tensions. International law was the originating
discipline of pedagogy, scholarship, and practice in human rights. Political science
entered a generation ago, with both anthropology and sociology entering after the
end of the Cold War, and more recently the humanities (e.g., via testimonials). Thus,
when he contends that human rights theory is “static” in its state-centricity, limited
list of civil and political rights, and homogenous universalism, Goodale tragically ig-
nores important recent contributions on “new rights” from both political science and
sociology ( Bob 2009, Nelson 2008), the status and accountability of non-state actors
(Brysk 2005), and feminist theory’s challenge to universalism (Ackerley 2008), to
name a few.
Second, Goodale fails to examine the partial decolonization of anthropology itself,
which was a critical influence on the turn towards indigenous rights and the opening to
a rights-based perspective. The Barbados Conference and the entry of scholars from
the global South, especially Latin America, played an important role in signaling the
need for a more engaged and dialectical anthropology. Some of the most important
voices that contribute to that project are not cited here (e.g., Mato 2000) – yet it is
here that the reconstruction Goodale calls for within anthropology is most likely to
Goodale’s critique of the treatment of culture by other disciplines is misbegotten.
For example, Goodale mistakenly claims that my own widely cited political science
collection on globalization and human rights proclaims the death of culture because it
contends that globalization has a negative effect on human rights when it “reinscribes
borders” (Brysk 2005). Goodale is falsely imposing an anthropologist’s definition
Page 154 PoLAR: Vol. 33, No. S1
of borders as “the range of boundary markers–language, dress, religion, etc.” on
the standard and clear political science Weberian usage of borders as political terri-
torial boundaries between nation-states enforced by coercion (pp. 84–85). As long
as state monopolies of force permit and even encourage the systematic violation of
human dignity, it is my vocation as a political scientist to contest them. Similarly,
Goodale makes a bizarre ad hominem projection of Canadian human rights pioneer
John Humphrey’s theatrical tastes to attack the inclusion of cultural rights in the Uni-
versal Declaration of Human Rights as an elitist projection of Humphrey’s sensibil-
ities (pp. 76–77); he thereby ignores the historical interplay between Anglo-French
“cultural” relations in Canada and Canadian international advocacy of a range of
rights beyond the civil-political canon proposed by the United States. It is ironic that
this aspect of Goodale’s work betrays one of the great contributions of the anthropo-
logical sensibility; the ethnographic ability to listen carefully, and interpret language
and ideas within their social and historical context.
The move toward identity across the social sciences can address many of the concerns
Goodale raises about culture, via new social movement theory in sociology, construc-
tivism in political science, critical legal theory, social psychology, and even behavioral
economics. A constructivist scholar of international relations employs a definition of
identity that echoes closely the progressive reconstruction Goodale attempts: “Iden-
tities perform three necessary functions in a society: they tell you and others who
you are and they tell you who others are” (Hopf 1998:175). In this communicative
reading, identities are universal in form yet diverse in content; they are rooted yet
relational, like the notion of human rights Goodale intermittently articulates.
Engaged social scientists of many disciplines are Goodale’s unrecognized partners
in a dialectical reconstruction of human rights through theory and practice. The best
efforts are marked not by discipline, but by a relationship and responsiveness to civil
society: transnational as well as local. While it is impossible to escape relations of
power, privilege, and representation in human rights research or advocacy, our non-
utopian program can be to democratize them. Goodale’s thought-provoking work
deepens our commitment to the vision of human rights that I learned from the Latin
American indigenous movement: “We are different – we are equal.”
References Cited
Ackerley, Brooke
2008 Universal Human Rights in a World of Difference. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Bob, Clifford, ed.
2009 The International Struggle for New Human Rights. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press.
Brysk, Alison
2000 From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and Interna-
tional Relations in Latin America. Stanford: Stanford University
May 2010 Supplement Page 155
2005 Human Rights and Private Wrongs: Constructing Global Civil So-
ciety. New York: Routledge Press.
Hopf, Ted
1998 The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory.
International Security 23(1):171–200.
Mato, Daniel
2000 Not “Studying the Subaltern,” but Studying with “Subaltern” So-
cial Groups, or, at Least, Studying the Hegemonic Articulations of Power.
Nepantla: Views from South 1(3):479–502.
Nelson, Paul and Ellen Dorsey
2008 New Rights Advocacy. Washington, DC: Georgetown University
Anthropologist Mark Goodale Responds to Political
Scientist Alison Brysk
Mark Goodale
George Mason University
As I explain in the Prologue to Surrendering to Utopia, I have spent much of the last
seven years traveling from workshop to conference, lecture to lecture, all devoted
in one degree or another to human rights, and at each I am expected to dutifully
fulfill my role as Token Anthropologist among the legal scholars, political theorists,
international relations scholars, and academically oriented representatives of various
international institutions and transnational NGOs. What the Token Anthropologist
is expected to provide is a (hopefully) delightfully rich and slightly (but not too)
idiosyncratic set of anecdotes from the contemporary normative frontlines – the
more seemingly comprehensive and culturally and regionally disparate the better.
Tell us about the Sami and their struggles with the Finish government. How about the
Maasai? Isn’t the revolution of Evo Morales in Bolivia really a fight for indigenous
rights? Tell us about culture. Is it true that men and women must walk on separate
paths in Papua New Guinea because women are considered fundamentally unequal?
But wouldn’t you agree that genocidal regimes have used culture as an excuse for
their crimes for decades? And (apropos of Brysk’s review of my book) by the way,
we wish to inform you that this will be your last appearance here. Since culture,
Kultur, the ancient world of lines of irrational and often violent demarcation, have
all officially withered away due to the salutary consequences of globalization, your
startling anthropological anecdotes will no longer be necessary or even possible. From
Page 156 PoLAR: Vol. 33, No. S1
here on out we can make due just fine with chilling accounts of the past faithfully
recounted by the Token Historian....
Surrendering to Utopia is in part a reflection on my own fraught intellectual and eth-
ical journey among these mandarins of human rights theory and practice. Although,
like all anthropologists, I have been happy to accept and even trade in the epistemo-
logical marginality that seems to envelop our peculiar field, over time I have grown
less satisfied with this structural inequality and more insistent on using the unique
ways and means of anthropology as a basis for interrogating – with what I hope is
much hesitation and intellectual humility – the range of beliefs, expectations, and
assumptions that infuse the contemporary project of human rights.
And in so doing I have come to the firm conviction that the unassailable desire to
both prevent the kind of massive human suffering that gave rise to the modern human
rights system within international law and relations, and seek justice when prevention
of this kind fails (as it usually does), has been hindered not only by the bad faith
of countless spoilers – from the long line of warlords and tin pot power mongers
to the righteous exceptionalists next door – but also by the extreme balkanization
that marks what can only loosely be described as human rights studies. Political
theorists ask the “what” questions (What are human rights? What is their source? As
a category of norms, in what ways do human rights relate to other norms?); political
scientists ask the “how” questions (How can the international human rights system
be made more effective? How can we prevent human rights violations in country A
or place X or among culture Z from taking place? How does the international human
rights system challenge the dominant Westphalian paradigm of state sovereignty?);
and international lawyers and legal theorists ask whatever questions they’d like (Is
international human rights law actually law? Are international courts the best forums
for adjudicating rights violations? Should international law be allowed to become the
expression of politics by other means?).
And, as in the real world of the international relations that govern human rights as
politics, law, and moral discourse, this parallel world of intellectual production is
likewise formally horizontal but actually quite hierarchical. Not all member-states of
the UN are equal, despite their voting rights, and so too with the several dominant
epistemological paradigms that have shaped, justified, and advocated for the modern
idea and practice of human rights. This kind of intellectual division of labor is
obviously not unique to human rights; indeed, it is simply a broader consequence – or
expression – of the ever-present Cartesian demand for parsing that hangs over modern
knowledge production itself like a sword of Damocles. But here the stakes are much
higher, perhaps the highest imaginable: nothing less than the meaning, normativity,
and political implications of a very specific account of the human and the demand
that this account form a metric by which all facets of contemporary life should be
So although I am deeply appreciative that Brysk shares my commitment to what
she felicitously calls a “dialectical ethnographic universalism of human rights” and a
“more pluralistic and inclusive form of human rights,” I was surprised to find myself
being accused of the very thing that my book argues most strenuously against – a
May 2010 Supplement Page 157
disciplinary myopia. I’ll leave it to other nonanthropology readers to weigh the jus-
tice of this charge themselves (anthropologists who know my work will quickly
dismiss it), but just for the sake of clarity I must remind those who’ve just read
Brysk’s review that Surrendering to Utopia is an extended argument for what I de-
scribe in the concluding chapter as “human rights in an anthropological key,” which
draws a distinction between anthropology-as-discipline and anthropology as a way
of being-in-the-world. Here I echo James Ferguson’s (1999) subtle but important dis-
tinction between “ethnography-as-method” and “the ethnographic,” the latter being
a way of characterizing that tentative experience through which intimacy and ethical
engagement lead to knowledge of both other and self.
Yet I also realize that this analytical distinction – which denies to anthropology (or
any academic discipline) an epistemological privilege in relation to human rights
theory and practice, at the same time it draws deeply from anthropology’s historical
marginalization as a key epistemological resource – lends itself to an ambiguous
reading (what Brysk describes as a “far-sighted vision [that] blurs around the edges”).
I could simply respond that this ambiguity is in large measure a reflection of the hidden
ambiguities that continue to ironically bedevil what is the contemporary world’s most
apparently self-evident moral-discursive axiom. (“All human beings are born equal
and from this fundamental equality come very specific norms, rights [and not, for
example, duties].”)
Instead, I will quote from one among many passages in the book in which I underscore,
plead, highlight, and indeed shout from the mountaintop—however peripheral – that
Surrendering to Utopia, and in fact the broader contemporary anthropology of human
rights of which my work represents only one expression, is antidisciplinary and
ecumenical to its very core:
[A]n anthropology of human rights argument against the
disciplinarity of the entire postwar human rights project, a disciplinarity
(in both its literal and Foucaultian senses) that has marked the political
and institutional dimensions of this project as much as it more obviously
has the academic. It is only an apparent paradox that this argument
itself emerges from (my own conception of ) a discipline, especially
when the history of the relationship between anthropology and human
rights... is recalled. Part of what has made contemporary anthropology
so innovative and so marginalized at the same time has been the way it has
developed and traded in essentially open epistemological frameworks. An
anthropology of human rights is thus motivated by both this historical
marginalization and commitment to plural approaches. [2009:132]
Moreover, this is not simply an extended argument: throughout the book I find
intimations of human rights in an anthropological key across a wide range of non-
anthropological sources. In fact in many ways anthropologists are not the main
characters in the narrative I develop. As only one among many examples, I am happy
to yet again extol the illuminating virtues of the Swedish political theorist Eva Erman
(2005), whose work guides my way for a large section of my examination of human
Page 158 PoLAR: Vol. 33, No. S1
rights, cosmopolitanism, and the ethnography of transnational normativity in Chapter
So perhaps it is not disciplinary myopia that is at issue here, but rather the admittedly
bracing fact that Brysk was asked to review a book that expresses some extended
impatience with the ways in which “culture” is conceptualized within a subset of
human rights studies concerned with the supposedly transformative – indeed mil-
lenarian – effects that something called “globalization” is having on contemporary
human rights regimes. It was only the sheer hegemony of her 2002 edited volume,
Globalization and Human Rights, that brought it to my critical attention. I was, given
my purposes, in a sense forced to absorb and respond to its multiple contributions.
(As Brysk herself is gracious enough to remind us, this volume is “widely cited” –
potential critics beware!)
Although the volume deserves its citational muscle especially for the breadth and
intelligence of the case studies that comprise it, I found its treatment of “culture” in
particular largely uninspiring at best. It did not give me any pleasure to have to explain
this lack of inspiration in detail (readers can refer to Goodale 2009:84–85), but it
is difficult to account for the tone and some of the mischaracterizations in Brysk’s
review without understanding this broader context. (She must have been delighted to
be offered the chance to respond in print, so early, to a work that does not hew to the
conventional wisdom that Globalization and Human Rights isthelastwordonthe
topic – “delighted,” that is, in the sort of dreary, reluctant way I feel delight in being
given the chance, or rather right, or rather duty, to respond to her review.)
In this response, I have honored my promise to the editors at PoLAR by focusing
constructively on the broader disciplinary differences that mark the intellectual and
ethical encounter with human rights. That is, I have not engaged in a line-by-line
rebuttal of her review of Surrendering to Utopia. But before I conclude, I simply must
specifically address two of Brysk’s critiques even though this forces me immediately
into the minutiae and historiography of human rights studies in a way that will likely
have little interest to most readers of this journal.
First, I’m not sure I fully understand her charge that my reconstructed account of
the relationship between anthropology and the postwar human rights project is “in-
complete.” I say reconstructed because Chapter Two in the book is meant to be the
culmination of a process of archival research (conducted primarily in the National An-
thropological Archives in Suitland, Maryland), writing, and wider investigation into
both the history and historiography of this relationship, one that has been consistently
misunderstood and mischaracterized (as I have written about now across a range of
earlier publications). Indeed, I took a chance with Chapter Two because I knew that
the level of historical detail would be of little interest to nonanthropologists, except to
the extent that this intellectual history provides a broader window into the dilemmas
and tensions that marked the emergence of the modern human rights system from the
ashes of World War II. But since the examples she cites to demonstrate this supposed
incompleteness take us back to the contributions of international lawyers, political
scientists, and others, perhaps we can understand yet again the subtextual thrust of
her critique.
May 2010 Supplement Page 159
Along similar lines, she asserts that the book “fails to examine the partial decolo-
nization of anthropology itself, which was a critical influence on the turn towards
indigenous rights and the opening to a rights-based perspective.” It is hard to under-
stand how a scholar of such intelligence, generosity, and good will could make this
argument even though I devote large sections of Chapter Two and indeed an entire
later chapter – “Rights Unbound: Anthropology and the Emergence of Neoliberal
Human Rights,” Chapter Six – to precisely these two topics.
Finally, Brysk takes issue with my extended deconstruction of the origins and mean-
ing of “culture” in the UDHR. This allows me to return here to an examination of
broader interdisciplinary disjunctures and misunderstandings. In this part of the book
I make extensive and counter-historical use of Johannes Morsink’s (1999) definitive
study of the drafting of the UDHR to argue that the meaning of culture in articles 22
and 27 was a direct reflection of the way in which the principal and most important
drafter, John Humphrey, understood it. As I have written about elsewhere, one of the
most important implications of Morsink’s book is the way it debunks once and for all
the widely held belief that the process through which the UDHR was drafted reflected
a global consensus on the idea of human rights. In any case, my use of Morsink to
understand Humphrey is described by Brysk as “ad hominem.” At first, we anthropol-
ogists shudder to be accused of committing an error of logic by someone whose own
epistemology would never admit of something so intellectually debased. But then we
must remind ourselves (if not others) that contemporary sociocultural anthropology
is fundamentally, passionately, and provocatively committed to arguments, to nar-
ratives, that are, in a sense, precisely and quite intentionally ad hominem. What is
the commitment to intersubjectivity and reflexivity if not a commitment to all that is
deeply personal, contingent, idiosyncratic – and a corresponding skepticism toward
syllogisms of all kinds, especially those that equate any critique of ideas about human
rights with a critique of the concerns that animate such ideas, the most important of
which are the concerns with suffering, violence, and the tragically common disregard
for what E. M. Forster (1951) called the “human tradition”?
References Cited
Brysk, Alison, ed.
2002 Globalization and Human Rights. Berkeley: University of California
Erman, Eva
2005 Human Rights and Democracy: Discourse Theory and Global Rights
Institutions. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Forster, E.M.
1951 Two Cheers for Democracy. New York: Harcourt.
Ferguson, James
1999 Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life
on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California
Page 160 PoLAR: Vol. 33, No. S1
Goodale, Mark
2009 Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights. Stanford:
Stanford University Press.
Morsink, Johannes
1999 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting,
Intent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Surrendering to Utopia is a critical and wide-ranging study of anthropology's contributions to human rights. Providing a unique window into the underlying political and intellectual currents that have shaped human rights in the postwar period, this ambitious work opens up new opportunities for research, analysis, and political action. At the book's core, the author describes a "well-tempered human rights,"”an orientation to human rights in the twenty-first century that is shaped by a sense of humility, an appreciation for the disorienting fact of multiplicity, and a willingness to make the mundaneness of social practice a source of ethical inspiration. In examining the curious history of anthropology's engagement with human rights, this book moves from more traditional anthropological topics within the broader human rights community, for example, relativism and the problem of culture, to consider a wider range of theoretical and empirical topics. Among others, it examines the link between anthropology and the emergence of "neoliberal" human rights, explores the claim that anthropology has played an important role in legitimizing these rights, and gauges whether or not this is evidence of anthropology's potential to transform human rights theory and practice more generally.
Two Cheers for Democracy
  • E M Forster
Forster, E.M. 1951 Two Cheers for Democracy. New York: Harcourt.