Perspectives on the ‘User’: Unpacking a Concept for Human Rights Research
Human Rights & International Legal Discourse 8(2), 2014, Forthcoming
Centre Perelman - Working Paper No. 2013/5
21 Pages Posted: 12 Jan 2014 Last revised: 16 Feb 2015
Date Written: October 15, 2013
Adopting a ‘user perspective’ might open promising new avenues to human rights research, especially in a context of global legal pluralism that is characterized by a multiplicity of actors. This article evaluates the conceptual value of the approach by confronting it with three forceful objections to the notions of human rights ‘users’ and ‘usage’ as they emerge from the social sciences, in particular from sociology. These include the ‘Arendtian’ argument concerning the problem of the ‘right to have rights’, the challenge of ontological structuralism, and suspicion about the purchase of a rational choice approach to ‘usage’. While debates on these arguments divide social scientists, they nonetheless provide significant insights into the limitations of agentic approaches to human rights. The theoretical analysis offered in this article leads to the conclusion that robust and constructive ‘user perspective’ research must pay close attention to the properties and behavioural processes of its ‘users’ as well as to the specific constraints that they face in exercising their agency. At the same time, certain conceptual and methodological tools can be transferred from social science literature precisely to tackle these issues. Future research adopting a user perspective cannot but take an interdisciplinary angle which positions any user both in a legal and in a social context.
Keywords: human rights, user perspective, right to have rights, structuralism, rational choice theory
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