The Practice of Human Rights
Buerger, Catherine and Richard Ashby Wilson, "The Practice of Human Rights." Exotic No More: Anthropology on the Front Lines. Jeremy MacClancy (ed., 2017), 2nd Ed, University of Chicago Press
19 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2016 Last revised: 29 Jan 2017
Date Written: December 15, 2016
This paper offers an introduction to the anthropology of human rights. Human rights articulate a universal set of claims, but they are usually not universal in their application and their empirical effects are uncertain. Instead, the outcomes of struggles over human rights are often local, temporary, and limited. While doctrinally, human rights are orientated towards the institutions of the nation-state, their influence is often more social and normative than legal or legislative, in that they shift cultural attitudes and moral norms rather than lead to definite political or legal victories. The paper calls for the ethnographic study of the social life of rights, and socio-cultural anthropologists are well-placed to understand how the moral discourse of human rights overlaps with, but is not confined to, political institutions and the law. Anthropologists have also provided insights into how a political ideology forged in the crucible of the American and French revolutions has come to have such a significant impact on decolonization and post-colonial politics in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and how the conception of human rights has in turn been shaped by its global extension over the last half-century. Adopting a global perspective that integrates law and society, anthropologists provide a profound understanding of this universal language that announces that all persons possess inalienable rights because of their common humanity.
Keywords: anthropology of human rights, human rights, legal anthropology, the social life of rights
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation