Human Rights

Samuel Martinez

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online June 2013 | | DOI:
Human Rights

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Once considered a topic that held little interest for cultural anthropologists, human rights became a focus of growing anthropological concern over the 1990s and 2000s. Important publications now number in the hundreds, even when limited (as this article is) only to works by cultural anthropologists (and not forensic anthropologists), which directly reference human rights (and not works that are relevant but make no more than a passing mention of human rights). As Annelise Riles aptly summarizes in her article “Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage” (Riles 2006, p. 53, cited under International Legal Epistemology), anthropologists have turned “from treating human rights doctrines, actors, and institutions as instruments to be used (e.g., as a tool of advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples) to treating them as subjects of ethnographic research, on par with other ethnographic subjects.” What was a discussion of anthropology and human rights has thus evolved into a research subfield, the anthropology of human rights, offering field research–based examinations of place- and time-specific encounters among the promoters of human rights universalism (a term coined by Mark Goodale in Goodale 2009, cited under General Overviews) and diverse communities of sufferers of human-inflicted harms. Whether current scholarship in anthropology focuses on human rights as practice or as discourse, its common signature is to foreground the local, national, and international political and economic processes in which human rights and larger social justice projects are embedded. Two publications that appeared in 1997 marked a watershed in the development of new modes of anthropological engagement with human rights. One, the contributory volume edited by Richard Wilson, Human Rights, Culture and Context (Wilson 1997, cited under General Overviews), anticipated research and writing relating to both the practice and discourse of human rights. The other, a Journal of Anthropological Research special issue on Human Rights, edited by Carole Nagengast and Terence Turner, articulated a new view of culture’s relationship to human rights, not as an argument against ethical universals but an argument for the embeddedness of ethics within any human group’s encompassing way of life (see Hatch 1997, Messer 1997, and Nagengast 1997, all cited under Pros and Cons of Cultural Relativism; and Turner 1997, cited under Cultural Rights). Even if the year 1997 seems an arbitrary dividing line between the eras of “anthropology and human rights” and the “anthropology of human rights,” there is nonetheless a disciplinary consensus that anthropology’s engagement with human rights has undergone significant changes in its guiding concerns, approaches, orientations, and commitments.

Article.  13926 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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