In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Civil Rights

  • Introduction
  • Citizenship and Rights Claims
  • Other Social Movements, Issues, and Constituencies
  • Reference to a Particular Historical Era

Sociology Civil Rights
David Cunningham, Nicole Fox
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0147


Unlike many standard sociological concepts, “civil rights” is rarely interrogated as a phenomenon sui generis or in relation to other categories of rights, and instead is typically invoked in reference to a range of political claims, statuses, entitlements, and outcomes. Though foundational accounts of citizenship situate the sources and boundaries of civil rights, by far the most frequent usage of the term is in relation to the US civil rights movement, which has served as the central case informing prevailing theories of social movements. The movement’s canonical status and sweeping impacts on political, economic, and social life has given rise to a loosely bounded conception of an associated era, with much scholarship focusing on the contours of racial discrimination and mobility in the “post-civil rights” decades that have followed. Another area of movement influence relates to the encoding of civil rights protections in legislation and court decisions. A particularly robust literature has engaged with the implementation and enforcement of various provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as its impact on subsequent related legislation, such as the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. The legacy of the movement is also evident in its influence on subsequent civil rights movements, both tactically and through their ability to advance “civil rights” claims in familiar and resonant ways. The unique and familiar character of the civil rights movement, then, has ensured that conceptions of civil rights remain prevalent within a variety of sociological literatures––from social movements, to organizations, gender, race and ethnicity, and the sociology of law––while perhaps paradoxically discouraging focused research on the definitional and political contours of the term itself.

Citizenship and Rights Claims

This section brings together work on the relationship between civil rights and conceptions of citizenship, engaging with how communities or movements make claims to civil rights, often alongside or implicitly in contrast to other kinds of rights. Marshall 1950 offers a foundational conceptualization of core relationships between civil rights and citizenship, their historical evolution, and their implications for capitalist class systems. Turner 1993 elaborates on Marshall’s seminal essay to introduce a range of theoretical issues associated with citizenship. That volume’s emphasis on the intersection of civil and human rights clearly anticipates a now-burgeoning body of work focused on human rights claims in the age of globalization (Blau and Moncada 2009; Smith 2008, cited under Other Social Movements, Issues, and Constituencies). Within sociology, a related stream of scholarship has concentrated on how groups articulate and mobilize around rights claims. Such work most clearly emerges within the social movements literature, particularly related to analytic notions of “framing” developed by Snow and his colleagues and elaborated in Snow and Benford 1992. Conceptions of framing that speak most directly to “civil rights” tend to focus on how a movement articulates rights-based claims to resonate with intended audiences or constituencies, mobilize followings, solidify collective identities, and expand resources and political access. Particular works examine how movement framings can alter the meaning of rights over time (Engel and Munger 1996), and how claims to identities and rights structure the ways in which stories are told, received, and ultimately remembered (Polletta 2006). How such processes operate within the context of actual (Cole 2012) or imagined (Stanfield 2012) national and international governing bodies provides a means for assessing how norms and discourses around human rights can provide on-the-ground protection against civil rights abuses. Taken together, these sources speak to both the bases for, and the dynamics of, rights-based claims, as well as how those claims structure meanings, mobilizations, and orientations to political resources.

  • Blau, Judith, and Alberto Moncada. 2009. Human rights: A primer. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

    Introduces an integrative critical approach that orients conceptions of human rights in civil, social, economic, and environmental practices. The volume’s breadth and grounding in processes associated with globalization make it an ideal starting place for undergraduates and those seeking a broad overview of cutting-edge thinking in the rights field.

  • Cole, Wade M. 2012. Institutionalizing shame: The effect of Human Rights Committee rulings on abuse, 1981–2007. Social Science Research 41.3: 539–554.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2011.12.003

    This article assesses the impacts of appeals to an international human rights body over claimed violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Cole finds that, while such international judgments did not reduce subsequent state-imposed physical retribution, civil rights freedoms subsequently expanded in states found guilty of covenant violations.

  • Engel, D. M., and F. W. Munger. 1996. Rights, remembrance, and the reconciliation of difference. Law & Society Review 30.1: 7–53.

    DOI: 10.2307/3054033

    Focusing on the Americans with Disabilities Act, Engel and Munger explore the meaning of rights in America by focusing on the intersection between the changing nature of civil rights and personal histories of individuals who benefit from many of these changes.

  • Marshall, T. H. 1950. Citizenship and social class, and other essays. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The classic eponymous essay situates civil rights as one of three elements of citizenship. Marshall argues that civil rights––encompassing personal liberty and rights to property and justice––have become increasingly differentiated from citizenship’s political and social elements, with the development of civil strands predating the others and enabling the maintenance of capitalist institutions.

  • Polletta, Francesca. 2006. “It was like a fever”: Storytelling in protest and politics. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226673776.001.0001

    This well-received book asks important questions about why and how stories matter. Paying close attention to American civil rights activism, Polletta examines why people protest and what is at stake in the remembrance and articulation of rights claims.

  • Snow, David A., and Robert D. Benford. 1992. Master frames and cycles of protest. In Frontiers in social movement theory. Edited by Aldon D. Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller, 133–155. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Alongside an influential body of scholarship by Snow, Benford, and their colleagues, this chapter summarizes and extends research on how social movements frame issues to align their goals with audience values by examining connections among movements within a particular protest cycle. A key illustration centers on civil rights activists’ adoption of a rights-based “master frame.”

  • Stanfield, John H. 2012. “Taking care of unfinished business and the business of the 21st century: What an Institute for Advanced Study in Civil Rights, preferably in the academic deep South, should examine.” American Behavioral Scientist 56.10: 1434–1454.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002764212454426

    This unique article is based on a fictitious institute that would inquire about what was learned in retrospect from the American civil rights movement. Stanfield engages with the ways in which knowledge about the lessons of the movement has been produced, and how such ideas have shifted over time.

  • Turner, Bryan S., ed. 1993. Citizenship and social theory. New York: SAGE.

    An edited volume that engages broadly with key theoretical developments around citizenship. Turner’s concluding essay orients thinking about citizenship around conceptions of civil society and human rights.

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