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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Pros and Cons of Cultural Relativism
  • The 1947 AAA Statement on Human Rights
  • Cross-Cultural Equivalents for Human Rights
  • Political-Economic Approaches
  • North-South Human Rights Knowledge Exchange
  • International Legal Epistemology
  • Human Rights and Humanitarianism
  • Numbers, Indexes, and Icons
  • Nongovernmental Organizations
  • Subjectification through Violence and Suffering
  • Witnessing and Testimony
  • Visual Advocacy and New Media
  • The Researcher’s Situation
  • Genocide
  • Post-Conflict Societies
  • Gender
  • Female Genital Cutting
  • Migrant and Refugee “Others”

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Anthropology Human Rights
Samuel Martínez, Catherine Buerger, Ashley Walters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0103


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 the 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.

General Overviews

Anthropology’s encounter with human rights is not, and never has been, one thing, a consensus, but is rather a thing of two sides, or even a multiplicity of approaches. Anthropology has been torn between analytic and critical dispositions toward human rights and divided about what substantive matters matter most, even as convergence around theory and method has been discernible since the late 1990s. Therefore, no single overview may capture the diversity of the subfield, even as a reading of several overviews can be of benefit to both newcomer and specialist. An update of Messer 1993 (cited under Pros and Cons of Cultural Relativism), Messer 2009 mentions many works that make no reference to “human rights” proper but which are held to demonstrate the relevance of cultural anthropological research to more than one pressing human rights issue. Goodale 2006 and Goodale 2009 offer a broadly sweeping historical vision of the changing context of anthropology as a guide to the discipline’s changing approaches to human rights. Goodale 2007 usefully sums up the object of study of the anthropology of human rights with one word, “practice.” For Goodale, “The practice of human rights describes all of the many ways in which social actors across the range talk about, advocate for, criticize, study, legally enact, vernacularize, and so on, the idea of human rights in its various forms” (p. 24). Merry 2006 has the comprehensive scope proper to a review article but focuses fairly narrowly on anthropological contributions to the study of international law. Wilson 1997, Wilson 2007, and Wilson 2006, though modestly framed, as an “Introduction,” “Conclusion,” and “Afterword” to separate contributory volumes and a journal special section, stand out for the clarity with which links are pointed out between anthropology and the multidisciplinary field of human rights studies. The ensemble of these overviews will help the reader grasp how anthropological approaches tend to bundle rather than disaggregate fundamental dichotomies more often kept separate in legal scholarship, philosophy, and political science, such as those between human rights as limits to state power and as entitlements (things necessary for a person to have a life of dignity), and between “human rights law” and “human rights talk,” where the “former refers to the positivised rules in national or international law and the latter refers to how people speak about those norms, or aspire to expand or interpret them in new ways” (Wilson 2007, p. 350).

  • Goodale, Mark. 2006. Toward a critical anthropology of human rights. Current Anthropology 47.3: 485–511.

    DOI: 10.1086/503061

    Covers crucial historical background and case studies in making a case in favor of a “critical” anthropology, a stance in which anthropology neither repudiates nor is subservient to human rights but “self-consciously creates space between itself and ideas and practices that have become coextensive with or, in fact, constitute the experience of everyday life” (p. 491).

  • Goodale, Mark. 2007. Locating rights, envisioning law between the global and the local. In The practice of human rights: Tracking law between the global and the local. Edited by Mark Goodale and Sally Engle Merry, 1–38. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511819193.001

    With some overlap in themes with Goodale 2006, this introduction defines four themes in anthropological studies of the practice of human rights: “states of violence,” “registers of power,” “conditions of vulnerability,” and “ambivalence.”

  • Goodale, Mark. 2009. Surrendering to utopia: An anthropology of human rights. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Less a review of the field than a set of theoretically sophisticated and erudite thought pieces, arguing that part of cultural anthropology’s distinctive relevance to human rights is as a response to diverse challenges to human safety, rights, and dignity arising from neoliberalism.

  • Merry, Sally Engle. 2006. Anthropology and international law. Annual Review of Anthropology 35:99–116.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123245

    An authoritative overview of political and legal anthropological approaches to human rights as international law.

  • Messer, Ellen. 2009. Anthropology, human rights, and social transformation. In Human rights: An anthropological reader. Edited by Mark Goodale, 104–135. Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    In arguing against the conventional wisdom that anthropologists have been uninvolved in human rights formulations, Messer presents an encompassing vision of what aspects of human rights are relevant in cultural anthropology, summarizing findings of ethnographic research on themes of cultural relativism, indigenous rights, gender and economic inequality, and state and legal systems.

  • Wilson, Richard Ashby, ed. 1997. Human rights, culture and context: Anthropological perspectives. London: Pluto.

    A contributory volume widely credited for setting the agenda for the anthropological study of human rights as both a discourse and a form of social practice.

  • Wilson, Richard Ashby. 2006. Afterword to “Anthropology and human rights in a new key”: The social life of human rights. American Anthropologist 108.1: 77–83.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.77

    Something of a critique of critical excesses, this essay caps an influential 2006 journal special section on human rights with consideration of the “internal complexity of human rights,” “ethnographies of human rights practices,” “legal anthropology, legal realism, and knowledge,” and “anthropology, analysis, and activism.”

  • Wilson, Richard Ashby. 2007. Tyrannosaurus lex: The anthropology of human rights and transnational law. In The practice of human rights: Tracking law between the global and the local. Edited by Mark Goodale and Sally Engle Merry, 342–368. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511819193

    Political/legal anthropological research on human rights is categorized according to its contributions to understanding four “processes” of law and rights: the pursuit of rights through legal means; appeals made by local actors for international involvement; the adoption of human rights concepts into local vernaculars; and critical perspectives on legal epistemology.

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