The bizarre relationship between human rights and anthropology

by Sean Chou


As a second year BA Social Anthropology student, I am used to challenging my personal opinions. This doesn’t stop outside of class. As President of the LSE SU Amnesty International Society, I have dealt with everything from the mundanity of planning meetings, to participation in public actions aimed at grabbing people’s attention.

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Core to this is my fundamental belief in human rights. Wherever I go, I take my belief in human rights with me - as something internalised and central to who I am and how I see the world.

A lot of this may sound counter-intuitive and contradictory already. Aren’t human rights Western and neo-colonial? Shouldn’t cultures be treated as unique and values relative to different societies? What makes human rights legitimate in societies in the vast case studies that we study as anthropologists?

I have personally wrestled with these questions for a long time. It means, however, that I feel a special responsibility to articulate both the critique of human rights, and how alternatively it can provide the framework to talk about the emancipatory possibilities of self-realized human potential across transnational, global borders.

The concept of human rights traces its origin to the Enlightenment era. While it arguably had earlier origins in the Magna Carta in 1215, the Magna Carta was limited, where for example the right to free trial was only available for freemen.

During the Enlightenment, however, many thinkers talked about ‘natural rights’ which each person was naturally endowed with as individuals. This was supported by thinkers like Thomas Paine, who argued that the government could not violate such inalienable rights and defence against such violations by the people was legitimate. As a result, this period led to the creation of documents like the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which contributed to the human rights discourse.

Human rights gathered momentum in the modern era and culminated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This lists 30 articles, including the right to life, to free speech and to free trial.

Anthropology’s ambivalence with human rights could be seen in its response to the 1948 UDHR: the American Anthropological Association released a rejecting statement in 1947 in response to the draft version of the UDHR arguing that cultural differences should be respected, could not be evaluated and prevented human rights from being applied to all cultures.

This forms the bulk argument of the cultural relativist critique. Some authors have gone further in their critique by arguing that the origins of human rights discourse to Western, Enlightenment thought makes it bound to a specific historical and cultural context. According to Rhoda Howards for example, human rights are based on liberal and rational assumptions of human nature which neglect collective rights holders like indigenous groups. Meanwhile, Bryan Turner criticised Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant whose rationalist moral philosophy understate the emotive role of social action within a ‘moral community’.

These criticisms suggest human rights are socially constructed and culturally relative. However, Anthropology plays a crucial role in criticising and applying critiques in human rights to ensure that human rights discourse avoids ethnocentric, Western-imperial, top-down solutions to human rights issues.

The cultural relativist critique is in itself limited. Firstly, culture is difficult to define. Durkheimian assumptions of culture as closed, static and continuous are hard to be applied in today’s globalised world, it is difficult to pinpoint cultural contexts which has been left completely unchanged by processes of technology, development, migration and hybridisation of cultures. Furthermore, these arguments are dangerous considering how they are often utilised by authoritarian governments to defend gross human rights violations. For example, in the 1970s, the Tanzanian government introduced a policy of ‘villagisation’ which forced people to live in communal settings, criticising the corrosive influence of Western individualism, while at the same time, government officials enjoyed the influx of Western consumer luxury goods.

Theoretical debates about the relativist/universal divide have been so focused on cultural differences that have prevented taking political action. Thus, it is my belief that human rights is one of many ways in which anthropologists can make a social difference through meaningful political action. Nancy Scheper-Hughes articulates this sentiment well in her stance of ‘militant anthropology’; she talks about an anthropology that is socially responsible that can achieved by conceding our subjectivity in ethnographic research and using our ethical obligations to build activist relationships with subjects who we study as a ‘witness’ rather than ‘spectator’.

How could we think about human rights, then? As a useful fiction. Indeed, this argument is made by human rights theorist Jack Donnelly who argues that human rights give people the framework and language to articulate grievances against states who violate their rights. Human rights help create a shared sense of solidarity across transnational groups fighting against acts of injustice.

Anthropological perspectives can help to inform how human rights are influenced by its Western, cultural origins, and how those can be adapted to suit cultural contexts. This is expanded upon in Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s research of Mauritania. Eriksen argues that human rights discourse is contradictory due to its dual origin in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods: the French Enlightenment argued that human beings are naturally endowed with human rights, meanwhile German nationalism, influenced by Herder, argued that each peoples (or, Volk) had their own cultural and linguistics particularities which each could legitimately defend.

In Eriksen’s study of Mauritania, these contradictions are evident. As a polyethnic society, multicultural discourse (Romantic influence) was balanced with constitutional principles of equality (Enlightenment influence). For example, Muslim Personal Law (MPL) was introduced during the British colonial era and allowed Muslims to follow customary Muslim law in family matters. It was scrapped, however, after opposition in the 1980s which perceived MPL as discriminating against women who found it virtually impossible to get a divorce compared to the relative ease of men seeking divorces.

Eriksen argues as a result that political outcomes made by human rights discourse could be ambiguous. Human rights discourse could politicise and empower minority groups by giving them ‘symbolic capital’ to self-organise and create political change; or, it could be institutionally imposed and lead to the ‘enforced ascription of political identities’.

Finally, human rights benefit from contextualisation within webbed networks of social relations. This is argued by Richard Wilson, who claims that human rights complaints must be embedded in social relations of mutual understanding. Without such active communication, in Donnelly’s terms ‘overlapping consensus’, human rights issues could not be articulated nor addressed.

Considering the background and issues concerning human rights, it can be argued that anthropology’s relationship with human rights is justifiably complicated. As anthropologists, we have a special responsibility to critique and deconstruct neocolonial relations, power disparities and global inequalities which human rights may exacerbate due to their neglect of collective-rights holders, support for institutional solutions and overriding of cultural norms. Nevertheless, such critiques are fruitless without proper examination of how anthropological perspectives may prop up systemic inequities by legitimising non-intervention and nihilistic attitudes towards humanitarian issues. Rather, we can pay attention to how anthropological interest on cultural and social issues provide unique perspectives on how human rights discourse can be taken up by people we study and used as a tool for social change. Only when we re-orientate anthropology towards a social action-based discipline geared towards achieving positive social outcomes can we re-embed our academic interests in the political arena we participate and engage with everyday.



Dembour, M.B. (1996). Human Rights Talk and Anthropological Ambivalence. In: O. Harris, ed., Inside and outside the law anthropological studies of authority and ambiguity, 1st ed. New York : Routledge, pp. 16-32.

Donnelly, J. (2013). Universal human rights in theory and practice. Ithaca : Cornell University Press.

Eriksen, T. (1997). Multiculturalism, Individualism and Human Rights. In: In: R. Wilson, ed., Human rights, culture and context : anthropological perspectives, 1st ed. London: Pluto Press., pp. 70-111.

Lauren, P. (2011). The evolution of international human rights: visions seen. Philadelphia, USA : University of Pennsylvania Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. (1995). The Primacy of the Ethical. Current Anthropology, 36(3), pp. 409-440.

Wilson, R. (1997). Introduction. In: R. Wilson, ed., Human rights, culture and context : anthropological perspectives, 1st ed. London: Pluto Press., pp. 1-28.

Juliette Gautron