Introduction to "Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key

Introduction to "Anthropology and Human Rights in a
New Key"
Goodale, Mark. American Anthropologist 108. 1 (Mar 2006): 1-8.
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In this "In Focus" introduction, I begin by offering an overview of anthropology's
engagements with human rights following the American Anthropological Association's
(AAA) 1947 "Statement on Human Rights." After offering a rereading of the Statement, I
describe the two major anthropological orientations to human rights that emerged in the
1980s and 1990s, following several decades of relative disengagement. Finally, I locate the
articles in relation to this history and indicate how, when taken as a whole, they express a
new key or register within which human rights can be studied, critiqued, and advanced
through anthropological forms of knowledge. This "In Focus" is in part an argument for an
essentially ecumenical anthropology of human rights, one that can tolerate, and indeed
encourage, approaches that are both fundamentally critical of contemporary human rights
regimes and politically or ethically committed to these same regimes. [PUBLICATION
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In this "In Focus" introduction, I begin by offering an overview of anthropology's
engagements with human rights following the American Anthropological Association's
(AAA) 1947 "Statement on Human Rights." After offering a rereading of the Statement, I
describe the two major anthropological orientations to human rights that emerged in the
1980s and 1990s, following several decades of relative disengagement. Finally, I locate the
articles in relation to this history and indicate how, when taken as a whole, they express a
new key or register within which human rights can be studied, critiqued, and advanced
through anthropological forms of knowledge. This "In Focus" is in part an argument for an
essentially ecumenical anthropology of human rights, one that can tolerate, and indeed
encourage, approaches that are both fundamentally critical of contemporary human rights
regimes and politically or ethically committed to these same regimes.
[Keywords: anthropology, human rights, American Anthropological Association, cultural
critique, engaged anthropology]
FOR U.S. ANTHROPOLOGISTS at least, their formal engagement with human rights began
in December of 1947, in the pages of the American Anthropologist (AA). For all intents and
purposes, the intellectual history in which this "In Focus" is embedded began with Melville
Herskovits's "Statement on Human Rights" (hereafter, Statement), a tightly argued, lucid, and
greatly misunderstood and misinterpreted declaration of disciplinary principle. Imagine the
context. The horrors of Nazism had been fully exposed. Legions of brilliant, well-meaning
representatives of the nations of the world (those parts not still under the yoke of colonialism,
that is) were coalescing around the idea of a declaration of human rights, which, once ratified
in political terms, would serve as the global moral bulwark against barbarism, nationalistinspired murder, racism, and outrages of the kind that had only recently been stopped. And,
finally, academics and intellectuals, among others, were being formally asked to contribute to
the production of this transcendent statement of human dignity, thereby exalting academic
knowledge by linking it with the most pressing questions of the day and ensuring that a
statement of human rights would be as legitimate, unbiased, and truthful as possible.
Yet, despite the fact that the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) had turned to Herskovits as a leading representative of an academic discipline
that was widely believed to be the scientific authority on comparative cultural and human
questions and the fact that this UN agency had assumed that Herskovits would legitimate the
proposed declaration of human rights by pronouncing it a necessary and proper expression of
certain basic and universal moral facts, Herskovits was to disappoint.1 His Statement, which
was adopted by the AAA Executive Board and published by it as the lead article in the last
AA issue of 1947, refused to endorse what would become the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (1948), which remains the foundation for the entire range of legal frameworks,
institutional interventions, and discourse that is captured by the phrase human rights.
Herskovits rejected the possibility of a declaration of universal rights on three grounds, which
can be categorized as the empirical, the epistemological, and the ethical. First, the Statement
argued that anthropology, as the "science of mankind," had shown that moral or ethical
systems varied both in form and content, such that any assertion of universality in a statement
of rights could not be descriptive but would remain prescriptive. Second, because
anthropology was a science that described and then explained social and biological processes
empirically, it could not contribute to a project that required normative judgments to be made
about particular cultural practices as they stood in relation to the set of universal rights
outlined in the proposed declaration. The Statement does not deny the possibility that some
other nonscientific way of knowing could be the basis for making the comparative
evaluations expressed through human rights. But anthropology's commitment to the empirical
study of human beings in all their dimensions meant that anthropology was simply the wrong
place to look for guidance in making these judgments.
And finally, the Statement raised the specter of what has recently been described as "moral
imperialism" (Hernández-Truyol 2002). If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not,
in fact, a descriptive statement of a set of universal moral facts but is, rather, a declaration of
intent by the international community (or some powerful subset of it) to reshape the world in
line with certain preferred standards, then the consequences of this reshaping will include the
denial of freedom to those individuals or cultures whose ideas about the relationship between
the individual and the collective, or the value of human life, or the importance of private
property, and so forth, are clearly incompatible. Despite the best of intentions (a desire to
establish a framework that would prevent another Holocaust), the worldwide application of a
prescriptive statement of human rights would lead to
frustration, not [the] realization of the personalities of vast numbers of human beings .... Such
persons, living in terms of values not envisaged by a limited Declaration, will ... be excluded
from the freedom of full participation in the only right and proper way of life that can be
known to them, the institutions, sanctions and goals that make up the culture of their
particular society. [AAA 1947:543]
The Statement is, at its heart, an argument for two kinds of irreducible pluralism: the first, a
cultural pluralism that expresses a basic fact of human diversity; the second, a more
philosophical pluralism, one that has troubled people across a range of different traditions and
ages, which reflects the impossibility of finally reconciling competing arguments for the
proper ends of life-freedom, justice, equality, and so on.
After the brief exchange that followed the 1947 publication of the Statement on Human
Rights (Barnett 1948; Steward 1948), there was very little anthropological interest in human
rights as a topic for inquiry or analysis until the mid-1980s. But to say that the anthropology
of human rights did not emerge until the mid-1980s is not to say that anthropologists had not
encountered human rights in one form or another, or that human rights did not inter sect with
several important topics for research, analysis, or political action. Forensic anthropologists
have been asked to use their skills as part of international human rights investigations (Komar
2003; Sanford 2003). Biological anthropologists and archaeologists have had to reconcile the
human rights claims of Native Americans to return of remains against the need to deepen our
understanding of human origins and early cultural life in the New World (Jones and Harris
1998). Linguistic and political anthropologists have studied the problem of linguistic
marginalization and the efforts of linguistic minorities to find protection through, or to
strategically appropriate, a discourse of marginalization that is supported by international
human rights instruments-for example, the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons
Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Cowan 2003). Finally,
anthropologists working for environmental organizations or those studying how the
environment is "constructed, represented, claimed, and contested" (Brosius 1999:277), in part
through the language of rights, encounter human rights in their increasingly important
transnational registers (Sponsel 1995).
Moreover, even if a sustained anthropological focus on human rights as an ethnographic
category did not develop until the 1980s, after the publication of the 1947 Statement
anthropologists continued to practice public anthropology in ways that reflected the
discipline's long-standing concern with creating linkages between anthropological research
and projects for social justice. For example, although Ruth Benedict died in 1948, the same
year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was "not before she had had the
opportunity to argue strongly against early McCarthyite persecution of progressive
anthropological colleagues, for decent treatment for the U.S.-occupied Japanese, and for
strong federal action on postwar Negro civil rights," as Micaela di Leonardo explains in her
description of postwar U.S. anthropology (1998:201). And if the horrors of the Holocaust
formed the backdrop to the work of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the genocidal
misuse of the "science of race" by the Nazis led another UN body-UNESCO-to enlist the aid
of anthropologists in producing the four statements on race (between 1950 and 1967) that
were meant to be the "definitive scientific repudiation of racism" (di Leonardo 1998:201).
Thus, when anthropologists did begin to turn their attention much later to human rights as a
particular category of legal and political action, or as a topic for ethnographic inquiry, these
moves must be seen in light of this broader disciplinary history.
Yet despite the different ways in which anthropologists indirectly engaged with human rights
in the decades after the late 1940s, it remains undeniable that Herskovits's Statement initiated,
and indelibly marked, the long, strange history between an idea intended to protect and
dignify what Franz Fanon would later call the "wretched of the earth," and an academic
discipline whose orientations toward human populations in crisis would swing from the
heights of scientific detachment to immersive empathy, in which only anthropological
knowledge that is politically instrumental is worth pursuing. So it is right that AA should
feature this exchange, not, of course, by way of bringing the history Herskovits began full
circle-intellectual history is as non-cyclical as it is nonlinear-but as a way of acknowledging
the spirit, if not the specific content, of Herskovits's accomplishment, which will always rest
on his commitment to his own sense of intellectual integrity against what was, at the time, a
rising tide of public and ethical wisdom.
It is also worth underscoring the fact that this "In Focus" forms part of a broader move by
anthropologists in recent years to rethink both the relationship between anthropology and
human rights and the specific anthropological topics that intersect with wider human rights
issues. Two notable examples of this more sustained focus on anthropology and human rights
appeared as "In Focus" exchanges: the December 2002 "In Focus" that compared indigenous
rights movements in Africa and the Americas, and the December 2003 "In Focus," which
featured critical analyses of the relationship between language ideologies and language rights.
This "In Focus" continues in this mode by enlarging the scope of analysis beyond any
particular topic or theme within anthropology itself. Rather, the idea here is to consider, from
different theoretical and methodological perspectives, how anthropological forms of
knowledge can newly frame the different engagements with human rights: political, ethical,
institutional, and critical. The ideas and practices of human rights have clearly become more
consequential after the end of the Cold War. This lends a certain sense of urgency to efforts
like this, which reflect both a commitment to the purposes of the international human rights
system and a sense of skepticism and concern regarding how human rights practices have
become key markers of what I have described elsewhere as "empires of law" (Goodale 2005).
This introduction is not the place for a full accounting of the relationship between
anthropology and human rights, either from a U.S. perspective or more broadly, both of
which must be pieced together from a number of different sources (see, e.g., Goodale in
press; Messer 1993; Nagengast and Turner 1997a; Washburn 1987; Wilson 2004; Wilson and
Mitchell 2003). Nevertheless, it is important to contextualize this "In Focus" by describing
several framing moments within the wider intellectual history, moments that are both
symbolic of particular alignments of interests and which represent substantive contributions
in their own right.
Through the efforts of a small, yet passionate and influential group of politically engaged
anthropologists, U.S. anthropology underwent a profound realignment, one that would
produce a distinctive anthropological reorientation to human rights.2 Key moments in this
new phase would be the following: (1) the 1984 publication of Clifford Geertz's 1983 AAA
Distinguished Lecture "Anti Anti-Relativism," which brought renewed attention to a major
theoretical issue that is raised whenever anthropologists consider human rights; (2) Ronald
Cohen's 1989 article in AA, in which he argued for a new approach to human rights; (3) the
Special Commission created by the AAA in 1990, and chaired by Terrence Turner, to
investigate human rights violations against the Yanomami by the Brazilian state; (4) the
establishment by the AAA Executive Board of a Commission for Human Rights in 1992; (5)
Ellen Messer's programmatic 1993 Annual Review article on anthropology and human rights,
which argued that anthropology had influenced contemporary human rights through its
marginalization; (6) the 1994 AAA annual meetings, at which the relationship between
anthropology and human rights was a special topic; (7) the conversion in 1995 of the
Commission for Human Rights into a permanently standing Committee for Human Rights;
(8) a 1997 special issue of the Journal of Anthropological Research (JAR), edited by Carole
Nagengast and Terrence Turner (1997b), which served as a more systematic and
comprehensive elaboration of Messer's 1993 call to action; and, finally, (9) the 1999 adoption
by the AAA membership of the Committee for Human Rights-authored "Declaration on
Anthropology and Human Rights," which represented a culmination of the process of
realignment and a definitive repudiation of Herskovits's 1947 Statement.3
Beginning somewhat later, but overlapping with some of these more recent developments,
other anthropologists began considering human rights in quite different ways. From about the
mid-1990s, a much more geographically diverse group of anthropologists reengaged with
human rights by reconceptualizing the social practice of rights as an object of ethnographic
inquiry. This body of research and analysis, which was brought together in a series of edited
volumes (Cowan et al. 2001; Wilson 1997; Wilson and Mitchell 2003) and through several
monographs (e.g., Merry 2005; Riles 2000; Slyomovics 2005; Wilson 2001), has evolved into
a second major current in the contemporary anthropology of rights. As we will see below,
irrespective of personal belief or commitment to human rights activism by individual
anthropologists working in these modes, these two overlapping but distinct recent traditions
must be located within significantly different epistemological frameworks.
But before I broaden the frame to consider these two orientations to human rights as
expressions of particular intellectual-historical moments, it would be useful to explain them
in more detail. If we take Messer's 1993 Annual Review article together with Nagengast and
Turner's (1997b) JAR special issue, in which Messer (1997) also contributes an article, a
clear vision for anthropology's relationship with human rights emerges, one that is also, not
coincidentally, expressed through the 1999 declaration.4 Anthropologists should use their
knowledge of specific cultural processes and meanings-and the broader relationships of
power through which these processes and meanings are necessarily embedded-to reinforce
specific projects for social change, to help prevent further encroachments against particular
marginalized populations, or to do both. I emphasize specific to signal a key feature of this
approach to human rights through anthropology: the idea that because all knowledge is
necessarily contingent and, most importantly, inseparable from the structural powerknowledge nexus, anthropologists have an ethical duty (1) to address this contingency as a
theoretical problem and then (2) to act on-or against-it in practice by putting anthropological
knowledge to good use.
The bundle of normative, social, and political processes that, as Upendra Baxi has said, we
describe "by convention, under a portal named 'human rights' " (2002:v) has proven to be a
useful mechanism for serving this ethical duty toward populations and cultures under threat.
To the extent that this remains true, anthropologists should-according to the vision expressed
through key markers of this approach-work to expand the definitions of human rights to
increase their effectiveness. This is not because anthropologists are committed to the
ontological truth of human rights or a particular legal-bureaucratic vision for their realization,
but because contemporary human rights discourse has the ability to eliminate ethical
ambiguity and open up clear lines of resistance and recrimination. Terrence Turner's 1997
article captures the essence of this approach most directly: An anthropology of human rights
should be one that engages with human rights to the extent that such engagement contributes
to an "emancipatory cultural politics," the normativization of culture through rights
discourses as a political strategy.5
The second major current in the recent anthropology of human rights can be illustrated
through a 2001 edited volume (Cowan et al. 2001), in which anthropologists reflected on the
relationship between culture and rights not as a theoretical question in the manner of liberal
political theorists like Will Kymlicka or John Rawls, but as a problem that must be studied
empirically. Although there are points of similarity between what can be understood as the
"ethnographic" and the emancipatory cultural politics modes of engagement (e.g., both are
finely tuned to the way power infuses contemporary human rights discourses), the contrasts
are more significant. The study of the social practice of human rights reflects a set of
epistemological commitments that are neither political in themselves nor intentionally
politicized by anthropologists. Politics is relevant only to the extent that broader politicaleconomic factors are themselves forces impacting the unfolding of those "protean"
assemblages of social action that are described with "human rights," to again invoke Baxi's
nimble and elastic definition.
This is not an approach to human rights that seeks in the first instance to use ethnographic
knowledge of cultural meanings to better "refin[e] theories of culture in relation to rights."
The editors do, however, somewhat sheepishly make rhetorical concession to those-perhaps
some of the volume's contributors-who express a "hope [that the] volume will contribute" to
an understanding of cultural rights that has some instrumental value (Cowan et al. 2001:21).
Rather, the heart of the ethnographic approach to human rights is descriptive, the effort to
develop a comparative database that will tell us, for the first time since 1948, how human
rights actually function empirically, what human rights mean for different social actors, and,
finally, how human rights relate-again, empirically, not conceptually-to other transnational
assemblages. As the editors explain in their introduction: "We think it is time that more
attention is paid to empirical, contextual analyses of specific rights struggles. This intellectual
strategy allows us to follow how individuals, groups, communities and states use a discourse
of rights in the pursuit of particular ends, and how they become enmeshed in its logic"
(Cowan et al. 2001:21). In other words, although the emancipatory cultural politics
orientation to human rights is itself normative, the ethnographic approach is inherently
skeptical of normative claims; indeed, the study of the enmeshing logics of human rights is in
part a study of normativity.
By way of locating each of these orientations in relation to wider developments within
anthropology, we can say that the rise of the AAA as a human rights nongovernmental
organization and the blurring of boundaries between research, representation, and political
action on behalf of subaltern populations was a somewhat delayed application of key insights
from the period of intense epistemological critique that began in the mid-1980s, most notably
within U.S. cultural anthropology. To this extent, the emancipatory cultural politics approach
to human rights-which, as I have argued, crystallized through the 1997 JAR special issue on
anthropology and human rights and that was prefigured in Messer's 1993 call to action-was
an example of how anthropologists could reconfigure their professional commitments to
eliminate the need to push against what were seen as a set of essentially artificial or
politically suspect epistemological barriers. Or, to make this point another way, the
anthropological contribution to human rights through an emancipatory cultural politics
became programmatic once questions of epistemology were reframed as political-economic
The ethnographic turn cannot be completely separated from these background intellectualhistorical currents, which they also in part reflect; neither can we forget the fact that the
scholars conducting research and writing in this mode do not reject the emancipatory cultural
politics approach in its own terms. But what does situate the ethnographic approach at a
different point in an overlapping network of social-theoretical ideas is its objectification of
human rights, the insistence that human rights are a type of politically consequential
normative framework that is constituted through social practice. Thus, to study what human
rights do is also to study what human right are. In reconceptualizing human rights as an
object that is well suited for ethnographic modes of inquiry, this approach describes-not
deduces-the impact of political, economic, and legal inequalities-that is, power-as these
structural problems shape the social practice of human rights. The descriptive data produced
through these studies could be used to make the implementation of human rights more
effective, or not. This formal detachment from the uses of anthropological knowledge is a key
difference from the emancipatory cultural politics framework, which expresses both a belief
in the value of anthropological forms of knowledge and, in equal measure, a duty to make
this knowledge instrumental in the service of specific political projects. The ethnographic
approach to human rights is a hybrid within wider disciplinary developments, an approach
that not only incorporates critical insights from the last 20 years but also, just as importantly,
reflects a renewed commitment to social scientific distance and the possibilities created by a
certain depoliticization of the relationship between anthropology and contemporary human
rights movements.
It is of course a risky proposition to make claims for innovation or novelty. If these articles,
taken as a whole, express a new key or register within which human rights can be studied,
critiqued, and advanced through anthropological forms of knowledge, they obviously do not
foreclose other possibilities or cast doubt on the value of existing approaches. We are more
interested in using these articles as a collective argument for the possibility of a broader range
of debates within anthropology and more widely regarding problems that lie at the foundation
of contemporary human rights. These include the cultural dynamics of human rights as a
transnational regime, the relationship between human rights and "local" ethical practices, the
ethical obligations of researchers studying human rights processes among populations at risk,
the relationship between human rights practices and the consolidation of liberal and
neoliberal political and legal formations after the end of the Cold War, and so on.6
It does no good for an academic discipline whose peculiar forms of engagement have been
historically marginalized within the wider human rights community to reproduce lines of
division internally in order to indicate new spaces or modes through which human rights
might be reconceptualized, better understood, or reinforced through the thickness of
empirical research. This is the reason the framing above does not depend on what the
philosopher Ian Hacking, in his essay on Colin McGinn's new book Mindsight, describes as
the "dry business of referring and refuting" (2005: 70), the tendency to work toward
alternative approaches by drawing stark and invariably exaggerated contrasts with existing
frameworks. This "In Focus" is in part an argument for an essentially ecumenical
anthropology of human rights, one that can tolerate, and indeed encourage, approaches that
are both fundamentally critical of contemporary human rights regimes and approaches that
are politically or ethically committed to these same regimes. In a sense, an ecumenical
anthropology of human rights is one that draws from an internal epistemological pluralism to
better understand the pluralism-whether irreducible or not-that characterizes contemporary
human rights practice.
In this spirit, the articles in this "In Focus" are intended to enlarge the dialogue over the
relationship between anthropology and human rights beyond what I have described in the
preceding sections. Nevertheless, as will be seen, the different suggestions for new spaces of
engagement are firmly anchored within the wider intellectual histories I have invoked and are
dependent on the important work of scholars whose vision for this engagement is framed in
different terms. Moreover, the proposals arrive at different registers in different ways:
through reconceptualizing key concepts in the debate; by combining existing approaches in a
way that achieves a potentially useful synthesis; through the introduction of ideas from other
disciplines or bodies or work; and, at certain points, by suggesting that the debate over the
relationship between anthropology and human rights should be radically reframed.
Jane Cowan is the coeditor of an important volume on culture and rights and has played a
leading role in what I have described as the ethnographic turn in the anthropology of human
rights. In her article, she takes a fresh look at the problem of culture, or, as she describes it,
the relationship between culture and rights "after Culture and Rights" (i.e., Cowan et al.
2001). Her article considers two developments since Culture and Rights: (1) the critiques of
the volume, or its wider implications, from outside the discipline of anthropology, in
particular from political and legal theorists seeking to reconfigure liberal theory to account
for collective or communitarian rights frameworks, and (2) the emergence of a body of
empirical research on culture and rights that was partly stimulated by the arguments and
suggestions in the volume. Through a consideration of these two developments, Cowan
argues for an essentially skeptical anthropology of human rights, one that is more attuned to
the potential dangers of a hegemonic human rights regime than to the ways in which human
rights can provide a framework for protecting cultural integrity. But Cowan's is not a critique
in the abstract. She calls for a scrutiny that moves between critical engagement and the
application of the ethnographic imagination. In the end, Cowan's approach is both contingent
and grounded, one that expresses the contradictions at the heart of both the liberal rights
project and those framed by more normatively open multicultural arguments. Hers is not an
anthropology of human rights that will anchor political projects or movements for cultural
autonomy based on claims for cultural rights. It is an anthropology of interrogation: pluralist,
skeptical, and penetrating.
In my other contribution to this "In Focus," I argue that the anthropology of human rights
should be reconceptualized in part by envisioning the object of inquiry to be a subset of a
slightly larger set of normative processes, in which human rights are always embedded. This
means that anthropologists (and others) would study what I describe as "ethical theory as
social practice," in which the anthropologist engages ethnographically with social actors and
processes through which human rights enter situated normativities. In addition, the
anthropologist also participates by "cotheorizing" with interlocutors as they struggle to come
to terms with the meanings of human rights. One implication of this is that the anthropology
of human rights I develop draws back slightly from the ethnographic study of human rights as
social practice. This is a key point of departure, and one that I argue is necessary because of
both the conceptual demands that human rights processes place on social actors (including
anthropologists) and the fact that human rights discourse links social actors to transnational
regimes whose scope and meanings can only partially be captured ethnographically.
Sally Merry's contribution is a product of her transnational ethnography on the regulation of
violence against women through various international human rights institutions and
transnational networks. Like Cowan, Merry has studied the relationship between culture and
rights. In Merry's case, the sheer range of her research has forced her to adopt an innovative
methodology, one that requires her to employ a research strategy that is mobile, comparative,
descriptively rich, and, as her article shows, willing to generalize from data to understand the
translocalism of contemporary human rights. The result has been one of the most detailed
comparative studies of the social practice of human rights (see Merry 2005). To draw out the
more programmatic implications of her recent research, Merry develops a theoretical
framework in her article that explains the different ways in which human rights are rendered
instrumental, and experienced, by social actors at different places in the transnational human
rights network. She does not call for this framework to be necessarily adopted by human
rights elites or institutions, but one can easily see how their work would be strengthened if it
were. To this extent, Merry's article can be taken as an argument for an anthropology of
human rights that represents a commitment to a public anthropology, which, although fully
engaged with issues of importance, nevertheless maintains some distance from the projects or
social movements toward which such a public anthropology gestures.
Annelise Riles's research and theorizing have straddled the boundaries between academic law
and anthropology. Her article here brings these two together to argue for a new kind of
anthropological response to human rights, which she calls an "ethnographic response." She
comes to this through a critique of modes of critique, an unpacking of the tools with which
anthropologists and lawyers have attempted to expose the contradictions and hegemonies that
define the modern human rights regime. Riles shows how an anthropology of human rights
can be reconceptualized by drawing from insights and methods from the New Approaches to
International Law (NAIL) movement, which locates human rights as one important genre
within a wider body of technocratic knowledge practices. In their critiques of human rights,
NAIL studies have not spared anthropology from being treated as one among several
"discourses of self-legitimation" that are associated with human rights and that render
contemporary rights so problematic. Despite this, Riles argues that the NAIL critique of
human rights (and anthropology) suffers from a certain detachment from the subject, and here
is where anthropology's contribution is restored. Riles reflects on the different intersubjective
relationships that come together through the anthropology of human rights, and she concludes
that the anthropologist has a unique role to play by eliminating the distance created by the
critique of social action and by acknowledging the ambiguities that surround the academic
scrutiny of the human rights subject.
Shannon Speed's article raises important questions about both the epistemological and ethical
validity of any anthropological engagement with human rights that is too detached from the
practical concerns of social actors themselves. These social actors are forced to labor under
the range of insidious constraints and threats; for them, human rights discourse can never be
only a topic for discussion or analysis. To show this, Speed examines the ethical ambiguities
that emerge through what she describes as a "critically engaged activist research," which in
her case involves both research on, and advocacy for, human rights in Chiapas, Mexico.
Speed's anthropology of human rights points to the danger in allowing critique to devolve
into a final purpose, a danger that is all the more acute for anthropologists, who can readily
apply a number of critical modes to expose the power imbalances and hidden agendas within
human rights regimes, insights that are construed as irrelevant, arrogant, and ethically
dubious by social actors for whom such theoretical advances are of limited use in even the
best of circumstances. Among the five articles here, Speed's anthropology of human rights
comes closest to the earlier work in the emancipatory cultural politics tradition. And even as
she emphasizes the important role of practical experience in shaping any understanding of the
meanings and possibilities of human rights, she also retains a commitment to empirically
grounded research. This is something that links all of the articles, even if ethnography is
envisioned in quite different ways across what are, in the end, the different anthropologies of
human rights presented in this "In Focus."
Finally, to close this exchange, Richard Wilson provides an afterword. Wilson has done much
to bring human rights issues into focus for anthropologists. He is thus well placed,
particularly given his current vantage point outside of anthropology in an interdisciplinary
human rights institute, to look back through the articles in order to look forward. Even as
Wilson continues to insist on locating human rights processes in context through
ethnography, he has also recently emphasized the fact that the anthropology of human rights
is ripe for reevaluation (Wilson 2004). His contribution here is an important reflection of this
Acknowledgments. In framing this introduction, I would like to acknowledge the
collaboration of my fellow contributors to this "In Focus," although the points of emphasis on
matters of interpretation and history are my responsibility. So too are any errors. I am also
grateful to the co-Editor-in-Chief of the American Anthropologist, Susan Lees, for her
insightful comments on a draft of the article. Finally, the suggestions of three anonymous
reviewers allowed me to strengthen this introduction considerably.
1. For more on the circumstances surrounding Herskovits's communications with UNESCO
and his submission of the "Statement on Human Rights" to the Executive Board of the AAA
in 1947, see my article in Current Anthropology (Goodale in press). Although I continue to
conduct research in the National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, MD, for a book I am
currently writing on anthropology and human rights, I still have not found any evidence that
UNESCO formally responded to the AAA's Statement. Nevertheless, because it was
submitted by Herskovits after it underwent some revisions, for now we can assume that it was
in fact forwarded to the Commission on Human Rights (as asserted by AA), which was
chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, for whose benefit UNESCO had solicited opinions on what
would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
2. One of the points for debate in the historiography of anthropology's relationship with
human rights is the extent to which U.S. anthropology's experience can represent the
discipline's relationship more generally (see Goodale in press). As I have argued, there is
very good reason for believing that the U.S. anthropological experience, in which its different
voices were practically absent from the major developments during the emergence of the
international and (eventually) transnational human rights regimes, is at least symbolic of
anthropology's historical marginalization from human rights. But as we will see shortly, there
comes a point at which anthropology's reengagement with human rights becomes too
analytically and geographically diverse to use U.S. anthropology's experiences in this way.
3. As with anthropology's involvement on the race question on behalf of UNESCO between
1950 and 1967, what I describe here as a new phase in anthropology's orientation to human
rights also had important historical precursors. Perhaps the most significant of these was the
disciplinary conflict over the relationship between anthropology and colonialism (which
included, arguably, the debates over the role of anthropologists during the Vietnam War) and,
somewhat later, the emergence of the cultural survival movement, the founding of Cultural
Survival, Inc., in 1972 by the anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis, and the publication of
the first issue of Culhiral Survival Quarterly in 1976.
4. Three contributors to the 1997b JAR special issue (Messer, Nagengast, and Turner) were
also members of the 1997 Committee for Human Rights at the time when it was working on a
draft version of what would become the "Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights."
5. This idea is not, of course, limited to the emancipatory cultural politics orientation to
human rights. Important parallels can be found, for example, in Jean Jackson's 1995 article on
the strategic essentialization of culture in the Colombian Amazon.
6. The general thrust of my argument for employing a critical anthropology to reconfigure
current understandings of human rights parallels Brosius's (1999) recent effort to envision a
different anthropology of environmentalism. As Brosius explains, his
suggestions for future forms of scholarly engagement with environmentalism are premised on
the belief that anthropology has a critical role to play ... in contributing to our understanding
of the human impact on the physical and biotic environment. ... As environmental concerns
have come to occupy a central place in local struggles, national debates, and international
fora, there is an important place for an analytical enterprise which seeks to bring a critical
perspective to bear on these diverse, often contested, visions of the environment,
environmental problems, and the forms of agency such discourses conjure into (or out of)
being. [1999:278-279]
American Anthropological Association
1947 Statement on Human Rights. American Anthropologist 49(4):539-543.
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Barnett, H. G.
1948 On Science and Human Rights. American Anthropologist 50(2):352-355.
Baxi, Upendra
2002 The Future of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brosius, J. Peter
1999 Anthropological Engagements with Environmentalism. Current Anthropology
Cohen, Ronald
1989 Human Rights and Cultural Relativism: The Need for a New Approach. American
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2003 The Uncertain Political Limits of Cultural Claims: Minority Rights Politics in SouthEast Europe. In Human Rights in Global Perspective: Anthropological Studies of Rights,
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London: Routledge.
Cowan, Jane K., Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, and Richard A. Wilson, eds.
2001 Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University
di Leonardo, Micaela
1998 Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, American Modernity. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Geertz, Clifford
1984 Distinguished Lecture: Anti Anti-Relativism. American Anthropologist (86)2:263-278.
Goodale, Mark
2005 Empires of Law: Discipline and Resistance within the Transnational System. Social and
Legal Studies 14(4):553-583.
In press Toward a Critical Anthropology of Human Rights. Current Anthropology.
Hacking, Ian
2005 A New Way to See a Leaf. New York Review of Books, April 7: 70-72.
Hernández-Truyol, Berta Esperanza, ed.
2002 Moral Imperialism: A Critical Anthology. New York: New York University Press.
Jackson, Jean E.
1995 Culture, Genuine and Spurious: The Politics of Indianness in the Vaupes, Colombia.
American Ethnologist 22(1):3-27.
Jones, D. Gareth, and Robyn J. Harris
1998 Archeological Human Remains: Scientific, Cultural, and Ethical Considerations.
Current Anthropology 39(2):253-264.
Komar, Debra
2003 Lessons from Srebrenica: The Contributions and Limitations of Physical Anthropology
in Identifying Victims of War Crimes. Journal of Forensic Sciences 48(4):713-716.
Merry, Sally Engle
2005 Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Messer, Ellen
1993 Anthropology and Human Rights. Annual Review of Anthropology 22:221-249.
1997 Pluralist Approaches to Human Rights. Journal of Anthropological Research 53(3):293317.
Nagengast, Carole, and Terrence Turner
1997a Introduction: Universal Human Rights versus Cultural Relativity. Journal of
Anthropological Research (53)3:269-272.
Nagengast, Carole, and Terrence Turner, eds.
1997b "Universal Human Rights versus Cultural Relativity," special issue, Journal of
Anthropological Research (53)3.
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2000 The Network Inside Out. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Sanford, Victoria
2003 Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York: Palgrave-St.
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Slyomovics, Susan
2005 The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco. Philadelphia: University of
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1995 Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an
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Steward, Julian
1948 Comments on the Statement on Human Rights. American Anthropologist 50(2):351352.
Turner, Terrence
1997 Human Rights, Human Difference: Anthropology's Contribution to an Emancipatory
Cultural Politics. Journal of Anthropological Research (53)3:273-291.
Washburn, Wilcomb
1987 Cultural Relativism, Human Rights, and the AAA. American Anthropologist 89(4):939943.
Wilson, Richard
2001 The Politics and Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the PostApartheid State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2004 Human Rights. In Blackwell Companion to the Anthropology of Politics. David Nugent
and Joan Vincent, eds. Pp. 231-247. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wilson, Richard, ed.
1997 Human Rights, Culture and Context: Anthropological Approaches. London: Pluto.
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Entitlements. London: Routledge.
Guest Editor
MARK GOODALE Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason
University, Arlington, VA 22201
Copyright University of California Press Mar 2006
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Indexing (details)
Social criticism & satire;
Human rights
American Anthropological Association
Introduction to "Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key"
Goodale, Mark
Publication title
American Anthropologist
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Mar 2006
In Focus: Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key
Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
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United Kingdom
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Scholarly Journals
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Anthropology, Human rights, Culture, Social criticism & satire
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Copyright University of California Press Mar 2006
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ProQuest Sociology
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