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Methods of Human Rights Research: A Primer

Methods of Human Rights Research: A Primer

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Published by N R Dewi Nurmayani
Abstract:
This article suggests that research in the field of human rights, especially legal human rights research, exhibits a tendency to devote insufficient attention to questions of methodology. This may be caused by the fact that human rights scholars often are (former) human rights activists. Dispensing with methodological niceties enables them to engage in wishful thinking and come up with the conclusions they were hoping to find in the first place. The article makes some suggestions for those who wish to avoid this pitfall, including carefully spelling out your research method, discussing which alternative methods you have rejected and avoiding the term ‘emerging’ human right.
Abstract:
This article suggests that research in the field of human rights, especially legal human rights research, exhibits a tendency to devote insufficient attention to questions of methodology. This may be caused by the fact that human rights scholars often are (former) human rights activists. Dispensing with methodological niceties enables them to engage in wishful thinking and come up with the conclusions they were hoping to find in the first place. The article makes some suggestions for those who wish to avoid this pitfall, including carefully spelling out your research method, discussing which alternative methods you have rejected and avoiding the term ‘emerging’ human right.

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Published by: N R Dewi Nurmayani on Feb 15, 2013
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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1395689
HUMAN RIGHTS QUARTERLY
*
Fons Coomans 
studied international relations and international law at the University o Amsterdam. He currently holds the UNESCO Chair on Human Rights and Peace at theDepartment o International and European Law at Maastricht University. He is the coordina-tor o the Maastricht Centre or Human Rights, and Senior Researcher at the NetherlandsSchool o Human Rights Research. His publications include volumes on the
Extraterritorial Application o Human Rights Treaties 
(Fons Coomans & Menno T. Kamminga eds., 2004)and
 Justiciability o Economic and Social Rights: Experiences rom Domestic Systems 
(FonsCoomans ed., 2006).
**
Fred Grüneld 
is Associate Proessor o International Relations and International Organiza-tions at the Faculty o Law o Maastricht University, the Netherlands. At Maastricht Universityhe researches and teaches at the Maastricht Centre or Human Rights and the UniversityCollege Maastricht. He is also proessor in the Causes o Gross Human Rights Violations atthe Centre or Conict Studies, Faculty o Humanities at Utrecht University. His research ison comparative genocide studies (Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Darur) in particular the ailureso Third Parties to prevent genocide.
***
Menno T. Kamminga
is Proessor o International Law at Maastricht University and Directoro the Maastricht Centre or Human Rights. He chairs the Netherlands Government AdvisoryCommittee on International Law and is a member o the Netherlands Government AdvisoryCommittee on Human Rights. His latest book is the volume,
The Impact o Human Rights Law on General International Law 
(Menno T. Kamminga & Martin Scheinin eds., 2009).
Human Rights Quarterly 
32 (2010) 180–187 © 2010 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
Meths  Human Rights Researh:A Primer
Fons Coomans* Fred Grüneld** Menno T. Kamminga*** 
AbSTRAcT
This article suggests that research in the feld o human rights, especiallywhen it is legal in nature, tends to devote surprisingly little attention toquestions o methodology. This may be a result o the act that humanrights scholars oten are (ormer) human rights activists. Dispensing withmethodological constraints enables researchers to engage in wishul thinkingand to reach the conclusions they were hoping to fnd in the frst place.The article makes some suggestions or those who wish to avoid this pit-all, including careully spelling out a research method, discussing whichalternative methods have been rejected, and avoiding the label “emerging”human right.
 
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1395689
2010Meths Human Rights Researh
181
1. John R. Crook,
The International Court o Justice and Human Rights 
, 1
N
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. J. I
Nt
l
H
um
.R
ts
.
2, 8 (2003).2. Exceptions include
t
odd
l
aNdmaN
, s
tudyINg
H
umaN
R
IgHts
(2006);
t
odd
l
aNdmaN
& E
dzIa
 C
aRvalHo
,
m
EasuRINg
H
umaN
R
IgHts
(2009).
I. INTRodUcTIoN
Human rights scholarship is regularly criticized or its lack o attention tomethodology. According to one commentator, or example, “wishul thinkingand sloppy legal analysis tend to be too common in international humanrights law.”
1
Rather than simply dismissing such observations as biasedand ill-inormed, we eel that they deserve to be taken seriously and to beexamined more closely.There appear to be very ew books that specifcally ocus on the meth-odology o human rights research that could be recommended, or example,to a Ph.D. candidate embarking on a dissertation.
2
We decided to try andfll this gap, and convened an international conerence to examine meth-odological questions in the feld o human rights research. Because we eltthat dierent disciplines could learn methodological lessons rom each other,we published a call or papers inviting scholars rom dierent disciplinesto identiy criteria or sound human rights research. We sought input romscholars in the felds o law, health science, philosophy, political science,international relations, and sociology. We asked them: what distinguishesa sound piece o human rights research rom a poor one? We also invitedthe participants to identiy the methodological standards that are typicalor human rights research. Are these standards dierent rom standards inother felds?The call or papers produced an overwhelming response. This strength-ened our conviction that there is a need or more scholarly reection regard-ing research methodology in the feld o human rights. We made a selectionrom the submissions that best encapsulated our purpose, and these paperswere presented at a conerence that was held at Maastricht University underthe auspices o the Maastricht Centre or Human Rights in November 2007.The best papers rom the conerence were published in 2009 in a singlevolume by Intersentia Publishing under the title
Methods o Human Rights Research
. This brie article is adapted rom the introductory chapter o thebook. It summarizes the key fndings rom the papers and rom the discus-sions held at the conerence.
II. PRobLEMS wITH METHodS of HUMAN RIGHTS RESEARcH
Human rights research encompasses a very broad range o topics and ap-proaches. For example, it may relate to the content o human rights standards,
 
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1395689
Vl. 32
182
HUMAN RIGHTS QUARTERLY
3. Jan M. Smits,
Redefning 
 
Normative Legal Science: Towards an Argumentative Disci- pline 
,
in
 
m
EtHods
 
of
H
umaN
R
IgHts
R
EsEaRCH
45
(
Fons Coomans, Fred Grüneld & MennoT. Kamminga
 
eds., 2009).4. Eva Brems,
Methods in Legal Human Rights Research
,
in
 
m
EtHods
 
of
H
umaN
R
IgHts
 R
EsEaRCH
,
supra
 
note 3, at 77.5.
Id 
. A recent study o methodological choices made in legal Ph.D. dissertations in theNetherlands ound a similar trend.
H
ERvé
E
douaRd
t
IJssEN
, d
E
 
 JuRIdIsCHE
 
dIssERtatIE
 
oNdER
 
dE
 
loEp
: d
E
 
vERaNtwooRdINg
 
vaN
 
mEtHodologIsCHE
 
kEuzEs
 
IN
 
 JuRIdIsCHE
 
dIssERtatIEs
(2009).
the eectiveness o international and domestic enorcement mechanisms,the degree o compliance with human rights standards by states and non-state actors, the role o human rights in oreign policy, the history o humanrights, or philosophical questions. Although human rights scholarship isoten regarded as the exclusive province o lawyers, it covers a much widerrange o disciplines.I there is, in act, a methodological defcit in human rights scholarship,it appears to aect legal research more than research perormed by socialscientists. This distinction may be caused by the dierent approaches o thesetwo disciplines. Lawyers are system builders; they rely on logic to determinewhether arguments are compatible with an existing normative ramework.Human rights may be, but are not necessarily, part o this normative set-ting.
3
Legal scholarship, thereore, has little to say regarding the impact o legal systems on the ground. It makes implicit assumptions in this regardand runs the risk o remaining disconnected rom reality. Social scientists,on the other hand, attempt to understand and explain social phenomena.Their fndings can be empirically challenged and verifed. However, theyrisk ignoring or misinterpreting applicable legal standards.A survey carried out among twenty-eight legally trained human rightsscholars ound that only hal o them had received any ormal training inmethodology.
4
The others had simply learned along the way. Even more alarm-ingly, only thirteen o the respondents said they always reected on the mostappropriate research method when starting work on a new research topic.And only three responded that, as a rule, they included in their publishedwork inormation on the research method used. A 2006 survey o scholarlyarticles contained in seven leading human rights law journals ound thattwenty-two out o ninety articles contained no explicit inormation on themethod used.
5
 We are not aware o a similar survey o human rights scholarship bysocial scientists. Our impression, however, is that while social scientistsconducting research in the feld o human rights tend to do better than theirlegal colleagues, their work also requently leaves something to be desiredrom a methodological point o view. Social scientists also demonstrate atendency, or example, to omit an explanation o their research methodsin their publications. A survey o articles published in the interdisciplinary

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