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In Focus: Anthropology and Human

Rights in a New Key

Guest Editor
Introduction to Anthropology and Human Rights
in a New Key
ABSTRACT In this In Focus introduction, I begin by offering an overviewof anthropologys engagements with human rights following
the American Anthropological Associations (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]
OR U.S. ANTHROPOLOGISTS at least, their formal en-
gagement with human rights began in December of
1947, inthe pages of the American Anthropologist (AA). For all
intents and purposes, the intellectual history in which this
In Focus is embedded began with Melville Herskovitss
Statement on Human Rights (hereafter, Statement), a
tightly argued, lucid, and greatly misunderstood and misin-
terpreted declaration of disciplinary principle. Imagine the
context. The horrors of Nazism had been fully exposed. Le-
gions of brilliant, well-meaning representatives of the na-
tions 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 ratied in politi-
cal terms, would serve as the global moral bulwark against
barbarism, nationalist-inspired murder, racism, and out-
rages of the kind that had only recently been stopped. And,
nally, academics and intellectuals, among others, were be-
ing 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 hu-
man rights would be as legitimate, unbiased, and truthful
as possible.
Yet, despite the fact that the UN Educational, Scien-
tic, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had turned to
Herskovits as a leading representative of an academic disci-
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pline that was widely believed to be the scientic 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 pro-
nouncing it a necessary and proper expression of certain ba-
sic and universal moral facts, Herskovits was to disappoint.
His Statement, which was adopted by the AAA Executive
Board and published by it as the lead article in the last AA is-
sue of 1947, refused to endorse what would become the Uni-
versal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which remains
the foundation for the entire range of legal frameworks, in-
stitutional 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
canbe categorizedas the empirical, the epistemological, and
the ethical. First, the Statement argued that anthropology,
as the science of mankind, had shown that moral or ethi-
cal systems varied both in form and content, such that any
assertionof universality ina statement of rights couldnot be
descriptive but would remain prescriptive. Second, because
anthropology was a science that described and then ex-
plained social and biological processes empirically, it could
not contribute to a project that required normative judg-
ments 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
2 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
possibility that some other nonscientic way of knowing
could be the basis for making the comparative evaluations
expressed through human rights. But anthropologys com-
mitment 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 nally, the Statement raised the specter of
what has recently been described as moral imperialism
(Hern andez-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 pre-
ferred 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 in-
dividual 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 es-
tablisha framework that would prevent another Holocaust),
the worldwide application of a prescriptive statement of hu-
man 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 fromthe freedomof 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 rst, 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
reects the impossibility of nally reconciling competing
arguments for the proper ends of lifefreedom, justice,
equality, and so on.
After the brief exchange that followed the 1947 pub-
lication of the Statement on Human Rights (Barnett 1948;
Steward 1948), there was very little anthropological inter-
est in human rights as a topic for inquiry or analysis un-
til the mid-1980s. But to say that the anthropology of hu-
man 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 in-
vestigations (Komar 2003; Sanford 2003). Biological anthro-
pologists and archaeologists have had to reconcile the hu-
man rights claims of Native Americans to return of remains
against the needto deepenour understanding of humanori-
gins and early cultural life in the NewWorld (Jones and Har-
ris 1998). Linguistic and political anthropologists have stud-
ied the problemof linguistic marginalization and the efforts
of linguistic minorities to nd protection through, or to
strategically appropriate, a discourse of marginalizationthat
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 work-
ing 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 im-
portant 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 State-
ment anthropologists continued to practice public anthro-
pology in ways that reected the disciplines long-standing
concern with creating linkages between anthropological
research and projects for social justice. For example, al-
though Ruth Benedict died in 1948, the same year of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was not be-
fore she had had the opportunity to argue strongly against
early McCarthyite persecution of progressive anthropolog-
ical 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 descrip-
tion 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 bodyUNESCOto enlist the aid of anthropologists
in producing the four statements on race (between 1950
and 1967) that were meant to be the denitive scientic
repudiation of racism (di Leonardo 1998:201). Thus, when
anthropologists did begin to turn their attention much later
to humanrights as a particular category of legal andpolitical
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 Herskovitss State-
ment initiated, and indelibly marked, the long, strange his-
tory 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 hu-
man populations in crisis would swing from the heights of
scientic 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 circleintellectual history is as non-
cyclical as it is nonlinearbut as a way of acknowledging
the spirit, if not the specic content, of Herskovitss accom-
plishment, 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 anthropolo-
gists in recent years to rethink both the relationship be-
tween anthropology and human rights and the specic
Goodale Introduction: Anthropology and Human Rights 3
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 com-
pared indigenous rights movements in Africa and the Amer-
icas, and the December 2003 In Focus, which featured
critical analyses of the relationship between language ide-
ologies and language rights. This In Focus continues in
this mode by enlarging the scope of analysis beyond any
particular topic or theme withinanthropology itself. Rather,
the idea here is to consider, from different theoretical and
methodological perspectives, howanthropological forms of
knowledge cannewly frame the different engagements with
human rights: political, ethical, institutional, and critical.
The ideas and practices of human rights have clearly be-
come more consequential after the end of the Cold War.
This lends a certain sense of urgency to efforts like this,
which reect both a commitment to the purposes of the in-
ternational 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 account-
ing 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 dif-
ferent sources (see, e.g., Goodale in press; Messer 1993;
Nagengast and Turner 1997a; Washburn1987; Wilson2004;
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
Throughthe efforts of a small, yet passionate and inuential
group of politically engaged anthropologists, U.S. anthro-
pology underwent a profound realignment, one that would
produce a distinctive anthropological reorientation to hu-
man rights.
Key moments in this new phase would be the
following: (1) the 1984 publication of Clifford Geertzs 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 Cohens 1989 article in AA, in which he argued
for a new approach to human rights; (3) the Special Com-
mission created by the AAA in 1990, and chaired by Ter-
rence 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 Messers programmatic 1993 An-
nual Review article on anthropology and human rights,
which argued that anthropology had inuenced contem-
porary human rights through its marginalization; (6) the
1994 AAA annual meetings, at which the relationship be-
tween 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 Anthropolog-
ical Research (JAR), edited by Carole Nagengast and Terrence
Turner (1997b), whichserved as a more systematic and com-
prehensive elaboration of Messers 1993 call to action; and,
nally, (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 deni-
tive repudiation of Herskovitss 1947 Statement.
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; Wilson2001), 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 signicantly different epistemological
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 ex-
plain them in more detail. If we take Messers 1993 An-
nual Review article together with Nagengast and Turners
(1997b) JAR special issue, in which Messer (1997) also
contributes an article, a clear vision for anthropologys re-
lationship with human rights emerges, one that is also, not
coincidentally, expressed through the 1999 declaration.
Anthropologists should use their knowledge of specic cul-
tural processes and meaningsand the broader relation-
ships of power throughwhichthese processes andmeanings
are necessarily embeddedto reinforce specic projects
for social change, to help prevent further encroachments
against particular marginalized populations, or to do both.
I emphasize specic to signal a key feature of this approachto
human rights through anthropology: the idea that because
all knowledge is necessarily contingent and, most impor-
tantly, 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 onor againstit in practice by putting anthropologi-
cal knowledge to good use.
The bundle of normative, social, and political processes
that, as Upendra Baxi has said, we describe by conven-
tion, under a portal named human rights (2002:v) has
proven to be a useful mechanism for serving this ethical
4 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
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 approachwork to expand the denitions of human
rights to increase their effectiveness. This is not because an-
thropologists are committed to the ontological truth of hu-
man rights or a particular legal-bureaucratic vision for their
realization, but because contemporary human rights dis-
course has the ability to eliminate ethical ambiguity and
openup clear lines of resistance and recrimination. Terrence
Turners 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 dis-
courses as a political strategy.
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 re-
ected 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 betweenwhat canbe understood as the ethno-
graphic and the emancipatory cultural politics modes of
engagement (e.g., bothare nely tuned to the way power in-
fuses contemporary human rights discourses), the contrasts
are more signicant. The study of the social practice of hu-
man rights reects 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 political-economic factors are them-
selves forces impacting the unfolding of those protean as-
semblages of social action that are described with human
rights, to again invoke Baxis nimble and elastic denition.
This is not an approach to human rights that seeks in
the rst instance to use ethnographic knowledge of cultural
meanings to better ren[e] theories of culture in relation
to rights. The editors do, however, somewhat sheepishly
make rhetorical concession to thoseperhaps some of the
volumes contributorswho express a hope [that the] vol-
ume 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 rst time since 1948, how
human rights actually function empirically, what human
rights mean for different social actors, and, nally, how hu-
man rights relateagain, empirically, not conceptuallyto
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 specic 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 be-
come enmeshedinits logic (Cowanet al. 2001:21). Inother
words, although the emancipatory cultural politics orienta-
tion 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 or-
ganizationandthe blurring of boundaries betweenresearch,
representation, and political action on behalf of subaltern
populations was a somewhat delayed application of key in-
sights from the period of intense epistemological critique
that began in the mid-1980s, most notably within U.S. cul-
tural anthropology. To this extent, the emancipatory cul-
tural politics approach to human rightswhich, as I have
argued, crystallized through the 1997 JAR special issue on
anthropology and human rights and that was pregured in
Messers 1993 call to actionwas an example of how an-
thropologists could recongure their professional commit-
ments to eliminate the need to push against what were seen
as a set of essentially articial or politically suspect epis-
temological 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 questions.
The ethnographic turn cannot be completely sepa-
rated from these background intellectual-historical cur-
rents, which they also in part reect; neither can we forget
the fact that the scholars conducting researchand writing in
this mode do not reject the emancipatory cultural politics
approach in its own terms. But what does situate the ethno-
graphic approach at a different point in an overlapping
network of social-theoretical ideas is its objectication of
human rights, the insistence that human rights are a type of
politically consequential normative framework that is con-
stituted through social practice. Thus, to study what human
rights do is also to study what human right are. In recon-
ceptualizing human rights as an object that is well suited for
ethnographic modes of inquiry, this approach describes
not deducesthe impact of political, economic, and legal
inequalitiesthat is, poweras 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 cul-
tural 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 instrumen-
tal in the service of specic political projects. The ethno-
graphic approach to human rights is a hybrid within wider
disciplinary developments, an approach that not only in-
corporates critical insights from the last 20 years but also,
just as importantly, reects a renewed commitment to social
scientic distance and the possibilities created by a certain
Goodale Introduction: Anthropology and Human Rights 5
depoliticization of the relationship between anthropology
and contemporary human rights movements.
It is of course a risky proposition to make claims for in-
novation or novelty. If these articles, taken as a whole, ex-
press a new key or register within which human rights can
be studied, critiqued, and advanced through anthropolog-
ical forms of knowledge, they obviously do not foreclose
other possibilities or cast doubt on the value of existing ap-
proaches. 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 foundationof contemporary human
rights. These include the cultural dynamics of human rights
as a transnational regime, the relationship between human
rights andlocal ethical practices, the ethical obligations of
researchers studying human rights processes among popu-
lations at risk, the relationship between human rights prac-
tices and the consolidationof liberal and neoliberal political
and legal formations after the end of the Cold War, and so
It does no good for an academic discipline whose pecu-
liar forms of engagement have been historically marginal-
ized within the wider human rights community to repro-
duce 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 McGinns new book
Mindsight, describes as the dry business of referring and
refuting (2005: 70), the tendency to work toward alterna-
tive approaches by drawing stark and invariably exagger-
ated contrasts with existing frameworks. This In Focus is
in part an argument for an essentially ecumenical anthro-
pology of human rights, one that can tolerate, and indeed
encourage, approaches that are both fundamentally criti-
cal 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 pluralismwhether ir-
reducible or notthat characterizes contemporary human
rights practice.
In this spirit, the articles in this In Focus are intended
to enlarge the dialogue over the relationship between an-
thropology and humanrights beyond what I have described
in the preceding sections. Nevertheless, as will be seen,
the different suggestions for new spaces of engagement are
rmly 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 anthropol-
ogy of human rights. In her article, she takes a fresh look at
the problem of culture, or, as she describes it, the relation-
ship between culture and rights after Culture and Rights
(i.e., Cowan et al. 2001). Her article considers two devel-
opments since Culture and Rights: (1) the critiques of the
volume, or its wider implications, from outside the disci-
pline of anthropology, in particular from political and legal
theorists seeking to recongure 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 sug-
gestions in the volume. Through a consideration of these
two developments, Cowan argues for an essentially skep-
tical anthropology of human rights, one that is more at-
tunedto the potential dangers of a hegemonic humanrights
regime than to the ways in which human rights can provide
a framework for protecting cultural integrity. But Cowans
is not a critique in the abstract. She calls for a scrutiny
that moves between critical engagement and the applica-
tion of the ethnographic imagination. In the end, Cowans
approach is both contingent and grounded, one that ex-
presses the contradictions at the heart of both the liberal
rights project and those framed by more normatively open
multicultural arguments. Hers is not ananthropology of hu-
man 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 recon-
ceptualized 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 de-
scribe 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 partici-
pates by cotheorizing with interlocutors as they struggle
to come to terms with the meanings of human rights. One
implicationof this is that the anthropology of humanrights
I develop draws back slightly from the ethnographic study
of human rights as social practice. This is a key point of de-
parture, andone that I argue is necessary because of boththe
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 Merrys contribution is a product of her transna-
tional ethnography on the regulation of violence against
6 American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 1 March 2006
women through various international human rights insti-
tutions and transnational networks. Like Cowan, Merry
has studied the relationship between culture and rights. In
Merrys 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 gen-
eralize from data to understand the translocalism of con-
temporary 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 pro-
grammatic implications of her recent research, Merry de-
velops a theoretical framework in her article that explains
the different ways in which human rights are rendered in-
strumental, 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 hu-
man rights elites or institutions, but one can easily see how
their work would be strengthened if it were. To this extent,
Merrys article can be taken as an argument for an anthro-
pology 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 Riless 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 at-
tempted to expose the contradictions and hegemonies that
dene 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 Ap-
proaches to International Law(NAIL) movement, which lo-
cates 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 anthropol-
ogy from being treated as one among several discourses of
self-legitimation that are associated withhumanrights 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 anthropologys contribution
is restored. Riles reects on the different intersubjective re-
lationships 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 cre-
ated by the critique of social action and by acknowledging
the ambiguities that surround the academic scrutiny of the
human rights subject.
Shannon Speeds 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 them-
selves. 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 anal-
ysis. To show this, Speed examines the ethical ambiguities
that emerge through what she describes as a critically en-
gaged activist research, which in her case involves both
research on, and advocacy for, human rights in Chiapas,
Mexico. Speeds anthropology of humanrights points to the
danger in allowing critique to devolve into a nal 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 hiddenagendas withinhumanrights
regimes, insights that are construed as irrelevant, arrogant,
and ethically dubious by social actors for whom such the-
oretical advances are of limited use in even the best of cir-
cumstances. Among the ve articles here, Speeds anthro-
pology 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 pos-
sibilities 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 dif-
ferent 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 an-
thropology in an interdisciplinary human rights institute,
to look back through the articles in order to look forward.
Evenas Wilsoncontinues to insist onlocating humanrights
processes in context through ethnography, he has also re-
cently emphasized the fact that the anthropology of human
rights is ripe for reevaluation (Wilson 2004). His contribu-
tion here is an important reection of this concern.
MARK GOODALE Institute for Conict Analysis and Resolu-
tion, George Mason University, Arlington, VA 22201
Acknowledgments. In framing this introduction, I would like to ac-
knowledge the collaboration of my fellow contributors to this In
Focus, although the points of emphasis on matters of interpreta-
tion and history are my responsibility. So too are any errors. I am
also grateful to the co-Editor-in-Chief of the American Anthropolo-
gist, SusanLees, for her insightful comments ona 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 Herskovitss com-
munications 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 an-
thropology and human rights, I still have not found any evidence
that UNESCO formally responded to the AAAs Statement. Never-
theless, because it was submitted by Herskovits after it underwent
some revisions, for nowwe can assume that it was in fact forwarded
to the Commission on Human Rights (as asserted by AA), which
Goodale Introduction: Anthropology and Human Rights 7
was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, for whose benet UNESCO had
solicited opinions on what would become the Universal Declara-
tion of Human Rights (1948).
2. One of the points for debate in the historiography of anthro-
pologys relationship with human rights is the extent to which
U.S. anthropologys experience can represent the disciplines rela-
tionship more generally (see Goodale in press). As I have argued,
there is very good reason for believing that the U.S. anthropologi-
cal experience, in which its different voices were practically absent
from the major developments during the emergence of the inter-
national and (eventually) transnational human rights regimes, is
at least symbolic of anthropologys historical marginalization from
human rights. But as we will see shortly, there comes a point at
which anthropologys reengagement with human rights becomes
too analytically and geographically diverse to use U.S. anthropol-
ogys experiences in this way.
3. As with anthropologys involvement on the race question on
behalf of UNESCO between 1950 and 1967, what I describe here
as a new phase in anthropologys orientation to human rights also
had important historical precursors. Perhaps the most signicant
of these was the disciplinary conict over the relationship between
anthropology and colonialism (which included, arguably, the de-
bates over the role of anthropologists during the VietnamWar) and,
somewhat later, the emergence of the cultural survival movement,
the founding of Cultural Survival, Inc., in 1972 by the anthropolo-
gist David Maybury-Lewis, and the publication of the rst issue of
Cultural Survival Quarterly in 1976.
4. Three contributors to the 1997b JAR special issue (Messer, Na-
gengast, and Turner) were also members of the 1997 Committee
for Human Rights at the time when it was working on a draft ver-
sion 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 Jacksons 1995 article on the strategic
essentialization of culture in the Colombian Amazon.
6. The general thrust of my argument for employing a critical an-
thropology to recongure current understandings of human rights
parallels Brosiuss (1999) recent effort to envision a different an-
thropology 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 contribut-
ing 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 di-
verse, often contested, visions of the environment, envi-
ronmental problems, and the forms of agency such dis-
courses conjure into (or out of) being. [1999:278279]
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