Introduction: Anthropology, Human Rights, and Three (Miniature) Generations

by Miia Halme-Tuomisaari and Joshua Clark


Flags of member states along the walkway up to the United Nations Office in Geneva.

This Virtual Edition focuses on the anthropology of human rights by revisiting articles published in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review since 1995. In addition to offering free access to these articles for a 90-day period, the Virtual Edition features postscripts by Sally Merry, Miia Halme-Tuomisaari, Shannon Speed, Annelise Riles, and Elif Babül; and an afterword by Julie Billaud.

The reason for focusing on human rights is simple: The year 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the UN’s two main human rights covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Initially, in the planning of the post-World War II order in the late 1940s, many activists envisaged these two documents being a unified entity that would endow the norms ultimately set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) with legally binding force—thereby constituting an ‘International Bill of Rights.’ Soon it turned out that despite considerable lobbying by a devoted group of activists, the idea was far from enjoying sufficient state support. Instead, efforts moved toward the adoption of the non-binding UDHR, and only much later toward the Covenants as two separate legal entities (see Halme-Tuomisaari and Slotte 2015; OHCHR n.d.; Mazower 2004).

Once the two Covenants were adopted in 1966, they entered into force as legally binding treaties only after a sufficient number of states had signed and ratified them. Reaching the required number of ratifications took yet another decade; the Covenants finally entered into force in 1976. Thus, the year 2016 is also seen as marking the 40th anniversary of legally binding human rights for the UN, notwithstanding the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which entered into force in 1969 (see Keane and Waughray 2017). What real relevance these anniversaries hold is, of course, an open question: the UN calendar is certainly filled with many such commemorations. As merely one example, last year marked the 70th anniversary of the UN as an organization – an event that attracted far broader attention than the anniversaries of the ICERD or the Covenants.

Still, this moment offers a useful point of reflection, not least because the bulk of this history is likely unknown to most anthropologists. Likewise, those of the period were not a part of the story in a significant way. After their brief, by now almost notorious, ‘engagement’ of the 1940s (Engle 2001), anthropologists seemed to drop human rights from their research portfolio, only returning to the topic in the 1990s (Goodale 2006). By the turn of the new millennium, the anthropology of human rights had grown into a moderately thriving sub-discipline of legal and political anthropology, appropriately in tune with more general approaches and debates within the discipline. This ‘re-engagement’ by anthropologists also echoed the ‘zeal’ that many other disciplines were directing at the topic at the same time (Halme-Tuomisaari and Slotte 2015; Moyn 2012).


The UN flag flying on top of the Palais Wilson, current headquarters of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (courtesy of Joshua Clark).

Yet anthropological debates have grown mostly only in fits and spurts: whereas we have seen the number of works in the sub-field increase exponentially, the area can still not claim to match the vigor directed at the study of mobility or development, to mention merely two examples. But considering especially the new work of recent years that converses with scholarship on audit cultures, bureaucracy, expert practices, and document-making processes, there is reason to believe that we are on the cusp of some dynamic developments in the anthropological study of human rights, and of international law – or global legal governance – more generally. Using articles published in PoLAR since the 1990s, this Virtual Edition maps out some of the key threads in anthropologists’ approaches to human rights over the past decades. We have selected nine articles from 1995 to 2013.  Through these, we discuss the sub-field’s trajectory as comprised so far of three miniature ‘generations’, and offer some thoughts on where anthropology of human rights might be heading.

We begin the Virtual Edition with Loring Danforth’s ‘Transnational Influences on National Conflict: The Macedonian Question’, published in 1995. This article was written in a distinct post-Cold War moment marked by various ‘end-of-history’ theses, including that of globalization and, among many liberal scholars, human rights triumphalism. Appropriately cautious of such utopianisms, Danforth reminds readers that new ‘imagined communities’ are always emerging – even ‘transnational national’ ones that, in this case, find support for their self-assertion in human rights discourse and institutions.  The article nonetheless somewhat lacks in critical interrogation of what sort of project this suggests ‘human rights’ constitutes. Like many other anthropological works on human rights of the era, it also takes for granted international law’s topography of states, international organizations, and NGOs, and makes notably few people present in the text.

Thus, Danforth’s article illustrates some features of what we consider a ‘first generation’ in anthropology’s ‘re-engagement’ with human rights. Characteristic of this miniature generation is a distinctly legalistic view of human rights, in the sense that these rights are understood as having relatively firm scopes of legal meaning and authority.  Human rights is not approached as a problematic concept, but as a set of tools that can be learned and applied towards the emancipation of oppressed people(s).  It should be remembered that anthropological works in this vein emerge at a moment of dramatic increase in the use of human rights language by social movements—movements whose claims-making often targeted the same forms of abuse and exploitation the anthropologists in question had denounced for years. Thus, a decided ‘pro-human rights’ stance is not so difficult to understand.

This same basic ethos is also apparent in the position taken by the American Anthropological Association via its 1999 Statement to affirm the organization’s collective support for human rights, effectively replacing the ‘deplored’ statement of 1947 concerning the draft Universal Declaration (American Anthropological Association 1947; Committee for Human Rights-AAA 1999). Interestingly, despite that this generation of works often engaged human rights largely because anthropologists’ long-term interlocutors were suddenly being discussed in their terms, human rights appear in its writing as more a ‘desk-research’ sidebar than an object of fieldwork attention. That is, these works reveal a notable descriptive distance from both the actors deliberating over whether and why to make human rights claims and the institutional actors being confronted with them.


Human rights merged into anthropology’s broader debates and concerns, including colonialism and relativism.

The second featured article—‘Legal Vernacularization and Ka Ho’okolokolonui Kanaka Maoli, The People’s International Tribunal, Hawai’i 1993’, by Sally Merry—departs from Danforth’s treatment of human rights as basically ‘given’, instead reminding readers that they are historically an ‘artifact of Western cultural traditions raised to the status of global normativity’ (p. 67). Simultaneously, Merry calls for the anthropological study of human rights to better reflect the field’s move away from romantic images of static and ‘pristine cultures’. She calls for anthropologists to recognize how actors adopt, but also re-work and re-signify, transnational forms and practices, often un-beholden to—and even against—‘Western’ domination. Merry’s article strikes some celebratory notes when considering how this could signal a break from the Western—even colonial—legacy embodied by human rights ideology and action, but also expresses skepticism about the privileging of law as a form and language of struggle.

Ethnographically, this piece is somewhat ‘first generational’ in its distance from the human rights legal actors involved, certainly compared to Merry’s subsequent projects. But it does pioneering work in pointing towards what would become a key theme of ‘second-generation’ anthropological studies of human rights—the fluidity or suppleness of rights claims as they enter local repertoires of meaning and practice. Indeed, this theme solidifies as the dominant one in anthropology of human rights beginning around the middle of the decade of the 2000s, and probably still remains the one most widely known beyond the sub-field itself. Under rubrics like translation, appropriation, and vernacularization, this second generation shows that social actors re-cast both global norms and local struggles/grievances in relation to one another in ways that make ‘human rights’ stand for a wide variety of claims and pursuits—including sometimes ones that are ideologically opposed (see Curtis 2014; Speed 2008; Tate 2007).

The third article is ‘Human Rights, Gender, and Ethnicity: Legal Claims and Anthropological Challenges in Mexico’ by Teresa Sierra, from 2001. This piece, like Merry’s, is also embedded in debates about ‘culture’ as bounded versus porous, or as an integrated ‘whole’ versus fluid, heterogeneous, and contested. In this sense, we see that the transition from a first to second miniature generation also includes a merging of human rights into anthropology’s broader conceptual debates, concerns, and critiques. Sierra’s piece also foregrounds some core disciplinary issues raised within anthropology’s budding ‘second generation’: To what extent should research exceed mere observation to endeavor to correct societal wrongs? How might anthropological insights inform and ‘dialogue with’ political decision-making processes? Of all of this Virtual Edition’s articles, Sierra’s arguably adheres most strongly to the values embodied by human rights.  It also exemplifies a critical-activist orientation that advanced beyond the ‘first-generation’ work in important ways at the turn of the millennium.

The fourth article in this Virtual Edition, Miia Halme-Tuomisaari’s 2005 ‘Culture and Rights: Beyond Relativism?’ considers, among other things, how we could understand such activist stances, as well as their analytical consequences. The piece is a review essay of three edited volumes—all pivotal to the anthropology of human rights in the early-2000s—and it arranges its discussion around three clear-cut slogans: right to culture, rights against culture, and rights as culture. Ultimately, the article attempts to understand why anthropological accounts had not become as integral to ‘mainstream’ human rights scholarship—produced primarily by activist international lawyers—as would seem desirable or even logical, even as anthropologists of the era were often analytically aligned with them in a number of ways.

The fifth article is Shannon Speed’s 2005 ‘Dangerous Discourses: Human Rights and Multiculturalism in Neoliberal Mexico’. This piece is surely the most ‘ethnographic’ so far, taking the reader into intimate proximity with informants/actors emerging as human rights claimants. It thus does something quite significant by engaging human rights ‘anthropologically’ not only via a ‘traditional’ anthropological topic (culture), but also in its style of writing—the riveting ethnographic prose characteristic of the discipline.

Simultaneously, Speed’s analysis also stands definitively apart from the first generation of re-engagement with human rights by being overtly critical of adverse consequences that rights claims and strategies may have. Speed draws from the Mexican context to raise the ‘uneasy, and undertheorized, relationship between neoliberalism, human rights, and multiculturalism’ (p. 30). She argues that the attention paid these relationships has been insufficient given the wide acceptance of human rights and multiculturalism as discourses of resistance and end goals of social struggle. Speed also productively develops Merry’s early insights by vividly demonstrating that ‘human rights’ in fact entails multiple discourses, and has divergent and even inconsistent ‘meanings and effects depending on how, and by whom, they are deployed’ (p. 30). Her work is thus exemplary of the second generation’s most significant contribution to human rights scholarship as a whole—exploring the potentialities and limit-points of human rights’ meanings and uses in practice.


Doorway to the conference room where UN human rights treaty bodies hold sessions in the Palais Wilson (courtesy of Joshua Clark).

The sixth article in this Virtual Edition, published the same year as Speed’s, proposes a whole new agenda for anthropology’s relationship with human rights, and one that in some ways anticipates ‘generation three’. The article is Iris Jean-Klein and Annelise Riles’s ‘Introducing Discipline: Anthropology and Human Rights Administrations’, the introductory text for PoLAR’s 2005 special issue on anthropology and human rights administrations. Jean-Klein and Riles’s proposal for renovating anthropology of human rights is evident even in the article’s abstract, which lauds the special issue’s focus ‘not on how anthropology can contribute to human rights’, but rather on what ‘anthropological encounters with human rights contribute to the development of our discipline’ (p. 173).

Jean-Klein and Riles articulate a commitment to anthropology’s own disciplinary ground, defiant of various modes of instrumentalization that anthropologists are asked to perform when engaging with human rights. Their piece critically scrutinizes demands upon anthropologists concerning how to know, to be ‘relevant’, to co-construct or deconstruct, and to ‘give voice’ in relation to the human rights actors and projects encountered in ethnographic fieldwork. The text feels surprisingly current still a decade later—perhaps because some of its challenges and insights still await full absorption by our discipline.

One particular challenge Jean-Klein and Riles put to anthropologists is to develop modes of interacting with human rights bureaucracies, technical forums, or other administrative sites that are more edifying than service-provider roles like ‘cultural’ advisor or purveyor of ‘on-the-ground’ knowledge. Embracing this challenge is, to us, characteristic of a still-unfolding ‘third generation’ of anthropological scholarship on human rights. Whereas the ‘second generation’ emphasizes the fluidity of human rights meanings ‘on the ground’ (in local struggles), this one points out that there is also a consequential ‘on the ground’ in national and global human rights ‘power centers’. Much recent work approaches actors situated in such expert corridors – be they in government bureaucracies or intergovernmental agencies like those of the UN, the World Bank, or the WTO. This generation seeks alternative modes of ethnographic dialogue with epistemic-elite counterparts, while offering fine-grained, ‘experience-near’ descriptions of their work (e.g. Billaud 2014; Clark 2016, 2017; Cowan 2013; Cowan and Billaud 2015; Halme-Tuomisaari 2013, 2014; Merry 2016; Niezen and Sapignoli 2017).

These accounts are so near, in fact, that ironically – but tellingly! – they occasionally erase ‘human rights’ from view. In other words, this emergent generation has often ethnographically pursued forms and practices to the point that their resulting accounts arguably need not be ‘about’ human rights any more than any number of (post)modern phenomena premised on regimes of documentation, data collection, production of reports, and assessment. While this ‘generation’ has not yet been fully captured in the pages of PoLAR, some articles from 2012 and 2013 ably demonstrate the kinds of ‘non-traditional’ fieldwork sites it approaches, and the contributions an anthropological lens brings to understanding them.

Two such articles featured here are Andrea Ballestero’s ‘Transparency Short-Circuited: Laughter and Numbers in Costa Rican Water Politics’, and Niels Nagelhus Schia’s ‘Being Part of the Parade—“Going Native” in the United Nations Security Council’. Ballestero’s piece focuses on Costa Rican NGOs bound by international funders to perform transparency and accountability through forms of assessment, auditing, and indicator construction. These dynamics are familiar to human rights scholarship and across socio-cultural anthropology, and Ballestero shows masterfully why careful ethnography of their inner workings enriches both. By attending to the ‘in-between process of creating the audit’ (p. 223), she shows that subjects thereof transform this top-down imposition into ‘sites of active sociality and experimentation’ (p. 230). Thus, even while observing that auditing techniques are to some extent transplants from other domains, Ballestero challenges the narrative of an ‘audit juggernaut’ and its hapless subjects (Sampson 2015). Her attentiveness to her interlocutors’ experience of audit-making illuminates the enterprise as process, as appropriable, and as creative—all in politically significant ways.

While not focusing on human rights per se, Schia’s article reflects a readiness to delve into milieus of high diplomacy, intergovernmental decision-making, and proceduralism that typifies much current anthropological work on human rights. Based on findings at the UN Security Council, he stresses the reliance of even the most formalized of institutional structures and apparently rigid proceduralisms upon spaces of ‘informality’.  The latter are often themselves structured or formalized as a necessity for maintaining order, consensus, or ‘the social’. Here the grounds for thinking UN decision-making processes in relation to classic anthropological work on, for example, Ndembu ritual (Turner 1969) are undeniable (see Cowan 2013). We are thus reminded of just how well-suited anthropology’s concepts and analytics can be to understanding contemporary global governance and ‘society’—as Michael Barkun (1968) indicated long ago.

Finally, we feature Elif Babül’s 2012 article, ‘Training Bureaucrats, Practicing for Europe: Negotiating Bureaucratic Authority and Governmental Legitimacy in Turkey’. This piece takes readers to EU-funded training sessions in which Turkish state officials are instructed on what it is to be a legitimate, competent, and modern state, as defined by the rubrics of good governance and human rights. For all that we know of the power relations inherent to supranational governance and conditionality, Babül’s work may be unparalleled in its intimate portraiture of the interpersonal practices through which these are enacted—experiences at times embarrassing and demoralizing for the individuals involved. The article weaves together diverse themes from across the articles above: human rights’ link to a Western and colonial ‘standard of civilization’; the ‘vernacularization’ of human rights’ meanings, in this case in relation to the embodied, professional performance of state-ness; and the advance of technical and expert apparatuses that produce ‘human rights’ via professional credentials, procedures, and insider savoir faire.  Also noteworthy is the potential in Babül’s ethnography for broad lessons relevant to understanding current nativist/nationalist backlashes across Europe and the United States, with their indignant rejection of cosmopolitan projects and transnational elites.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights articles on university steps written by students.

Admittedly, to attempt, as we have, to trace dominant features—not to mention an ‘evolution’—for any scholarly sub-field via nine articles is bound to be a somewhat arbitrary endeavor, as Julie Billaud rightly observes in this Virtual Edition’s Afterword. Yet we feel that together these articles offer an illuminating glimpse into the terrain anthropology of human rights has traversed, and its general trajectory into the near future. To link such an exercise up further to a specific year, interpreted as embodying an anniversary of importance, is likewise haphazard, one could argue. This timeline too serves distinct purposes for considering the current state of our sub-discipline: it reminds us of the importance that human rights have come to hold in the relatively short stretch of time in which this phenomenon has developed, as well as the brevity of re-engagement that our shared scholarly community has demonstrated.

Pairing these articles—written at intervals ranging from two decades to a few years ago—with their postscripts concretizes how much, and again, how fast, things have changed within the human rights phenomenon. It also underscores how our analytical frameworks have continually readjusted to keep pace, and must continue to do so.  With careful attentiveness that bridges the diverse actors who human rights enchants and disenchants, and the paradoxical experiences of it as both high ideal and mundane administrative work, formidable tool and pliable object, and seemingly hegemonic yet eminently fragile project, anthropology will be well positioned to say what it is we are commemorating in ‘human rights’ at 60, at 75, and beyond.


American Anthropological Association. 1947. “Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 49(4):539-543.

Barkun, Michael. 1968. Law without Sanctions: Order in Primitive Societies and the World Community. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Billaud, Julie. 2014. “Keepers of the Truth: Producing ‘Transparent’ Documents for the Universal Periodic Review.” In Human Rights and the Universal Periodic Review: Rituals and Ritualism, Hilary Charlesworth and Emma Larking, eds.  Pp. 63-83.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, Joshua. 2016. The Global Fight against Racial Discrimination: Human Rights Assessment and the Making of Obligation in Costa Rica and at the United Nations. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Irvine.

— 2017. “Knowing and Doing with Numbers: Disaggregated Data in the Work of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.” In Fifty Years of ICERD: A Living Instrument, David Keane and Annapurna Waughray, eds. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Committee for Human Rights, American Anthropological Association. 1999. “Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights.”

Cowan, Jane K. 2013.  “Before Audit Culture: A Genealogy of International Oversight of Rights.” In The Gloss of Harmony: The Politics of Policy-Making in Multilateral Organizations, Birgit Müller, ed. Pp. 103-133. London: Pluto Press.

Cowan, Jane K., and Julie Billaud. 2015. “Between Learning and Schooling: The Politics of Human Rights Monitoring at the Universal Periodic Review.” Third World Quarterly 36(6):1175-1190.

Curtis, Jennifer. 2014. Human Rights as War by Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Engle, Karen. 2001. “From Skepticism to Embrace: Human Rights and the American Anthropological Association from 1947-1999.” Human Rights Quarterly 23(3):536-559.

Goodale, Mark. 2006. “Introduction to ‘Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key.’” American Anthropologist 108(1):1-8.

Halme-Tuomisaari, Miia. 2013. “Contested Representations: Exploring China’s State Report.”  Journal of Legal Anthropology 1(3):333-359.

— 2014. “‘The State is One’: Performing ‘Statehood’ for UN Human Rights Monitoring Bodies.”  Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting, Washington, DC, December 2014.

Halme-Tuomisaari, Miia, and Pamela Slotte. 2015.  “Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights: Introduction.” In Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights, Pamela Slotte and Miia Halme-Tuomisaari, eds.  Pp. 1-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keane, David, and Annapurna Waughray, eds. 2017. Fifty Years of ICERD: A Living Instrument. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Mazower, Mark. 2004. “The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950.” The Historical Journal 47(2): 379–398.

Merry, Sally Engle. 2016. The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moyn, Samuel. 2012. “Substance, Scale, and Salience: The Recent Historiography of Human Rights.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 8:123-140.

Niezen, Ronald, and Maria Sapignoli, eds. 2017. Palaces of Hope: The Anthropology of Global Organizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

OHCHR (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights). n.d. “50th Anniversary of the Two Human Rights Covenants.”

Sampson, Steven. 2015. “Comment: The Audit Juggernaut.” Social Anthropology 23(1):80-82.

Speed, Shannon. 2008. Rights in Rebellion: Indigenous Struggle and Human Rights in Chiapas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Tate, Winifred. 2007. Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

Recommended Citation

Halme-Tuomisaari, Miia, and Joshua Clark. Introduction: Anthropology, Human Rights, and Three (Miniature) Generations. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, November 2016,