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sociology as a discipline has not as yet articulated

an autonomous subfield called the sociology of

human rights.

Contemporary global civil society is currently

characterized by an expansion of discourse on

human rights to which sociology as a discipline

is, in general, quite marginal. These facts themselves

pose interesting questions for the sociology

of knowledge, which will be addressed here. This

entry outlines some of the central issues and

questions which might serve as the basis for a

more fully developed and autonomous sociology

of human rights.

The classical grounding of sociology lies primarily

on the work of Karl Marx, Max Weber,

mile Durkheim, and Georg Simmel. Discussions

of rights in the works of the classical theorists were

not central and for the most part were critical of

the ideas of Natural Law which informed most

discourse on human rights at the time (see law

and society). As a political liberal,E´mile Durkheim

was concerned about the “rights of man,” as discussed,

for example, in W. S. F. Pickering and W.

Watts Miller (eds.), Individualism and Human Rights

in the Durkheimian Tradition (1993), and about the

relationship between individualism and human

rights, but for the most part his attempt to form

a positivist science independent of philosophy

distanced him from the idea of rights – a development

which is considered by Bryan Turner, “Outline

of a Theory of Human Rights” (1993, Sociology).

Sociologically, he might have seen rights as important

representations of “the collective conscience,”

as important models for the formation

of social solidarity, or simply as “social facts”

which served as the new normative bases for

social order and individual identity in modernity.

Durkheim was well aware of the French Revolutionary

tradition, which constructed the rights of

man as secular forms of the sacred which were

functional equivalents of the sacred in modernity:

the rights of man thus could be considered as

models for individual identity in place of traditional

religion. Some time before Durkheim,

other French theorists such as Claude Henri de

Rouvroy, Comte de Saint Simon and Auguste

Comte clearly articulated new secular representations

of human rights as part of their respective

“new religions of humanity.”

As Fritz Ringer has shown in his Max Weber: An

Intellectual Biography (2004), as a political liberal

Weber believed in fundamental human rights,

and yet his sociology does not include a specific

sociology of human rights; rather, his focus was

Riesman, David (1909–2002) rights, human


on the sociology of Recht, or law, rather than

Menschenrechte, or human rights, per se. Weber’s

value-free sociology would have insisted on not

deriving any value positions from sociology, and

therefore it is entirely understandable that his

sociology was distant from issues which were

articulated more clearly in the tradition of normative

theorizing about rights. Nonetheless, a Weberian

sociology of human rights might see the latter

as subjectively meaningful forms of substantiveethical

rationality, which guide social action.

Correspondingly, Weber’s analysis of the historical

process of rationalization might be extended

to understanding the tensions between human

rights as meaningful cultural forms which sought

to re-enchant the world in the face of such disenchanting

modern processes of formal rationality

as bureaucracy, state power, and the law. Some of

these issues are explored in Thomas Cushman,

“The Conflict of the Rationalities: International

Law, Human Rights, and the War in Iraq” (2005,

Deakin Law Review). In any case, the core of a Weberian

perspective on human rights would proceed at

some distance from the often overly romantic

utopianism of the contemporary human rights

movement, and perhaps provide a more pessimistic

view about the possibilities of human rights

in an increasingly rationalized world in which a

variety of substantive rationalities competed for


It was Marx for whom the discussion of rights

was most central, although it was central in the

sense that he criticized and rejected the idea of

human rights as an ideological legitimation of

bourgeois capitalist society. Marx believed that

the ruling ideas of an age were the ideas of the

ruling class. In this sense, he viewed classical

liberal ideas of individual rights – especially the

Lockean idea of the right to property – as ideologies

which legitimated the privileged position of the

bourgeois classes and maintained class society. In

his controversial essay on the problem of citizenship

in the French Revolution, in “On the Jewish

Question” in the Deutsch-Franzo¨sische Jahrbu¨cher of

1844, reprinted in Early Writings (1992), Marx

criticized the assimilationist aspiration of Jews

and other minority groups to become French

citizens. He claimed that such a process would

merely serve to incorporate such groups into the

existing system and thus to perpetuate new forms

of false consciousness and the alienation of man’s

“species-being.” For Marx, “human rights revolutions”

were merely cosmetic revolutions which

brought to power a new ruling class with new ideas

which legitimated its power and class position.

This incidentally was also Marx’s understanding

of the American Revolution. Rights claims were

not seen as liberating frompower, as most classical

liberal theorists would have it, but reproductive of

power and existing social relations. This is an important

distinction, since most liberal theorists of

rights from the time of the American and French

Revolutions until now have viewed individual

rights as the central driving force for political

and personal emancipation.

Marx, on the other hand, viewed aspirations to

bourgeois rights as impediments to such authentic

emancipation. This Marxian line of thought

has continued on very strongly in the modern

world in the emergence of the idea of social

and economic rights, which are aimed at guaranteeing

basic rights such as food, shelter, water,

health care, and the like. In much contemporary

debate on human rights, social and economic

rights have taken precedence over classical liberal

ideas of individual rights and liberties, which, proponents

of such views would argue, can only be

claimed and exercised by those with high social

status and power. Indeed, the fault lines between

liberal conceptions of rights and Marxian critiques

of rights remain very much alive in the early

twenty-first century in the heated debates about

neoliberalism and globalization, with so-called

neoliberals championing classical liberal ideas

of freedom, property, and capitalism, over and

against more Marxian-inspired theorists who see

globalization as yet another form of predatory and

exploitative social process. These issues are explored

in Richard Falk’s Human Rights Horizons


One of the most significant contributions of

sociological theory to the study of human rights,

and one which has not hitherto been made, would

be the analytical focus on the relationship between

the individual and society. All of the major

classical theorists were interested in this issue,

and this focus remains central to much contemporary

sociological theory. If there is one central point

of articulation between sociology and human

rights, as it is studied outside of the field, it lies in

the recognition that human rights represent individual

and collective aspirations for human freedom.

The idea of freedom has been articulated in

various times and places as emancipation, liberty,

autonomy, authenticity, or agency. As a result,

wherever we see expressions of human rights, we

see discourses of freedom, but also a discourse of

power, coercion, restraint, or tyranny, that is, something

which freedom is declared from or for. Historically,

cultural representations of human rights

rights, human rights, human


emerge dialectically in relation to oppressive

social structures and they are central to processes

of human emancipation and freedom.

While his work was not directly relevant to

human rights, Simmel’s formal sociology, which

examined the dialectical interplay between Geist

(spirit) and form, is especially important as a theoretical

underpinning for this dialectical conception

of human rights. As Simmel noted in The

Philosophy of Money (1900 [trans. 1978]), “negative

freedom” is the absence of structural impediments

to human agency. “Positive freedom” represents

the active construction of social-structural

arrangements to provide for basic human needs

and to alleviate the condition of human vulnerability

so that agents may claim their full agency

as human beings. This Simmelian conception of

freedom captures well the distinction between

negative rights and positive rights which is central

in the history of human rights. Negative rights –

as expressed, for instance, in the American Bill of

Rights – are primarily concerned with specifying

the limitations of the power of the state over

individuals and might be conceived in sociological

terms as proscriptive norms which set the preconditions

for the enablement of human agency,

liberty, and freedom. Positive rights, in contrast,

are prescriptive norms which specify the duties or

obligations of powerful entities, such as states and

economic systems, to provide resources and opportunities

for individuals to protect them from

both natural and social forces which make them

vulnerable. In the modern welfare state, positive

rights have taken a more central place in various

global human rights projects.

Human rights movements are cultural projects

which struggle to negate or temper powerful

social forms, such as tyranny, despotism, or unrestrained

market forces. At the same time, and

especially with the rise of the modern welfare

state, human rights projects aim to affirm human

existence by providing people with first-order

needs, such as food, shelter, housing, living wages,

medical care, and the like. There is considerable

debate in modern human rights movements

about whether negative rights or positive rights

ought to be primary. Proponents of negative

rights are more traditional in rooting their idea

of freedom in the alleviation of structural impediments

to individual agency. Proponents of positive

rights, however, counter this with a more sociological

view which holds that not all individuals

are equally placed within society and thus are

not equally as free as others to claim individual

rights, liberties, and freedoms. The object of most

rights movements based on positive conceptions

of rights is to redress social injustices and structured

inequalities, which will then create a situation

of equal opportunity for individuals to claim

the more abstract types of individual rights

and freedoms which comprise the core of liberal

conceptions of rights.

In this theoretical sense, various conceptions of

human rights, at various times and places, are, to

use Weber’s terms, forms of re-enchantment which

express themselves in dialectic relation to disenchanting

forms of social order. This is not an entirely

new process: while modernity has witnessed

an increase in the cultural expression of ideas of

freedom in the form of human rights discourse,

the struggle between agency and structure has

been a perennial aspect of human societies. Yet

the idea of human rights is one of the most

powerful cultural constructions of modernity.

As documented by Lynn Hunt in The French Revolution

and Human Rights (Hunt [ed.], 1996), for many

theorists of human rights the experience of the

French Revolution is a crucial starting point for

thinking about how human rights claims have

been made in relation to power. The French Declaration

of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

(1789) specifically tied the question of rights to

the status of citizenship. The Declaration was

notable for specifying what rights should be

accorded “the man and citizen,” but one of

the most crucial debates was about who would

be able to acquire the status of citizen and as a

consequence make valid claims to enjoy the rights

and freedoms specified in the Declaration. In this

sense, rights were privileges which were tied to

the status of citizenship. Indeed, Turner, in his

Sociology article of 1993 has noted that, to a large

extent, the sociology of human rights has been

part of the sociology of citizenship. The French

Revolution provided the impetus for a wide array

of groups – slaves and former slaves of African

origin, women, Jews, actors, and executioners –

who had been excluded from enjoying “the rights

of man” by virtue of their ascribed or acquired

statuses to mobilize to claim the status of citizenship

which would thereby confer upon them the

privilege and protection of human rights. The

sociological importance of the French Revolution

is that it established general grounds for both the

exercise of rights and exclusion from their enjoyment:

first, rights were a certain kind of privilege

to be enjoyed by individuals; second, the recognition,

which is now seen very clearly in the theory

of group rights, that not every individual is in a

position to enjoy such rights by virtue of being a

rights, human rights, human


member of a subordinated group; and third, that

human rights were not so much about the

process of creating social representations called

rights, but about the process of making claims

to human rights by disenfranchised groups,

once such cultural representations of rights had

been made.

In thinking about various human rights projects

in modernity, the French Revolution provides

an important historical model of the process

by which people, who define themselves as excluded

from citizenship, nevertheless make claims

to that juridical status, from which they then

might legitimately claim, and subsequently be

given, the protections and liberties which such a

status formally confers. The process of the mobilization

of groups in the modern world follows this

same model to a large extent, with the notable

exception that the substantive nature of the

groups has changed. In recent years, lobby groups

such as gay and lesbian communities, children,

criminals, and members of indigenous groups –

just to name a few – have made human rights

claims in the form of social movements. These

groups, which could not have made any legitimate

claims in the historical context of the French

Revolution, have proceeded along similar lines

by making claims to the status of being “fully

human,” and by virtue of that to enjoy the privilege

of certain rights.

The reticence of sociology as a discipline to

engage more fully in the study of human rights

may have something to do with sociology’s insistence

that it is a value-free science. Discussions of

human rights are for the most part normative,

and therefore would not be considered to be central

to scientific sociology. The influence of positivism

in sociology probably has much to do with

the distancing of the field from the field of human

rights, since positivist conceptions of human

beings cannot understand the dialectical interplay

between agency and structure which, as argued

above, is central to a theoretical understanding

of expressions such as rights in terms of agency

over and against structure. But even more fundamentally,

there is hostility between the dominant

philosophical tradition in human rights

and those philosophical traditions that form the

foundation of sociology.

While certainly not as important as it once

was, the natural-law tradition has been central to

thinking about human rights. Historically, theorists

of rights relied on the idea of the existence

of a “natural law,” which holds that human rights

exist across time and space, are universally valid

for all people, and can be understood and enacted

by all human individuals through the application

of reason. This metaphysical understanding of

rights was crucial in the Enlightenment to such

thinkers as Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and John

Locke (1632–1704), and was in addition the

basis for the American and French Revolutions.

Even Marx relied to some degree on the logic of

Natural Law theory with his dream of building a

communist utopia based on the purely scientific

understanding of historical materialism. Yet, the

Natural Law tradition is directly at odds with

the basic sociological axiom that all culture is

socially constructed and this is one reason why

both classical and contemporary sociology have

resisted the foundational claims of the natural

law tradition.

From the perspective of social constructionism,

human rights can only be seen as cultural representations,

which are projected, objectified, and

internalized by social actors to varying degrees at

various times and places in world history. The

understanding of such processes could provide a

firm footing for the sociology of human rights, but

would also place it a distance from the fundamentally

normative underpinnings of most human

rights theorizing outside of the discipline. Most

approaches in the formalized study of human

rights would not see human rights as simply interesting

“social facts,” which exist merely to be explained

scientifically, but as normative ideas and

concepts which are regarded as valuable in some

way for ordering human societies. The study of

human rights is not a value-free enterprise, but a

value-full one, and for the most part those who

study human rights generally tend to be strong

advocates of rights as a normative framework for

social order. Because of its radically constructivist

theoretical logic, sociology, like anthropology,

would naturally find itself at odds with other

conceptions from other disciplines, especially

philosophy, which have no problem with and are

predominantly concerned with the creation of

normative theory.

The existence of a value-free sociology is a

matter of much debate in sociology and has been

called into question by many leading theorists,

and specifically by Ju¨rgen Habermas in Knowledge

and Human Interests (1971). Most sociologists

are political liberals whose choice of topics is

conditioned by their ideological commitments

and values, and whose research aims at producing

knowledge which is helpful in the amelioration

of various social problems, especially those

related to subordinated classes and groups.

rights, human rights, human


Notwithstanding the ideological predisposition

towards social amelioration, the theoretical

assumptions of both structuralism and macrosociological

approaches, the concept of individual

agency, much less that of individual rights, would

not logically be the focus of sociological research

and practice. In this sense, the conceptual distance

between sociology and other fields on the issue of

human rights is more intelligible.

It is useful to see the distance between sociology

and mainstream work on human rights as

a product of the tensions between philosophical

debates over universalism and relativism. Universalism

is the belief that there are human rights,

values, norms, and ethics that exist across time

and space. Relativism is the idea that rights,

values, norms, and ethics are the product of particular

cultures and contingent historical forces.

Sociology is firmly grounded in relativism, as is

anthropology. It was in anthropology, however,

that a sharp tension between universalism and

relativism emerged in the mid twentieth century,

and many of the intellectual lessons learned

from this tension remain relevant to understanding

sociology’s position in relation to human


Following World War II, the Universal Declaration

of Human Rights (UNDHR) was finally ratified by

the newly formed United Nations on December

10, 1948. The UNDHR specified a range of both

individual and social and economic rights that

were held to be universal for all individuals, regardless

of their location in time and space. The

Declaration was met with hostility in the academic

field of anthropology when the Executive

Board of the American Anthropological Association

issued a statement in 1947 denouncing the

UNDHR as a form of western cultural imperialism

and decrying it for failing to affirm a central

“right to culture” and the importance of cultural

differences in determining specific values, norms,

and rights. The reaction by anthropologists to the

universalism of the UNDHR was strongly defensive

and did more to sharpen than resolve the tensions

between universalism and relativism. In fact, this

debate only served to create a more polarized

theoretical dichotomy between universalism and

relativism than is now considered the case in

contemporary anthropology. While it seemed

counterproductive at the time, these early debates

on rights established the presence of anthropology

rather than sociology in the history of ideas

on human rights and set the stage for a welldeveloped

contemporary anthropology which far

outpaces sociology in terms of its theoretical and

empirical level of development in the field of

human rights research.

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