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Recent work in anthropology on human rights

serves as a valuable reference point for a sociology

of human rights. For example Jane Cowan, Marie-

Be´ne´dicte Dembour and Richard Wilson (eds.), Culture

and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives (2001),

and Sally Merry, Human Rights and Gender Violence:

Translating International Law into Local Justice (2006)

have developed new conceptions of culture and

human rights which focus on how universal conceptions

of human rights interact with local

cultures to produce cultural outcomes which are

neither universal nor particular. In this sense,

they have recast the fruitless and dichotomous

debate between universalism and relativism by

observing through ethnographic detail how globalized

conceptions of human rights intersect with

local cultures, and how this process is affected by

the various processes of globalization. The solution

to the relativist–universalist debate is not to

be found in any abstract considerations, but in the

re-conception of the idea of culture as a process,

where the focus is on the empirical details of how

human rights and local cultures interact dialectically

in specific locations to produce new hybrid

and contingent cultural outcomes.

These new anthropological approaches have

produced some of the most important contributions

to understanding human rights outcomes as

a negotiated process. Nonetheless, they do not

solve the problems for human rights posed by

relativism more generally. If such cultural practices

as female genital mutilation, torture, and

genocide, which are generally assumed to be gross

violations of human rights in the normative discourse

of human rights, are simply seen as normal

behaviors which cannot be judged by any universal

standards, then it is virtually impossible for

social scientists or activists to advocate any form

of social intervention against these practices without

contradicting themselves or adhering to some

form of universal morality, albeit a very minimalist

morality. For the most part, most contemporary

theorists of human rights have developed the

idea of a minimal morality, a set of rights which

the majority of people, regardless of their location

in space and time, might consider to be not

subject to derogation. Such a set of peremptory

norms might serve as a basic common position for

a global project of human rights advancement.

This “minimalist argument” has been advanced

by both Michael Walzer in Thick and Thin: Moral

Argument at Home and Abroad (1994) and by Michael

Ignatieff in Human Rights As Politics and Idolatry

rights, human rights, human


(2001). Yet even such minimal moralities have

not secured themselves as the basis of a common

global morality: serious violations of human

rights, including torture, slavery, gross violations

of women’s rights, and genocide continue unabated

in the modern world. It is worth pointing

out, as well, that, quite outside of any theoretical

or empirical arguments for or against it, relativism

falls apart on logical grounds as well, since

the relativist position is itself put forth in the

form of a general statement of value, thereby

refuting its own foundational proposition that

there can be no such general statements of value.

Relativism is a self-defeating argument.

When the UNDHR came into force, the dominant

paradigm in American sociology was functionalism.

Functionalist sociology is ostensibly guided

by a form of methodological relativism that would

look at any given society in terms of how its

values, ethics, norms, and laws are functional or

dysfunctional for the maintenance of social order

or the production of social disorder. From a

strictly functionalist perspective, for instance, it

might be possible to argue that certain human

rights are denied to people in societies out of

functional necessity and that the provision of

rights constructed from outside of the society

would throw the society into disequilibrium. In

this sense, functionalism can be seen, in some

ways, as a modern analog to classical conservative

critiques of rights, such as that presented in 1790

by Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in

France (1955). In his strident attack on the Enlightenment

arguments underpinning the French

Revolution, Burke argued that abstract and universal

rights such as those produced by the French

radicals, when transposed to other societies, were

a direct threat to the traditions and values which

held such societies together. While Burkean conservatives

had attacked the Revolution’s formulation

of rights, in general sociologists offered

virtually no reaction to the UNDHR. If there was

any reaction at all, it was one of acceptance and

celebration of the new universal ideas which were

touted as the basis for a new world order, for

instance by R. M. MacIver in Great Expressions of

Human Rights (1950).

In the 1960s, the idea of group rights began to

emerge as a strong criticism of classical conceptions

of human rights and this idea was attractive to

sociologists whose main area of focus was the structural

subordination of groups, classes, and minority

cultures, andwho felt that the assumptions of structural-

functionalist perspectives ignored, or even justified,

such social subordination in their theories.

Advocates of group rights argued that traditional

conceptions of rights, especially those derived from

the Natural Law tradition, were almost completely

concerned with the rights of individuals. In such

documents as the UNDHR, the rights specified refer

to abstract, idealized individuals who exist outside

specific locations, and historical and group processes.

As such, proponents of individual rights

ignore the central sociological fact that individuals

exist as members of cultures and groups, which

fundamentally structure and condition individuals’

abilities to claim their human rights. For instance,

in the everyday world, people do not interact with

each other based solely on considerations of the

individuality of the other person. The interaction is

conditioned by perceptions of the groups, classes,

or other categories to which people belong. As an

example of this, one of the most celebrated documents

in the history of individual rights, the Constitution

of the United States which was created in

the Virginia convention of 1787, provided a set of

sacred ideals for individual rights without even considering

women’s rights, and redefined the humanity

of African Americans with the result that they

were not seen as being fully human. In the so-called

three-fifths rule, African slaves in the United States

were counted as only three-fifths human for purposes

of political apportionment of representation

in the new republic.

The idea of group rights would seem, on its face,

to be immensely attractive to sociologists and

there is little question that the discipline has

much to offer theorists of group rights from its

substantial literature on differential treatment of

social groups and classes. A large part of the stock

of knowledge of sociology is relevant to these

debates and one major task of sociology is to articulate

its knowledge about social class, group

dynamics, social status, and differential treatment

of subordinated groups more clearly with

the discourse on human rights occurring in other

fields. American sociology is extremely provincial

in its focus on American society, and within

American society the discourse on human rights,

as opposed to the notion of civil rights, is not a

major cultural narrative used to describe problems

in that society. In general, human rights

have been a global description and explanation

of events outside of the United States, and this

global narrative has failed to make significant

inroads into American sociology. One of the

more interesting questions in the field of human

rights is why human rights violations are considered

something which happens outside the

boundaries of the United States, whereas human

rights, human rights, human


rights violations within the United States are not

articulated within the more general discourse of

human rights.

The most comprehensive recent programmatic

statement for an autonomous field of the sociology

of human rights has been put forward

by Gideon Sjoberg, Elizabeth Gill, and Norma

William in their “A Sociology of Human Rights”

(2001, Social Problems). This work is the most useful

starting point for acquiring an extensive understanding

of how contemporary sociological thinking

can be made more relevant to human rights,

which, at present, is at the center of cultural

discourse on global civil society. However, one of

the boldest new attempts to construct a new theoretical

program for a sociology of human rights

has been put forward by Bryan S. Turner, in a

variety of works but most recently in his Vulnerability

and Human Rights (2006). Turner attempts to

provide a foundationalist, as opposed to a constructivist,

sociology of rights and argues that all

human beings are vulnerable and exist in a precarious

relationship to the social and natural

world. This vulnerability is a cultural universal

which challenges both cultural relativism, which

holds that there are no such universals, and the

idea that there are no universal grand narratives

which are applicable to the amelioration of

human rights violations. Turner argues that our

common vulnerability makes us dependent and

interdependent on others and that a sociological

theory of human rights must focus on this vulnerability

and the various ways in which different

human societies develop institutions which both

alleviate and exploit vulnerability. Turner argues

that mutual recognition and sympathy based on a

common awareness of human vulnerability is a

fundamental precondition for a viable liberal

democratic order. He develops the idea of sympathy

alongside the notion of cosmopolitanism,

and both concepts are in turn related to recent

work on “recognition ethics,” which were originally

outlined in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s

Philosophy of Right (1821 [trans. 1952]). These claim

that no ethical relationship can exist between

two individuals without their prior mutual recognition

of each other as free, moral agents.

Slavery is the extreme example of the absence of


In this sense, Turner’s emergent work is in the

best tradition of sociological theorizing which

seeks to establish a foundationalist basis for the

study of human rights and which aims at practical

normative outcomes. He outlines a new theoretical

perspective which serves as the basis of an

ethically engaged and politically viable strategy

for understanding and alleviating human frailty

and vulnerability in modern social life. Turner’s

work represents one of the most useful and important

starting points for a new phase of sociological

theory on human rights. In its interdisciplinary

scope and aspirations to bring the most important

traditions of sociology to the study of human

rights, Turner’s work provides a grounding for

the development of an autonomous sociology of

human rights, one which affirms that a universal

aspect of the human condition is vulnerability and

which establishes the fact that sociological theory,

informed by the advances in other disciplines, has

an important role to play in understanding the

origins and consequences of institutionalized responses

to human vulnerability. TOM CUSHMAN

Riley, Matilda White (1911–2004)

First Executive Officer of the American Sociological

Association (1949–60), Chief Consulting

Economist for the US War Production Board

(1942–4), and University Professor of Rutgers University

(1950–73), Riley was a pioneering figure in

the development of the sociology of aging. She

worked at the Russell Sage Foundation (1974–7),

was founding Associate Director (1979–91) of, and

subsequently Senior Social Scientist (1991–7) for,

Behavioral and Social Research at the National

Institute on Aging in the United States. She finished

her career as a professor at Bowdoin College

Maine (1973–81).

Riley developed the age stratification theory in

which society is stratified into various age cohorts,

and each age cohort has life-course and historical

dimensions. Different age cohorts age differently.

To express these processes, she developed the

“aging and society paradigm” which articulates

cohort flow and social change, and explicated

age as a feature of social structure. Social structure

and ideology combine to exercise constraints

on the human capacity for living and aging successfully

and productively. One aspect of the

power of social structure and ideology over individual

lives was age segregation. Her aging and

society paradigm demonstrated that cohort membership

does not simply influence people as children,

but affects them through the life-course in

terms of the groups to which they belong, the

people with whom they interact, and the cultural

conditions to which they are exposed. Her contribution

to the sociological study of aging was published

in the three-volume edited collection Aging

and Society (1968–72). BRYAN S. TURNER

rights, human Riley, Matilda White (1911–2004)



The concept of risk has been elaborated in a variety

of social science disciplines, generating distinct

but overlapping literatures in anthropology, economics,

and sociology. Joseph Alois Schumpeter,

in The Theory of Economic Development (1934), famously

characterized entrepreneurship in terms of

a propensity for risk-taking behavior. In his Risk,

Uncertainty and Profit (1921), Frank Knight formulated

the benchmark distinction between risk, in

which a random process generates an outcome

which, though unpredictable, is determined by

parameters that are known in advance, and uncertainty,

where such probabilities are not known.

Following on from this, in economics the variance

of possible outcomes is often used as a measure

of risk.

Since the mid-1980s the idea of risk has also

been taken up in sociology, becoming an increasingly

central concept in the characterization and

investigation of modernity. In a general sense, risk

is an intrinsic part of the human condition,

arising necessarily from the capacity of sentient

minds to envisage, anticipate, and understand the

meaning of death and dying and injury, to evaluate

rationally different courses of action, and to empathize

with the lifeworld of other thinking, feeling

selves. In relation to this, superstition, ritual,

and magic in traditional societies can be understood,

at least in part, in terms of the strategies

and belief systems through which individuals and

social groups attempt to deal with, contain, and

prevent anticipated danger. In the same way many

modern practices and behaviors, though nominally

grounded in a more rational-scientific understanding

of causation, are also to be understood in

terms of the sense of empowerment and agency

that they engender in an otherwise chaotic and

uncertain world of random and unpredictable


However, this psycho-anthropological continuity

notwithstanding, sociologists and historians

have also charted a series of significant transformations

in the nature and social perceptions of risk

over the last three centuries. In premodern, medieval

societies the idea of risk was coterminous with

fate or fortune and understood in terms of acts of

God: risk as the unpredictable consequence of a

radically indeterminate cosmos. In the wake of

the Enlightenment a new paradigm emerged with

the concept of risk being extended to cover the

social world and being seen to derive from human

action. In this new understanding, risk came to

denote a calculable, mathematical probability

and was in this sense transformed into something

knowable, predictable, and to some extent manageable

– contrasting with a situation of uncertainty in

which probabilities remained inestimable. In this

developing, insurance-based paradigm, risk was a

neutral concept and could be good or bad. In the

eighteenth and nineteenth centuries calculable risk

in this sense was linked closely with the newscience

of statistics and can be understood as an aspect of

the Enlightenment vision of an objective world,

knowable, and manageable through the extension

of scientific explanation.

More recently, during the period characterized

variously in terms of postmodernism, post-

Fordism, and postindustrial society, the colloquial

meaning of risk has narrowed, the term becoming

synonymous with a vaguely specified sense of

danger or threat; an undesirable outcome per se,

divorced from any statistical notion of probability.

In Risk (1999), Deborah Lupton relates this narrowing

of meaning to the information-technologydriven

expansion of routinized data-gathering,

the availability of large datasets, and the resulting

proliferation of risk calculations in all areas of

socioeconomic and cultural life. The pervasive language

of risk probability in popular discourse

makes it difficult for individuals to accommodate

the older, neutral concept of risk in the development

of personal life strategies. This cultural

saturation is reinforced at a deeper level by increasing

awareness of the global and potentially

devastating nature of what Ulrich Beck, thinking

about nuclear technology and global ecological

problems, calls “civilizational risks.” Such riskrelated

anxiety corresponds with the more general

uncertainty about the benefits of industrial–

scientific progress diagnosed by postmodernist

commentators. In a similar vein, sociologists have

linked the declining trust in social institutions

and traditional authorities to the undermining

of the insurance paradigm based on the modernist

conception of risk. Niklas Luhmann characterizes

late-modern risk awareness as a fascination for

improbable circumstances with grave outcomes.

Recent approaches to risk can usefully be divided

into three categories. Technoscientific (realist)

approaches continued the modernist preoccupation

with risk measurement and management.

The cultural-symbolic approach associated particularly

with Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky,

Risk and Culture (1982), emphasized the cultural

processes through which certain risks are given

greater weight than others. Focusing on the

role of experts in constructing and mediating

risk risk


discourses on risk as a peculiar feature of modern

societies, Foucauldian/governmentality approaches,

arguments such as F. Ewald’s “Insurance and

Risk” in The Foucault Effect (1991), take social constructionism

the farthest, thereby undermining

any claims as to the objective nature of risk.

Sharing a great deal with the work of A. Giddens

and occupying a “realist” position that lies somewhere

between these poles, Beck’s Risk Society (1986

[trans. 1992]) was published in the same year as

the nuclear accident occurred at Chernobyl. This

macro-perspective focuses on three processes –

individualization, reflexivity, and globalization –

which in combination engender a process of transition

towards “risk society.” In conditions of postscarcity,

the production of wealth (economic

goods) continues alongside a parallel production

of risks (“bads”), some of which threaten global

civilization. Late-modern risks are characterized

by a “boomerang” effect: their impacts cannot be

limited spatially, socially, or temporally to particular

communities but ripple across social class,

national, and even generational boundaries.

Beck’s work has been highly influential, not least

because of his success in linking widely separated

processes such as individualization, the feminization

of labor markets, and the growth of information

technology to what he calls reflexive

modernization. The progressive loosening of the

traditional ascriptive patterning of social class

and gender contributes to the expanding field

of sub-politics, characterized variously by the

activism of new social movements, single-issue

campaigns, an increased role for courts and

the legal system, and a corresponding decline in

the salience of the traditional class–party system.

And it is the negotiated management of the problems

and risks of late-modern society in these

more fluid spaces of civil society that create the

feedback loops underpinning the new reflexivity.

For Beck the new risks are systematic (unavoidable

and intrinsic to the process of modernization),

impersonal, global, and imperceptible. Emanating

from the scientific industrial system, they undermine

the public authority of science while increasing

public dependence on scientific expertise

not only for their detection and management,

but also for supporting particular perspectives or

campaigns in the proliferating sub-politics. In this

sense the risk society thesis echoes familiar

postmodern themes of public disaffection with

the meta-narrative of progress, while positing an

ongoing modernization process in which, increasingly,

reflexivity offers the prospect of an ongoing

management, if not resolution, of the technoecological

and social problems of post-industrial


risk society

– see risk.

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