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Themes & Topics

Below are some of the key themes, problems and issues that we concluded are important for the network to explore.

Chief themes
Duties, Obligation, Power

‘Duties’ are an under-studied concept in ‘rights’ history. We should explore to what ends discourses around ‘duties’ were put and how they related to other forms of morality and authority. Why have conservatives dominated this discourse? Have progressive political groups tried to mobilize the concept with rights?

The problem of ‘obligations’ is tethered to the problem of ‘power’. How do the reciprocal obligations implied by socioeconomic rights allow power relations to insinuate themselves in what may seem to be horizontal relationships among commensurate individuals in society? How does power use, intervene in or emerge from the ‘rights-duties’ discourse?


How have rights and duties been gendered over time? How have notions of gender inflected what ‘rights’ even mean in the first place? Has the gendered body given rise to specific kinds of rights and duties or have rights and duties produced gendered conceptions of the body? How has gender been a facilitator or hindrance to making socioeconomic rights claims?


How have socioeconomic rights related to empire and colonialism? Have natives demanded them? Have colonists accorded these rights as part of a ‘civilizing mission', in lieu of or in advance of civil and political rights?

Economic Development

How has economic development been seen as a vehicle for, or alternative to, socioeconomic rights?

Humanitarianism and Charity

How have the politics of obligation associated with socioeconomic rights (who owes what to whom?) played out differently than with humanitarianism or charity? Have the latter overlapped with, or differed from, socioeconomic rights?

Private/Corporate Sector

How have corporations and businesses sought to deal with the kind of claims socioeconomic rights entail? Have they opposed these rights or have they sought to channel them into non-state modes of realization?


How have definitions of the ‘human’ and ‘humanity’ figured in debates on socioeconomic rights? Have socioeconomic rights pre-supposed a de-individualized person (which suppresses all particularities and status) or have they produced different categories of persons? Perhaps both dynamics are at work: the de-individualized individual invoked in a rights discourse nevertheless gives way to bureaucratic practices that register and identify different kinds of individuals.

Particular social groups

Children, the aged, the disabled: how has recognition of these social groups propelled rights discourse? In what way have identity and agency shaped socioeconomic rights discourse? Has there been a tension between universal rights for all individuals and specific rights for particular social groups? What kind of agency is presupposed by socioeconomic rights as opposed to civil and political rights?


A risk in writing a history of socioeconomic rights is to assume a kind of primacy, or superiority, of Europe in creating a discourse that now has global reach. But by keeping our analysis focused on the more universal categories of ‘obligation’ and ‘power’, we can historically situate the ‘socioeconomic rights’ discourse within a broader cultural framework – a framework that applies to the analysis of any society. All societies manage obligations and power relations, so the question arises: how does the introduction of ‘socioeconomic rights’ discourse draw on or disrupt other cultural discourses of obligation and authority? Even within a European setting, we might ask how the socioeconomic discourse emerged from, or transformed, prior frameworks of power, exchange and obligation.

Redistribution vs. Recognition

In light of the debate between Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, how might we situate socioeconomic rights? Are they about redistribution or recognition – or both?

Content of socioeconomic rights

What have socioeconomic rights encompassed? What types of rights have been imagined (food, work, health, etc.) and how extensive have those claims been (safety nets or vehicles for ensuring ‘the good life’)?

Discourses and Debates

What are socioeconomic rights for? Do they give expression to utilitarianism (the need to create healthy and productive populations), to a fundamentally sacred notion of humanity, to collective ownership of resources? On what grounds of socioeconomic rights philosophically justified (or opposed)?

Political Systems

What kinds of political systems are socioeconomic rights consonant with? Liberal, republican, democratic, authoritarian?


Have socioeconomic rights been hampered by problems related to their justiciability? Are there alternative ways that the socioeconomic rights discourse can been effective beyond the judicial?

Relationship with Civil and Political Rights

When did the socioeconomic vs. civil/political distinction emerge? How has the distinction been deployed and why? What chronology has been accorded to the two sets of rights? Why have some argued for civil and political rights as preceding socioeconomic ones but, also, why have socioeconomic ones been given priority over civil/political rights?

Religion vs. secularism

How has religion promoted socioeconomic rights, or what does the discourse of socioeconomic rights owe to various strands of religion? Have secular formulations of these rights competed with religious articulations or have they been mutually reinforcing each other?


How have different parts of the world mobilized or opposed socioeconomic rights? Have other globalizing processes (commercial and financial integration, for example) had an impact on how countries view socioeconomic rights? And how are socioeconomic rights imagined as a global aspiration, beyond nation states? Do nation-states that have signed onto socioeconomic rights covenants and protocols have only a duty to ensure those rights to their own citizens (and perhaps immigrant populations) or do nation-states have duties to each other to help each other realize such aspirations? Is sovereignty a hindrance to these rights? How do anti-globalization groups, which tend to oppose Western liberalism as hegemonic, reconcile their stance with socioeconomic justice?


How have socioeconomic rights been tethered to citizenship? Do resident non-citizens have these rights (if not, why not)? Is there a kind of moral reciprocity functioning only at the citizenship level and how do such citizen-based discourses succeed in justifying exclusions or suspensions?


How did socioeconomic rights give expression to notions of social (religious and sacred) debts? Are people morally indebted to each other as humans or as citizens? More concretely, how does financial debt impinge upon socioeconomic rights? Are a state’s obligations to creditors superior to its obligations to secure a minimum standard of living?


How have markets figured in the origins of rights-duties thinking? Did they raise material expectations? Did the market contract model spill-over into socioeconomic rights discourse? How have markets been envisaged as vehicles for realizing socioeconomic rights (micro-finance, for example)? Do markets and charity tend to go together historically, one complementing, or compensating for, the other?

Financing socioeconomic rights

Who pays? Are socioeconomic rights to be financed publicly by the state through taxation? Are private bodies to be set-up and mobilized for their realization? Are there forms of ‘mutualités’, or mutual insurance systems, that are deemed sufficient to satisfy demands for socioeconomic rights?


Has total war been a factor in propelling the legitimacy of socioeconomic rights, especially in the early to mid twentieth century?


How do givers and recipients get to express their views and will? Are recipients treated bureaucratically or do they get to be agents in the process of establishing and maintaining socioeconomic rights? Who defines these rights and who receives them (all humans, certain citizens, non-human actors such as animals)?


Can we speak of ‘origins’ of socioeconomic rights? Can we identify periods of progress and decline in the legitimacy and content of socioeconomic rights claims? What accounts for rises and falls in their legitimacy? Can the discourse be seen as evolving from utilitarian thinking, to socialist thinking, to humanitarian/moral thinking?