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The Module in 10 Points

1. This is a new module. Its aim is to introduce students to what is emerging as a new field in the discipline of sociology: inquiry into the idea and experience of human rights. There is a huge amount written on the topic of human rights within the disciplines of law, politics, philosophy and to a lesser extent history. There is, however, far less work on human rights that is explicitly done within the field of sociology.


2. Today human rights constitute a sub-section of law and legal scholarship in which lawyers can specialise. The normative justification of human rights has been widely discussed by philosophers and political theorists as well as lawyers. Human rights are also widely discussed by citizens as part of the cut and thrust of political argument. This module opens up the question of what role there is for sociology and social theory more broadly in understanding human rights. As for the future, my hunch is that we shall find a lot more literature with ‘sociology of human rights’ or the like in their titles. The main reason for the growing interest in the idea of human rights within sociology has to do with the changing nature of society, where it seems that human rights have become a far more prominent feature of the social and political landscape than in the past. The idea of human rights has a long prehistory – ever since legal personality became in principle a universal property of all human beings and no longer represented a privileged status opposed to that of slaves, servants and other dependents. This was a modern development and according to Hegel I one of the defining principles of modernity.


3. The pre-history of human rights was most manifest in the 18th century enlightenment when ‘natural right’ philosophies came to the fore. It was then picked up in a more political way in the declarations of the ‘rights of man’ that marked the revolutions in France, America, Poland, Haiti and doubtless other places too. There is lots of literature on the idea of the rights of man and on the role it played in relation not only to citizens but also to foreigners, blacks, slaves, women, Jews and the working class. Some of the literature emphasises the universalistic hope embodied in the rights of man; while some emphasises the silences and exclusions that were practiced and the difficulties encountered in addressing these exclusions.


4. By the pre-history of human rights I refer, then, to the emergence of the idea of the ‘rights of man’ in 18th century enlightenment thought, its application in and to the French, American and other revolutions, the exclusions and silences concealed beneath its veneer of universality, and the efforts of radical thinkers and movements to overcome these exclusions and silences and extend the rights of man to women, slaves, colonial subjects, Jews and the working class. It includes in particular the philosophical endeavour represented in Kant’s cosmopolitan writings to realise the promise of universality implicit in the idea of the rights of man and counteract the forces of nationalism and imperialism. This pre-history is important for our understanding of human rights not only because it paved the way for their development but also because the ideas of ‘human rights’ and ‘rights of man’ are too often collapsed into one another. It may be more important than we think to address the distinction between them.


5. The most common narrative in historical accounts is that in the 19th century the idea of human rights went on the back burner with the rise of nationalism, imperialism and modern forms of state power. According to this narrative human rights are a reconstruction of the rights of man, the evolution of which was halted for a couple of hundred years and only revived after the Second World War. It is said that the rights of man were a child of the 18th century but could not survive in the face of the modern bureaucratic state, colonial expansion, new forms of nationalism, antisemitism and racism, mechanised warfare and the displacement of large sections of the world population. The decline of the rights of man in the two hundred years that followed their ‘declaration’ is a crucial part of their history, though not everyone of course succumbed to the prevailing winds of nationalism. What is perhaps most notable is how far the rights of man were re-channelled into the right of nations to self-determination.


6. It wasn’t clear after 1945 whether the idea of human rights would be a 15 minute wonder expressing the aspirations of enlightened intellectuals but without any real staying power, or would become one of the enduring features of the postwar age. One might have been forgiven for thinking that the rise of human rights was merely a transitory moment of enlightenment enthusiasm since they seemed to retreat rapidly with the re-emergence of modern statism in the shape of the Cold War, anti-colonial struggles in the Third World, bureaucratic domination in the Eastern bloc and social struggles for full employment and a welfare state in the Western bloc. This seemed to leave little space for the idea of human rights. To the best of my knowledge, for example, little reference was made to the idea of human rights in the context of the Vietnam War or the British war against the Mau Mau in Kenya or the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.


7. On the other hand, the institutions and conventions of human rights and humanitarian law have taken off apace in the international arena. We need only think of the Nuremberg Tribunal (1945), the International Court of Justice (1946), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (from 1966), the Vienna convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (1987), the ad hoc tribunals for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia (1993) and Rwanda (1994), and the International Criminal Court (2002). The norms contained in these treaties, conventions and declarations are frequently broken, but what is new is that they exist. They have had a major impact on the domestic constitutions of nation states and transnational federations such as the European Union, and have been supported by civil society associations like Amnesty International. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1989, it is arguable that world society cannot be understood without reference to the idea of human rights.


8. So the object of sociological knowledge we shall address is an emergent property of the modern world. Its existence is made objective in texts, treaties, conventions, constitutions, courts, social movements and NGOs. It is also present in discourses in the public sphere. The idea of human rights is not, then, a mere idea or abstract ideal, but a definite social form characteristic of our own age. The sociology of human rights is the study of this social form: its emergence and development, its uses and abuses, its functions for capitalist economy, its place within the structure of modern society as a whole.


9. It is not easy to define what sociology does in relation to human rights, which is different from what law, politics and philosophy do. What is at issue is not only a question of definition but of investigation and exploration. At the start it may be easier to say what sociology does not do. A. It is not a natural law theory that determines what human rights ought universally to be and then assesses the laws and institutions of particular societies according to this standard. B. It is not a legal positivism that simply describes or at best orders what human rights law is. C. It is not a moral philosophy designed to justify human rights or the societies that produce them. D. It is not a political realism that declares power to be the only reality and all notions of right to be illusions that ought to be dispelled. If we accept that the sociology of human rights is none of these things, we may have made our first step toward finding out what it is.


10. Sociologists and social theorists have explored such questions as the increasing centrality of human rights both in national constitutions and in expanded forms of political community such as the European Union; the application of human rights principles and laws beyond the boundaries of nation states, the responsibilities of power to prevent or stop atrocities occurring in other nation states, the constitutionalisation of international law, and the rhetoric of human rights in political argument. These substantive discussions raise historical questions about the emergence of human rights; conceptual questions concerning the relation of human rights to other forms of right, including civil, political and social rights; normative questions concerning the right of all human beings to have rights; and critical questions concerning the legitimacy of human rights. It seems to me important to draw on the resources of the sociological tradition in order to develop the sociology of human rights as a field within the larger discipline.