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This guide accompanies the following article: Mark Frezzo, ‘Sociology and Human Rights in the Post Development Era’, Sociology Compass 5/3 (2011): 203–214, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00361.x.

Author’s introduction

The founding of the Thematic Group on Human Rights and Global Justice in the International Sociological Association in 2006 and the Section on the Sociology of Human Rights in the American Sociological Association in 2008 testify to the emergence of the sociology of human rights as a distinct field of research and teaching. In a nutshell, the field involves the analysis of (a) the social conditions under which human rights treaties and laws are drafted, debated, implemented, and enforced, and (b) the manner in which human rights treaties and laws constrain and/or enable nation-states, societies, communities, and individuals. This entails explaining the social impact of a series of United Nations documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which created a framework for the implementation of human rights across the world; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), which outlined first-generation rights to liberty and security of the person; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), which outlined second-generation rights to equality and third-generation rights to solidarity. In the postwar period, these documents became important reference points not only for the UN and its member nations, but also for national liberation movements in the global South. More recently, these documents have guided the undertakings of non-governmental organizations (including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) and social movement organizations in responding to poverty, inequality, exclusion, and environmental degradation. In sum, the sociology of human rights draws on such fields as the sociology of law, development sociology, political economy, environmental sociology, organizational sociology, and social movement research in explaining ‘rights effects’.

Author recommends

While Micheline Ishay’s The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008) offers the authoritative account of the origins and evolution of human rights doctrine, Judith Blau and Alberto Moncada’s Human Rights: A Primer (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009) serves as an excellent introduction to cutting-edge thinking on economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the present day.

Jackie Smith’s Social Movements for Global Democracy (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and Clifford Bob’s edited volume, The International Struggle for Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) explain how popular movements in the age globalization have reinterpreted old rights, invented new rights, and, in the process, forged transnational coalitions with non-governmental organizations and, in some cases, with UN agencies.

Roland Burke’s Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) offers great insights into the role of the global South – or what used to be known as the ‘Third World’– in reinterpreting and expanding the human rights canon.

Online materials

In analyzing the reinterpretation of the human rights canon, sociologists examine a number of primary sources from the UN: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm). More recently, the World Social Forum’s Charter of Principles (http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/main.php?id_menu=4&cd_language=2) has become an important touchstone for social movement organizations challenging neoliberalism.

In the last few years, scholars have made substantial progress in institutionalizing the social scientific study of human rights. This mission statements of the Thematic Group on Human Rights and Global Justice in the International Sociological Association (http://www.isa-sociology.org/tg03.htm) and the Section on the Sociology of Human Rights in the American Sociological Association (http://www.asanet.org/sections/humanrights.cfm) capture the essence of the sociology of human rights. In 2009, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which represents all of the social and natural science disciplines in the US, launched its Science and Human Rights Program (http://shr.aaas.org/) to promote human rights through scientific discovery. The program’s website contains a wealth of information on AAAS activities in four areas: Engaging Scientists (http://shr.aaas.org/Programs/program_engaging.htm), Applying Science (http://shr.aaas.org/Programs/program_applying.htm), Conduct of Science (http://shr.aaas.org/Programs/program_conduct.htm), and Science as a Human Right (http://shr.aaas.org/Programs/program_article15.htm).

Sample syllabus: sociology of human rights

Course description

In recent years, sociologists have joined legal scholars, political scientists, and philosophers in debating the nature and scope of human rights. In keeping with their training, sociologists explore the social conditions under which human rights legislation is drafted, interpreted, enforced, and violated. In addition, sociologists examine how the conferral of rights affects the conduct of societies, communities, and individuals. In the process of explaining how rights—understood as claims made on governments and other institutions—‘circulate’ among different social actors, this course examines a series of questions. How has the concept of human rights evolved from the Enlightenment to the present day? How have inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and social movement organizations (SMOs) promoted human rights? What is the connection between human rights and democracy? What are the prospects for a rights regime on a global scale?

Course objectives

This course introduces students to the sociology of human rights – a growing field in academia. In becoming conversant in the scholarly debates on human rights, students will acquire a technical vocabulary: first-generation rights (pertaining to liberty); second-generation rights (pertaining to equality); and third-generation rights (pertaining to solidarity). In addition, students will learn to apply the tools of sociology to the following phenomena:

  • Historical conflicts over human rights.
  • Networks of IGOs, NGOs, and movements pushing for new rights.
  • Advocacy of human rights and processes of democratization.
  • Proposals for a human rights regime on a global scale.

Course readings

  • Donnelly, Jack (2003). Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice.
  • Ishay, Micheline (2004). The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era.

Course schedule

Week 1: What is the sociology of human rights?

  • Discussion of Syllabus and Objectives.
  • Introduction to the Study of Human Rights.

Week 2: Human rights in the enlightenment and the industrial revolution

  • Discussion of Reading: Ishay, 1–14 and 63–116, 117–72.

Week 3: Human rights in the 20th century

  • Discussion of Reading: Ishay, 173–244.

Week 4: Globalization, human rights, and social movements

  • Discussion of Reading: Ishay, 245–314.

Week 5: Human rights in the 21st century

  • Discussion of Reading: Ishay, 315–55.

Week 6: Defining rights

  • Discussion of Reading: Donnelly, 7–37.

Week 7: Group rights

  • Discussion of Reading: Donnelly, 89–106 and 204–41.

Week 8: Global human rights regime?

  • Discussion of Reading: Donnelly, 127–54.

Weeks 9 and 10: Implementing human rights in the ‘Real World’

  • Class Project on human rights, development, and global governance.

Focus questions

  • 1
    Explain the three generations of human rights. Be sure to cover the following themes: liberty, equality, and solidarity; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966).
  • 2
    Explain the debate on universalism and relativism. Why is the debate important?
  • 3
    Explain Ishay’s argument about the role of social movements in promoting human rights.
  • 4
    In light of Ishay’s book, what it your assessment of the prospects for a more robust and enforceable human rights framework? How would you go about deepening human rights on a global scale?
  • 5
    How does Donnelly’s theoretical analysis of human rights relate to Ishay’s historical analysis of human rights? To what extent are they complementary?
  • 6
    How does Donnelly handle the debate on universalism and relativism?
  • 7
    How does Donnelly explain group rights? How does he handle the problem of self-determination?
  • 8
    In your view, how has Donnelly contributed to the sociology of human rights? In light of Donnelly’s work, what are your expectations and hopes for the sociology of human rights?