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Keywords:

  • human rights;
  • legal anthropology;
  • political anthropology;
  • epistemology;
  • human rights policy

In this article, I argue for an ethnographic approach to human rights that recognizes the plural and fragmentary nature of the international rights regime and the ideological promiscuity of rights talk. Instead of determining in advance the social or political character of rights, anthropologists could profitably draw from the insights of early-20th-century “legal realists” and look closely at the underlying assumptions and hidden practices of political and legal processes. Studying the “social life of human rights” would involve focusing on, inter alia, the performative dimensions of human rights, the dynamics of social mobilization, and the attitudinal changes of elite and nonelite social actors towards formulations of “rights” and “justice,” both inside and outside the legal process. I conclude with a review of recent anthropological research on human rights epistemology and evaluate its implications for human rights policy.