SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Anthropology of Human Rights

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2021/2022
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 1

This course explores the historical origins, philosophical underpinnings, and contemporary practices of human rights in multiple contexts across the globe. Drawing on anthropological concepts and ethnographic approaches, we will investigate questions of how and why human rights has come to be such a predominant moral-political language and practice in the world today, and what role it plays in shaping social relationships and political conflict.


  • Students enrol via the online Module Sign-Up system.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate the ability to:

  1. Demonstrate a good understanding of the history of the human rights system.
  2. Have become acquainted with the ways anthropology analyzes human rights ideology and practice.
  3. Understand critical debates about the human rights system, including those about universalism and relativism, humanitarianism, and the politicization of human rights in different historical and ethnographic contexts.
  4. Critically analyse and synthesize relevant primary sources and secondary material.
  5. Contribute effectively to debate and discussion.
  6. Effectively convey ideas by way of written submission.

Scope and syllabus

Few international debates occur without a politician making reference to human rights, whether to shore up their own position or that of their country, to justify policies of support or sanction that purport to alleviate the sufferings of others, or to decry the sufferings and injustices that other regimes inflict on their populations. Likewise, many groups – including indigenous populations, people living under military occupation, as well as state representatives – deploy human rights principles in their political claims.  Drawing on anthropological concepts and approaches, this course investigates questions of how and why human rights has come to be such a predominant moral-political language and practice in the world today, and what role it plays in socio-political relationships and conflict. It encourages the study of “human rights” primarily as a category and form of social and political practice that emerged as a significant political language out of specific historical circumstances, rather than as a normative set of rules and laws. The question of how claims to cultural difference stand in tension with assertions of universal rights is explored through an examination of how the human rights system, NGOs, the global media, and the ways they represent “victims” across broad social terrains shape conflicts and claim making.  This course asks students to consider what is at stake in the accounts of human rights that show them to be ideals constructed in the west and taken up by others.  This course also asks students to draw on ethnographic case studies to reflect critically on the arguments of both those who offer idealist accounts of the human rights system that propound the positive unfolding of ideals of dignity and freedom, as well as those that have described human rights as a hegemonic ideology that cripples collective action.  It invites students to explore the nature and effects of political claims—for justice, protection, redress, liberation, military intervention, and international aid—that are made through the language and institutions of human rights. With this historical and ethnographic grounding, participants in this course will be able to critically evaluate more recent and provocative arguments which contend that the moral authority and political power of the human rights system is on the decline.

Topics include:

  • Week 1: Introduction: Natural Rights and Anthropology
  • Week 2: How Universal is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
  • Week 3: Universalism and Relativism: The Case of Women in Islam
  • Week 4: Colonialism in the Formation of the League of Nations and the United Nations
  • Week 5: Anthropology on Human Rights: The Case of Universalism vs. Relativism
  • Week 7: Human Rights and Resistance
  • Week 8: Humanitarianism and the Politics of Suffering
  • Week 9: Humanitarianism and Refugees
  • Week 10: Human Rights in the Hands of the State
  • Week 11: The Endtimes of Human Rights?

Suggested reading

Introductory Readings:

  • Lauren, Paul Gordon. 2003. The Evolution of International Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Ben Jelloun, Tahar. This Blinding Absence of Light. Linda Coverdale. (Translator) (novel)
  • Middle East Research and Information Project. Middle East Report. 2000. Issue 214.
  • Wilson, Richard A. 2001. Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules