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Cultures of Human Rights


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: Eddie Bruce-Jones
  • Assessment: a 4000-word essay (100%)

Module description

The discourse of human rights has become one of the most globalised values of our times, yet by no means does it resolve numerous tensions and contradictions embodied in various cultural and political contexts where rights talk is central. It is difficult to discuss the universality of rights without engaging with writing on culture from anthropology and cultural studies, fields which have moved beyond reified notions of culture. This course will attempt to come to a more nuanced understanding of the politics of human rights and a discussion of the limits of rights within various political and cultural struggles.

Historically anthropologists were unwilling to analyse human rights issues as they believed that human rights discourse could not transcend cultural diversity. While some anthropological thinking continues to subscribe to such a view, in general anthropology has begun to recognise that such a position is based on a static conception of culture. Instead culture is increasingly perceived as dynamic and productive as well as infused with other systems of meaning. The course will examine the question of the relation between culture, however defined, and human rights theory and practice with the aid of ethnographic and critical studies of human rights struggles. We will consider the conditions of possibility for overcoming the apparent non-correspondence between culture and rights and culture and law more generally. We will refine the language with which we discuss the tensions and contingencies within human rights legal discourse.

Indicative module content  

  • Anthropological perspectives on human rights
  • Post-colonialism, decoloniality and law
  • Human rights activism and conflict
  • Group rights, including the rights of racial and national minorities, sexual minorities and indigenous peoples
  • Intersectional rights claims and the concept of cultural dissent
  • Critiques of the use of ‘culture’ as an analytical concept
  • Framings of the relationship between culture and rights