Culture and Rights:
Scepticism, hostility and mutuality
This symposium was the product of our sense that the unresolved tension between culture and rights based perspectives continues to condition many aspects of contemporary anthropology: our on-going debate about the nature of culture, the relationship between anthropology and broader terrain of social science, and the politics of anthropological practice. That sense was grounded in a number of everyday engagements: the on-going politics of indigenous identity in Australia, the teaching of a Development studies program, the nature and politics of disability, the concrete circumstances of fieldwork for many of our postgraduate students.
The work of contemporary anthropologists such as Merry, Engle, Englund, Riles, Humphrey helped us sharpen our conceptualisation of this tension. At the same time we were particularly fortunate to have as a keynote speaker Dr. Samuel Martinez from the Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut. He brought to our discussions a deep understanding of the shifting quality of human rights instruments, of the strategic nature of their engagement and of the capacity of both culture and rights claims to conceal as much as they challenge. Martinez’s proposal of a “para-ethnographic” in which ethnographer and human rights investigator function as simply one kind of expert ‘among several’ finds echoes with a very diverse array of plurality of expertise, manifested as both partnership and conflict, that this symposium brought together.
The theme of indigenous rights claims and who controls their language and their recognition featured particularly strongly here, across a wide range of regional and national contexts (Australia, Ecuador, Nepal, Papua New Guinea). Other nexes around which the themes of papers converged included tensions between the generalising and universalising tendencies of rights language with the situational specificities of recognition of personhood; the implication of rights claim and recognition within the production of state power; the mutual implication of rights, culture, health and well-being; the relationships between human rights and property rights; the gendered tension between the discourse of victim of rights abuse and that of activist claimant of rights; violence as the ground of rights claims; the strategic deployment or rejection of a rights based language.
On the evening before the symposium, at the Macleay Museum, the session Voices of the Denied, and the launch of One Life, Two Stories, a story told by Nancy de Vries of her life since being taken from her Aboriginal mother at the age of 13 months, gave direct voice to the experiences of violence and marginalisation that make the contemporary politics of human rights such an urgent issue.
We were enormously pleased and stimulated by the response to the symposium and would like to thank all participants and presenters for the way they gave our sense of an issue form and substance.