Culture and Rights:


scepticism, hostility, mutuality


A symposium by

the Department of Anthropology ,

School of Social and Political Sciences,

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

13 – 14 June 2012, New Law School

conveners: Dr.  Gaynor Macdonald, Dr. Neil Maclean

download Call for Papers as PDF

The relationship between the concept of culture and that of human rights has long been complex and contentious.

On the one hand, culture and human rights can be seen as locked in a mutually antagonistic embrace. For many human rights activists, culture has been “demonised” as tantamount to “unfreedom” (Sen 1999; Englund 2004); culture, in this view, is a disguise through which entrenched forms of power and exploitation operate, and a way of naturalizing cultural systems that prevents people from realising their full humanity.

Human rights, on the other hand, has been critiqued by anthropologists as a purported universal framing of humanity that conceals metropolitan values, epistemology and interests. Although anthropology and human rights discourse have both been challenged as the metropolitan colonisation of local identity, today the concept of human rights has become a key site of global regimes of accountability as well as a plethora of local struggles over resources, the public voice and the management of the self. As a result, moral and political capital have crystallised around human rights today as both a form of advocacy and a mode of local empowerment.

Yet, as Riles (2006) notes, anthropological concepts of cultural difference and universal demands for human rights are not simply antagonistic. The contemporary linkage between global forms of governance and human rights regimes has generated its own anxieties and scepticism within the human rights world, and it is here, Riles suggests, that culture and human rights are mutually oriented towards each other.  In the face of this anxiety, culture is not only a set of practices against which rights must be asserted, but culture is increasingly also the ground from which rights take on their meaning. From the point of view of culture, however, rights is the contemporary ‘outside’ that allows the agents of culture to intervene; to rework their own cultural fabric. In this respect, it is intriguing that rights-based perspectives represent significant competition to the long-standing role played by political economy as the outside of culture.

For anthropologists the effects of this symbiotic relationship between culture and human rights can be traced at a number of different levels. The relationship between anthropology and human rights has been a key point of debate in the development of anthropological codes of ethics. Human rights, in its discursive and institutional contexts, has become another thematic aspect of anthropologists’ subject matter – rights have been assimilated to culture. The capacity to participate in the dialogue between rights and culture has become integral to the political negotiation of fieldwork in many contemporary contexts, and of its ethical evaluation. It is also the primary discursive frame of a contemporary public anthropology – in the Australian context, the politics of anthropology’s engagement in the broader debate about the state ‘intervention’ in the governance of indigenous communities is particularly revealing. Finally, the increasing interpenetration of rights-based and development-oriented forms of critical inquiry and activism has meant that anthropology’s role in the social science division of labour, in both applied and teaching contexts, is mediated by rights discourse. Nevertheless, distinctively historical and political perspectives in anthropological writing have also generated substantial critiques, not only of human rights discourse, but of the ways it has been mobilised in particular social and political contexts.

Sessions will include the following key themes:

  1. Migration and Refugees
  2. Who is the ‘Human’ in HR?
  3. Poverty Health and Epidemiology
  4. De-humanised bodies
  5. Politics and citizenship
  6. Environmental contests
  7. Can sociality be based on rights or can rights guarantee sociality?

For this symposium we seek presentations of a maximum of 20 minutes in length, that open both the apparent hostility, and, at the same time, mutual dependence of cultural and rights-based perspectives to inquiry.

Please send title and abstracts to  before Monday 30 April 2012.


In preparation of the symposium, the

Culture and Rights:

scepticism, hostility, mutuality

Reading Group

will be held at the

Department of Anthropology Rm 148

RC Mills A 26, Sydney 2006

download the reading list with short comments here

These are the readings for Thursday 3rd May 2012; 1.30pm:

Niezen, Ronald. 2011. The Social Study of Human Rights: A Review Essay. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 53(3):682–691.
Riles, Annelise 2006. Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage. American Anthropologist 108(1)
Englund, Harry. 2004. Towards a Critique of Rights Talk in New Democracies: The Case of Legal Aid in Malawi. Discourse Society, 15(5): 527-551.
Merry, Sally Engle 2006 Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle
American Anthropologist; Mar; 108, 1
Niezen and Riles will serve as general framing references. Merry and Englund will provide contrasting accounts of the mediating role of rights talk and activists.

Readings for session 2 (Thursday, 7 June  3pm RC Mills Rm 148):

Binford, L. 1996. Introduction: Reducing cultural distance in Human Rights Reporting. The El Mozote massacre: anthropology and human rights.

Humphrey, Michael & Valverde, Estela (2007) ‘Human Rights, Victimhood and Impunity: an Anthropology of Democracy in Argentina’ Social Analysis, 51(1): 179-197.

Martinez, Samuel. 2011. Taking Better Account: Contemporary Slavery, Gendered Narratives, and the Feminization of Struggle. Humanity 2(2): 277-303.




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