Culture, History, Rights & Responsibilities:
A Para/Ethnographic Perspective
Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut
Discussions of culture’s relationship to human rights tend to veer into judgmental, exculpatory versus incriminatory evocations of the tensions between collective belief versus individual liberty and cross-cultural versus gender-based diversity. Anthropologists’ assertions that culture is never a blameworthy culprit but only a neutral context can only fail to convince those who see the hand of culture behind infringements of individual dignity: they will interpret “pro-culture” arguments as anthropologists once again taking refuge in cultural relativism.
More productive empirically, though perhaps also irresolvable theoretically, are competing anthropological views of culture’s relationship to human rights as either translation or transformation. Even as questions about the possibility or impossibility of cross-cultural translation seem unavoidable, the metaphor of translation also seems unacceptably static. The transformation concept brings with it a “glocal” perspective, according to which human rights can only ever become global as its concepts and practices undergo local adoption and are thereby transformed.
Judgmental tendencies (culture is good/ bad) may be put into analyzable context by taking the further step of expanding our analytic frames so that other experts’ representations are no longer external to what anthropologists study but central to it through comparison with both our own perspectives and those more localized and at times plural representations about which anthropologists have field research-based insights.
Drawing from my field research on the rights mobilizations of people of Haitian ancestry in Dominican Republic, as well as comparative case study material, I sketch a “para-ethnographic” approach premised on tracking the praxis of frontline human rights activists and comparing this with the methods and representations of varied cohorts of international activists. Both ethnographer and human rights investigator are thereby demoted from “the expert” to one expert among several (indigenous and expatriate), with implications to be discussed for dialogues on culture and rights.
Department of Anthropology
University of Connecticut
Samuel Martínez is a Cuban-born ethnologist. He is presently on the board of the American Ethnological Society and has served as Chair (2003-04) of the American Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human Rights. He contributed an extensive expert affidavit in support of the landmark case of Yean and Bosico v. Dominican Republic presented before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2005. He is the author of two ethnographic monographs and several peer-reviewed articles on the migration and labor and minority rights of Haitian nationals and people of Haitian ancestry in the Dominican Republic. He is also editor of a contributory volume, International Migration and Human Rights (U California Press, 2009) and co-editor of two journal special issues. In his current research and writing, he brings critical scrutiny to the writings of northern human rights monitors, journalists and social scientists about Haitian-ancestry people in the Dominican Republic. He is also doing background research on antislavery narratives of the late 20th & early 21st centuries.