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The Social Study of Human Rights. A Review Essay

  • Ronald Niezen (a1)

It is noteworthy—and at the same time a bit disappointing in a what-took-so-long sort of way—that a recent innovation in the study of human rights should involve a focus on the lives of the people directly affected by them. To explain this delay of the obvious would probably call for a review of the persistent influence of Kantian transcendentalism, the quasi-utopian search for ideal justice, and the inherently abstract nature of law in its quest for impartiality. A similar effort could be applied toward fully understanding the changed circumstances that encouraged the shift toward practical realism. It would have to take into account the surprisingly late elaboration and popularization of human rights instruments, the proliferation of transnational NGOs that act on new opportunities to exercise moral and political influence, and the growing reach of new technologies of information and communication (necessary tools for the emergence of transnational NGOs). All of these developments have raised the prominence of legal issues and strategies among those once considered isolated and, in varying degrees, uncivilized. But whatever the dominant trends might once have been, and whatever new, enabling circumstances have recently emerged, there can be little doubt that over the last several decades a shift has taken place in the study of human rights toward practical or applied realism, with a focus on ordinary actors.

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Ronald Niezen . 2010. Public Justice and the Anthropology of Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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