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Seeing Double: Human Rights Impact through Qualitative and Quantitative Eyes

  • Emilie M. Hafner-Burton (a1) and James Ron (a2)


Over the past two decades, human rights language has spread like wildfire across international policy arenas. The activists who sparked this fire are engaged in two different campaigns. The first is comparatively modest, involving the persuasion of tens of thousands of global elites such as journalists, UN officials, donors, and national political leaders. The second is broader and more complex: to have a real impact on the behavior of tens of millions of state agents worldwide. While most international relations scholars agree that the first campaign has made real gains, opinions are split on the success—past, present, and future—of the second. In part, these divisions fall along methodological lines. With some exceptions, qualitative scholars working in the empirical international relations tradition express more optimism than their quantitative counterparts, whose contributions to the subfield are relatively new. This article reviews several new books on human rights and shows how their insights engage with these ongoing methodological debates. The authors argue that both qualitative and quantitative approaches offer important strengths and that neither has a monopoly on truth. Still, the human rights discourse may be thriving, at least in part, for reasons unrelated to impact. The authors conclude with suggestions for a more systematic and multimethod research, along with a plea for scholarly attention to the potential downsides of international human rights promotion.



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* This research was facilitated by grants from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the International Development Research Centre, and Carleton university. We thank oskar N. T. Thoms and Jessica Oliver for their skillful research assistance and are grateful for comments by Peter Andreas, Michael Barnett, Gary Bass, Robert Brym, Ross Burkhart, Stephen Hopgood, Don Hubert, Robert Keohane, Andy Mack, Eric Neumayer, Howard Ramos, Jack Snyder, Michael Spagat, Leslie Vinjamuri, Stephen Walt, the editors at World Politics, and several anonymous reviewers.

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World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
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