Academic journal article Development and Society

The Sociological Discourse on Human Rights: Lessons from the Sociology of Law

Academic journal article Development and Society

The Sociological Discourse on Human Rights: Lessons from the Sociology of Law

Article excerpt

Since when, how, and why have sociologists discussed human rights in their work? In which forms of theoretical and empirical inquiry have such investigations been conducted, and what are some of their consequences for the praxis of sociology as well as for our understanding of human rights? We focus on the manner in which sociologists have conceptualized human rights and approached the topic from a number of analytical perspectives. In general, human rights have only recently begun to move sociologists in any noteworthy degree. This paper traces the difficult birth of a sociology of human rights relative to the place of the notion of rights in the sociology of law. This paper also ponders on the enthusiastic turn towards human rights in more recent times and criticizes some the reasons for this generous embrace of human rights. This critique is intended to enable rather than impede a truly sociological sociology of (human) rights.

Keywords: Human Rights, Sociology of Law, Public Sociology


In recent decades, the topic of human rights has taken on a more prominent role than ever in the discipline of sociology. What are the conditions and consequences of this adoption into sociology of a subject matter that for the better part of the development of the discipline was absent from its core as well as its periphery? In this paper, we will focus on some lessons for the sociology of human rights from the viewpoint of the sociology of law and the treatment, in this specialty area, of rights and human rights.

We begin our observations by briefly and no doubt incompletely reviewing certain key issues in the contemporary sociological literature on human rights, especially focusing on the programmatic statements that have been formulated in order to make sense of the newly emerging specialty of the sociology of human rights. Such a programmatic framework is necessary for research and additionally, one might hope and suspect, could contribute alongside of other disciplinary approaches to the study of human rights. We then confront the key elements of the sociological human rights program with insights from the sociology of law. Finally, we extend the discussion on the proper role of sociological knowledge, which underlie much of the sociological debate on human rights, in order to formulate some thoughts on the prospects for a veritable sociology of human rights.

A Sociology of the Sociology of Human Rights

It will be useful to clarify what it is we are discussing when evaluating the development and state of the sociology of human rights in order to highlight some of the problems and prospects identified with the sociological study of human rights as they have been articulated by the practitioners of this specialty. This review of the sociology of human rights cannot be said to be based on a well-developed expertise within this growing area of thought. Yet, focusing on certain influential programmatic statements on the sociology of human rights, certain central themes may nonetheless be detected that can be validly addressed from the viewpoint of the sociology of law.

The Sociological Tradition

In almost all programmatic statements about the sociology of human rights, the classical tradition of sociology is seen as generally inhospitable towards the adoption of human rights as a sociological subject matter (see Morris 2006). Human rights sociologists such as Bryan Turner (1993, 2006, 2009) and Gideon Sjoberg (Sjoberg et al. 2001; Vaughan and Sjoberg 1986) have argued that the classical social theorists declined to adopt rights as a legitimate area of study. This traditional resistance against taking up human rights in sociology is held to result from a purported positivistic tendency which would have been imbedded in sociology from the very start. By example, Bryan Turner (1993) argues that Emile Durkheim approached law and rights from a positivistic standpoint, focusing on legal norms as social facts, and thus demarcating the differing tasks of philosophy and sociology. …

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