A Sociology of Human Rights: Rights through a Social Movements Lens

By Clement, Dominique | Canadian Review of Sociology, May 2011 | Go to article overview

A Sociology of Human Rights: Rights through a Social Movements Lens


Clement, Dominique, Canadian Review of Sociology


IN FEBRUARY 1987 A GROUP CALLING themselves the Raging Grannies joined an antiuranium rally in Victoria after the British Columbia government decided to lift its moratorium on uranium mining. Dressed in purple, yellow, and blue flowered hats and long white gloves and leather purses, the Grannies sang their trademark songs "Uranium Tango" and "Jealousy" to the amusement, or for the musically inclined, to the horror of the protestors. After having whipped the crowd into energetic applause the Grannies announced that they had their own briefs to present the legislature, and with stupendous aplomb they produced a laundry basket and a clothesline, which they stretched from one end of the stone steps to the other. Clothes pegs were unpacked, along with a selection of undies including long johns, boxers, and bikinis, which they clipped on the line. The crowd roared and the media dutifully covered the event (Acker and Betty 2004).

The Raging Grannies are a typical example of a social movement organization (SMO). Whereas a social movement is "a set of opinions and beliefs in a population representing preferences for changing some elements of the social structure or reward distribution, or both, of a society," an SMO is "a complex, or formal, organization that identifies its goals with the preferences of a social movement and attempts to implement these goals" (Zald and McCarthy 1987:20). While SMOs certainly do not constitute a movement in and of themselves, they form an important dynamic within the overall movement. SMOs mobilize the resources of a movement and are carriers of movement ideas; they are thus useful windows for studying social movements. (1) Also, unlike an interest group, which assumes a clear distinction between civil society and the state and focuses its efforts on promoting the interests of its members, the Grannies, which seek to promote the principles of the peace movement, challenged public-private divisions (Smith 2005a, 2005b:11). (2) For them, promoting social change became a way of life. Participation in the Grannies became a way for its members to find a role in a society where the elderly, particularly women, were and are expected to sit quietly on the sidelines. True, they sought to change the minds of policymakers. But most of their efforts were directed inward. Understanding the complexities of social activism is a valuable contribution that historical sociologists can make in understanding the dynamics of local, national, and international social movements. Movements are defined by the beliefs they propagate and the ability to mobilize collection action around those beliefs, but all movements are composed of the people who struggled to articulate and apply, sometimes imperfectly, those beliefs.

Social movements are a useful framework for approaching a sociology of human rights. Whereas political scientists and legal scholars, who dominate the field of human rights studies, often focus on international treaties and domestic law, sociologists are ideally situated to study the complicated dynamics of how rights cultures emerge and evolve in social contexts. Consider, for example, the tragic circumstances surrounding the life of Lal Jamilla Mandokhel. In March 1999 Lal Jamilla, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl, was repeatedly raped. Her uncle filed a complaint with the police. Police officers detained her attacker, but handed Lal Jamilla over to her tribe. The council of elders decided that Lal Jamilla had brought shame on the tribe, and that the only way to overcome the shame was to put her to death. She was shot dead on the orders of the council (Freeman 2002:1).

Is this violation of human rights? The answer would seem obvious, but in fact there are rigorous debates about whether human rights is a western idea, and whether or not human rights principles apply in situations such as that of Lal Jamilla (Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson 2001; Goodale 2009; Goodale and Merry 2007; Ignatieff 2001; Van Ness 1999). …

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