The trajectory of human rights in the contemporary world is one in which ideas and cultural practices constitute each other in ways that can bedevil theorists and empirical researchers alike. The conventional wisdom is that this dynamic interaction, or “vernacularization,” must be understood as the inevitable, if (to some) lamentable, result of the rapid expansion of international and transnational human rights after the end of the Cold War. This talk challenges the conventional wisdom by tracing the genealogy of one such idea—that of universality—from the work of a mysterious, though highly consequential, UNESCO committee in 1947 and 1948 to the practical human rights advocacy of a peasant intellectual living in a remote region of the Bolivian Andes. Doing so allows us to reframe a key moment in the history of the birth of the modern human rights movement after the Second World War; appreciate the extent to which the narrative of universal human dignity does important cultural work as a matter of practical ethics; and realize that a critical approach to both the promises and dilemmas of human rights does not stand apart from mainstream human rights advocacy, but is rather woven into the very fiber of its history.
Mark Goodale is currently Professor of Conflict Analysis and Anthropology at George Mason University and Series Editor of Stanford Studies in Human Rights. He is the author or editor of nine books, including Human Rights at the Crossroads (Oxford UP, 2013), Mirrors of Justice: Law and Power in the Post-Cold War Era (with Kamari Maxine Clarke, Cambridge UP, 2010), Human Rights: An Anthropological Reader (Blackwell, 2009), Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights (Stanford UP, 2009), Dilemmas of Modernity: Bolivian Encounters with Law and Liberalism (Stanford UP, 2008), and The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local (with Sally Engle Merry, Cambridge UP, 2007). Forthcoming volumes include Human Rights Encounters Legal Pluralism (with Eva Brems and Giselle Corradi, Hart/Oñati International Series in Law and Society, 2014). His writings have appeared in Current Anthropology, American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Law & Society Review, Law & Social Inquiry, Social & Legal Studies, Current Legal Theory, and the Journal of Legal Pluralism, among others. He is at work on several new research projects, including an NSF-funded empirical study of the relationship between human rights and radical political and social change in Bolivia and a set of essays that examine the culture, contested politics, and phenomenology of human rights after the post-Cold War.