Human Rights and the Politics of Culture (824M9)

30 credits, Level 7 (Masters)

Autumn teaching

Human rights are one of the most profound legacies of the 20th century; an attempt by politicians, policy makers, scholars, and humanitarians to erect obstacles against future state violence and other crimes against humanity. Over time, human rights have become a global phenomenon with unexpected outcomes and effects. Though developed by nations and transnational in scope, human rights ideas and language have been adapted and reworked in a variety of contexts worldwide, becoming the objects of, as well as a resources for, popular struggles, state policymaking, and transnational movements.

In the first part of the module, you will examine the historical origins, philosophical underpinnings and the global expansion of human rights thinking, as well as anthropology and human rights’ troubled relationship. You will go on to consider the conflicts between 'culture' and 'rights' that have emerged in this process, and the question of universality in the application of human rights around the world. This will allow you to develop a critical understanding of the ways in which 'culture' is articulated in human rights language and practice.

The second part of the module is dedicated to contemporary practices: the different uses of human rights. You will explore the signification they carry and the effects they produce; the tensions they reveal and the contradictions they manifest. Here, we will ask: How do actors make human rights 'real', and what are the limits of these framings? You will become familiar with how anthropologists have constructed human rights as an object of study and their specific contributions to scholarship. You will read texts that have become classics in the field and more recent ones that examine the global institutions and transnational networks through which human rights are produced. You will look at the different forms that human rights have taken in response to changing political and social realities. Through various ethnographic case studies around issues of women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, indigenous representation cultural expertise, among others, you will explore the impact and unintended effects of human rights discourse and practice in various settings around the world as well as within the global institutions in charge of promoting and protecting them.


100%: Seminar


40%: Coursework (Group presentation, Report)
60%: Written assessment (Essay)

Contact hours and workload

This module is approximately 300 hours of work. This breaks down into about 33 hours of contact time and about 267 hours of independent study. The University may make minor variations to the contact hours for operational reasons, including timetabling requirements.

We regularly review our modules to incorporate student feedback, staff expertise, as well as the latest research and teaching methodology. We’re planning to run these modules in the academic year 2023/24. However, there may be changes to these modules in response to feedback, staff availability, student demand or updates to our curriculum. We’ll make sure to let you know of any material changes to modules at the earliest opportunity.