The Sociology of Human Rights
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The Sociology of Human Rights

Mark Frezzo

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The Sociology of Human Rights

Mark Frezzo

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Long the arena of philosophers, legal scholars, and political scientists, the interdisciplinary study of human rights has recently seen an influx of sociologists. Why is this so, and how do sociologists contribute to our understanding of human rights in the contemporary world?

In this landmark new text, Mark Frezzo explores the sociological perspective on human rights, which he shows to be uniquely placed to illuminate the economic, political, social, and cultural conditions under which human rights norms and laws are devised, interpreted, implemented, and enforced. Sociologists treat human rights not as immutable attributes but as highly contested claims that vary across historical time and geographic space, and investigate how human rights can serve either to empower or to constrain social actors, from large societies to small communities and identity groups. Frezzo guides readers through the scholarly, pedagogical, and practical applications of a sociological view of major debates such as foundationalism vs. social constructionism, universalism vs. particularism, globalism vs. localism, and collective vs. individual rights.

This cutting-edge text will appeal to students of sociology, political science, law, development, and social movements, and all interested in the nature, scope, and applicability of human rights in the twenty-first century.

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1 Defining the Sociology of Human Rights

This book offers a detailed introduction to the sociology of human rights, which is a growing field in academia, especially in the US, but also elsewhere in the world. Premised on the idea that sociology, defined as the scientific analysis of power relations among human beings in their economic, political, social, cultural, and environmental lives, complements the insights of political science, anthropology, geography, and other disciplines, this book begins with the following question: How do sociologists explore the set of protections and entitlements known as human rights? By training and inclination, sociologists are interested in the three major aspects of the human rights “cycle”: first, the circumstances or rights conditions under which social movement organizations (SMOs) and their nongovernmental organization (NGO) affiliates translate grievances (e.g., complaints about abuse, inequality, exploitation, exclusion, and other social and environmental problems) into rights claims (or appeals to political authorities for redress); second, the fashion in which rights claims, once filtered through political and legal systems, are implemented in the form of policies, laws, and institutions; and third, how the enactment of new policies and laws at the level of the nationstate alters power relations among social actors, outcomes known as rights effects. Thus, human rights are conceived not only as regulative ideas, noble aspirations, and pieces of paper, but also as concrete measures – in the form of policies, laws, and institutions – that shape the interactions among governments, transnational corporations, organizations, groups, and persons.
Moving beyond intellectual history and the sociology of knowledge, this approach elucidates not only the embeddedness of ideas, policies, laws, institutions, and practices in webs of power relations, but also the resulting “fits” (or moments of convergence) between particular notions of rights and specific power structures. As we shall discover, sociology proves well equipped to elucidate these fits for use by members of the epistemic community. For example, the US civil rights movement – understood as a collection of SMOs (including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) that collaborated and competed with one another in challenging Jim Crow laws and other forms of institutional racism in the South – participated in a process that eventually produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Using marches, sitins, freedom rides, and other direct action tactics, such SMOs challenged the racist laws and practices that preserved segregation, disenfranchisement, job and housing discrimination, and other human rights abuses across the South. Notwithstanding differences in philosophy, strategy, objectives, organizational structure, membership, and constituency, such SMOs participated in the push for national legislation to institutionalize such civil and political rights as the right to use public spaces, the right to equal access to education, and the right to vote for African Americans. It is difficult to ascertain how much influence such SMOs and their elite allies exerted on Congress. As the literature on social movement outcomes suggests, more research is required to determine the degree to which such SMOs swayed policymakers (Giugni 1998; Amenta et al. 2010). Nevertheless, it is clear that the new legislation occasioned a fit between popular forces (aggrieved parties) and fractions of the federal government (especially in the Democratic Party). Once implemented, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act helped to alter power relations by providing for greater personal security and freedom, educational and career opportunities, and voting rights for African Americans.

The Sociological Perspective

In distinguishing the sociological perspective from the perspectives of political science, legal studies, and other disciplines, prominent figures in the nascent field have noted:
Where sociology does not presuppose the relevance or inevitability of the state, human rights instruments and the formal human rights regime comprise only one small part of the larger whole. The human rights enterprise represents this whole, where grassroots struggles outside of and potentially against the formal state arena are seen as equally relevant to interpreting, critiquing, and realizing human rights in practice. The human rights enterprise should, again, be seen as the sum total of all struggles to define and realize universal dignity and “right.” (Armaline et al. 2011: 3)
As Armaline et al. have argued, sociology is by definition interested in the totality of debates, disputes, contests, and struggles concerning human rights worldviews and ideas, policies and laws, institutions and organizations, and practices – an inclusive category that they have termed the “human rights enterprise.” In delineating the category, the authors compensate for the tendency on the part of segments of the epistemic community to overlook the contributions of popular forces to human rights thought and practice. As a consequence, they offer a “bottomup” approach to human rights.
As another set of prominent scholars have demonstrated, the emerging field of rights-oriented sociology stands to receive contributions from every research cluster of the American Sociological Association: from such obvious candidates as the Section on Sociological Practice and Public Sociology (with its emphasis on utilizing sociological tools for the betterment of society) and the Section on Peace, War, and Social Conflict (with its focus on causes, effects, and possible solutions to warfare and civil strife) to such surprising candidates as the Section on Evolution, Biology, and Society and the Section on Mathematical Sociology (Brunsma et al. 2012). The field also stands to make contributions to the discipline as a whole (Brunsma et al. 2012). Indeed, as Brunsma et al. have argued, the sociological approach to human rights harbors the potential to reorient the discipline toward the use of rigorous social scientific methods (whether qualitative, comparativehistorical, or quantitative) for the elucidation and resolution of human rights problems. While it remains to be seen whether rights-oriented sociology will precipitate an “epistemological revolution” in the wider discipline, it is clear that the emerging field holds considerable promise for generating research.
As the foregoing analyses suggest, sociologists explore the origins, evolution, outcomes, and implications of struggles over the following: civil and political rights (including the right to the security of person, the right to vote, freedom of religion, and the rights to association, assembly, speech, and petition) for individuals; economic and social rights (including the rights to a decent job, unemployment insurance, social security, and healthcare) for individuals; cultural rights (including the rights of indigenous peoples to inhabit their ancestral lands and preserve their identities, lifeways, and languages) for collectivities; and environmental rights (including the rights to clean air and water, arable land, accessible and sustainable commons, and preserved forests) for collectivities.
Using the sociological lens to examine the broad spectrum of human rights, three points become apparent. First, civil and political rights are the most widely understood and accepted, while there remains considerable debate on the existence, nature, and scope not only of economic and social rights, but also of cultural rights and environmental rights. This is especially true in the US, since the Constitution places great emphasis on civil and political rights but pays less attention to other forms of rights. Second, while it is useful for analytic, pedagogical, and political purposes to place human rights in distinct categories (understood as theoretical abstractions), it is evident that different types of rights overlap with one another in the real world. Third, notwithstanding efforts to pursue an expansive project of human emancipation that would gradually include more maltreated or disaffected constituencies and dissolve enduring inequalities, it is clear that rights claims, however noble, justifiable, and plausible they may be, often come into conflict with one another in entanglements of power relations, competing interests, coalitional politics, and ambiguous or even contradictory legislation. As a consequence, sociologists are forced to sift through conflicts surrounding the theories, institutions, policies, and practices of human rights. In fact, one of the central purposes of the sociological study of human rights is precisely to illuminate the probable causes of and possible remedies for competing rights claims.
This book offers a particular approach to research and teaching in the sociology of human rights that draws on political economy/development sociology (with its capacity to elucidate the conditions that give rise to grievances), social movement research (with its ability to explain how the organizational structures, strategies, tactics and framing techniques of SMOs influence rights claims), and political sociology (with its attentiveness to the role of rights-oriented policies in altering power relations) in formalizing a set of theories and concepts. Accordingly, this chapter pursues three interrelated objectives. First, it offers a preliminary definition of human rights as a set of protections and entitlements conferred, at least in principle, upon all 7 billion members of the human species regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, cultural background, religious affiliation, national origin, or geographic location. Second, this chapter paints a picture of how the field analyzes the social conditions under which different types of rights (e.g., civil and political, economic and social, cultural and environmental) are reinterpreted or invented by the epistemic community, claimed by SMOs and NGOs, and either granted or denied by governments and other authorities.
Third, this chapter introduces some of the building blocks of the sociology of human rights, including the concepts of rights conditions (i.e., the economic, political, social, and cultural circumstances under which grievances are formulated in reference to the human rights canon), rights claims (i.e., the specific demands for protections and entitlements that aggrieved parties make on political authorities), rights effects (i.e., changes in power relations stemming from the achievement of rights by new constituencies), and rights bundles (i.e., packets of interlinked rights that transcend the conventional classifications). In sum, this chapter provides readers with an understanding of the scholarly, political, and practical uses of the sociological perspective on human rights.

What Are Human Rights?

We find ourselves in a position to examine the most fundamental question in this emerging domain of academic research, teaching, and service: How do sociologists – whether in concert or contradistinction with other academics – define human rights? Building on the work of philosophers, legal scholars, and political scientists, sociologists define human rights as a set of protections and entitlements possessed by all members of the human community regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, cultural background, national origin, or other forms of identity or social standing. To a certain extent, sociologists distinguish themselves from their counterparts in philosophy, legal studies, and political science by focusing on the social character of both protections and entitlements, a tendency shared by those anthropologists and geographers who analyze human rights. In essence, this implies that the meanings, powers, duties, and constraints associated with human rights are embedded in society. For the moment, we may bracket the unsettled question of whether rights – protections and entitlements alike – should been seen as having a foundation in human nature or, alternatively, whether rights should be seen as social constructs (Turner 2006; Gregg 2012). In either case, it is clear that our conceptions of human rights not only vary across historical time and geographic space, but also prove subject to the mediation of culture. Accordingly, the issue of culture – especially amidst the contradictory pulls of homogenization and particularization in the era of globalization – figures prominently in this book (Vrdoljak 2013). Even the most “grounded” and “universal” human rights (e.g., the firs-tgeneration rights to life and the security of person) find expression only in particular cultural frameworks. In other words, what it means to live as a secure person varies greatly from one cultural formation to another.
As we might expect, sociologists disagree on how to address ontological and epistemological questions (including the question of human nature and what science can tell us about it). Notwithstanding potential divergences on the issue of human nature versus social construction, sociologists tend to agree on the possibility and desirability of cross-cultural communication on values and institutions. Whatever our intrinsic commonalties as humans may be, we have the capacity to build on shared perceptions and experiences in making the world a more peaceful, equal, culturally inclusive, and ecologically sustainable place for everyone. In other words, sociologists tend to believe that human beings may choose to work together in the pursuit of a common framework or set of norms irrespective of whether or not rights are grounded in human physiology and/or an intrinsic capacity for empathy, sociability, cooperation, and solidarity. While it is distinctly possible that a genuinely global universalism would be easier to achieve if rights were founded on a knowable, representable, and continuous human nature, it remains plausible that a form of universalism could be constructed on the basis of common experiences, negotiated values, regulated interactions, and shared institutions (Donnelly 2003). What matters here is the realization that universalism – the idea that a set of human rights should be institutionalized on a global scale – entails dialogue and negotiation among intergovernmental organizations (especially the UN, with its array of specialized agencies), national governments (especially those possessing great economic, diplomatic, military, and ideological power), NGOs, SMOs, and community-based organizations. Ideally, this process of dialogue and negotiation would open spaces not only for poor and weak countries, but also for marginalized populations across the world. With this in mind, we may return to the larger question of how to define human rights in sociological perspective.

Negative Rights/Civil and Political Rights

The first part of the larger question is as follows: What types of protections do human beings have? In theory, all humans must be protected from abuse, humiliation, exploitation, and exclusion perpetrated by governments, organizations, small groups, and individuals. Known as negative rights – rights that protect individuals from abuses perpetrated by one another and by the state – these rights include the rights to life, bodily integrity, dignity, due process of law, association, assembly, free speech, religious affiliation (or non-affiliation), and representation in government (Blau and Moncada 2009). In principle, it is the responsibility of governments at the national and local levels to guarantee negative rights to all persons. In practice, ensuring negative rights means that governments must check their own powers, primarily through the judiciary, but sometimes through the executive branch. For example, the US Department of Justice investigates civil rights violations perpetrated by federal, state, or local authorities, an issue that has presented itself periodically since the ratification of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
To take a current example, as the prevailing interpretation of the Constitution suggests, the US government serves as the principal guarantor of the right to privacy. Citizens across the political spectrum define privacy as a prominent negative right that prohibits undue state intrusion in the individual’s personal life. In pursuit of expanded security objectives (directed at the terrorist tactics of nonstate actors that oppose US foreign policy), the same government has established a program for monitoring the private email messages, texts, and phone calls of its citizens. In this light, the recent debate on the US National Security Agency’s programs monitoring the personal communications of citizens can be seen as an exhibition not only of the complex role of the government, but also of the tension between two negative rights: the right to privacy and the right to personal security. Since 2001, the American public has found itself in an ongoing debate on possible tradeoffs between the right to privacy and the right to personal security.
Bracketing the question of the constitutionality, legality, legitimacy, and efficacy of such programs – a matter that requires debate on the part of the general public, advocacy groups, the three branches of government, political scientists, and legal scholars alike – this example demonstrates the complexities, ambiguities, and contradictions associated with the conferral and enforcement of negative rights by states. Considered together, the aforementioned negative rights, entirely civil and political in character, ensure not only a person’s life, privacy, safety, security, dignity, personality, and conscience, but also his or her participation in public life and freedom from excessive interference on the part of the state in personal matters.
Owing to the language of the Constitution and the political culture, Americans tend to be familiar with and enthusiastic about negative rights. In fact, many Americans assume that negative rights encompass the full range of human rights, an assumption that accords with the tradition of possessive individualism. As a consequence of their social scientific training and the critical detachment that goes along with it, sociologists take issue with this contention. Although negative rights can take us very far, they cannot ensure the fulfillment of the needs for food and water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and an education. Accordingly, we must examine a number of positive rights or entitlements, including the economic...