JOURNAL of 
ANTHROPOLOGICAL RESEARCH

SPECIAL ISSUE ON HUMAN RIGHTS:
TERENCE TURNER and
CAROLE NAGENGAST
Guest Editors

Volume 53, Number 3, Abstracts

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INTRODUCTION: UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS VERSUS CULTURAL RELATIVITY

Carole Nagengast
Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131
and
Terence Turner
Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637


HUMAN RIGHTS, HUMAN DIFFERENCE: ANTHROPOLOGY'S CONTRIBUTION TO AN EMANCIPATORY CULTURAL POLITICS

Terence Turner
Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637

The concept of universal cultural features or principles is not in itself incompatible with some forms of cultural relativism, but the idea of universal human rights poses special problems. "Rights," in the specific sense, cannot be universal attributes of "humanity," as anthropologically conceived, but general principles of right or justice may be so. Anthropology may be able to provide knowledge of universal attributes of humanity with ethical or moral implications that can help to define such concepts. More specifically, anthropological activism in defense of human difference provides an important lead for the formulation of a universal right to difference. This argument converges with a historical analysis of the social and historical origins of the concept of human rights and the ways the concept has become transformed and reoriented in the context of the contemporary crisis of the state and the rise of ethnic and identity politics. In this historical conjuncture, the criterion of difference has emerged as a central focus of rights struggles and discourses.


PLURALIST APPROACHES TO HUMAN RIGHTS

Ellen Messer
Department of Anthropology, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912

Some anthropologists criticize United Nations "universal" human rights as ethnocentrically Western. But all sociocultural groups define some concept analogous to human rights, and multiple political and philosophical cultures have contributed to the evolving UN framework. This essay traces the four major sources of modern human rights (Western political liberalism, socialism and social welfare principles, cross-cultural rights traditions, and the UN instruments) and focuses on points of agreement in the evolving framework. The evidence is used to argue for a pluralist approach to human rights (rather than a narrower universal, Western, or broader cultural relativist approaches) and suggests points for additional anthropological contributions.


IN THE NAME OF CULTURE: CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND THE ABUSE OF AN INDIVIDUAL

Elizabeth Zechenter
Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, LLP, Counselors at Law, 2000 One Logan Square, Philadelphia, PA 19130

The modern system of international human rights treaties is based on the concept of universalism which holds that there is an underlying human unity which entitles all individuals, regardless of their cultural or regional antecedents, to certain basic minimal rights, known as human rights. The influence of cultural relativism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism is slowly undermining these ideals. Many agree that universal human rights norms simply do not conform with the extreme diversity of cultural and religious practices found around the world and that universal rights should be modified to conform with local cultural and religious norms. Others question the theoretical validity and intellectual coherence of universalism. This is an important debate, the outcome of which will have practical consequences for millions of people around the world. This article examines the concepts of cultural relativism and universalism, their theoretical strength, their social and ethical usefulness, and their intellectual coherence, especially as they influence international responses to gender-based abuses perpetrated against women and other disenfranchised individuals living in non-Western societies.


WOMEN, MINORITIES, AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: UNIVERSALISM AND CULTURAL RELATIVITY

Carole Nagengast
Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131

The concept of cultural relativity, developed by anthropologists to induce respect for difference, is often deployed to excuse, rationalize, or explain differential treatment before the law of women, minorities, and indigenous groups and to justify what many call human rights abuses. Accusations of cultural imperialism - regardless of the source - chill the anthropological soul and raise difficult questions concerning research questions and advocacy. Cultural relativity should not be discarded altogether because the reasons it developed as a central theme of American anthropology have far from disappeared and it can be used to defend basic rights. By the same token, some of the ways in which the concept of culture is used also penalize those "minorities" to whom respect may be intended. The author makes an argument for a mediated and partial universalism.


THE GOOD SIDE OF RELATIVISM

Elvin Hatch
Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106

The moral relativism of writers like Benedict and Herskovits was mistaken to the extent that it denied the legitimacy of ever disapproving the actions and institutions of others, yet it should not be rejected entirely. No moral theory has yet emerged that provides the theoretical basis for making cross-cultural value judgments and that enjoys widespread acceptance; hence the paradox of ethical relativism: we can't live with it, but it isn't clear how to avoid it. Consequently, the tolerance that relativism called for should constitute our default mode of thought; it should govern our moral position in the absence of persuasive arguments to the contrary. The skepticism that was central to Boasian relativism also has a place, for we should be severely critical about making moral judgments, more so than some anthropologists have been. Finally, Boasian relativism was associated with a Copernican shift in the Western worldview, and this remains a crucial legacy.




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