Not available in 2015/16
AN439      Half Unit
Anthropology and Human Rights

This information is for the 2015/16 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Matthew Engelke OLD 6.12


This course is available on the MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development Management, MSc in China in Comparative Perspective, MSc in Human Rights, MSc in Law, Anthropology and Society and MSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

The tension between respect for 'local cultures' and 'universal rights' is a pressing concern within human rights activism. For well over two decades, anthropologists have been increasingly involved in these discussions, working to situate their understandings of cultural relativism within a broader framework of social justice. This course explores the contributions of anthropology to the theoretical and practical concerns of human rights work. The term begins by reading a number of key human rights documents and theoretical texts. These readings are followed by selections in anthropology on the concepts of relativism and culture as well as other key frameworks, such as identity and violence. Students will then be asked to relate their understandings of human rights to the historical and cultural dimensions of particular cases, addressing such questions as the nature of humanity, historical conceptions of the individual, colonialism and imperialism, the limits of relativism, and the relationship between human rights in theory and in practice. Case studies focus on Africa and Latin America.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the MT.

Formative coursework

Students are expected to prepare discussion material for seminars

Indicative reading

E Messer, 'Anthropology and Human Rights' Annual Review of Anthropology 1993; J Cowan et al (Eds), Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives; R Wilson (Ed), Human Rights, Culture, and Context: Anthropological Perspectives; T Turner, 'Human Rights, Human Difference: Anthropology's Contribution to an Emancipatory Cultural Politics' Journal of Anthropological Research 1997; T Asad, Formations of the Secular; P Farmer, 'On Structural Violence', Current Anthropology 1999; M Mamdani, When victims become killers; C Taylor, Sacrifice as Terror; R Menchu, I, Rigoberta Menchu. Detailed reading lists are provided at the beginning of the course.


Exam (100%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2014/15: 26

Average class size 2014/15: 15

Controlled access 2014/15: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information