Not available in 2017/18
AN238      Half Unit
Anthropology and Human Rights

This information is for the 2017/18 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Matthew Engelke OLD 6.12


This course is available on the BA in Anthropology and Law, BA in Social Anthropology and BSc in Social Anthropology. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.


Undergraduates taking this course should have completed an introductory course in anthropology unless granted exemption by the course teacher

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 classes in the MT.

Formative coursework

Students are expected to prepare discussion material for classes/seminars and are required to write an assessment essay. Anthropology students taking this course will have an opportunity to submit a tutorial essay for this course to their personal tutors. For non-Anthropology students taking this course, a formative essay may be submitted to the course teacher.

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 (70%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (30%, 2500 words) in the LT.

The assessed essay must be between 2,000 – 2,500 words in length.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2016/17: Unavailable

Average class size 2016/17: Unavailable

Capped 2016/17: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information