Human Rights, Interdisciplinary Scholars, and a New Blog

By Lael Weinberger

State of the field and Methodology

I posted an announcement about our plans for a new blog back in July. But the new website was still under construction, and we were just beginning to put together our blogging team. Now the website is finished, we have a (great) team of bloggers together (you'll begin to meet them soon), and we’re about to begin blogging in earnest. So I thought this would be an appropriate time to move this post to the front, explaining what the blog is about and what we’re hoping to do with the blog.

Human rights have become a kind of lingua franca. Human rights function as legal claims, political values, and even as a moral language. Around the world, activists invoke human rights to advocate for political reforms. Lawyers claim that human rights are implicated in order to add moral weight to legal claims. National leaders voice their respect for human rights in order to bolster their image on national and international stages. Diplomats use accusations of human rights violations as tools to gain leverage over other countries. An international bureaucracy monitors the status of human rights in nations around the world.

For scholars, the subject of human rights provides a host of avenues for research, discussion, and debate. Philosophers, political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists - all have weighed in on one aspect or another of human rights. Their conversations are almost never self-contained within one discipline. Historians trying to write a history of human rights inevitably have to grapple with the philosophers who have tried to define human rights. Philosophers draw on historical and sociological descriptions of practice to help define the human rights conversations to which they try to bring analytical rigor.  Political scientists and legal scholars frequently debate whether human rights law makes a difference, and if so, how. 

Scholars who engage the topic of human rights find themselves confronted with a massive and multi-disciplinary literature.  The subject of human rights can bring out the best of inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary scholarship: exciting conversations develop among people working in diverse fields. But "human rights" scholarship can also illustrate all the pitfalls and challenges of a truly multi-disciplinary field. Sometimes debating scholars talk past each other rather than to each other, their misunderstandings exacerbated by different methodological approaches. Sometimes a writer in one discipline dismisses the concerns of another due to disciplinary tunnel vision. And sometimes scholars working in one area miss the relevant conversations going on in some other corner of the academy because there's just too much to read and keep up with.

That's where this blog comes in. We're going to keep our eyes out for interesting work on human rights from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and post about it here. We also will periodically bring in guest bloggers to talk about their work and to reflect on current topics and challenges for human rights scholars. We hope that readers from any discipline will find this a helpful way of sampling the wide range of scholarship that's coming out all the time and is relevant to the study of human rights.

If you're reading this post, let me know your thoughts - ideas for features, tips for new (or forthcoming) scholarship that we should link to, or just subjects that you'd like to see us cover.  Thanks for visiting, and we hope you stay tuned for more!


Lael Weinberger is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago's law school and history department. Follow him on Twitter @LaelWeinberger.