Blog posted under State of the field

History and State of the field

Writing the History of Human Rights: An Introduction

Historians discovered human rights in the late 1990s. Since then, lively conversations developed across almost every imaginable historical subfield, from medieval to modern. Much of the human rights historiography has been focused on the question of origins. Many historians have tried to locate the starting point of contemporary human rights ideas and practice, and they have suggested everything from as early as the twelfth century (and sometimes even earlier) to as late as the 1970s. Such enormous diversity of opinion can only be found in a field with widely divergent ideas about what in fact counts as “human rights.” The origins question is by no means settled and interesting debates on this issue continue. But in the last several years, many historians have been feeling fatigue set in on the origins debates. There is no reason that origins should be the organizing frame for the whole literature, and there is no shortage of alternative approaches available for historians of human rights to draw upon. This post is one way to make sense of (some of) what happened in the historiography over the last twenty years. I wrote it originally as a thought exercise for myself—there are of course other ways to think about the literature, and there’s a lot that I’ve left out of this (especially the many excellent and sophisticated histories written in the last few years). But it might also provide a useful introduction for non-specialists who would like to get a quick overview of how historians have written the history.

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State of the field and Methodology

Human Rights, Interdisciplinary Scholars, and a New Blog

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.

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