At the outset, one might ask: What does sociology have to do with human rights? By training and inclination, sociologists have always been attuned to social inequalities (based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and national origin), power relations in contemporary society, and social problems (such as interstate and civil war, crime, poverty, cultural exclusion, and environmental degradation). But sociologists have not always conceptualized social inequalities, power relations, and social problems in terms of human rights. For a number of reasons—including the undertakings of political scientists, anthropologists, and geographers—this is beginning to change. Indeed, many sociologists have turned their attention to human rights abuses and remedies.
How do sociologists think about human rights? Sociologists define human rights as protections and entitlements, proposed by community groups, social movement organizations (SMOs), NGOs, and/or intergovernmental organizations (like the United Nations Organization, with its many agencies), and, under certain conditions, granted by states to individuals and collectivities. States are at once the principal guarantors of human rights and the most significant violators of human rights. The paradoxical status of the state is of great interest to sociologists.
In a nutshell, the sociology of human rights involves the analysis of the social origins and impacts of human rights norms, practices, laws, policies, and institutions. With a view to solidifying the new field, my book, The Sociology of Human Rights (Polity, 2014) weaves together three approaches:
An approach derived from political economy/development sociology, illuminating “rights conditions”—the material circumstances under which grievances emerge;
An approach derived from social movement research, elucidating the process by which community-based groups and SMOs translate their grievances into “rights claims”—the demands that aggrieved parties and their representatives make on states and other authorities;
An approach derived from political sociology, explaining “rights effects”—the implementation of rights through legislation/policy at the state level and their impacts on power relations in society.
Taken together, these three concepts—rights conditions, rights claims, and rights effects—capture the process by which human rights circulate not only from one level to another within societies, but also across national boundaries. Contrary to the expectations of elitist and Eurocentric theories of “diffusion,” new interpretations and applications of the human rights canon may move from the grassroots level to the state level and from the Global South to the Global North.
Accordingly, my book employs the term “circulation” to represent not only the mutability of human rights thinking, but also the role of power—particularly political power or the leverage of states and their affiliates (executive office-holders, parliaments, courts, law enforcement agencies, and militaries)—in either enabling or blocking the implementation of rights claims made by organizations, groups, and peoples. Building on a theory of circulation, I hope to contribute to a new understanding of the debates on and struggles over human rights in the age of globalization.