human rights

One of my favorite ways to teach about authority is to draw upon Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments.  As many (if not all) of you know, Milgram designed a series of experiments to see whether people would shock others up to lethal levels when instructed to do so by a scientist.  In most cases and depending on various situational characteristics, the majority of people complied, showing they would shock someone up to lethal levels.  You can read more about the experiments on a Backstage Sociologist post, found here.

A BBC documentary covered an effort to recreate the experiment a few years ago, which found similar results (with a small number of total participants, however).  The entire documentary is on Youtube, but if you’re worried about time, this 6-minute clip shows the actual experiment and includes brief discussions about authority.

I’ve used this clip generally to talk about authority as well as more specifically to illustrate how human rights violations may take place.  This clip is also a great introduction to a discussion about Weber’s types of authority.


This semester, I’m co-teaching a human rights internship course.  Beyond providing some practical skills for students who are interested in working in the human rights field, the course aims to connect human rights theory to students’ experiences in their internships.  Needless to say, the Kony 2012 campaign was a perfect topic to discuss recently.  However, since Invisible Children’s Cover the Night event is coming up on April 20th, there is still plenty of time to discuss the campaign in class, and TSP has provided an additional tool (an episode of Office Hours discussed below) to aid in this discussion.

As many (if not all!) of you know, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video quickly received over 100 million views.  Over night, it seemed like many people who had never heard of Joseph Kony were calling for justice.  However, the video sparked debate in scholarly communities, communities of human rights activists, and even among the broader public.

During the week the video went viral, my students were reading James Dawes’ book, That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, which explores motivations behind human rights work as well as the relationship between story telling and human rights.  Specifically, the book’s emphasis on how human rights abuses are framed through stories made the book a perfect base for a discussion about the Kony 2012 campaign.

As a class, we started talking about the book with the basic question of what storytelling has to do with human rights.  After we established that we all learn about human rights abuses around the world through stories and representations on the news, in newspapers, and through various social movements and advocacy groups, we moved on to the Kony 2012 campaign.  Most students had seen the video, but I asked a student to give a brief review in case someone hadn’t seen it.  Then, we discussed the following questions:

1)   What is the purpose of the video?

2 ) In your opinion, was Invisible Children successful in fulfilling this purpose?

3)   Why did the video go viral?  (What properties of the video/tactics of the campaign influenced its popularity?)

4)   What are most common critiques of the video?

5)   What are the difficulties in representing human rights abuses?


TSP member Shannon Golden also recently interviewed Amy Finnegan, who has studied the relationship between Invisible Children and local Ugandan activists.  Amy and Shannon talk about the Kony 2012 campaign and Amy’s research in an episode of Office Hours located here.  This episode would be a great addition to the discussion or could be assigned as homework.  We know that many of you have also discussed this campaign in your classes and would love to hear about it!

Genocide is fundamentally social, though sociologists often ignore it in research and in the classroom.  A lesson on genocide could be part of multiple course units, such as ethnic conflict/war, race, crime/criminology, law, human rights, collective memory, etc.   Here’s one of many ideas:

Assign John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond’s article “The Collective Dynamics of Racial Dehumanization and Genocidal Victimization in Darfur” (ASR 2008).   Also consider assigning Contexts’ podcast with author John Hagan, which can be found here.

A few questions to consider:

1.  What is the legal definition of genocide?

2.  Why are only some groups protected under the legal definition of genocide?  Should other groups be included?

3.  How does genocide differ from crimes against humanity?

4.  How do Hagan and Rymond-Richmond explain genocide?


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Memories of the past are fluid and powerful.  They are influenced by the present and can simultaneously influence the present.  Memories can be manipulated to serve interests and often provide blueprints for social action.  In the Summer 2010 issue of Contexts, two pieces capture these and other nuances of memory.

Barbara Sutton’s photo essay on “Situating Memory in Argentina” highlights pictures of the military dictatorship that disappeared, tortured, and violated the human rights of the people of Argentina.  Robin Autry’s piece, entitled “Memory, Materiality, and the Apartheid Past,” examines processes of constructing memories in South Africa.

These readings could be paired together or could easily be paired with a chapter from Jeffrey Alexander et. al’s  book on Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, which explores the relationship between collective memory, identity, and trauma.

For an assignment, students could research sites of memory and bring pictures and a historical description of the site to share with a group.

Potential discussion questions include:

How can a memory be shared?  Do you have to experience something in order to have a memory of it?

Do you think collective memory has the ability to deter future atrocities and human rights violations?  Why or why not?

The notion of collective memory often insinuates that a dominant memory exists.  However, Autry’s piece notes that resources and opportunity also play a role in which memory prevails.  Discuss how power can affect collective memory.

How do you view the U.S. treatment of Native Americans, Abraham Lincoln, or more recent events like September 11th?  What factors influence these memories and beliefs about the past?

The following case study could accompany any readings or discussion on religion, culture or rights.  For example, it could be used with Jen’nan Ghazal’s “Muslims in America,” which is available through Contexts online.

Lisa is a new professor at a large public university.  Her class just finished a unit on gender, and her students are taking an essay test. Lisa sits near the front of the room and keeps a watchful eye over her students.  The classroom is completely silent except for their pencils scribbling furiously.

Suddenly, one of her students stands up and faces a corner.  He starts to bow, and Lisa realizes that he is praying.  Many of the students look up and start watching him instead of continuing their exam.  Lisa can tell they are distracted, but she also believes that the student has religious freedom. Thus, she decides to pretend that nothing is happening.

After class, a few students approach Lisa and complain about the student who was praying.  They say that they were seriously distracted during the exam and would like 10 more minutes to work on it.


  1. What should Lisa do?
  2. Did Lisa make the right choice to ignore the student instead of asking him to stop?
  3. Should a student be allowed to observe her or his religious rituals during class?   Should this differ around the world?  By the type of school?

The following learning activity can be used to spark discussion in class when used along with “Rights Activism in China”  by Ching Kwan Lee in  Contexts Summer 2008.

Below is a simplified list of the 30 human rights accorded to every human being in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Place a “+” by the 5 human rights that you think are the most important and an “-” by the 5 rights that you think are the least important.

_________ Right to Equality
_________ Freedom from Discrimination
_________ Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security
_________ Freedom from Slavery
_________ Freedom from Torture and Degrading Treatment
_________ Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law
_________ Right to Equality before the Law
_________ Right to Remedy by Competent Tribunal
_________ Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile
_________ Right to Fair Public Hearing
_________ Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty
_________ Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence
_________ Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country
_________ Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution
_________ Right to a Nationality and the Freedom to Change It
_________ Right to Marriage and Family
_________ Right to Own Property
_________ Freedom of Belief and Religion
_________ Freedom of Opinion and Information
_________ Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association
_________ Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections
_________ Right to Social Security
_________ Right to Desirable Work and to Join Trade Unions
_________ Right to Rest and Leisure
_________ Right to Adequate Living Standard
_________ Right to Education
_________ Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community
_________ Right to a Social Order that Articulates this Document
_________ Community Duties Essential to Free and Full Development
_________ Freedom from State or Personal Interference in the above Rights

Questions to consider:

1.     Explain the rationale behind the rights you chose as most important and those that you listed as least important.

2.     How do you think your culture impacts what you view as important human rights?

3.     Are there any rights that you think should be included that are not on this list?  Are there any rights that you think are unnecessary?

4.     Does it seem like some rights are prioritized more than others today?

Here is a case study that you can use before reading “Consumers with a Conscience: Will They Pay More?”  by Howard Kimeldorf, Rachel Meyer, Monica Prasad, and Ian Robinson (Contexts,  Winter 2006). 

As a University of Pleasantville Board Member, Mike has a large decision ahead of him.  Two years ago, his university signed a 5-year contract with Soda Cola.  The university only sells and serves Soda Cola brand beverages on campus, and in return the university receives financial support from Soda Cola for research, new buildings, and student activities.

However, a group of several hundred students on campus have prepared a petition that asks the university to switch soda venders on the basis of alleged human rights violations by Soda Cola in other countries.  In some countries, Soda Cola companies have been accused of having unsafe working conditions.  In other countries, Soda Cola has also been accused of damaging the environment and contributing to pollution in rivers that people rely on for drinking water. 

While Mike understands these students’ concerns, he also has to consider his obligations to the university.  Times are tough, and the money the university receives from Soda Cola goes toward education and research.  Furthermore, he wonders if other soda vendors have better human rights records. 

Either way, the Board of Directors of the university will be reviewing the petition; and Mike will have to express his opinion on whether or not the university should continue business with Soda Cola. 

 Discussion Questions:

  1. If you were Mike, what would you suggest that the Board do?
  2. If the university ends their contract with Soda Cola, they will lose a substantial amount of research and education funding from the company. Is it worth it?
  3. Do Soda Cola consumers have the right to ask the company to investigate their practices?

This is a case study that could accompany any discussion on rights and cultural relativism.  For example, it could be paired with any article in Contexts that deals with religion, culture, etc.  Another option would be to use it with “Keyword: Culture” by Joseph R. Gusfield in Contexts, Winter 2006.  Click here for a pdf version of the case study.

Kelly is discussing women’s rights with a group of her friends before their International Law class starts.  As an avid feminist, she prides herself in her belief that women and men are equal.  She says to her friends, “I feel sorry for the women that feel like they have to submit themselves to men.  I mean, look at Muslim women.  Why should they have to cover their heads or faces?  They are beautiful.  It’s a violation of their human rights to be treated as inferior to men.  Why should they have to wear one if men don’t have to?” 

Several of Kelly’s friends look uncomfortable and motion with their eyes to the right of Kelly.  She glances over and realizes that Salma, who is originally from Kenya, is sitting next to them wearing her hijab.  Thankfully for Kelly, their professor enters the room and begins the day’s lecture. 

 After class, Salma approaches Kelly as she putting her things away in her backpack.  Salma explains that she heard Kelly’s conversation and that she wears a hijab because in her culture it is empowering.  To her, a hijab is a sign of her submission to Allah.  It also makes it so that men judge her by her personality rather than by her appearance.  Surprised, Kelly apologizes.  Yet, she is confused.  She thought hijabs were degrading and a violation of women’s fundamental rights.  How could two people view women’s right so differently?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with Kelly that hijabs violate women’s rights?
  2. If human rights are universal, how do we account for cultural differences?
  3. Are human rights and cultural relativism fundamentally incompatible?  Which one is more important? 
  4. Who has the power to decide how human rights are interpreted?