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  • Social Movements and the Social Construction of Human Rights
  • Neil Stammers (bio)

If people are not aware of the historical and contextual nature of human rights and are not aware that human rights become realized only by the struggles of real people experiencing real instances of domination, then human rights are all too easily used as symbolic legitimizers for instruments of that very domination. 1

I. Introduction

Despite some recognition in recent literature that there is some sort of link between social movements and human rights, the nature of this link and its possible implications for understanding human rights have rarely been explored in any detail. A similar argument can be made in respect of the highly ambivalent relationship between human rights and power. 2 This [End Page 980] paper argues that these lacunae arise because dominant discourses from both proponents and opponents of human rights are not analytically equipped to grasp the way in which ideas and practices in respect of human rights have been socially constructed in the context of social movement challenges to extant relations and structures of power. The contention of this article is that if we use the triadic relationship between human rights, social movements, and power as an organizing focus for analysis, we get a very different picture from those offered by the dominant discourses, not only in respect of the origins and development of human rights, but also their potentials and limits.

The need to see this alternative picture is made all the more urgent by the current pace of the processes of globalization, which appear to be significantly transforming the capacities of many social and political institutions, including the nation-state. The potential importance of this last point can hardly be exaggerated given that the nation-state is almost universally regarded as the main duty-bearer in respect of all forms of human rights. Beyond this, it is also clear that human rights are part of globalization processes: an important and contested, some would even say oppressive, element of political globalization.

In the rest of this introduction, I will set out my assumptions in respect of social constructionism and power. The first main section of the article will then offer some initial thoughts on the nature of social movements and the role of social movements in the socio-historical development of human rights. The section which follows looks at the limits of the dominant discourses on human rights, and the third section examines how we might go about understanding the highly ambivalent relationship between human rights and power. This leads to a final section which considers some issues relating to how human rights might be reconstructed under contemporary conditions of globalization.

A. Social Constructionism and Power

To say that human rights are socially constructed is to say that ideas and practices in respect of human rights are created, re-created, and instanciated by human actors in particular socio-historical settings and conditions. It is a way of understanding human rights which does not require them to have any metaphysical existence (for example, through nature or God), nor does it rely on abstract reasoning or logic to ground them. The emphasis on the potential creativity of human actors in this understanding of social constructionism also stands in contrast to forms of structuralist explanation that reduce the role of social actors to nothing other than bearers of structural determinations. Taken together, these assumptions locate my ontological [End Page 981] and epistemological positions close to those of “structurationist” and “critical realist” schools of thought, 3 sharing common features with many feminist, and some cultural relativist, critiques of human rights. 4

“Power” is the other term I want to briefly discuss at the outset, because how power is conceptualized also bears heavily on how human rights have been understood. Within the western liberal tradition, the concept of power has often been used in a very limited way: as the capacities of social actors located in the political sphere (the state, government, political parties, etc.). In other words, the sort of power that has been much described, studied, and analyzed has been restricted to political power. There have been, of course, much wider understandings of power than...

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pp. 980-1008
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