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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 536-559

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From Skepticism to Embrace: Human Rights and the American Anthropological Association from 1947-1999

Karen Engle

I. Introduction

In 1947, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) submitted its Statement on Human Rights to the United Nations. 1 Anthropologists have been embarrassed ever since. In the late 1940s, anthropologists were embarrassed because they saw the Statement as limiting tolerance. In recent years, embarrassment has derived from a sense that the document refused to place a limit on tolerance.

This debate among anthropologists over the limits of tolerance has occurred in the context of the development of an international human rights regime. In the debate, culture and human rights have largely been seen as oppositional. To be for human rights would be to oppose the acceptance of [End Page 536] cultural practices that might conflict with one's interpretations of human rights' norms. To support an acceptance of conflicting cultural practices would be to oppose human rights.

The AAA's 1947 Statement has primarily been read as taking the latter position. It warned the United Nations against adopting a universal bill of rights that did not attend to cultural particularities. In June 1999, the membership of the AAA adopted, by official ballot, a Declaration of Anthropology and Human Rights. 2 Its primary proponent, a newly organized Human Rights Committee within the Association, considers the Declaration to be a "complete turnaround" from the 1947 position.

This article questions the characterization of the 1999 Declaration as a complete turnaround by studying the role that the 1947 Statement has played in the development of anthropological views on human rights. In particular, it takes a diachronic look at the institutional actions of the AAA of the 1940s and those of the 1990s by comparing the 1947 Statement with the 1999 Declaration. It also compares responses to the Statement in the 1940s with those in the 1990s, exploring various ways that anthropologists have reacted to the Boasian cultural relativism that is generally considered to be embodied in the Statement. I argue that, despite their many disclaimers of the Statement (generally voiced as embarrassment), today's pro-rights anthropologists continue to struggle with the same issues that the 1947 AAA Board confronted regarding the limits of tolerance. In particular, the question of how one might be a cultural relativist and still make overt political judgments guides today's Human Rights Committee in much the same way it guided the 1947 Board.

I further argue that neither the AAA's substantive political commitments nor its understandings of culture have changed significantly since the 1947 Statement. Rather, the attitude toward the ability of human rights law and rhetoric to protect culture and achieve certain political aims has changed. While the AAA of 1947 was skeptical of human rights law, the AAA of the turn of the millennium has embraced human rights rhetoric.

In their embrace of human rights, though, pro-rights anthropologists of the 1990s protest too much about the 1947 Statement. The similarities between the Statement and the Declaration, for example, are striking in that both argue for the protection of culture. I will demonstrate that the Declaration and the actions of the AAA's Human Rights Committee are very much in line with the 1947 Statement in that their primary focus is the protection of culture. Calling that protection a human right provides a means of mediating the tension between universal rights and cultural [End Page 537] relativism, or judgment and tolerance. Pro-rights anthropologists have deployed other strategies for mediating this tension as well, including reviving Boasian relativism's antiracism and anticolonialism, separating relativism from tolerance and searching for transcultural values. The seeds for these strategies, I argue, can also be found in the 1947 Statement.

This article proceeds by describing and situating the 1947 Statement and discussing the embarrassment it has engendered over the past fifty years. It grounds the discussion in an historical account of the rise and fall and partial resurrection of Boasian anthropology. It then considers the...