chapter  6
17 Pages

Taking the sociology of human rights seriously


In the West, on the assumption that the individual is ontologically prior to the social or the collective, there appears to be a consensus amongst both advocates and critics that in the end taking human rights seriously can only mean one thing: the selective privileging of the value of the individual over the social or the collective, especially where the latter takes the form of the state. This privileging has had the tragic policy consequence that taking human rights seriously is often of little practical consequence as a mode of social amelioration. Indeed, as Upendra Baxi (2002) has argued, the ultimate effect of taking human rights seriously can all too often be to the detriment of those whom one might otherwise have thought were their intended beneficiaries. This is because many politicians and policy-makers today are strongly committed to the view that, for the sake of protecting human rights, collective or state intervention in, and management of, economic and social life should be kept to a minimum. Nothing could be further from the truth as, if a nepotistic reference may be forgiven, my brother Michael Woodiwiss has demonstrated in his recent book Gangster Capitalism (2005). The book is a comprehensive account of the corporate abuse of human rights in the US that results from weak or absent state regulation. The abuses he discusses include a startling array of frauds on the sick; food poisoning (a quarter of the American population experiences food poisoning every year); industrial injuries; and the massive and racially biased over-imprisonment of the poor. It is not my intention to repeat or add to this catalogue of horrors. Rather, what I wish to do is say something about the genesis of the consensus that these horrors call into question since this process involved the exclusion, albeit unknowingly, of sociology from the debate over human rights. I will then go on to present a sociological challenge to the assumption upon which the reigning consensus was constructed before ending by illustrating what it means to take the sociology of human rights seriously today.