Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR)

Sep 2017: Short Intensive Course on Human Rights: Activism and Site-Specific Research

SIC with Prof. Samuel Martínez, University of Connecticut (18-20 September, 2017)

Drawing on the work of leading theorists and scholars of human rights, as assembled and curated by veteran anthropologist of human rights Samuel Martínez, this short-intensive course (SIC) scrutinizes three core dilemmas.

Three dilemmas:

  1. in geographically-dispersed and rapidly-innovating fields such as human rights campaigning, can anthropology’s classical reliance on site-specific case studies continue to yield insight into the life-worlds of particular actors, while also accounting for the trans-local dimensions of knowledge exchange?
  2. are human rights monitors and lawyers (among other expert practitioners) struggling similarly to come to terms with their field of work, as they now take on problems that mostly exceed human rights’ conventional social and spatial scales?
  3. is an encounter with the commodity form, as both object and instrument of intervention, one major way in which human rights is confronting problems of increased complexity and scale?

The SIC will invite consideration of these three dilemmas’ relevance to the study of a broad range of science technology studies (STS), humanitarian and medical anthropological themes, which, like human rights, point persistently to the limits of a geographically-defined ethnographic imaginary. The three-day SIC combines in-class lectures and discussions to help PhD students recognize these dilemmas in their own work and develop new ways of approaching their research topics.

To close the SIC, Prof Martínez will give a public lecture on Day 3.

Invited Lecturer

Samuel Martínez is a Cuban-born ethnologist. In 2016, he was awarded the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) President’s Award for outstanding service to the Association. He has served as Program Chair for the 2016 AAA Annual Meeting and also served as Chair (2003-04) of the AAA’s Committee for Human Rights. His main area of research expertise is the migrant and minority rights mobilizations of undocumented Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. He is also editor of a contributory volume, International Migration and Human Rights (U California Press, 2009) and co-editor of three journal special issues. In his current research and writing, he brings critical scrutiny to the writings of northern human rights monitors, journalists and social scientists about Haitian-ancestry people in the Dominican Republic. He is also writing a book on the discourse and visual culture of antislavery in the late 20th & early 21st centuries. And with support from the Public Discourse Project of the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, Martínez is organizing a conference and contributory volume examining the schismatic tendency of today’s anti-trafficking/antislavery discourse.


A common thread woven into popular discourse of humanitarian, global governance, and social justice challenges is what is demanded of us when we hear and see evidence of the precarity of people’s lives, near or far. The global community has been democratized and knitted closer by the idea of universal rights and by common idioms with which human rights endows myriad urgent claims to respect. Emotionally profound and morally compelling, building human rights for many years seemed to demand anthropologists’ concrete contributions rather than their analytical deconstruction.

However, as human rights figure heavily in debates about social wrongs, a goal of social scientists is to articulate the origin and analyze the nature of human rights’ seemingly incontestable legitimacy, value and convertibility as a currency of social justice campaigning. The SIC’s readings and discussions will gravitate toward two poles: complex wrongs/simple stories and human rights and the commodity form. Do familiar plot lines built around the figures of victim, perpetrator and responder miss encompassing structures of law, border control and the market? How might anthropology’s emphasis on ‘sites’ need to expand to account better for complex wrongs (involving more than one injustice and more than one category of perpetrator) and how these are to be represented? In our era of global free trade, Internet communication, and institutionalized corporate accountability, is human rights knowledge itself becoming not just like a commodity, ‘pitched’ to particular consumer demographics, but in some instances actually a commodity, produced under contract, attractively packaged, and arbitraged among clients? 

The SIC structures these questions as three core dilemmas: 1) that a preference for ‘sites’ elides other spaces for an anthropology of human rights; 2) that human rights are at once a bulwark against the damage on human dignity that commodity exchange can wreak yet must compete in commoditized information circuits to reach its public; and 3) that in the commodification involved in public outreach, ‘human rights talk,’ image-texts, and other media tend to distort complex reality in favor of familiar tropes of the ‘hidden wrong’ and the Good Samaritan.


The main aims of the SIC are to:

  1. Examine the underappreciated implications of the study of human rights for cultural anthropology’s classical emphasis on site-specific field research;
  2. Develop greater awareness and a vocabulary for discussing the challenges that varying levels of scale, geographical dispersion and rapid innovation pose for our own research;
  3. Explore comparable problems of adaptation to increasing complexity among expert/activist research subjects;
  4. Discuss human rights’ relationship to the commodity form, its historical predecessors, and present-day forms.

Course Design

Day 1 - Sites



Introduction/lecture: Aim and scope of the course; anthropology’s ‘geographic imaginary’

In-class discussion: student presentations/discussion



In-class lecture: anthropology’s supra-local ‘sites’

In-class discussion: student research interests



Welcome dinner at location tbd

Day 2 - Commodities


In-class lecture: human rights and the commodity form, part I: supply chains and ethical consumption

In-class discussion: representation, ethics and expertise


In-class lecture: human rights and the commodity form, part II: human rights, legal retribution and ethical consumption — lessons of ‘Dominican sugar slavery’

In-class discussion: Students and lecturer discuss key points and lessons from lecture

Day 3 – The image as commodity & specter


In-class lecture: commoditization and commodification of human rights

In-class discussion of broader lessons


Public Lecture:  Trafficking in Possibilities: The New Abolitionism’s Subjunctive Imagery.


Farewell Reception at location tbd (for SIC students)


Day 1 morning & afternoon (9-16:30)

​The SIC begins with questions of method. Martínez will ask, specifically in relation to cultural anthropology, whether we are reaching a breaking point beyond which the concepts of ‘ethnography’ and ‘field site’ are less enabling fictions than limiting metaphors. Ahead of class, students will be asked to prepare a brief ‘mini-presentation’ of their research topic and its methodological challenges. In the afternoon, Martínez will explore ways in which cultural anthropologists have found terms to describe the geographically de-centered character of contemporary cultural anthropology and then reconcile that with the geographical imaginary of ‘sites’ and ‘fieldwork.’ A welcome dinner will be provided for course participants that evening to foster more conversation.

Day 2 morning & afternoon (9-16:30)

The second course day asks whether comparable dilemmas of method and scale now confront human rights professionals. In human rights, too, the cases and campaigns of today most often involve complex injustices that exceed human rights’ conventional social and spatial parameters, of one violation, one violator, and one remedy. And yet, in spite of this changed subject matter, the reporting and litigation backed by monitor groups and international lawyers mostly confirms rather than contests conventional legal retributory models of justice-seeking, which tend to narrow blame around one wrong and one wrongdoer. Questions for in-class discussion revolve around matters of representation, ethics and expertise. In the afternoon, Martínez will introduce the commodity and supply chain concepts. He will describe how a multiplicity of injustices can be reduced by monitors, lawyers and judges into single issues.

Day 3 morning (9-12:30)

The morning session will focus on the commoditization of human rights as rights challenges and crises globally become packaged as consumable numbers, photographs, graphics, icons, or ‘brands.’ How might human rights ultimately only repeat, ‘in a differential form, the very socioeconomic-political conditions it claims to overcome’ (Zigon, 2013, 732)?

Day 3 afternoon (time tbd)

Martínez will give a public lecture titled, ‘Trafficking in Possibilities: The New Abolitionism’s Subjunctive Imagery.’ In it, Martínez will contrast the ‘seeing-is-believing’ visual culture of human rights with today’s anti-trafficking and antislavery, which seem paradoxically to beg that not seeing can also be believing. That evening, the SIC course participants will be invited to a farewell reception featuring drinks and light snacks.

Relevant Literature

  • Fassin, D. 2001. The biopolitics of otherness: undocumented foreigners and racial discrimination in French public debate. Anthropology Today 17(1): 3-7
  • Goodale, Merry and Riles papers from American Anthropologist special issue, “Anthropology and Human Rights in a New Key.”
  • James, E. 2004. The political economy of ‘trauma’ in Haiti in the democratic era of insecurity. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 28: 127.
  • Martinez, S. 2013 An anthropologist among human rights experts in Haiti and the Dominican Republic: para-ethnographic perspectives on culture and rights. Australian Journal of Human Rights 19(1): 11-29
  • ------. 2015. From commoditizing to commodifying human rights: research on forced labor in Dominican sugar plantations. Humanity 6(3): 387-409.
  • Slaughter, J. R. 2007. Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law. New York: Fordham University Press (chapters TBA).
  • Wilkinson, I. and Kleinman, A. 2016. A Passion for Society: How We Think About Human Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press (read only chapters 1 and 2).
  • Zigon, J. 2013. Human rights as moral progress? A critique. Cultural Anthropology 28(4): 716-736.


Hunter Keys ( and Carola Tize (

Published by  AISSR

22 September 2017