The Historical & Political Relation Between Anthropology & Human Rights


A historic study of anthropology has contributed a lot in getting the understanding of how human beings evolved from primitive societies to the modern person that we have today. That was the initial objective of anthropology as a discipline but the development of human beings came with different challenges that formed new subjects of study especially those related to culture. Human rights were part of this which is a basic necessity for human survival including right to live, freedom in various areas among others. Therefore, it becomes inevitable for the two disciplines to have a clear separation since they are equally necessary for human survival and liberty. Their historic relationship shows how they have evolved together while the political one show their involvement in politics of societies which cannot be ignored in the present world


According to (Balandier,1970 pp14-16) Historical study is one studying the past of a particular issue, person, among others, showing how a subject of study has evolved over a specified time period up to the present. In this case the subjects of study are human rights as well as anthropology whose evolution will be studied and compared. A political study deals with politics, the involvement or relation between subject of study and politics. That is discussing the subject from a political point of view and in this case the political relation of human rights as well as anthropology which are also compared.

(Eickelman, 1989 pp35-36) argues that, anthropology is a study of man’s behavior and origin including culture as well as society’s development. In this study of anthropology, humanity is studied through a number of subfields which include linguistic, Cultural, Archeology and physical anthropology. Cultural anthropology involves the participation of an anthropologist in a society under study enabling one to understand way of living of that particular society. Physical anthropology studies human biology, genetics, primatology, human evolution among others so as to get an understanding of how human beings adapt to culture, biologically and physically. Linguistic anthropology studies different languages and how they relate with culture, for example how these languages are involved in shaping of culture. Archeology studies culture of the past where remains of materials are studied including artifacts, bones, ethnographical recreations and fauna. Finally applied anthropology has been developed studying practical use of anthropological methods in various fields of study, for example in the medical area while researching on indigenous medicine.


Human rights can be defined as the freedoms and rights entitled to every human being including right to liberty, life, and expression and thought. Different religions, as well as countries, have their set of definitions of what they consider as human rights according to their beliefs though there is not much difference.

Politically human rights are considered as a special kind of moral entitlement applying to everyone equally, irrespective of one’s nationality, race, membership to a group, among other lines of division. Politically, there is a specification of minimum conditions in terms of life that can be tolerated and human dignity. (Vincent, 1990 pp 1-3)

According to (Davidson, 1993 pp 34-37) the human rights issue cannot be considered to be as old since it began to gain popularity in the 20th Century. However, it has its roots in cultural documents as well as early tradition where responsibilities were acquired through group membership in religion, family, state, class among others. All societies in one way or another had their own systems of justice, as well as property and ways of looking into their members’ welfare. Most documents that were recorded before the 20th century were biased against women and members of some specific economic, religious, political and social groups and especially those biased, have taken part in the revolution regarding equal rights.

It was after the 2nd world war that governments of different countries agreed to form United Nations, since they shared a common objective of maintaining peace internationally. This was because people had been fed up with destructions caused by war and wanted to see that nothing of that sort gets repeated leading to drafting of the Charter of United Nations. Individual countries started to accept these, applying them to their citizens since it brought a sense of freedom and peace to the various countries. Human rights Universal Declaration provided a statement that has been accepted widely as it has met the international standards. At the end of the 20th Century, practices and principles of human rights gained so much attention and it resulted to formation of NGO’S to look upon these matters. The result of research was a report that included a compilation of global practices of human rights covering some that have been recorded in the human rights Universal Declaration. Today human rights Universal Declaration’s contents are still in use even forming part of rules governing various countries. (Pogge, 2005 pp 22-24)

The history of anthropology has been studied by, early scholars among them Eric Wolf, who regarded anthropology as very scientific, compared to the other humanities and also very humanistic compared to other social sciences. An understanding of development of anthropology is very crucial as it enables one to understand the manner in which it gets incorporated in other disciplines. This development of anthropology evolved from natural history which has been elaborated by early scholars and it was typically studying human beings. Since this study was being done by Europeans, those living in their colonies formed the study group where a study of languages, artifacts, and culture was almost equivalent to a study of fauna and flora of those colonies. Anthropological studies were carried out in museums, and in early 1870s, zoos were considered as unattended laboratories and mostly referred to as Negro villages. Savages that had been collected from countries colonized by Europeans were displayed in cages for people to observe as they waited to be worked on as research specimens. (Lewellen, 2003 pp 34-37)

According to (Little, 1999 pp 22-26), the difference between anthropology and natural history grew very fast making them very different from each other and by late 19th Century a new form of modern anthropology had developed. There was an assumption that there existed only one process of evolution which was followed by all the various societies from those referred to as primitive to those that were more advanced. For example, the study of anthropology’s history in South Asia, has shaped anthropology’s intellectual practices in postcolonial times. Various themes have been studied which include; conflict and violence phenomenon as well as concerns of feminism and gender criticism that eventually led to the need for human rights to ensure peace among members of society. Thus a study of colonial societies was used to understand the evolution of human beings especially their cultures. Political Anthropology is a part of social anthropology which evolved due to the wide variety of studies in this field leading to specialization of some scholars. This branch developed to study politics of ancient societies and is still applied in the contemporary society where politics has become order of the day. It is in this process of organizing and studying politics that human rights of society members’ are observed since without them there is a high possibility of violence eruption where deprivation of human rights occurs. (Eickelman, 1989 pp33-34)

There is a relationship between human rights and anthropology which is featured in both their political as well as historical study. According to (Bass, 2002 pp 17-18) Anthropology has had a very big contribution to development of human rights bearing in mind that it has formed the basis of political issues that resulted to development of human rights. Without a study of how culture of human beings evolved, then it’s not possible to understand how human rights were formed. Development of these two disciplines converged at some point in the 20th Century where anthropology had already passed through so much development as the human species had fully developed and was now looking for its freedom. Culture is basically the source of relationship between these two since human rights are all about freedom of living whose study is conducted by anthropology. Further more culture cannot continue if there is no reproduction of human beings as well as their creation as they provide subjects of study and bring continuity of culture. Anthropological study of the culture of human beings, their physical or biological capacities, languages, among other studies of different kinds of people as well as their groups, calls for universality of cultural practices. If this is not achieved, their differences would cause chaos like it was during the world wars where rights were not observed and the superior ones oppressed weaker populations with no law condemning them. (Kearney, 1995 pp14-17)

(Malkki, 1995 pp 16-17) argues that, Universality entails a commitment to the same level of opportunities for everyone to realize humanity in their social as well as cultural lives. However the environment in which human beings live is always characterized by violence caused by rulers of governments and corporations’ leaders as well as other actors in a society. Mostly especially in the present, almost all disagreements occurring in any country whether developed or not, are as a result of politics. This is because most politicians have become corrupt leading to violence among citizens which limits their humanity. Professional anthropology protects and promotes people’s rights regardless of their various diversities, so that each one of them realizes humanity which is the cultural capacity. In case anyone is deprived off humanity then an Association of American Anthropologists takes the responsibility of opposing those actions of deprivation to ensure justice is done. The Association of American Anthropologists has developed a declaration whose relevance applies universally.

(Billion, 2001 pp 39-41) states that, this declaration also incorporates a relationship between the human rights and anthropology. It argues that human beings have rights that are generic to enjoy their culture which is the way of life and also reproduce without disturbance from any one. It goes on to state that, human beings should be in a position to develop socially, personally as well as physically only if their actions are not affecting others in one way or another. The organization also argues that human rights and cultural differences are opposed to each other and it therefore takes the responsibility of negotiating a meeting point for the two. Current work of anthropologists has its focus on how institutions as well as concepts of human rights are engaged in political struggles. This is because they have realized that the society has been subjected to unsafe politics and needs someone to intervene so that rights are respected accordingly. Academically, anthropology studies the origin and various ways in which human beings are different as well as their unity, using that information to solve human problems. This way, people from different races, countries, gender among other diversities of human beings are able to live harmoniously respecting each others beliefs. The professional organization of American Anthropologists becomes and has been concerned when one is denied his/her rights just because one has different beliefs or comes from a different community.

The term human should be literally applied, incorporating everyone socially, culturally, biologically as well as psychologically. The organization’s studies are based on principles of anthropology where human differences should be accorded respect whether those concerned are in a group or as an individual. Practically, this organization makes use of other treaties and agreements like the human rights Universal Declaration and conventions protecting women in areas of discrimination as well as torture ensuring that human rights are observed at an international level but not to its limitations. However the concept of human rights is very dynamic since our culture is undergoing developments enabling us to discover more about conditions of human beings. Consequently, it becomes necessary to have new standards set forth by which human rights should be observed and this can be made possible by engaging in more anthropological research on humanity. Study of various languages by linguistic anthropologists is very important in observation of human rights as it helps them to interpret rights into various languages enabling more people to understand them. (Bass, 2002 pp 18-19) An example of a relationship between human rights and anthropology can be viewed in the way indigeneity, a concept of cultural anthropology has been engaged in the consideration of Indigenous People’s Rights declaration. (Messer, 1993 pp16-18)


It’s therefore very evident that the relationship between human rights and anthropology is of great importance enabling the society to realize humanity. These two disciplines have evolved separately but have come to merge in the 20th Century especially after world wars when anthropologists saw the necessity of studying human rights. As the world continues to change, anthropologists are becoming more specialized in specific areas of interest like human rights and in the process they assist society in fighting for their rights. Therefore more research should be encouraged, on ways in which society can be respected by politicians and others who take advantage of the poor, incorporating some of them in law that should be respected by everyone. (Malkki, 1995 pp 14-15)


Balandier G. (1970): Political Anthropology: Lane Allen pp 14-16

Eickelman D. (1989): An Anthropological Approach: Prentice Hall pp 33-36

Vincent J. (1990): Anthropology and Politics: University of Arizona Press pp1-3

Lewellen T. (2003): Political Anthropology: Blackwell Synergy pp 34-37

Davidson S. (1993): Human Rights: Open University pp13-15

Pogge T. (2005): World Poverty and Human Rights pp 22-24

Bass J. (2002): Human Rights, Culture and Context: Am Anthrop Assoc pp 16-19

Kearny M. (1995): The Anthropology globalization: Annual Reviews pp 14-17

Billion P. (2001): The political Ecology of war: Elsevier pp39-41

Malkki L. (1995): Refugees and Exile: Annual Reviews pp14-17

Messer E. (1993): Anthropology and human Rights: Annual Reviews pp16-18

Little P. (1999): Environments and Environmentalisms in Anthropological Research: Annual reviews pp 22-26

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