Open only to doctoral students based at universities within the U.S.

Workshop dates:
Spring - May 29-June 2, 2013 in Chaska, Minnesota
Fall - September 18-22, 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Peoples and places experiencing political violence, humanitarian disasters, and mass atrocities are notoriously difficult to study. While information and analysis regarding such situations are essential for developing responses and prevention, there are significant challenges for researchers. Building upon scholarship in law, politics, geography, critical social theory, international relations, conflict resolution, and the (rapidly expanding) subfield of transitional justice, this field will critically examine what counts as human rights, as well as how human rights are counted. Our central aim with this research field is to infuse doctoral research designs, at the critical stage of conception, with an understanding of the epistemological and empirical challenges of studying human rights.

“Human Rights” encompass an assemblage of ideas, norms, law, institutions, social movements and power relationships. Rather than an already-existing entity, category, or set of norms and practices, we deploy the term as a focus for critical inquiry. We seek dissertation projects broadly associated with human rights, and yet committed to a common conceptual focus: a critical analysis of the co-constitution of power, knowledge and violence. Questions that animate this research field include, for example, what constitutes ‘reconciling’ and ‘rescuing’ (in Foucault’s terms, to ‘let live’)? How are certain acts of violence celebrated as heroic acts of war, and others prosecuted as crimes? Projects may interrogate why, where and how particular regimes of protection of human rights, or accountability for international crimes, are applied, and who the critical actors are in such decision-making. Dissertations that will benefit from this conceptual focus could include projects that critically evaluate, for example: international political, humanitarian, and military interventions; peacekeeping missions; resettlement policies and aid programs; conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction projects; historical memory and landscapes of commemoration; transitional justice mechanisms (such as truth commissions); international tribunals; gendered analysis of violence and security. Projects that address what might be called ‘the humanitarian-industrial-complex’ ---the network of agencies and activities that function at the intersection of disaster and humanitarianism---are encouraged, especially research relating to the condition and creation of vulnerable populations. For example, a critical approach might interrogate discourses regarding rights, humanitarianism, and sovereignty in the international community’s responses to the crises in Libya and Syria.

Through the workshop sessions in the spring and fall, we will also address and debate three key considerations in human rights research: 1) security in the field for research informants and the researcher, 2) the handling and interpreting of sensitive and conflicting data, such as testimonies influenced by trauma, political and social repression and manipulation, and 3) the critical epistemological tools to identify what research problems can be feasibly and ethically addressed in complex and conflictive environments.

Applicants are welcome from any discipline. We invite scholars who employ diverse methodologies, include historical and contemporary case studies; discourse analysis; textual legal analysis; comparative social science methods including interviews, participant observation, process tracing and quantitative analysis; ethnography; genealogy, and Geographic Information Sciences. The envisioned multidisciplinary community will help ensure that dissertations are oriented, from their conception through publication, towards broader audiences of theorists, practitioners, and other interlocutors, across geographical regions.


  • Samar Mussa Al-Bulushi

    Yale University, Anthropology

    Security Sector Reform, Counter-terrorism and Muslim NGOs in Kenya
  • Jian Ming Chris Chang

    Columbia University, East Asian Languages and Cultures

    Redress by Letters: Petitions for Rehabilitation in the post-Cultural Revolution Settlement
    In the decade that followed the Cultural Revolution, Chinese local government institutions received thousands of written petitions seeking official redress for the abuses of past campaigns. This dissertation aims to investigate a broad sample of these petitions so as to engage issues of political rehabilitation and transitional justice from the neglected vantage point of grassroots Chinese civil society. Straddling the ground between historiography and litigation, these petitions pointed to rupture between private historical experience and the ideals of socialist society, mobilizing past wrongs to shift the balance of reform. A critical reading of these texts will illuminate strategic attempts by petitioners to press claims while utilizing rhetorical strategies of rightful remonstrance to formally align their interests with those of power-holders. These petitions present a means of understanding how discourses of private suffering shaped the production of knowledge in public fields of political and historical reflection during the reform period.
  • Evelyn Galindo-Doucette

    University of Wisconsin / Madison, Spanish and Portuguese

    The Art of Remembering in the Legacy of El Salvador’s War: Individual Responses to Emblematic Memory in State Sponsored Murals
    In 2009 Mauricio Funes broke the 20-year reign of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) becoming the first president elected from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political offshoot of El Salvador's guerrilla insurgency. The democratic alternation of power has intensified the struggle over national collective memory. In effect, the current administration's systematic "recuperation" of memory has sparked widespread public debate about the past. The polemical topic of memory in El Salvador today illustrates the unfinished character of the country's transition to peace. The central question of my research is how individual memories, specifically traumatic ones, compare with the framework of postwar collective memory and transition. I plan to use images of key scenes from two recent state sponsored murals to conduct individual and group interviews in order to tease out the tensions and intersections between individual memory and the dominant emblematic historical narratives.
  • Alexa Hagerty

    Stanford University, Anthropology

    Gray Zones and White Slavery: Memory and Moral Ambiguity and Human Trafficking in Argentina
    Didier Fassin has called for anthropologists to wade into moral territories that are less clearly defined than "the good and the malign" and exist in a "moral gray area" (Rahimi 2012). While human trafficking is commonly theorized as unproblematically malign, I propose that it may be better understood as a "moral gray area." I explore two zones of moral ambiguity in human trafficking in Argentina. The first is the ambiguity of memory; I argue that the category of human trafficking is shaped by the persistence of nineteenth century discourses of "white slavery" and hygiene. In addition, I argue that legal responses to human trafficking in Argentina reveal institutional legacies of the dirty war. Secondly, I argue that human trafficking disrupts late liberal forms of recognition by exceeding familiar binaries such as rescued/rescuer and victim/perpetrator (for example, when women kidnapped into human trafficking themselves become traffickers), opening complex moral terrain.
  • Christoph Hanssmann

    University of California / San Francisco, Social and Behavioral Sciences

    Globally Assembling "Transgender": Biomedical, Human Rights, and Activist Construction of the Transnational Category of "Transgender"
    My project explores the expanding category of "transgender" as it is produced through the interrelated discourses of health/biomedicine, human rights, and community-based activism. Specifically, I will investigate several sites of biomedical, human rights, and activist knowledge production: the World Health Organization's International Classification of Disease; the Yogyakarta Principles; and Global Action for Trans* Equality. Each of these sites represent arenas in which notions of health, gender, and citizenship are reconstructed and debated. As "transgender" becomes an increasingly transnationally recognized category, NGO- and community-based activists, in addition to biomedical and human rights experts, play a role in the shape and direction of these dialogues. Through ethnographic approaches to tracing the production of "transgender," I will explore the effects of the category's transnational mobilization, and in particular, address how "neutrality" and "universality"—central themes in both biomedicine and human rights—are taken up or not in the processes of categorization and classification.
  • Gregoire Hervouet-Zeiber

    Johns Hopkins University, Anthropology

    The Emergence of the Chechen Syndrome: Trauma and Violence in Post-Soviet Russia
  • Austin Kocher

    Ohio State University, Geography

    Undocumented Immigrants Before the Courts: A Legal Geography of Immigration Hearings and Deportations
    Aggressive immigration enforcement initiatives at the federal (i.e. border militarization), state (i.e. Arizona's SB-1070), and local scale (i.e. 287(g) and Secure Communities) have yielded year-over-year record numbers of deportations from the United States, crossing 400,000 for the first time in 2012. As a result, not only has the immigration court system dramatically expanded to adjudicate immigration cases, but more people are being caught in the connections and contradictions between local criminal law enforcement practices, federal civil immigration law, and the despairingly few legal options and services available to undocumented immigrants. This doctoral dissertation research integrates ethnographic fieldwork and legal analysis to investigate the juridical rationalities that animate the everyday practices that constitute U.S. immigration courts, the impact of courts on the management of populations undocumented immigrants, and the contested strategies used by respondents and their counsel to achieve favorable outcomes.
  • Laura M. Matson

    University of Minnesota / Twin Cities, Geography

    Land, sovereignty, and the convergence of internal and external sites of contestation: Indigenous Claims Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
    This research focuses on the Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as a lens through which to analysis how claims to aboriginal land are articulated before international human rights bodies. Despite criticisms by some activists and scholars that indigenous-specific human rights protections codify systems of state hegemony and undermine indigenous territorial and sovereign integrity, indigenous groups have frequently brought claims to human rights tribunals against states. The jurisprudence that has developed out of these cases has extended state obligations to indigenous land in important ways, and has shaped political discourses on indigenous rights. By focusing on the ways in which aboriginal groups articulate claims before regional and international human rights tribunals, this research attempts to understand how international human rights law is made contingent and shaped in practice, and how human rights discourses can create contestations around fixed notions of state sovereignty and territorial entitlement.
  • Jaimie Nicole Morse

    Northwestern University, Sociology

    Measuring Gender-Based Violence in Conflict Zones: How Technologies, Legal Norms, and Human Rights Ideologies Travel Globally
    Intended to increase prosecution of gender-based violence in war, a growing number of interventions involve training healthcare practitioners in medical forensic evidence collection to corroborate allegations of rape. Such attempts are part of broader shifts in the field of human rights advocacy to document human rights violations using rigorous, standardized methodologies. Yet evidence collection techniques may in fact help to define what they purport to measure, thereby having profound symbolic and material effects on the credibility of victims' narratives and the histories of mass atrocities. I bring together approaches in science and technology studies, law and society, feminist studies, and the sociology of human rights to understand how medical forensic exams and their associated measurement techniques may influence what counts as gender-based violence in conflict and with what effects. Combining archival research with interviews, I trace the global assemblage of actors and technologies that has been instrumental in these efforts.
  • Justin Perez

    University of California / Irvine, Anthropology

    Translating Sexuality and Human Rights: Municipal Antidiscrimination Law in the Peruvian Jungle
    If political violence and truth and reconciliation can be identified as transformative moments affecting future legal and cultural configurations, then what are some of these effects? This ethnographic project frames the passage and usage of municipal antidiscrimination law recognizing sexual orientation in Tarapoto, Peru within the historical context of internal armed conflict, notably the systematic violence directed towards sexual minorities that occurred in Tarapoto in the late 1980s. I approach sexuality as a site to examine the social and cultural transformations engendered by politics of violence and reconciliation. Examining how contemporary sexuality activists in Tarapoto, through workshops in surrounding villages and negotiations with regional authorities, translate the discourse of human rights into local contexts, this project asks why legal recognition for sexual minorities has taken the form of antidiscrimination law in Peru and seeks an explanation for its popularity.
  • Azita Ranjbar

    Pennsylvania State University, Geography

    Geographies of Human Rights: Changes in Human Rights Discourses as Local Movements become Global
  • J Sebastian

    University of California / Riverside, Ethnic Studies

    The Privileged Subject: Colonialism, Modernity, and Human Rights
    My research centers the question of how law ensured the legitimacy of the colonial project through the construction of the universal rights bearing subject. I plan to show that 16th century Spanish jurist Francisco Vitoria's work is foundational to International legal frameworks and human rights discourses today because it influenced the complex formation of modern nation-state relationships and social hierarchies through codifying conquest and colonization. Through tracing the genealogies of rights from their codification within this text, I plan to reframe traditional narratives regarding the emergence of population, governance, and capitalism as inextricably linked and founded in doctrines of colonial conquest, racial chattel slavery, and heteropatriarchy. From this, my project will provide an analysis of the ways these genealogies continue to work within modern day legal systems, and specifically within movements that seek redress from state repression through articulations of human rights.