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Human rights, Ethnographic method, Cultural relativism, Anthropology of law, Human rights rhetoric, Human rights lawyers, New Approaches to International Law, NAIL, Legal instrumentalism


Anthropology | Human Rights Law


In this article, I draw on ethnography in the particular zone of engagement between anthropologists, on the one hand, and human rights lawyers who are skeptical of the human rights regime, on the other hand. I argue that many of the problems anthropologists encounter with the appropriation and marginalization of anthropology's analytical tools can be understood in terms of the legal character of human rights. In particular, discursive engagement between anthropology and human rights is animated by the pervasive instrumentalism of legal knowledge. I contend that both anthropologists who seek to describe the culture of human rights and lawyers who critically engage the human rights regime share a common problem—that of the “iron cage” of legal instrumentalism. I conclude that an ethnographic method reconfigured as a matter of what I term circling back—as opposed to cultural description—offers a respite from the hegemony of legal instrumentalism.

Publication Citation

Annelise Riles, "Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage", 108 American Anthropologist (2006)