Mathews-Salazar on Goodale, 'Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights'

Mark Goodale. Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights. Stanford Studies in Human Rights Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. 200 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-6212-0; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-6213-7.

Reviewed by Patricia D. Mathews-Salazar (Borough of Manhattan Community College and Graduate Center, City University of New York)
Published on H-Human-Rights (April, 2010)
Commissioned by Rebecca K. Root

A Well-Tempered Human Rights Approach: Reflections on Surrendering to Utopia

(Note to reader: Patricia Mathews-Salazar wrote a separate, Spanish-language review of this book elsewhere. See "Temperando el clavijero: Una mirada a la antropologia de los derechos humanos," A Contra corriente: Una Revista de historia social y literatura de America Latina 7, no. 2 [Winter 2010]: 502-507.)

Mark Goodale has been working on issues related to the anthropology of law and human rights for several years now. His earlier publications have advanced the discussion in this interdisciplinary area of law, political science, and anthropology. At the same time, his knowledge of the Bolivian Andes has given his work authority to illustrate the ways in which these issues affect communities there. This is a brief  book--less than 150 pages of text--and it is a general overview of the dominant American anthropological perspectives that have contributed to the understanding of human rights in the past fifty years. The most salient merit and challenge of this book lies here: it outlines major topics of reflection, but it does not deal with any of them in depth. This survey of major issues opens room for other scholars to advance discussion on specific areas in the anthropology of human rights.

The topics raised in the six brief chapters of this volume are provocative and insightful, and they set the grounds for further reflection and broader interdisciplinary perspectives. As an anthropologist, Goodale situates himself within his own field of expertise. He synthesizes the discussion of specific schools of thought within American anthropology at the time that human rights discourse appeared in the international community after the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By exposing the lack of participation of anthropologists compared to scholars in other social sciences in the ongoing debates on human rights after WWII, Goodale is able to track some assumptions about the role of anthropological inquiry along with the disagreements and confusion about both anthropological and human rights critiques. Goodale succeeds in helping readers understand possible sources of the contradictions and distortions. Although he merely outlines them, he does illustrate how readily they become truths that situate relativism in opposition to universalism, and cultural and particular approaches in opposition to national and transnational understandings of the world.

After situating his argument within theoretical and disciplinary debates, Goodale identifies some of the most salient topics in the anthropology of human rights. Here, he centers on the meanings of the concept of culture, and he then discusses the concept of cultural relativism in its alleged opposition to universalism. He also addresses notions of cosmopolitanism that increasingly define the human rights movement, as well as the dynamics of daily practice, and legal and political theory. Goodale explains in each of these chapters how these concepts have been misinterpreted, misused, and abused. He exposes the central importance of the concept of culture today, connecting it with an understanding of ethical theory and social practice, following the work of Michel De Certeau and Sally Merry in the field of the anthropology of law. In his initial chapters, Goodale also traces the origin of what is now widely known as public anthropology, the anthropology interested in the public good. He also highlights anthropology's contribution to the development of indigenous rights, a point on which he expands toward the end of the book.

On the alleged opposition between universalism and relativism, Goodale explores several terms that may contribute to the confusion. For example, in chapter 3, Goodale shows how "relativism" is shaped by categories of knowledge and meaning, and he explores alternatives for the understanding of human rights from the insights of ethnography and daily practice. He suggests that the concepts of relativism and of human rights need to be simplified to their essential levels in order to reveal how cultural relativism goes beyond an academic exercise and is connected to the notion of culture in its relation to imperialism, racism, and power inequalities within an international system. This is a crucial point in Goodale's work. Following the argument raised by Marie-Benedicte Dambour, Goodale raises this concern as something that needs to be placed up front, rather than being relegated to footnotes. Here again, the author brings this important issue to the main text but others will need to provide a more nuanced view of its importance. Goodale calls attention to the need to make human rights discourse relevant, meaningful, and transformational. Culture is more central to that task than ever.

Chapter 5 examines a particular meaning of culture in reference to the appearance and growth of transnational human rights networks connected at different levels within the international human rights system. Goodale uses the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to identify the Western tradition of its philosophical foundation. Despite transnationalism and the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations throughout the world, there is an obvious and undeniable Western, elitist, and often exclusionary bias of the human rights system which operates as a challenge. Difficulties arise in the attempt to design an effective universal code of human rights that can incorporate true transnational values, where each nation respects these norms while being respected in their differences. Here, the author argues that the most sound way of creating such a system is to implement something akin to American federalism, in which some overarching principles hold for all, but room for variety exists at the regional level. Although Goodale's point here is helpful and contributes concrete ways to find solutions to human rights universalism, he fails to explore more thoroughly its advantages and disadvantages. This section would have benefited from the description of some of the issues that have produced universalist vs. relativist debates. Indeed, according to Goodale, one of the recent contributions of anthropology to human rights is precisely this type of detailed ethnographic study of the transnational human rights networks.

The apparent contradiction of the goals of anthropology as a discipline dedicated to the collection and classification of all stages of human behavior yet also committed to understanding the essential nature of all human beings is one of the most important contributions made by the author in this volume. He shows the wide range of misconceptions that labelled anthropology as the discipline of the local, only to later arrive at the conclusion that this focus on the local makes anthropology the ideal discipline to address the universalist vs. relativist problem at the heart of many human rights debates. By illustrating the foundations of the human rights framework in a specific kind of logical and deductive epistemology characteristic of both philosophy and legal theory, anthropology is able to unveil tensions such as those related to the constitution of collective rights, and particularly indigenous rights. This reviewer agrees with Goodale that the examination of indigenous rights issues may be the best evidence of anthropology's potential to advance discussion toward the relevance and legitimacy of a universal human rights system that goes beyond the current one to further advance individuals' and nations' right to fulfill their humanity and their capacity for culture. The contradictions that appeared with the implementation of the 1999 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in regard to the right to culture exposed the problems of the current Western system.

In sum, Surrendering to Utopia makes an unprecedented contribution in both human rights and anthropological studies. Goodale's overview, which synthesizes a large body of literature and identifies the big issues in the field, will help others to re-envision a human rights system that is sensitive to difference. This is a provocative book, and Goodale writes clearly and directly even when dealing with complex issues in this interdisciplinary area. This volume will be most helpful to those already working in human rights or studying anthropology of law, but it will also be a good book to discuss in introductory courses on legal and political theory, or with those engaged in political activism and who appreciate that the rise of globalization and transnational networks make culture more relevant, not less so.

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Citation: Patricia D. Mathews-Salazar. Review of Goodale, Mark, Surrendering to Utopia: An Anthropology of Human Rights. H-Human-Rights, H-Net Reviews. April, 2010.

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