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Journal Article

Human Rights and Sociology: Some Observations from Africa

Tola Olu Pearce
Social Problems
Vol. 48, No. 1 (February 2001), pp. 48-56
DOI: 10.1525/sp.2001.48.1.48
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Page Count: 9
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Human Rights and Sociology: Some Observations from Africa
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In this paper, I examine the relationship between sociology and the human rights discourse. A major segment of the discourse is between Western and nonwestern scholars joining the debate from a wide variety of disciplines including law, political science, economics, and demography (Ake 1987; An-Na'im and Deng 1990; Ihonvbere 1994; Kabeer 1994; Mutua 1995; Sen, et al. 1994; Xing 1996, etc.). Sociology has made a poor showing. Perhaps this is due to the more general problem that the discipline, as a whole, lags behind others in applying itself to the human rights debate. Sjoberg and Vaughan argue that sociological theory has hardly been brought to bear on human rights issues. They are worried about "the intellectual myopia of contemporary sociologists regarding human rights" (1993:114). At first glance, sociology appears to be in a strategic position to grapple with human rights issues given its focus on the maintenance of social order, social change, and the construction of new institutions. All these can be brought to bear on the problem of human rights. I review the human rights debate from the perspective of an African trained in sociology. I argue that sociological theories have inadvertently influenced the entire debate by setting its parameters. Further, its theories overwhelmingly influenced human rights programs inaugurated in Africa and other Third World regions. A major concern of nonwestern scholars and activists has been the European belief that other regions have little or nothing to add to the understanding of human rights and that, indeed, most did not even have a conception of human rights before being introduced by the West. Thus, according to Donnelly, "most non-Western cultural and political traditions lack, not only the practice of human rights, but the very concept. As a matter of historical fact, the concept of human rights is an artifact of modern Western civilization" (Donnelly 1982:303). I address African perspectives on human rights and link this to the role that sociology has played in shaping the debate between Western and non-western scholars. Finally, I examine some of the potential contributions of sociology and compare these to African concerns.

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