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Is there an empirical literature on rights?

Special Issue Revisiting Rights

ISBN: 978-1-84855-930-1, eISBN: 978-1-84855-931-8

ISSN: 1059-4337

Publication date: 2 September 2009


The empirical literature that attempts to study rights is at an impasse. It can demonstrate that big claims about how some rights structure politics are overblown, but it has struggled to go beyond this step. This is in large part because studying rights is much more difficult than is commonly appreciated. A study of rights promises implicitly to be a study of how rights politics differs from other kinds of politics. But rights are so ubiquitous and so diverse in form that it is often unclear what the excluded other is. We examine three books on rights that we admire: two by political scientists, Gerald Rosenberg's The Hollow Hope and Michael McCann's Rights at Work, and one by an anthropologist, Sally Merry's Human Rights and Gender Violence. These books conceptualize rights in diverse ways, in diverse settings, using diverse methodologies; yet they run up against similar difficulties in trying to think beyond the cases they study. At the conclusion, we make some humble suggestions for how researchers might try to overcome these problems.


Burke, T.F. and Barnes, J. (2009), "Is there an empirical literature on rights?", Sarat, A. (Ed.) Special Issue Revisiting Rights (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 48), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 69-91.



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