November 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 8

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Sociological Spring:
Human Rights and the Discipline

Bruce Friesen, University of Tampa

Grassroots movements in many Arab countries are challenging the status quo, fueled in part by a collective embrace of the notion of rights that far surpasses the limited civil and political rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Respect for human rights—as specified more than 60 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)—is fundamentally altering global human affairs. Human rights principles have had more of a sleeper effect in the United States, but the impact is no less pronounced. Minorities who served in the armed forces in WWII to defend the rights of those persecuted by the Nazis came home emboldened to secure for themselves the same rights at home. In short order, rights-based movements for racial and ethnic minorities, women, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, children, and others gained momentum.

Sociologists are awakening to both the analytical and activist possibilities embedded in a human rights framework. The last 10 years have seen a rapidly-growing sociological literature on the topic. New organizations and sections have been formed, including Sociologists Without Borders (Sociólogos sin Fronteras), the Human Rights Section of the ASA, and the ISA’s Thematic Group on Human Rights and Global Justice. Representatives from the first two groups serve on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’ Human Rights Coalition. New journals have been launched, such as Societies Without Borders and Human Rights and Human Welfare. Even Secularism and Non Religion, the world’s first journal on secularism (first edition January 2012), edited by sociologist Ryan Cragun, seeks to examine ways in which social solidarity might be constructed outside of religious paradigms.

The human rights terrain is rich with opportunity for sociologists to make both theoretical and practical contributions.

Woodiwiss, Turner, Friesen, and others have offered sociological explanations for the emergence of human rights, but there is more work to be done. A human rights framework offers unique perspectives on micro-macro linkages. During the recent panel session on the ASA Statement of Human Rights in Las Vegas, discussant Mark Frezzo noted that a human rights approach demands a re-examination of linkages between realist and nominalist ontological frameworks. Indeed, in the forthcoming three-volume tome, titled The Handbook of Sociology and Human Rights, editors Brunsma, Smith, and Gran have invited contributors representing 45 sections of the ASA to explore innovative ways in which human rights inform their areas of focus.

A human rights approach offers an opportunity to unite apparently disparate concentrations of the discipline—such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation—into a larger framework which analyzes equality and fairness on a human scale. Illustrative of these intersections is a planned ASA joint session in 2012 with the Political Sociology and Human Rights Sections. Blau and Moncada’s Freedom and Solidarities points to a similar convergence at the global level. If the human rights perspective doesn’t represent the re-emergence of a grand theory, its prima facie impact is to provide an analytical starting point to evaluate the health and vitality of social systems for all of its members.

This focus on humanity is not new, but instead operationalizes a core assumption of science and of sociology that has long driven our efforts. Science seeks to explain and predict so that we may ultimately control. And to what end?  Not simply knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but for the betterment of humankind, and without harming individuals or groups in the process. This is no doubt why there was widespread support for the ASA’s 2009 Statement on Human Rights ( 

Few of us entered the profession to be ritualists in the Mertonian sense—producing esoteric works simply for the sake of publication. Like Seidman’s eloquent and personal confession in his preface to Contested Knowledge, the promise of bringing perspective, knowledge, and skills to improve social life is one that ultimately draws many to the discipline of sociology. Without losing a critical focus, a human rights framework offers sociologists a common language with which to communicate our questions and findings to the broader public. It offers a globally institutionalized structure ready to receive sociological knowledge that informs human rights discourse, measures human rights violations, and makes policy recommendations. It offers widespread respect and acceptance by a global public sympathetic to the goals of the human rights movement. Work is already underway to organize a Sociology Day at the United Nations to showcase what sociology has to offer. We welcome your efforts in the ASA’s Human Rights section.

Bruce K. Friesen is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa and Chair of the ASA’s Section on Human Rights.


Blau, J. and A. Moncada. 2007. Freedoms and Solidarities. Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield.

Brunsma, D., Smith, K. I., Gran, B. 2012. Handbook of Sociology and Human Rights. Boulder, CO:  Paradigm.

Friesen, B.  2011.  “Globalizing the Human Rights Perspective,” pp. 79-102 in Blau, J. and M. Frezzo (eds.) Sociology and Human Rights.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Pine Forge.

Seidman, S. 2007. Contested Knowledge. Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell.

Turner, B. S. 2006. Vulnerability and Human Rights. University Park, PA:  Pennsylvania State University Press.

Woodiwiss, A. 2005. Human Rights. London:  Routledge.

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