American Sociological Association

Section on Sociology of Human Rights

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
March/April 2016

Vantage Point: From the Executive Officer

Human Rights and the Scholarly Society: What Is ASA’s Role?

Sally Hillsman

Sally Hillsman

Sally Hillsman, ASA Executive Officer

On the occasion of the ASA centennial in 2005, Council reiterated the Association's "strongest support for the basic civil and political freedoms of peoples of all nations as articulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)." The statement continues, "ASA emphatically endorses these principles of basic human rights as fundamental to free scientific inquiry and human development." It concludes by stating, "At its centenary, the American Sociological Association re-commits itself to vigorous pursuit of these goals through scientific scholarship, international exchange, the freedom of unjustly imprisoned or silenced scholars, and active promotion of human rights."

This is a laudable and important statement by Council. Not many scholarly societies have taken such a strong public stance. But what does it mean to our Association a decade later?

Crisis in Turkey

In January, 128 scholars—including many sociologists—signed a public petition titled "Academics for Peace" that called on the Turkish government to resume peace talks in the Kurdish regions of that country, lift long-standing restrictive curfews to end the use of military force against citizens, and halt "[i]ts deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region."

Most of the signatories to the petition live and work in Turkey. All were immediately denounced by the Turkish government which called them terrorists and traitors and opened investigations against them. Several were arrested, others were fired, still others had their offices searched and cell phones and computers confiscated. According to the online edition of the Turkish Sun, 147 scholars are still under investigation at this time and 17 have been dismissed from their jobs, including at least four sociologists.

These actions are a clear violation of Turkey's responsibility as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms to protect freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.

The Larger Context

Promotion and protection of human rights constitutes a complex arena. Human rights are cultural and ideological concepts, but they are also legal concepts. When states become parties to international human rights covenants, they are ratifying treaties that have the power of law. But responsibility for human rights and for holding actors accountable to uphold the law is not limited to state actors. Council's centenary statement implies our professional recognition of those responsibilities both to respect human rights in our own work as sociologists and to use our science and knowledge where we can to advance human rights. For ASA, it raises the question about when and how the Association can and should become involved with human rights issues in ways that make a difference. It is relatively easy to talk meaningfully about human rights; it is far harder to do something meaningful. ASA clearly has had scholars' rights in its sights for a long time. But even here, the situation is complicated by the fact that colleges and universities in many parts of the world are directly controlled by governments and those governments can be the violator of human rights. This is precisely the situation in Turkey.

ASA Takes Action

On January 29, 2016, ASA sent a letter to Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Tayyip Erdoğan denouncing the actions taken against the Turkish scholars as a violation of Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights which stipulates that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression [including the right] to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impact information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers." ASA's letter was signed by President Ruth Milkman, past-President Paula England, and President Elect Michèle Lamont. ASA also joined in signing a letter published by the Scholars at Risk academic network. ASA has widely disseminated our protests through social media, and we continue to follow the actions of the Turkish government, including the recent firing of the four sociologists who were signatories to the original petition. ASA will continue to work on their behalf both behind the scenes and through public letters.

This is only the most recent action the Association has taken and it will certainly not be the last. Members continue to bring these situations to the attention of ASA and ASA typically takes some appropriate action, often in collaboration with others.

Measuring Impact

What effect will our letter to the Turkish have? Not unexpectedly, ASA has received only one response to date, from one of the university presidents who was copied on our letter. The response states,

I received your email and also read the letter shared in your e-mail. Regretfully, we would like to clearly express that we cannot share the opinions stated in the letter.

Central to understanding this response is the reality that, in the current political climate in Turkey, this university president's words may be a necessary effort to protect his university and his own job as much as it may be a reflection of his viewpoint.

Direct responses to our letter are a weak indicator of its potential impact, which may well be reverberating in sociology departments and academic communities in Turkey and across the globe, especially because ASA is not a lone voice. Global university leaders need the support of the international community when support from inside their own countries is, by necessity, muted. International standards of conduct matter, and communicating publicly in the strongest possible voice that the international community recognizes the importance of modern universities to the economic growth and international standing of a country isn't nothing.

But measuring the impact of human rights at the macro level is notoriously difficult, although some encouraging evidence is beginning to appear. For example, in an analysis of data from 1981 to 2005 for more than 100 countries, Wade M. Cole found that becoming a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights resulted in reductions in income inequality across a broad range of developed and developing countries (2015). In another study drawing on data from 140 countries over a 40- year period, sociologist Min Zhou (2014) modeled the way democratization supports international human rights regimes that create "commitment" and "concession" mechanisms that in turn impact the likelihood of states formally ratifying international human rights treaties.

Doing More to Promote human rights

Research. Research is important and more is needed. It was encouraged in Council's centenary call for sociologists to vigorously pursue human rights objectives through their science. The theories and methods of sociology are well suited to explore the impact of human rights treaties, as Cole and Zhou demonstrate. Sociology is also especially useful for establishing human rights indicators that could define an empirical base for measuring treaty compliance. And, of course, sociological methods can be used to document and publicize systematic abuse of human rights by state actors. For example, sociologist Patrick Ball, founder of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, employs rigorous social science methods to bring truth and accountability to human rights abuses across the globe.

Member activities. The ASA Section on Human Rights, founded in 2010, works within the Association to actively "promote and support critical, interdisciplinary, and international engagement with human rights scholarship, teaching and practice, as well as to foster human rights approaches to the sociological enterprise." The section currently has more than 250 active members and each year offers a graduate student paper award and the Gordon Hirabayashi Human Rights Book Award.

Organizational leadership. ASA has been working to promote human rights through our role as a founding member of the Science and Human Rights Coalition (SHRC) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The SHRC was founded, in part, to bring scientists' voices to the consideration of the meaning of Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Article 15 states that all people have the right "to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its application." ASA Director of Academic and Professional Affairs Margaret Weigers Vitullo worked closely with Jessica Wyndham, Director of the SHRC, on a study of scientists from 17 different disciplinary groups to consider the meaning of the right to "enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications" across the full spectrum of sciences from sociology to physics. The results of this study were presented at the United Nations in Geneva and have informed the work of the U.N. Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights moving forward. They recently received additional funding from the Open Society Institute for a pilot study expanding their work to international scientists.

International contacts and cooperation are recognized in the language of Article 15 as essential to scientific advancement. They also develop and sustain the professional and personal networks that support the fight for human rights over the long run. For several decades through successful proposals to the National Science Foundation (NFS), ASA has provided competitively awarded travel funds to support U.S.-based scholars attend the International Sociological Association (ISA) congresses that take place every four years. Since Council's centennial statement alone, we have enabled 164 sociologists to attend the ISA through the NSF travel funds.

Council also ensures that there are opportunities within the ASA to encourage international exchange and the development of professional relationships. In 2008 ASA established the International Affiliate membership category for scholars residing in non-OECD countries. Council has a policy of holding the ASA Annual Meeting once a decade in Canada. Council also provides substantial financial support to every Program Committee to ensure that it can bring international scholars to present and engage at meetings.

Fighting in court. Bringing international scholars to our meetings, however, isn't always as easy as it sounds, especially as the visa policies of the United States have grown more stringent since 9-11. But ASA has a history of fighting for the right of ASA members to hear and engage with foreign scholars at our meetings. In 2007, for example, the U.S. Department of State denied a visa to Professor Adam Habib, a prominent South African social scientist who had been invited to present at the Annual Meeting. In December of 2010, three years after ASA filed suit in the U.S  District Court in Boston, with the concerted effort of the ASA, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Boston Coalition of Palestinian Rights to overturn the State Department's action then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed orders ending his exclusion. 

ASA can be proud of our record in human rights, but we must also continue to use the strength of our professional association as well as our disciplinary theories and methods to urge, as Council said in its centennial statement,

all governments to resist attempts to restrict scientific exchange within and across national boundaries and to actively promote dialogue, debate and discussion across all barriers to communication and collaboration, and to uphold the spirit and the substance of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements that affirm the importance of full equality of all peoples and cultures; social and personal security; health care and education; freedom to join trade unions and otherwise assemble; a just wage and an adequate standard of living; and the freedom to participate in and benefit from scientific advancement.


  1. Cole, Wade M. 2015. "International Human Rights and Domestic Income Inequality: A Difficult Case of Compliance in World Society." American Sociological Review 80(2):359-390.
  2. Zhou, Min. 2014. "Signaling Commitments, Make Concessions: Democratization and state ratification of international human rights treaties, 1966-2006. Rationality and Society 26(4):475-508.

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at