Envisioning Human Rights

  • Envisioning Human Rights cluster with Jessica Ruhle
    Envisioning Human Rights cluster with Jessica Ruhle
  • Envisioning Human Rights Tour
    Envisioning Human Rights Tour


Envisioning Human Rights introduces students to the history and practice of human rights and locates those elements in present-day activism. We will study the original vision of “the human right” as it emerged in the early twentieth century, then ask where and how this vision failed or succeeded, whether the legal paradigm remains useful, and how ideas about rights are changing for communities of practitioners and activists around the world. What does it mean to gain a human right and what human rights might we conceive of in the future? Who is considered worthy of having a right and who is not?  Is the conferral of rights predicated on being considered a life that matters?  What about the humanity of populations that have not mattered to states in the past (#BlackLivesMatter)?  We will be particularly attentive to the highly varied ways that human rights are implemented, and struggled over, in different geopolitical contexts.  The two courses in this cluster are interdisciplinary, drawing on scholarship from the fields of anthropology, history, critical race studies, gender and feminist studies, legal studies, and environmental studies. We will investigate the ways debates around rights intersect with questions of global health, technology and privacy, climate change, and legacies of violence. One course will examine human rights foundations and how they developed and are expressed. Another course will focus on the imprint of digital technologies on these questions, exploring human rights in the age of the smartphone witness and rights claims made by bystanders with cellphone cameras (#GeorgeFloyd). We will also be using case studies from the Middle East and North and South America. 


Cultural Anthropology 104FS- Human Rights: Back to the Future (CCI, EI, ALP, CZ)

Robin Kirk

Robin Kirk, Senior Lecturer, Cultural Anthropology, Co-director, Duke Human Rights Center

This course introduces students to a brief history of rights as a way to ground our exploration of current human rightschallenges and what rights may be envisioned in the future. Rights have never been static. Recent changes in how we see rights include the right to truth in post-conflict societies and animal rights. We’ll explore how cutting-edge thinkers contribute to an expanded horizon of rights. We will be engaging with activists, scholars, and artists, in particular speculative and science fiction writers who are imagining what may lie in our shared future. Students will choose an area of rights to “think forward” as a way of putting history and theory into play.

Cultural Anthropology 228FS- Human Rights on Camera (CCI, EI, STS, ALP, SS)

Rebecca Stein

Rebecca Stein, Professor, Cultural Anthropology

This course studies the interplay between cameras and human rights, focusing on the ways that media technologies are used as a tool to amplify grievances, rights violations and human rights campaigns. This course works through a set of cases studies where state violence was captured on camera, including: the Rodney King beating by the LA police; the Abu Ghraib viral torture images; the Syrian revolution; and the Black Lives Matter movement. We will be asking: what happens when right issues and grievances are mediated through viral images? How are legal cases and assessments impacted by visual aesthetics? How much faith do we have in the power of cameras, and social media platforms, to faithfully represent victims and deliver justice? Readings in foundational theoretical texts about media, technology, and/or visuality. Coupled with readings on the case studies in question.  Emphasis on gaining visual analytic skills.  Work with a range of primary materials including photographs and documentary film, human rights reports, international law, social media images.

Documentary Studies 179S/History/Human Rights/Public Policy 189FS: US Youth Movements since 2010: Expanding Human Rights for All (EI, R)

Wesley Hogan

Wesley Hogan, Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and Research Professor at the Franklin Humanities Institute and Department of History.

Immersion in the dangerous and contentious history of youth activism in the US since 2010. Using oral history, archival research methods, and cultural production, students explore methods for researching documenting and creating narratives of youth social activism. Historical and contemporary youth campaigns explored in this course include those to end racial profiling and mass incarceration, prevent environmental destruction, improve public education, advocate for undocumented families, create safe spaces for GLBTQIA youth, and champion reproductive justice. All of these movements have expanded the legal, narrative, and practical understanding of human rights in US and global frameworks.

Faculty Director

headshot of Rebecca Stein
Rebecca Stein
  • Professor of Cultural Anthropology
205 Friedl Building
Campus Box: 
Box 90091
919 684 4663