From Commoditizing to Commodifying Human Rights: Research on Forced Labor in Dominican Sugar Production

In this essay, “commoditization” and “commodification” refer to two distinguishable aspects of the relationship between human rights knowledge and the commodity form. Commoditization happens when human rights is marketed like a commodity, whether by packaging information in standardized and easily consumed numbers, icons, and graphics or “branding” human rights–monitoring organizations and their campaigns. Commodification happens when human rights information actually becomes a commodity, such as when rights investigations are done under contract, at times through international information supply chains, while possibly also subject to intellectual property restrictions. While commoditization is an issue, my primary focus is on the commodification of human rights investigation and what that implies for the information’s accuracy and its conduciveness to public debate.

Commoditizing human rights, through celebrity endorsements, building brand-name value for organizations, and other techniques closer to marketing than to documentation is now a familiar means of promoting public support for the defense of human rights. The wider trend, toward the mass marketing of social justice, human rights, and humanitarian appeals, prompts critical concerns. Can human rights’ “moral and politically contested issues . . . be meaningfully expressed in commercial culture using commercial language” ?1 Can Internet-mediated “slacktivism” (“the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair”) and other forms of low-intensity appeal do more than create “a political culture of narcissism . . . that renders the emotions of the self the measure of our understanding of the world at large” ?2

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About Samuel Martinez

is a cultural anthropologist who teaches anthropology and Latin American studies at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of two ethno-graphic monographs and several peer-reviewed articles on the migration and labor and minority rights of Haitian nationals and people of Haitian ancestry in the Dominican Republic. He is also editor of International Migration and Human Rights (California, 2009). In his current research and writing, he brings critical scrutiny to northern human rights solidarity with Haitian-ancestry people in the Dominican Republic between 1978 and the present.