Toward a New Sociology of Human Rights?

The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights

Hans Joas

Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press,

  1. ix + 219.

While disciplines such as law, political science, and history have now developed distinct subfields of human rights research, sociology has only recently started developing a clear research agenda with regard to human rights. Considering the importance of human rights in contemporary society as a legal, political, and moral phenomenon underpinning a whole array of social institutions, the late arrival of sociology is all the more surprising.1 An important factor for explaining the development of the sociology of human rights is to be found in the tradition of sociology itself.2 The strong influence of classical sociologists such as Max Weber, who emphasized the decline of natural law and the concomitant emergence of juridical rationalism, and Karl Marx, who regarded individual rights as mere ideology, has in important ways held back the development of a sociology of human rights. Moreover, the very notion that persons have rights simply because they are human is largely perceived as a philosophical—or worse—ideological abstraction.3 Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber were all highly skeptical about the possibility of and, indeed, need for a universalistic and normative basis for human rights. Instead, they emphasized the much more central roles of law and morality in relationship to the development of particular societal structures. While rights are widely perceived to be presocial, individual, and liberal (serving mainly as protections against coercive state power), Marx as well as Durkheim considered that rights inhere in society and/or the state, rather than in the individual. Consequently, they believed that any discussion of human rights should be firmly linked to the capacity of the state and society at large to guarantee the enjoyment of those rights.

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About Mikael Rask Madsen

Mikael Rask Madsen is professor of European law and integration and director of iCourts – Centre of Excellence for International Courts, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. His recent books include La genèse de l’Europe des droits de l’homme (Strasbourg, 2011) and four edited books: The European Court of Human Rights between Law and Politics (Oxford, 2013), co-edited with Jonas Christoffersen; Making Human Rights Intelligible: Towards a Sociology of Human Rights (Hart, 2013), co-edited with Gert Verschraegen; Transnational Power Elites (Routledge, 2013), co-edited with Niilo Kauppi; and Law and the Formation of Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2014), co-edited with Chris Thornhill.

About Gert Verschraegen

Gert Verschraegen is associate professor of sociology at the University of Antwerp. His recent publications include “The Evolution of Welfare State Governance,” in Evolutionary Governance Theory: Theory and Applications, ed. Raoul Beunen et al. (Springer, 2015); “Fabricating Social Europe: From Neo-Corporatism to Governance by Numbers,” in The Evolution of Intermediary Institutions in Europe: From Corporatism to Governance, ed. Eva Hartmann and Poul F. Kjaer (Palgrave, 2015); and Making Human Rights Intelligible: Towards a Sociology of Human Rights (Hart Publishing, 2013), co-edited with Mikael Rask Madsen.