The Social Meaning of Human Rights. Perspectives from a Sociology of Knowing and Experience

Monday, 16 July 2018: 11:09
Oral Presentation
Angelika POFERL, Technical University Dortmund, Germany
The social meaning of human rights. Perspectives from a sociology of knowing and experience
Phenomena of vulnerability, the closely linked need for protection, safety and security, a minimum of social participation and the idea of dignity are among the basic prerequisites and conditions of human existence. However, even such a statement of “facts” depends on the extent to which social conditions are understood to be historically variable and rationally formed. Only then do conditions that were previously categorised as given by God, nature or tradition become a social and political problem: they appear to be in need of treatment and intervention; they represent social grievances, forms of inequality and injustice, which must be eliminated and transformed into “better” realities. From a sociological perspective, both the “self-evident” affirmative notion of human rights as well as growing criticisms (e.g. referring to ethnocentrism) are unsatisfying, because they usually presuppose the very thing that stands in need of analysis: namely, the creation, “invention” or, to be more precise, the construction and constitution of human beings as human rights subjects. This is the question that this paper addresses. It is based on a theoretical and a diagnostic interest of present modernities. The thesis is that human rights represent the paradox of a historically contingent construction with a universalist claim. It contains the attribution of a ‘last’ status category and ‘absolute’ figure of meaning: "This is a human being." In a human rights culture the contours of a specific human image and ‘postheroic’ subject concept become visible. It points to the supposedly unambiguous, at the same time brittle borders of the social world, it is inseparably linked to the vulnerability, fragility and dependence of human existence and it is structured by the cosmopolitan dynamics of “inclusive diffference”.