Anthropology, human rights, and legal knowledge: Culture in the iron cage

Annelise Riles*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

161 Scopus citations


In this article, I draw on ethnography in the particular zone of engagement between anthropologists, on the one hand, and human rights lawyers who are skeptical of the human rights regime, on the other hand. I argue that many of the problems anthropologists encounter with the appropriation and marginalization of anthropology's analytical tools can be understood in terms of the legal character of human rights. In particular, discursive engagement between anthropology and human rights is animated by the pervasive instrumentalism of legal knowledge. I contend that both anthropologists who seek to describe the culture of human rights and lawyers who critically engage the human rights regime share a common problem - that of the "iron cage" of legal instrumentalism. I conclude that an ethnographic method reconfigured as a matter of what I term circling back - as opposed to cultural description - offers a respite from the hegemony of legal instrumentalism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)52-65
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Anthropologist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2006


  • Ethnographic method
  • Human rights
  • Instrumentalism
  • Knowledge
  • Law

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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