Sociology of Human Rights in Contemporary Europe

We are living in an age of rights. In contemporary Europe, human rights seem to constitute a general language of justice and emancipation. The course explores the post-1945 emergence of human rights in Europe, the role of human rights in European integration, and the complex justification and usage of rights in contemporary Europe. The course provides an interdisciplinary – in particular a sociological and critical – focus on human rights, and explores and explains the role of human rights within European societies, the European integration process, and on the transnational level.clipboard01
Human rights have classically been understood as individual rights, and the enjoyment (of a variety of civic, political, social, and cultural) rights as to be guaranteed by the state. Citizenship is in this a crucial element of human rights and human rights formed a foundation of the post-authoritarian societies constructed in post-WWII Europe. But human rights seem now to be increasingly guaranteed by international institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights, often against the state. In this, they provide some sort of external benchmark, grounded in a European ‘ius commune’, originally derived from the post-1945 European conventions on rights.

A sociology of human rights needs in this to focus on the state, but equally to be concerned with inter- and supranational judicial institutions, as well as national and transnational rights movements, and NGOs, who make claims against states. A sociology of human rights is therefore particularly concerned with the emancipatory nature of human rights, and the potential advancement of marginalized groups.
The course explores the historical emergence, the current prominence, the complex nature, and the claims for, and application of, human rights, in particular in the multi-level and pluralistic context of the European Union. Key questions are: to what extent do you human rights advance greater justice, equality, participation, and recognition? And to what extent are human rights accessible for some, but not for others? How are human rights constructed, how do contextual conditions in which human rights claims are made matter, and which different interpretations and framings of human rights do we encounter?

Objectives of the Course

• To introduce the students to the sociology of human rights;
• To provide insights in the emergence of human rights as a distinctive discourse and universalistic language in the European context;
• To provide insight in the constructed nature of human rights, and the plurality of interpretations and framings of human rights available in the European context;
• To provide insights into the relation between human rights and social and political claims;
• To provide insights in the relation between the increased prominence of human rights and the European integration project;
• To provide insight into the role of natural law;
• To provide insights in the role of a variety of actors (grassroots social movements, NGOs, INGOs, lawyers, judges, politicians, technocrats);
• To provide insight into the role of (transnational) social movements in the promotion of human rights (e.g. regarding gender equality, migrants, social justice).

Relevant documentaries

Out Of The Silence: Fighting For Human Rights

BBC documentary on  the Council of Europe

Promoting Human Rights and Minority Protection in South East Europe



Course overview

Class 1: Sociology and Rights in the European context

Human rights have become highly prominent in contemporary Europe (as well as globally) and appear as the most important instrument to safeguard human well-being and justice. There is, however, an immense diversity and scope of human rights. Also, a range of different actors endorses human rights, for different purpose (grassroots movements, NGOs, politicians, lawyers, judges). This means that very different meanings of, and justifications for, human rights are being offered. A sociology of rights enquires into this diversity and explores both structures (human rights regimes) and actors on the ground. Particular attention will be paid to how rights are socially constructed in the European context.


Verschraegen, G. and M.R. Madsen (2013), ‘Making Human Rights Intelligible: An Introduction to a Sociology of Human Rights’, in: Madsen, M.R. and G. Verschraegen (eds) (2013), Making Human Rights Intelligible. Towards a Sociology of Human Rights, Hart Publishers.

Porsdam, Helle. From civil to human rights: dialogues on law and humanities in the United States and Europe. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2009, chapter 1 ‘A soul for Europe? On European culture and narratives of human rights’.

Suggested readings

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ch. Chapter 9: ‘The decline of the nation state and the end of the rights of man’, pp. 267-302

Nash, Kate (2015), The Political Sociology of Human Rights, Cambridge University Press, chapter 1 ‘The social construction of human rights’.


Class 2: Social Theory and Human Rights: Justifications for Rights

Human rights are often criticized for being a Western concept and for constituting instruments of Western domination. Rights need to be, however, understood in all their complexity, that is, as in some cases possibly rhetorical devices in the promoting of specific economic and political interests, but equally as potential (underdetermined) instruments of emancipation.


Forst, R. (1999). The basic right to justification: Towards a constructivist conception of human rights. Constellations, 6(1), 35-60.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Remarks on legitimation through human rights.” The Modern Schoolman 75.2 (1998): 87-100.

Suggested readings

Baynes, Kenneth. “Rights as critique and the critique of rights: Karl Marx, Wendy Brown, and the social function of rights.” Political Theory (2000): 451-468.

Fine, Robert (2008) ‘Cosmopolitanism and human rights: radicalism in a global age’, Metaphilosophy  40(1): 8-             23.


2. The Role of Human Rights in European Integration

Class 3: Post-1945 Rights Conventions in Europe

The forceful emergence of the human rights discourse in the wake of WWII was grounded in the idea that totalitarian and authoritarian phenomena in Europe could be curtailed by means of pan-European human rights monitoring. Different European states reacted differently to the idea of a Convention of Human Rights and a specific, independent Court (ECtHR). Particular attention will be paid to the idea of the ECtHR as the “Conscience of Europe”, related to a presupposed consensus of shared values amongst European societies.


Bates, Ed. “The birth of the European Convention on Human Rights.” (2011): 17-42, in Madsen and Christoffersen.

Steven Greer (2006), The European Convention on Human Rights, Cambridge University Press, chapter 1 “The First Half Century”.


Class 4:  The Role of Human Rights in European Integration

The European integration project has from the start been closely related to the idea of human rights. Human rights figured particularly prominently in the plan to safeguard Europe from totalitarianism and to embed Europe in stable democratic societies. In recent decades, human rights have become ever more important in the European integration process, also in terms of providing markers of value for the European project.


Madsen, Mikael Rask. “From Cold War instrument to supreme European court: The European Court of Human Rights at the crossroads of international and national law and politics.” Law & Social Inquiry 32.1 (2007): 137-159.

Madsen, Mikael Rask (2014), ‘International human rights and the transformation in European society: from ‘Free Europe’ to the Europe of human rights’, in: Madsen, Mikael Rask, and Chris Thornhill (eds.), Law and the Formation of Modern Europe: Perspectives from the Historical Sociology of Law, Cambridge University Press, pp. 245-274.

Suggested readings

Porsdam, Helle. From civil to human rights: dialogues on law and humanities in the United States and Europe. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2009, chapter 4 ‘Institutionalized European human rights’.


Class 5: Rights in Communist and Post-Communist Eastern Europe

The transformations in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s have much to do with human rights and constitutionalism. The Helsinki Final Acts of the 1970s provided an important resource for the dissident movements in particularly Poland and Czechoslovakia, who invoked human rights and constitutional rights against the repressive practices of the Communist regimes. The dissident struggles for rights’ guarantees paved the way for the structural democratic and legal transformations that started in 1989.



Charter 77 Declaration.

Vacláv Havel, Open Letters, 109-16, 125-214, 247-71, 320-22, 355-62.

Brier, Robert. “Broadening the Cultural History of the Cold War: The Emergence of the Polish Workers’ Defense Committee and the Rise of Human Rights.” Journal of Cold War Studies 15.4 (2013): 104-127.


3. Human rights: distinct issues and struggles

Class 6: Social Movements and Human Rights

Human rights are supported by a range of different actors: politicians, judges, and lawyers in national settings, experts and bureaucrats in international, intergovernmental organizations, as well as grassroots movements and non-governmental organizations. Social movements operate on different levels, the global as well as the local, take a variety of forms, and interact with a variety of forms of law.


Nash, Kate (2012). “Human rights, movements and law: On not researching legitimacy.” Sociology 46.5: 797-812.


Class 7: (European) citizenship and migrants

European citizenship is directly related to the both the rights granted by national states and rights on the supranational level, related to the fundamental right to free mobility. EU citizenship is open to member state nationals, but also third country individuals in Europe invoke rights and make rights claims.


Aradau, C., Huysmans, J., & Squire, V. (2010). Acts of European citizenship: a political sociology of mobility. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 48(4), 945-965.

Judith Blau and Mark Frezzo (eds) (2012) Sociology and Human Rights. A Bill of Rights      for the Twenty-First Century, Sage, chs. 9 ‘Beyond two identities: Turkish immigrants in Germany’.


Class 8: Gender

Substantive equality forms a key dimension in the promotion of gender equality, and is promoted through constitutional as well as statutory reform. In Europe, social movements have played and continue to play a crucial role in the endorsement of equality through rights. At the same time, constitutional and legal change tend to have limited effect.


Anagnostou, Dia. “Gender Constitutional Reform and Feminist Mobilization in Greece and the EU: From Formal to Substantive Equality?.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society/Revue Canadienne Droit et Société 28.02 (2013): 133-150.

Dawson, M., et al. (2014), ‘A tool-box for legal and political mobilisation in European equality law’, in: Dia Anagnostou (ed.), Rights in pursuit of social change: legal mobilisation in the multi-level European system, Bloomsbury Press, pp.  105-126.


4. The Future of European Integration


Class 8: Counter-terrorism and Human Rights

Human rights are increasingly constrained as a reaction to the upsurge in terrorism since 2001. In an attempt to counteract acts of terrorist violence, states have increasingly curtailed human rights, in terms of the violation of privacy, and even the allowance for torture and extra-territorial killing. The conundrum involves the defence of rights-based democracy with practices and policies that violate human rights.


Bigo, Didier, et al. “The EU and its Counter-Terrorism Policies after the Paris Attacks. Liberty and Security in Europe No. 84, 27 November 2015.” (2015).


Class 9: Human Rights and Migration

Human rights in Europe are increasingly under pressure due the implications of an enormous upsurge in migration since 2015. Issues include the pressure on social services in the case of social rights, human rights in general regarding the reception of migrants on European territory, and even rights related to EU citizenship in terms of states’ willingness to limit access to rights to nationals.


Askola, Heli. “Human Rights in the European Union: the Challenge of People on the Move.” The European Union and Global Engagement: Institutions, Policies and Challenges, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar (2015): 104-121.

Greer, S. L. (2013). European citizenship in crisis: Citizenship rights and austerity politics.

Soysal, Y. N. (2012). Citizenship, immigration, and the European social project: rights and obligations of         individuality. The British journal of sociology, 63(1), 1-21.


Class 10: The Future of European Rights and the Rule of Law

Human rights and the rule of law within the European Union increasingly face defiance from countries that move into the direction of an ‘illiberal democracy’, such as in the case of Hungary and now also Poland. The EU has limited power of intervention in the case of violation of human rights and the rule of law, and currently new proposals are being discussed and new forms of intervention tried to protect the fundamental rights, values, and the rule of law in the EU.


Müller, J. W. (2013). Defending Democracy within the EU. Journal of Democracy, 24(2), 138-149.

Douglas-Scott, S. (2011). The European Union and Human Rights after the Treaty of Lisbon. Human Rights Law Review, 11(4), 645-682.