Toward a new sociology of rights: A genealogy of "buried bodies" of citizenship and human rights

Margaret R. Somers, Christopher N.J. Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

112 Scopus citations


Although a thriving social science literature in citizenship has emerged in the past two decades, to date there exists neither a sociology of rights nor a sociology of human rights. Theoretical obstacles include the association of rights with the philosophical discourse of normativity, the abstraction of universalism, and the individualism attributed to rights-bearers. Parallel historical obstacles dating from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 include American exceptionalism and racism, cultural relativism, the institutional primacy of sovereignty, and the privileging of human rights over socioeconomic rights. Except in the United States, today civil rights discourse is the lingua franca of global struggles; building a sociology of rights as a collective project is now imperative. This article unearths and reconstructs 60 years of political clashes, intellectual debates, and struggles for inclusion and recognition surrounding human rights and citizenship-much of which has been hidden from history (especially African American human rights movements). We introduce a nascent but uncoordinated social science attention to rights and develop criteria for a new sociology of rights. At the nexus of human rights and citizenship rights we identify the public good of a "right to have rights," which expresses the institutional, social, and moral preconditions for human recognition and inclusion. The concept offers a promising avenue of social science inquiry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)385-425
Number of pages41
JournalAnnual Review of Law and Social Science
StatePublished - 2008


  • African American human rights
  • American exceptionalism
  • Civil rights movement
  • Racism
  • Right to have rights
  • Social science and human rights
  • Socioeconomic rights
  • UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)


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