Political Scientists and Human Rights

This decade has seen a surge in publishing on the issue -- both in journals and in dissertation topics -- but does it remain on the discipline's margins?
January 20, 2009

In his presidential inaugural address in 1977, Jimmy Carter put human rights issues front and center. In his successful campaign to become president, Barack Obama talked at length about human rights and vowed to fight terrorists and others without violating international norms. Given that human rights issues have been debated at the highest political levels for decades, it may be surprising that a new analysis finds that political scientists have only recently taken these issues seriously in terms of what they study.

Obviously human rights as a concept is hardly new (nor, sadly, are human rights abuses). But formal study of human rights issues not as history, but rather in terms of political science, is relatively new, according to the analysis, which was just published in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics. The study found that prior to 1980, very few of the leading journals in political science published much about human rights, and that growth was (while steady) relatively slow until this decade. So far, since 2000, 15 leading journals in political science have published a total of 103 articles about human rights. In the 1980s, the total was 36. In the 1990s, the total was 60.

"The number of human rights articles published in the leading journals has increased exponentially in recent decades. This growth has been remarkable both in absolute and relative terms, with the number of relevant articles rising dramatically. The increase signals, to some extent, that human rights issues have entered the mainstream of political science," writes Sonia Cardenas, associate professor of political science at Trinity College in Connecticut and director of the Human Rights Program there.

Cardenas sees several explanations for the recent increases in publishing on human rights. One is that since the 1970s, human rights has not just been a concept, but a political force, as "transnational human rights movements emerged in response to authoritarian abuses worldwide" while the U.S. Congress and others investigated and exposed U.S. human rights policies (or complicity in violations of human rights). Since 9/11, she writes, "the controversial policies surrounding a global war on terror mobilized human rights networks and shaped national security debates."

Of course, Cardenas notes, you aren't going to find many political scientists publishing journal articles about human rights if they aren't entering the profession with interest in the subject. There, too, she sees a notable shift. Searching databases of dissertation topics, she finds only 138 political science dissertations dealing with human rights topics in 1980s, 390 in the 1990s, and 459 so far in this decade.

While Cardenas applauds these increases, she also sees a danger of "marginalization" in which many leading journals still devote relatively little attention to human rights. She notes that the percentage of articles on human rights -- 2.59 percent in this decade -- is better than the 0.88 of the 1980s, but is still low. In contrast, democracy studies - another relatively new way to approach political science -- is featured in 13 percent of these journals' articles in this decade.

Human Rights Articles in Major Political Science Journals, by Decade

Journal Pre-1980 1980s 1990s 2000-
International Studies Quarterly 8 1 4 18
Journal of Politics 7 5 7 6
Journal of Conflict Resolution 1 0 5 18
American Journal of Political Science 1 4 6 9
Political Research Quarterly 0 0 11 9
Political Science Quarterly 3 5 7 5
International Organization 6 5 1 6
Comparative Political Studies 0 2 5 9
American Political Science Review 2 4 3 4
British Journal of Political Science 1 1 1 8
PS: Political Science and Politics 1 2 6 2
World Politics 2 2 3 2
Public Opinion Quarterly 0 4 1 3
Comparative Politics 1 1 0 3
International Security 1 0 0 1


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top