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The Gap Between Human Rights Scholars and Human Rights Professionals

Recent years have witnessed an explosion in academic thought and writing on human rights topics.  What was once the province of a few marginal idealists is now an established scholarly field, with a couple of dozen specialized journals, hundreds of university courses, and even formal degree-granting programs at several colleges and universities.

The past two decades have also been a period in which human rights groups have grown substantially in size, influence, and professionalism. Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Human Rights First now employ a formidable array of researchers, strategists, advocates, and experts: educated and experienced specialists who are well-equipped to make an impact on international and domestic policy.

With the ascendance of human rights, both in terms of academic study and practical engagement, what is the relationship between scholarship and practice?  Does one inform the other, or have they taken divergent paths?

To what extent, in short, is there sustained, direct, and productive engagement between scholarship and practice?

The Gap Between Scholarship and Practice

Earlier this year, I circulated a short survey on the scholarship/practice relationship to a few dozen senior and mid-level staff at nongovernmental human rights organizations.  I wanted, specifically, to gauge to the extent to which they follow human rights scholarship and view academic writing on human rights topics as relevant and/or useful to their work.

Although opinions varied, overall the results were stark.  A large number of respondents to the survey said that they viewed the gap between scholarship and practice as wide or even “enormous.”  A high proportion of respondents also said that they themselves rarely or infrequently read academic writing on human rights topics.

While their lack of interest can be partially ascribed to a lack of time—and their immersion in the world of one-page press releases and two-page memos in bullet-point format—it is also reflects a widespread sense that much human rights scholarship is far removed from practice, offering little of value to human rights professionals.

As one respondent explained, academic articles “are often useless or unhelpful—they often have the feel of ‘tenure pieces’ disconnected from practice.”  Another said that she had read a number of academic articles in preparation for teaching a human rights class, and had found that their conclusions were often directly at odds with what she knew from her work.

She suggested that academia’s emphasis on original thinking creates an incentive for scholars to come up with counterintuitive theories, regardless of whether such theories have any basis in empirical fact.

As this human rights professional suggests, it is no accident that a gap between scholarship and practice exists, given the pressures and incentives on both sides that militate against greater engagement. In academia, status and rewards are largely tied not to one’s real world connection or impact, but rather to one’s scholarly output (i.e., publications in academic journals and presentations at academic conferences).  “Critical” and theoretical thinking—whether or not it is informed by empirical knowledge—is prized.

At human rights organizations, similarly, there is little incentive to engage with academia.  Besides the obvious time constraints, one sometimes finds a certain impatience with deep conceptual thinking, a reluctance to dig too far—an almost Hamlet-like fear that giving a problem too much thought will hinder effective action.

Why Engage?

Obviously the disconnect between scholarship and practice is not unique to human rights as a field of study, and, indeed, some may question whether the disconnect is damaging or problematic.  Perhaps scholarship and practice are simply parallel tracks, with legitimate but distinct roles.

Is more communication and dialogue needed?  What, if anything, could scholars and practitioners gain from greater engagement with each other?

On the practitioner side, in my view, there is a need for deeper, more critical, and more sustained reflection.  More often than not, practitioners do not think through the larger implications of their work, nor do they question the assumptions embedded in their efforts, including assumptions about the dynamics of international power relations, conceptions of sovereignty, and theories of human behavior.

Because human rights organizations are so externally focused—primarily concerned with influencing government policy and swaying public opinion—their internal discussion and debate can be thin and scattershot.  Broad conceptual issues are often raised, but meaningful analysis of them too often gets put off to another day, which rarely comes.  Also, the pressure of advocating for a cause tends to flatten the discourse; people feel implicit pressure not to raise serious conceptual challenges to embedded positions.

I also feel strongly that scholarship on human rights should be informed by reality—by the real human rights problems with which practitioners grapple.  The isolation of scholars from practitioners, and the sense that theory is inherently superior to empirical knowledge, can lead to sterile and self-referential debates.

Bridging the Divide

So how, in concrete terms, might academics and practitioners try to bridge this divide?

If greater engagement were to be recognized as a worthy goal, a range of possible avenues for academic/practitioner dialogue could be explored.  To name just a few:

  • Scholars could consider “embedding” with human rights and humanitarian groups, e.g., during their sabbatical years, as scholars in residence or the like.  Human rights groups could, in turn, create room for this.
  • Human rights groups could create advisory committees made up of academics committed to engaging with their work, critically but supportively, as a sort of brain trust. A model for this would be the academic committee that meets regularly with the State Department’s Legal Adviser and his staff.  (I should note that I do not think that the existing model of boards and advisory committees of human rights organizations fulfills this function, as the main purpose of such boards is fundraising, and their show-and-tell meetings do not meaningfully engage either side.)
  • Universities could create one-semester or one-year visiting practitioner slots that would give human rights professionals an extended period to think and write about the issues they grapple with in their work, but in a more thoughtful, sustained and discursive way.
  • More workshops and round-table discussions between scholars and practitioners on specific topics could be organized.  With this suggestion, I don’t mean public conferences that put academics and human rights professionals together on a panel, although those can sometimes be helpful, but rather events meant to facilitate real dialogue between scholars and practitioners.

Whatever the practical mechanisms of engagement, I think the end result would be more relevant and informed scholarship, and more thoughtful and conceptually sound practice.

Joanne Mariner is the director of Hunter College’s Human Rights Program. She is an expert on human rights, counterterrorism, and international humanitarian law.

This column previously appeared on Justia’s Verdict.

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JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

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