Violence, Human Rights, and Justice

Course Info

Course Number/Code: 21A.225J (Fall 2004)
Course Title: Violence, Human Rights, and Justice
Course Level: Undergraduate
Offered By: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Department: Anthropology
Course Instructor(s): Prof. Erica James
Course Introduction:
Syllabus Course Description

This course examines the contemporary problem of political violence and the way that human rights have been conceived as a means to protect and promote freedom, peace and justice for citizens against the abuses of the state. We will explore historical debates about whether violence is "cultural" or "natural" and evaluate the implicit notions of rationality that are encompassed within these arguments. Similarly, we will study arguments about cultural relativism and the universality of the human rights model: the model has been viewed as a product of Western European moral values that pays insufficient attention to differences of culture, religion, gender and other ways of conceiving the relationships between individuals, collective groups, and the state. Through the study of various ethnographic case studies of conflict across the globe we will analyze and debate whether the human rights framework adequately addresses the ambiguities between state-sponsored and interpersonal violence. Finally, we will ask whether war crimes tribunals, truth commissions, and other vehicles for repairing the individual and collective traumas of the past are effective means of promoting justice and the rule of law in societies making the transition to representative governance.

Course Structure and Requirements

The course will be run primarily as a seminar, with approximately 20 minutes of lecture to introduce each new section followed by presentations and discussion of the subject or ethnographic context under review. Students must come to class prepared, as discussion will often take the form of a formal debate of the issues read for that class session. Generally readings will be limited to 100 pages per week, depending on whether the readings are theoretical or are case-based. In this syllabus, readings marked with an * are required for that day. Other readings are highly recommended, but not required. Required books are listed in readings section.

Reflection Papers

In most weeks students will submit a 1-1.5 page (double-spaced) reflection paper on the required reading for that section's readings. A prompting question will be provided ahead of time to guide the student through that week's readings and to help structure the argument of the paper. These eight reflection papers will be evaluated on a check +, check, and check - system and are considered a component of the writing requirement. Coupled with class attendance and participation they will contribute 40% of the final grade. Through these reflection papers and the responses to them, students will build and refine their arguments for the two longer papers required in the course.


Students will be required to write two 6 to 7-page papers that build upon the themes discussed in section and in the reflection papers. Papers will be returned no more than one week after submission. The first paper will be revised in light of the comments received upon them. Rewriting the second paper is optional. The final draft of each paper is the version that will be graded and is due one week after the papers have been returned with comments. A crucial aspect to how these papers will be evaluated is the articulation of a strong thesis statement that is supported by a cogent argument. Arguments cannot be solely polemical, but must derive from a clear, well-supported evaluation of the texts, lecture materials, videos or films. These two papers are weighted equally and will contribute 50% of the grade.


Through the course of the semester each student will make one presentation of the main arguments contained within that week's readings in order to guide class discussion (in the case of books, the chapters will be divided among more than one student). The presentation can be based on the reflection paper and is intended to give the class questions to debate in the discussion period and should last no longer than ten minutes. The presentations are evaluated and will contribute 10% of the final grade. There is no final exam.