Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 December 2014
As a sociologist working in the emerging area of the sociology of human rights, I find the approach that Luc Boltanski and his various collaborators take to cultural, moral, and political questions inspiring. There is an urgent need to develop theoretical concepts and methodologies to study human rights, which have been growing in importance as a result of the activities of transnational advocacy networks, digital communication, and the codification and enactment of international law since the end of the Cold War (see Nash, 2012). What resources do human rights offer for the critique of injustices? Are human rights contributing to imagining solidarity beyond borders? How do we study what difference human rights make to existing social forms – for good or for ill? Pragmatic sociology, with its emphasis on the importance of principles of justice as intrinsic to social life, is an attractive starting point for exploring such questions. Breaking with perspectives in which social life is seen as structured by violence, self-interest, or habit, which all too easily and automatically position human rights as nothing but neo-liberal imperialist ideology, pragmatic sociology opens up the study of disputes, uncertainty, and socially embedded moral argument in ways that can only be promising. Boltanski's groundbreaking book Distant Suffering (1999 ) is itself a landmark contribution to the field, although it focuses on humanitarianism and responses to suffering, rather than on principles of justice and human rights. It was Distant Suffering that first led me to Boltanski's work (Nash, 2008). Reading further, however, it is striking that Boltanski has written nothing explicitly on human rights, despite the concerns of pragmatic sociology with contemporary questions of justice.
In this chapter, I reflect on the value of Boltanski's work on everyday justice and injustices. I also question his neglect of the study of principles of human rights, arguing that it is not just an empirical lack but that, in addition, it has serious consequences for the development of his theoretical framework.