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Human Rights Research and Researchers in IR: Are We REALLY that Odd?

September 5, 2014

Before APSA last week, I had the privilege of attending a small conference put on the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at William and Mary.  The conference was a chance for researchers in different research areas to write about the policy-relevance of their issue area and compare research and researchers in their area to the larger IR community.  It relates to the discussion going on the last couple of weeks on ISQ’s blog.  All of the participants had the opportunity to use the TRIP project data on journal articles in top-IR journals and survey data from IR researchers around the world.  I learned lot about how interactions with the policy/practitioner community differ across issue areas.

My contribution (perhaps not surprisingly) was for the human rights issue area.  As I worked on the paper throughout the summer in the month of August, I was struck by a few things, some of which seemed to go against my baseline expectations:

  1.  Human rights research articles are increasing in the top IR journals but are really still a pretty small minority (less than 10% of articles a year).
    • Ok, this wasn’t that surprising!  As people expand beyond “traditional” questions of interstate war determinants, I think more and more students are focusing on repression.
  2. In many regards, human rights research articles aren’t really that different from the rest of IR.   As a whole host of cross-tabs in my paper indicate, human rights articles are not distinctly descriptive and, post 1990, are not any more likely to take a non-positivist epistemology than the rest of IR articles in top journals.  And, in fact, post 1990, human rights articles are actually more quantitative than articles that aren’t human rights-focused.
    • These results as to human rights articles in the top IR journals really did surprise me!  I sometimes get the feeling that the rest of IR sees us as “squishy.”  I once had a colleague tell me that the reason I was publishing a lot was because I was in an easy research area where we didn’t have to focus on numbers. Sure, human rights is a very interdisciplinary issue area, with room for lots of approaches and traditions from across disciplines.  More importantly, for all of us, there is a lot to be gained from the “squishy” research and I don’t mean –in any way! – to imply anything negative about non-positivist or post-positivist work.  However, at least in terms of articles published in top IR journals, we aren’t really that odd.
  3. Conversely, however, human rights researchers maybe are a little more unique when compared to IR researchers that don’t have an HR focus.  Here, differences in epistemology, like being more non-positivist or post-positivist, appear.
    • I think this might have to do with how diverse the community of human rights scholars is globally and the very different publication strategies that human rights researchers employ (books versus articles, disciplinary outputs versus something like Human Rights Quarterly).
  4. There are a lot of examples of human rights IR researchers and their research projects having an impact in NGOs, IGOs, and the larger policy community.  One of my favorite examples is the new National Human Rights Programme in Mexico, which cited the Cingranelli-Richards Human Rights Dataset.  Check out my paper draft (work in progress – comments welcome!) for some interesting additional examples.


All in all, human rights research in IR appears to be strong and growing in its contribution to rights-on-the-ground!


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Amanda Murdie is Professor & Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations in the Department of International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford, 2014). Her main research interests include non-state actors, and human rights and human security.

When not blogging, Amanda enjoys hanging out with her two pre-teen daughters (as long as she can keep them away from their cell phones) and her fabulous significant other.