Dissertation Abstracts

A Cult of the Individual for a Global Society: The Development and Worldwide Expansion of Human Rights Ideology

Author: Elliott, Michael A, melliott@towson.edu
Department: Sociology
University: Emory University, USA
Supervisor: John Boli
Year of completion: 2009
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: human rights , individualism , globalization , world culture
Areas of Research: Human Rights and Global Justice , Historical and Comparative Sociology , Local-Global Relations


Despite ongoing attention to the subject, scholarly efforts have not adequately explained the tremendous, worldwide expansion of human rights over the course of the 20th century. Prevailing accounts employ a variety of mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, such as evolutionary progress, functional necessity, hegemonic coercion, interest maximization, or social movement activity. These accounts, however, are empirically deficient. Based on a comprehensive coding of 779 human rights instruments, I present an unprecedented portrayal of the global institutionalization of human rights since the mid-19th century. Using this quantitative data as well as historical research on the cultural origins of this doctrine, I critically evaluate prevailing theories of human rights expansion, highlighting both their strengths and weaknesses as explanatory frameworks. In the process, I develop an alternative world-cultural account that stresses the rationalized construction of human rights as an element of the long-term rise of the universal, egalitarian individual as the primary entity of social organization, value, and meaning in world society. Overall, this perspective proves to be more fruitful in making sense of the data and provides numerous avenues for future research in this area.