Human rights and ‘practical rationality’ among Sri Lankan tamils and Americans

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


This paper is a prologue to some ethnographic work I'd like to do about how people actually practice ethics, including the subset of ethics now called ‘rights’ or ‘human rights’, in Sri Lanka and the United States. My rather humble aim, here, is simply to make a researchable guess about one way people in both countries sometimes use ‘human rights’ (among other ethical systems) to navigate, survive, make sense of and justify daily life. Human rights rhetoric, of course, is obviously now a global discourse (or perhaps, as Aihwa Ong in a recent paper puts it, a ‘global assemblage’ (2006)); but, as many (including Ong) have also pointed out, any surface rhetorical unity clearly hides a multitude of cultural practices —and not just between societies, but also within them. Moreover, although there has been a tendency in some of the writing about human rights to see a tension between ‘western’ and ‘nonwestern’ (or even ‘Asian’) understandings of human rights, my suspicion is that people and governments in most social and spacial locations —including Tamil Sri Lankans and Americans— are often guided in their uses of ‘human rights’ (insofar as they use a discourse of this flavor at all) not by an abstract, Enlightenment-style universalism but by a kind of ‘practical rationality’ or ‘strategic means-end’ reasoning. A form of enacted ‘reasoning’, that is, at once existentially bound up in the sometimes cruel machinations of surviving and succeeding in daily life but also, as a form of strategic thought, occasionally transcendent above the unreflective and habitus-like conceptual fog of its various mundane contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Anthropologist and the Native
Subtitle of host publicationEssays for Gananath Obeyesekere
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9780857289919
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2011 H. L. Seneviratne editorial matter and selection.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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