Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society

Factualize and commensurate human rights violations and organized violence


Oriana Bernasconi , Paola Díaz-Lizé


In the last decades, Science, Technology and Society studies (STS) have extended their analyses to many issues beyond the classic topics with which the field was born in the 1960s (Jasanoff et al. Citation2001), including feminist and post-colonial studies, and research on racism and social inequalities, among other issues (Felt et al. Citation2017). Despite this significant expansion, the field of human rights still does not receive systematic attention from STS studies. With this Cluster, we want to contribute to bridge this gap, through empirical works concerning human rights violations and violence, past or present, whether they refer to ancestral forms of life, the death and disappearance of migrants at borders, controversies surrounding abortion, the quantification of forced disappearance and forced displacement of people, or international solidarity networks towards those suffering from exile.


Human rights safeguard a basic principle for democratic coexistence: the dignity of individuals. This is a field of political practice and also a burgeoning field of study that is moving beyond traditional disciplines (philosophy, law, and political science) to become pluralistic and interdisciplinary. In the last few years, fields that used to question the normativity and universality of these ideas, such as anthropology and sociology, have put their intellectual resources at work in the service of the question of the social sustenance of these principles and of the costs of their breakdown, providing critical examinations of local problems. Beyond universalizable principles at the moral or legal level, the social sciences have also interrogated the process of formation of human rights as principles, and the dynamics of violence (political, structural, or criminal) that cause aggression, damage or destruction of communities and of natural, cultural, or spiritual environments (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois Citation2004; Bourgois Citation2012; Makaremi Citation2016; Melenotte Citation2020; Malesevic Citation2020Citation2017).


Probably due to the heterogeneity of actors and knowledge that contribute to its development today, the human rights field is organized less by a specific conceptual perspective than by a common topic: the serious attacks against the integrity of individuals, communities, and society, perpetrated by State actors and other armed actors, such as militias, hitmen, civil guards at international borders (“vigilantes”) and self-defense groups (Cushman Citation2012; De Greiff Citation2006).


Although STS studies have been characterized by a constructivist perspective, this does not mean assuming a relativist position and, even less, adhering to some kind of human rights negationism. For us, the importance of mobilizing the tools of STS studies and their theoretical and methodological background to investigate issues of human rights and violence lies precisely in the fact that this allows us to question how – with what concrete practices, under what circumstances, and with the participation of which agencies, materialities, and knowledge – violence and/or human rights violations go from being a lived experience of victims, perpetrators, and witnesses to a public, recognizable, claimable, and credible fact; and how the harm caused is addressed by the affected communities and societies as a whole.


Over the last ten years, efforts have emerged, albeit fragmented, to link the field of human rights to STS studies or their antecedents (such as ethnomethodology, the sociology of quantification, or the social studies of science). A heterogeneous body of research has been trying to explain how societies deal with the effects of these harms, how truth, justice, and memory are accomplished, and what societies, communities, and individuals can do to prevent events of this type to ever happen again (Straus and Waldorf Citation2011).


Without aspiring to exhaustiveness, by reviewing this literature, we identified studies that inquire into the constitution of this type of facts; the practices of documentation, classification, nomination, and quantification by means of which human rights violations come to be described as such and are processed to confront the damage caused, including the circulation of truth accounts, and the irruption of controversies and counter-memories around processes of accountability of human rights violations. Research has also been done on the history and role of science and technology in the human rights field, and on the human rights knowledge infrastructures addressing these abuses and their legacies.


In the following, we briefly outline this background that serves as a basis for introducing the two processes we proposed to explore in this Cluster: factualization and commensuration of human rights violations and violence. Analyzing what this Cluster was able to encompass, we will end this introduction with a reflection on the lines of research, themes, and problems that remain as future challenges.