Methodological choices in human rights research are political, not just technical

How can we better understand and change the socio-economic structures that are the root cause of so many human rights violations? This has become an almost existential question for the human rights movement and has been a recurring theme in a number of OpenGlobalRights debates on tackling rising inequality, confronting biased socio-economic systems; offsetting populism; shaking the caricature of being elitist and out of touch; and addressing geographic fault lines within the movement.

There is a huge methodological dimension to this question, but it often gets written off as too complicated—a self-fulfilling prophecy as it then remains under-examined if not completely overlooked. But bringing in new voices and fostering fresh thinking has to be one of our biggest priorities in the human rights community, if we are to move beyond the crisis of confidence the movement seems to be having.

First, the methods we use determine which injustices we see, and prioritize, as human rights violations. For the most part, methods focused on documenting events—a series of forced evictions or cases of extrajudicial killings, for example—still dominate human rights research. But, events-based methods limit our ability to see beyond relatively simply causal chains. Some of the most chronic and widespread injustices—such as poverty, displacement, corruption, precarious labor conditions, environmental destruction, restriction of civic space—affect a vast range of rights, but don’t fit within this framing. The human rights movement can and should contribute to tackling these systemic injustices. But to be a relevant voice, we need to broaden our framing beyond negative obligations to respect human rights.

But to be a relevant voice, we need to broaden our framing beyond negative obligations to respect human rights.

Drawing on methods used in public policy analysis is a helpful starting point. Essentially, rights-based policy analysis involves translating the norms that underpin positive obligations into more concrete, objective and measurable criteria. This allows researchers to assess how policies of resource distribution—within and between countries—affect rights fulfilment. In the field of economic, social and cultural rights, a great deal of thinking has already gone into this. For example, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) has developed an analytical framework, grouping relevant human rights norms into four dimensions (Outcomes, Policy Efforts, Resources and Assessment, or OPERA), which helps measure each dimension more systematically. As shown in a recent series of case studies, this multidimensional framing can help researchers articulate the complex causal chains between poorly designed, financed, or implemented policies and structural violations of rights.

Second, if we don’t broaden our research methods, we won’t be able to gather the types of evidence needed to substantiate claims about structural human rights violations. A vast range of methods, from across a range of disciplines, can be incorporated to do this. Quantitative data is a key tool because it can show trends and patterns that help debunk myths, uncover ideological assumptions, and reveal new insights about the relationship between inequitable policies and unjust human rights outcomes. Data on public finances plays an essential role in analyzing how resource distribution helps or hinders the fulfillment of rights. For example, in Spain, CESR relied on data from the National Union of Tax Inspectors estimating that if Spain reduced its shadow economy by just 10 percentage points (in line with EU standards) it would be able to generate revenue exceeding total budget cuts for 2012. This was powerful in countering the dominant narrative that austerity was unavoidable. 

There is great scope for methodological innovation in the use of data. On the one hand, the number of large scale, open-source databases is growing at a remarkable pace. On the other, innovative web and mobile based technology is accelerating the spread of citizen data collection initiatives. But fostering such innovation depends on building up data literacy and responsible data practices. We experienced this working with the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights in Uganda. Official statistics showed an impressive reduction in the population living below the national poverty line. However, once we found the definition of this indicator, it was clear that it was at odds with international definitions: measured this way, almost two thirds of the population would still be considered poor.

Third, our ability to translate research findings into evidence-based advocacy is limited if we do not work across disciplines. The “theory of change” behind human rights advocacy based on “naming and shaming” has often been quite linear: by exposing violations, those responsible will be pressured to change. But bringing sufficient pressure to bear to influence systemic policy change is anything but linear. Here, social theory methods—increasingly used in the development field to understand how change happens—can be especially helpful.

Flickr/Fatimeh Nadimi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 -Some Rights Reserved)

How can we better understand and change the socio-economic structures that are the root cause of so many human rights violations?

The diversity and dynamism among the individuals, groups, organizations and networks that make up the human rights movement is a tremendous strength. It enables the human rights movement to engage the many institutions that make up the ecosystem of human rights accountability—be they legal, administrative, political, or social; formal or informal; or operating at the local, national, regional or international level. But to engage these institutions effectively, we need to be more creative in how we use evidence.

Again, data can be a key tool here, although there are power implications in this particular form of “knowledge production”. Combined with storytelling techniques that give it meaning, data can powerfully speak to different audiences, including mobilizing the public. In particular, data visualization tools are making it increasingly possible to communicate complex information quickly and clearly, enabling us to tell more compelling stories about the rights violations that stem from structural injustices.

Despite its importance, research methodology is a hard topic to get excited about. Conversations about methodology can get technical quickly. Topics like indicators, benchmarks, statistics, and budget analysis are often perceived to be abstract, complex, or disconnected from the fight for social change. But, the choices we make about the methods we use to do our work are political, not just technical. To better see this, a critical first step is to popularize the issue of research methods beyond the relatively small group of practitioners and academics currently engaged on it.

Methodological inquiry has come a long way since it implied a one-way, top-down, dissemination of one-size-fits-all tools from the global North to the global South. But we need to give even greater recognition to the diversity of innovative methods people are devising—in a range of different contexts—to use human rights norms to articulate, debate, and take action on the structural problems that most concern them. This, in turn, can help expand channels for collaboration within and beyond the human rights movement, to foster shared appreciation about the value of research in advocacy work. Such a shift could also encourage experimentation with new ways of blending localized, first-hand knowledge with specialist expertise. Finally, it could facilitate exchange and peer learning to move beyond the symptoms to the root causes of socio-economic injustice.