Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

This course examines the contemporary problem of political violence and the way that human rights are conceived as a means to protect and promote freedom, peace, and justice for citizens, as well as to restrict the abuses of the state. We will explore historical debates about whether violence is "cultural" or "natural" and evaluate the implicit notions of rationality that are encompassed within these arguments. Similarly, we will study arguments about cultural relativism and the universality of the human rights model. The model has been viewed as a product of western moral values that pays insufficient attention to differences of culture, religion, gender, or other ways of conceiving the relationships between individuals, collective groups, and the state. This model has also been suspended during security crises or emergencies and the suspension must be interrogated. Through the study of various ethnographic case studies of conflict and political crises across the globe we will debate whether the human rights framework adequately addresses the ambiguities between state-sponsored and interpersonal violence. Finally, we will ask whether war crimes tribunals, truth commissions, and other mechanisms for repairing historical political traumas are effective in societies making the transition to representative governance.

Course Structure and Requirements

The course will be run primarily as a seminar, with approximately 20 minutes of lecture to introduce each new section followed by student presentations and discussion of the subject or ethnographic context under review.


Over the course of the semester each student will make one presentation of the main arguments contained in that day's readings in order to guide class discussion. The presentations will be evaluated.

Class Participation

Students are evaluated on regular attendance and active participation in class. Let me know in advance by email if you need to miss any class—unexcused class absences will affect your final grade. For each class come prepared with questions for discussion: Upload one or two questions for discussion to the class website by 11:59 pm the night before class. These questions will aid our discussants in their presentations and will help you prepare for class. Discussants do not need to upload questions the week of a reading presentation.

Reading Preparation

Prepare the readings for each class in the following manner: Analyze each in terms of their argument, research methods, data (evidence marshaled to support the argument), methods of data analysis, theoretical contributions, and conclusions. How does each reading frame their topic? For readings based on fieldwork, is the ethnography convincing? Why or why not? Could the text be improved? How does the writer's style influence the strength or weakness of the argument?

Reflection Papers

Over the course of the semester students are also asked to write two, 1.5–2 page reflection papers on the readings.


Each student will submit one short mid-term paper of 6–7 pages (including notes and bibliography) and one longer final paper (including notes and bibliography) of 12–14 pages.

For further detail, see the Assignments section.


Presentations 10%
Reflection papers (2) and active class participation 30%
Short mid-term paper 20%
Final paper 40%

Statement on Academic Integrity

In this class you are to present your own original ideas, and oral and written work that has been completed without collaboration with others. Be sure to cite ideas that are derived from other sources accurately. If you have questions about how to cite sources properly, please consult This resource may not render correctly in a screen reader.Academic Integrity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A Handbook for Students (PDF - 1.4MB) or the instructor.

There is no final exam.