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Globalisation and Modernity: Histories of Human Rights




Admission Requirements

Similarly tagged 200-level and 300-level courses. Students that do not meet this prerequisite should contact the instructor regarding the required competencies before course allocation.


The language of “human rights” has become one of the most dominant moral and political discourses of our time. Often taken for granted as a timeless, self-evident universal, the concept of human rights serves variously as a source of inspiration for the oppressed, a rallying cry for social justice, and as the basis for a wide variety of (often conflicting) political claims and agendas—including, at times, rather questionable foreign policies.

This reading-intensive seminar asks two basic and closely related sets of questions. The first set is historical. How did this contemporary discourse come into being? What are its origins, and how has it evolved over time? Who have been the main actors, and what have been the main social forces, shaping ideas about human rights? How have “human rights” intersected with or competed against other modes of political claim making—and how might we periodize these developments?

The second set of questions is historiographical. That is, it focuses on the WAY scholars have attempted to answer the questions listed above. How have historians defined “human rights,” and how has this shaped the stories they tell? What kinds of social movements, thinkers, and political actors have they included under this umbrella category—and what has been left out? What kind of evidence have they used, and to what effect? And what are the political stakes of their historical scholarship? What are the main modes of historical writing on human rights, and which do we find most persuasive?

The main goal of the course will be to read together—and to arrive at a set of conclusions about the promises and perils of this rapidly growing field of historical scholarship. To do this effectively requires us to read quite a lot—including, often, an entire book for a single class session. Students who enroll in the course should be prepared to keep up with a substantial amount of material and to come to class prepared to analyze it in detail.

Course Objectives

By successfully completing this course, you will:

  • gain a broad familiarity with major themes and debates in the historiography of human rights.

  • be able to explain how various definitions of “human rights” have intersected with other social, political, and intellectual formations.

  • hone your skills in historiographical interpretation, debate, and analysis.

  • improve your ability to digest and analyze substantial amounts of dense, complicated material.

  • devise and execute a well-argued historiographical essay, while polishing your academic prose.

Mode of Instruction

This course will be conducted as a seminar, meeting for two 2-hour sessions per week. Each session will center on discussion of a set of assigned readings (often including full books), with introductory remarks and guiding questions provided by one or two student leaders—building on reading questions circulated by the instructor in advance of each class. In addition to contributing web responses to a blackboard site before class, students will write a formal historiographical essay of 3000-3500 words.


Learning aim: Proposing, defending, and debating ideas with one’s peers.
Assessment: Active class participation, including one session of discussion leading.
Percentage: 20%
Deadline: Weekly

Learning aim: Familiarity with debates among historians; critical reading and thinking; analytical framing.
Assessment: Informal but analytical web postings of at least 300 words each, submitted for ten class sessions.
Percentage: 20%
Deadline: Weekly

Learning aim: Investigating a topic; asking a research question.
Assessment: Initial paper proposal (400-500 words)
Percentage: 5%
Deadline: Week 3

Learning aim: Narrowing down a topic; planning a historiographical project.
Assessment: Paper proposal and annotated bibliography (1000 words)
Percentage: 15%
Deadline: Week 5

Learning aim: In-depth literature review, synthesis, and analysis.
Assessment: Final essay (3000-3500 words)
Percentage: 40%
Deadline: Week 8


Most course readings will be made available via Blackboard. The instructor will email enrolled students with a list of books to purchase before the beginning of the block. These are likely to include works by Samuel Moyn, Mark Mazower, Lynn Hunt, and Jean Quataert.

Contact Information

Dr. Ann Marie Wilson, a.m.wilson@luc.leidenuniv.nl

Weekly Overview


Preparation for first session

There will likely be a short reading for the first session. Enrolled students will receive an email from the instructor near the end of Block 3.