Rights and (Socio-)Legal Theory

An interdisciplinary double workshop within the framework of the Universität Zürich – Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin Joint Seed Money Funding initiative

Dates: 5 June 2020 (Zürich), October 2020 (Berlin)
Deadline for submissions: March 8, 2020

There is no shortage of normative literature about constitutional and human rights, dealing with the question of theoretical justification of these rights, their doctrinal systematization and their application to concrete social and political problemsnot surprisingly, given the importance of these questions. At the same time, in recent years, a growing body of empirical scholarship has taken an external perspective. This scholarship has addressed the historical emergence of rights discourses (Moyn 2012), the political sociology of international human rigts (Risse, Ropp and Sikking 1999, 2017) or the effectiveness and implementation of law, including constitutional rights, on a national level (Friedmann 201), the role of legal doctrine (Boulanger 2019) or the place of human rights in social theory (Mahlmann 2018). However, there has not been enough communication between the normative, the empirical and the legal theory perspective on human rights. The proposed double workshop aims at fostering such a conversation. It specificaly addresses graduate students and early career scholars from legal studies, history and the social science who work on issues that connect these different perspectives.

The workshop will probe some of the current theories of human rights and their often controversial claims. It explores such timely questions as: How do claims to constitutional and/or Human Rights "work" in different contexts, times and places? How do normative discourses translate into social action? What influence do legal professionals and apparatuses, political elites, the media and civil society have on the effectiveness of these discourses? Where are the interfaces between legal doctrine and political discourses on constitutional and human rights? How does the claim to universality of human rights play out in concrete contexts? Which role do human rights play for theory of current forms of social organization?

The organization of the double workshop will proceed as follows: Abstract of papers will be accepted until March 8, 2020. Please send the abstract via email to christian.boulanger(at)  and matthias.mahlmann(at) A set of 12-18 papers will be selected for the two workshops, which will take place in June and October, respectively. The papers will be due before the first workshop. In each workshop, 6-9 participants will present their paper, with a non-presenting participant commenting on the paper. The workshops are designed to allow for extensive discussion of the presented papers and of the substantive theoretical connections that emerge during the debate.

It is planned to publish best papers of the workshop as a special issue in socio-legal journal. The workshop hopes to create the roots of a research network in particular for junior scholars with the aim of future collaboration.


Boulanger, Christian. 2019. Die Soziologie juristischer Wissensproduktion. In Interdisziplinäre Rechtsforschung, herausgegeben von Christian Boulanger, Julika Rosenstock und Tobias Singelnstein, 173-92. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Friedmann, Lawrence Meir. 2016. Impact: how law affects behavior. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Mahlmann, Matthias. 2018. Widerständige Gerechtigkeit: Der Angriff auf Demokratie, Verfassungsstaat und Menschenrechte und die Gesellschaftstheorie des Rechts. Nomos. 

Moyn, Samuel. 2012. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 

Risse, Thomas, Stephen C. Ropp und Kathryn Sikking. 1999. The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change. Herausgegeben von Thomas Risse, Stephen C. Ropp und Kathryn Sikking. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sikking, Kathryn. 2017. Evidence for hope: making human rights work in the 21st century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.