Shaping culture

Shaping culture: the effect of international human rights agencies on local cultures.

Project abstract:

Whereas the rights to self-determination (protection of minorities) and cultural rights are considered a universal human right, the practice of International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and International Intergovernmental Organizations (IIO) on human rights may interfere, change or manipulate local cultures to the extent that they contradict or come into conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Employing cultural theory, critical discourse analysis (Fairclough), critical international relations theory, this research will aim at understanding when, how and where such occurs and in those cases identify to what extent that takes place.

The project is developed in the context of the NORPART internationalization project “Human rights and reconciliation in a post conflict multicultural society” with the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, designed to strengthen the quality of education through involving post-graduate students in ongoing research projects. The project involves several researchers connected with the MSc in Human Rights and Multiculturalism (Gabriela Mezzanotti, Ådne Valen-Sendstad, Oddvar Hollup, Audrey Osler, Lena Lybæk), as well as researchers at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.


Main objectives and research questions

The main objectives of the project are:

 1) to generate new knowledge on how local cultures in Sri Lanka are affected by international human rights agencies (INGOs and IIOs (1)), and to assess the role of power in this process;

2) to integrate and refine methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives in the study of the intersections of culture, human rights and power relations; from different disciplines (culture studies, philosophy, international law, international relations);

3) to analyse how local cultures are being affected by western values manifested by the idea of universality of human rights (cosmopolitanism) advocated by human rights international agencies;

4) to critically identify power relations hidden in discourses related to the practice of human rights, and its effect in local culture, questioning ideas, institutions and material conditions involved in this practice.

In order to attain its main objectives, this project aims to answer the following research questions:

  • How are local cultures in Sri Lanka shaped and influenced by the work performed by international human rights agencies?
  • How do international agencies influence the internal relations between minority/minority cultures, advocacy groups, etc. in Sri Lanka?
  • Considering that general assumptions about the universality of human rights are usually perceived as morally unquestionable, what are the undeclared assumptions of such discourse? Is there, and if so, what is the power relation/project impregnated in this process?
  • How does the universal human rights discourse shape social practice in local populations and how does this shaping factor influences local cultures?

The interdisciplinary framework of this research shall include:

  • cultural theories.
  • critical discourse analysis;
  • international law, international relations, and human rights theories (2);
  • relations of power, hegemony and ideology;

International human rights agencies work under the commitment of “building a human rights culture” or “building a rights respecting culture”. If culture is perceived with Geertz (1973) as both ideational and semiotic, what are the shared codes of meaning evident in their practices, - and how do these as perceived universal meanings relate to, or influence local cultures? The practice of human rights agencies takes human rights as a discourse praxis, reflecting political and institutional ideology that shapes their actions in the various fields they operate. Employing cultural theory (Stuart Hall) and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough) the research will assess what are the unquestioned ideological assumptions of the human rights discourse upon which international human rights agencies develop their international practice, and their role in equally universal relations of power.  Such endeavour will aim at understanding how the human rights discourse has been given, which concepts were found to be its foundations and how those concepts have been given and eventually challenged.

The universal human rights discursive context is not necessarily unchallenged and immutable. Discourse does not derive from universal truths, but frequently from precarious and circumstantial social structures. Discourses themselves are therefore circumstantial by nature (Butler 2000). The universality of the human rights discourse vis a vis local cultures, and different perceptions of the same discursive practice, shall enable this research to understand the social determination of such discourse as well as the linguistic/discursive determination of the local populations in Sri Lanka affected by actions of international human rights NGOs and Intergovernmental Organizations. In this context, the Critical International Relations Theory (Cox 2002) is aligned with cultural theory and cultural critical discourse analysis, as these theories questions the relations of power in specific contexts by deep diving into the social practices and context in which ideology forms itself and is used in search for hegemonic power.

Such critical theories question the structural conditions that are given, and the hegemonic conceptions that have been formed against processes of naming and symbolically subordinating the other (e.g. Said 1978). By following critical cultural theories, this research will reflect upon the process of establishing the historical structures that led to the current concept of the universality of human rights, as well as the complex relations of power that were consolidated in those historical structures.

Relations of power both in the international order and within states will form the central approach of this research, as the work performed by international human rights NGOs  and IIOs in Sri Lanka will be tested as possible tools for the shaping of cultures from an internationally exerted power over local communities. The theories that form the main theoretical framework of this research are “critical” in the sense that they appropriate the same gramscian/foucaultian concepts of “orders of discourse”, “relations of power”, “hegemony” and “ideology”. By doing so, these theories will enable an analysis of local cultures from the perspective of “relations of power”. This is also aligned with the concept of culture adopted by Eric Wolf, by which cultural forms are linked to the public power. INGO’s and IIOs practices will be contrasted to local cultures as expressions of local relations of power expressed through the state and its bureaucracies “as a sense of togetherness”.

Researchers, research groups and existing projects

Associate professor Lena Lybæk

Associate professor Gabriela Mezzanotti

PhD fellow

Ådne Valen-Senstad

Professor Oddvar Hollup


Researchers from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka


Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2005). ‘Beyond Neoliberal Governance: The World Social Forum as Subaltern Cosmopolitan Politics and Legality’, in Law and Globalization from Below: Towards a Cosmopolitan Legality, ed. Boaventura de Sousa Santos and César A. Rodriguez-Garavito (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 29–63.

Butler, Judith. (2000) “Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism”. In: Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues On The Left. London: Verso.

Cox, Robert. (1983). Gramsci, hegemony and international relations: an essay in method. In: COX, Robert; SINCLAIR, T. Approaches to world order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Cox, Robert. (2002). The Political Economy of a Plural World. Critical Reflections on Power, Morals and Civilization. London: Routledge.

Fairclough, Norman (2003). Analysing Discourse. London: Routledge.

Fairclough, Norman (1995). Critical Discourse Analysis: the critical study of language. New York: Longman.

Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books Inc.

Nash, K. (2015). The Political Sociology of Human Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism. New York: Random House.

Stammers, N. (2009). Human Rights and Social Movement London, New York: Pluto Press.

Wolf, Eric R. (2001) Pathways to Power. Building an Anthropology of the Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Walter Mignolo (2000) ‘The Many Faces of Cosmo-polis: Border Thinking and Critical Cosmopolitanism’, Public Culture 12, no. 3 721–48.


1) Human rights International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and International Intergovernmental Organizations (IIOs).

2) This project uses a holistic human rights approach, including different branches of international law, such as international humanitarian law, refugee law and international criminal law.