COOL CLASSES: “Anthropology of Human Rights: Engaged Ethnography and Anthropologist as Witness”

This course examines how anthropologists contribute to human rights in law and grassroots movements.

Class name: “Anthropology of Human Rights: Engaged Ethnography and Anthropologist as Witness”

Taught by: Social Science Research and Instruction Librarian and Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Brie Gettleson


Here’s what Gettleson has to say about her course:

This class is broadly about the relationship between the fields of anthropology and human rights, but more specifically it is about how anthropologists have served as witnesses to human rights abuses and claims. We cover both formal definitions of human rights in international law and how human rights are transformed through discourse and practice at global and local scales. The class explores how the act of witnessing can function as both an ethical intervention and ethnographic method, but with limitations and challenges.

Many of the cases are drawn from my own research interest in women and gender in Latin America, but we also discuss indigenous rights, migration and asylum, and issues found right here in the Philadelphia area that challenge our assumptions about human rights. Thanks to partnerships with the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship and Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives, the students will have access to experts and activists on Native issues and storytelling, crafting expert testimony for asylum hearings, human rights archival partnerships, and prison abolition.

Through a focus on what is called “engaged anthropology,” students learn about different ways of doing activist scholarship and the possibilities and the problems of doing politically engaged work. Whether or not they continue in either anthropology or peace, justice, and human rights, I hope that they will be able to combine critique and action beyond the classroom setting.

I have really enjoyed my work with students in my role as the social science librarian. However, I was also really interested in having the opportunity to share with students some of the things I find most compelling in the practice of anthropology, like fieldwork as witnessing and putting scholarship to use in directly advocating for the rights of communities we work with. Before I was a librarian, I was an anthropologist (in grad school). Now I get to be both, through this course and thanks to close relationships with the wonderful faculty in the anthropology department. As a librarian, I have had the opportunity to spend time in nearly 100 classes on Haverford’s campus, witnessing a wide variety of teaching styles and ideas for classroom activities. What better way to improve my own practice?

Through my four years of learning from my library colleagues, I bring to the classroom an attention to how knowledge is produced and organized. Information, including information about anthropology and human rights, isn’t just out there on the internet—it has been placed, arranged, and described there with particular audiences is mind, sometimes behind paywalls that are invisible to those of us with the privilege of institutional affiliation. As we think about doing ethically engaged scholarship, we can also ask: who will have access to our work?


See what other courses the Department of Anthropology is offering this semester.

Photo of Tailinh Agoyo from PACC partner We Are the Seeds (top left) speaking to the class (Gettleson is top right) by Claire Wang ’20.

Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience.