Realising Rights In Scotland: Making the Case for a Sociology of Human Rights

By Jo Ferrie


I’ve been a member of the Research Advisory Group (RAG) for the (henceforth known as ‘the Commission’) for the past 5 years. Together we’ve worked on a number of knowledge exchange pieces: I’ve completed an Evaluation of Scotland’s National Action Plan (Ferrie 2018); won prestigious ESRC funding to host, with Dr. Katie Boyle (Stirling) and the Commission a ‘collaborative’ PhD student to look at minimum core obligations; co-edited a special issue of the International Journal of Human Rights (Ferrie,  Wallace and Webster 2018) with Dr Elaine Webster (Strathclyde) and Prof. Rebecca Wallace (Robert Gordons) and to celebrate one year of progress around rights since the special issue was published, I recently took part in a podcast (with the above and also Dr Ali Hosie (the Commission) and Dr Vikki Turbine (Glasgow).


This blog will unpack the contribution made by my article, written with Ali, and argue that we need (a sociology of) human rights and look ahead to work around minimum core and budgets.


It’s a good time to live in Scotland. Austerity has hit the UK, a political choice with devastating consequences for many. The Scottish Parliament have taken measures to diminish the harm to some degree. For example, I am delighted to pay more tax on my earnings than English and Welsh peers. In 2018 while Westminster seemed keen to remove the UK from human rights frameworks, Scotland’s First Minister set up a task force to implement recommendations from her Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, which should herald a new human rights act on devolved matters, and critically will incorporate some economic, social and cultural rights to ensure that Scots all have an adequate standard of living.


The Commission, who celebrated their 10th birthday in December 2018, have been a strong ally to this progressive stance. Indeed, the First Minister referenced several projects completed by the Commission in evidencing her vision for a new human rights framework in Scotland. I’m glad to be living in Scotland. I’m also glad to ‘do’ a Sociology of Human Rights, but what does this mean? And how does it sit within the different influencers and actors of ‘doing’ human rights?


Dembour (2010) wrote convincingly on this. She argued that there are four schools of thought, though two resonate for me: Deliberative and Protest Scholars. The deliberative school views ‘human rights as political values that liberal societies choose to adopt’ (p. 3 where remedy can be sought through the judiciary (law) and maps on well to how academics from Law approach human rights. In contrast, protest scholars view human rights progression as a challenge to the ‘status quo to be contested in favour of the oppressed’ (p.3) requiring deep understanding of what it is to live without access to rights and a will, to seek a change for the better. And this definition falls neatly, for me, into what sociologists do. It speaks to our commitment to change, to improvement and to activism.


As a methodologist, I teach how to produce robust and rigorous evidence that captures or measures any social phenomenon well and usefully. Ali and I wrote in 2018 about how human rights are currently measured. Quantified international indicators are useful but are colonialist in form in that they capture violations that happen in ‘other’ countries. While I champion capturing evidence about state-funded disappearances, I also recognise that more Western and Northern nations ‘look good’ because indicators don’t reveal the kinds of violations that happen ‘over there’. Quantitative indicators allow comparison between nations, but do not capture experiences and are inflexible to alternative cultures or changing cultures.


When we look at Scotland using indicators, rights violations are hidden. Yet, they happen: children live in poverty, women are more likely to experience domestic and gendered violence and a gender pay gap, and foodbanks are on the rise. To ‘see’ these violations, we need a new methodology of measuring rights. The paper more carefully evidences the following points:

  1. We need more opportunities to bring rights holders (people) and duty bearers (government, NHS, local authorities etc) together to talk.
  2. Duty bearers must acknowledge the reality that many Scots live without rights fully realised.
  3. Having a direct discussion between these two groups provides the impetus for change, because the rights holders are the evidence that they don’t have full access to rights, and the duty bearers are directly challenged to improve the situation.
  4. Further the two groups talking, is the best mechanisms for finding the right solution first time.
  5. Finally, and crucially, this dialogue requires continued investment from both groups.


If done well, solutions generated are co-produced. The First Minister’s vision for her task force includes, explicitly, participative working (that is, getting ‘people’ in on what the new framework should be and do), and so there is hope, that a final framework or act is co-produced. This isn’t the end of the task, of course it needs to be implemented (see Merry 2006) and that will require elements 1-5 to be re-enacted across the country in many spaces and between all sorts of people. I’m hoping to see further progress.



Ferrie, J. (2018) Evaluation of Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights (SNAP) 2013-2017, Scottish Human Rights Commission

Ferrie, J., Wallace, R. and Webster, E. (2018) Realising international human rights: Scotland on the global stage. International Journal of Human Rights, 22(1), pp. 1-4. (doi:10.1080/13642987.2017.1390297).

Dembour, M-B (2010) What are human rights? Four schools of thought. Human Rights Quarterly. Vol. 32 (1) pp.1-20

Merry, S. E., ‘Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle’, American Anthropologist, Vol. 108. No. 1 (Mar 2006) pp 38-51; Sally Engle Merry, Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).



Dr Jo Ferrie joined the Sociology subject area as a research fellow following her PhD in 2008 and is now Senior Lecturer of Social Research Methods. Jo is Director of Glasgow Q-Step Centre, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, ESRC and the University of Glasgow to create a step-change in data fluency and analysis skills. Se is also Deputy Director – Training for the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences. Jo’s research looks at the experience of having an impairment with an aim to challenge and remove barriers to being and doing that cause disability. She prefers to use a human rights framework and is a member of RAG for the Scottish Human Rights Commission. Jo is a founding member of the Glasgow Human Rights Network.


This post was first published in May 2019.