Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Government and International Affairs

Major Professor

Steven Roach, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Scott Solomon, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Earl Conteh-Morgan, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Geoffrey Potts, Ph.D.


Critical Theory, Natural Right, Cultural Relativism, Transnational Movement, Political Psychology


This dissertation proposes a critical realist framework of human rights and argues that emotion plays a foundational role in constituting a human rights ontology. I build this framework as a critical response to other IR human rights theories which have largely been developed in accordance with either empiricist or rationalist paradigms. Both empiricist and rationalist theories fail to articulate a firm ontological foundation which can support their human rights claims.

This ontological concern may not seem too important for human rights scholars interested in more substantive political issues, but it does lead to problems because no human rights theory is ontologically neutral. Theoretical claims are always predicated on some ontological presumptions, whether those presumptions are explicitly stated or not. As a result, scholars will likely remain unable to resolve their theoretical debates without first recognizing how they reflect ontological disagreements underpinning them. This dissertation, then, calls for an ontological intervention and employs the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar in order to build a human rights framework.

At the root of my framework is emotion and the role that it plays in structuring human rights. Emotion relates us to our environment and mediates our social interactions with others. These interactions shape our values and behaviors from which we acquire a sense of rights and responsibilities. Underpinning this sense are real emotive processes which serve as the ontological foundations from which human rights norms and practices emerge. Because these real emotive mechanisms mediate our complex cultural interactions, rights practices emerge in different ways to reflect particular cultural values. As a result, my ontological approach can explain how human rights are naturally real while the practice of human rights are simultaneously culturally relative.