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Testimony and Human Rights

posted 18 Jun 2013, 23:21 by Fiona Cram   [ updated 4 Jan 2015, 21:10 ]

This posting continues my contemplation of the use of testimony as a research method and, in particular, what sort of analysis we should undertake in order to make our work research rather than just the re-presentation of participants’ experiences. Ian Patel has recently written about ‘The role of testimony and testimonial analysis in human rights advocacy and research’ in State Crime: Journal of International State Crime Initiative. What I take away from his paper, which I describe more below, is the need for researchers to work within the worldview of those providing their testimony while at the same time facilitating their analysis of their own social, cultural and political positioning within their society.

Patel highlights the ‘narrative turn’ in social science that has seen increased interest in and use of narrative-based research methodologies over the past 30 years, including testimony. He then critiques the use of testimony in human rights research, with testimony described as a first-person account of “extreme experience in conflict situations” (p.2).

“At particular issue in this article is the reliance on “marginalized”, “silenced”, “oppressed” narratives in the theory and practice of human rights, and the uses to which such narratives are directed” (p.3).

Patel is clear that he is not wanting to undermine testimony as a methodology but rather interrogate the interpretation and practical use of testimonies within human rights. His core question is:

“Can Western academics and practitioners reasonably hope to engage with the narratives of their respondents in a way that is dialogic as opposed to conscribing or prescriptive, yet at the same time empirically valid?” (p.3).

Patel critiques the use of testimony within human rights research by questioning the underlying epistemic assumptions of this research. Wilson (2008, p.33) writes that epistemology addresses the question, ‘How do I know what is real?’, with the answer being limited by the questioner’s ontological assumptions about the nature of reality and what can be known. Patel is therefore challenging assumptions about examining human rights testimonies from within a western worldview of what is real. He describes these assumptions as both false and ‘ideologically encoded’.

“When human rights researchers and advocates utilize testimony evidence, however, they ferry its knowledge and curate its meaning, and in doing so trammel the narrative accounts of others with their own normative understanding. The epistemology of testimony as understood by many practitioners and experts tends to mask this process of collecting, filtering, and translating” (p.4-5).

The epistemological assumptions listed by Patel (Table 1, p.10) are political (e.g., “Testimony speaks truth to power, thereby promoting social justice”), social (e.g., “Testimony gives verbal form to identity”), and psychological (e.g., “Testimony promotes individual healing”). As such, Patel argues that testimony is often used within human rights advocacy to endorse the existing human rights ‘commonsense’ or normative discourse. In other words, testimonies are pulled out of their own worldview or epistemic roots and fitted to a western worldview of human rights.

“…human rights advocates often (wittingly or unwittingly) reproduce and perpetuate liberal human rights norms in the act of “giving voice” to the narratives of others” (p.12).

Even though their stories are used to evidence human rights claims, Patel states it is unlikely that those providing testimony will also participate in the interpretation of testimonial evidence and the formulation of these claims. He cites Fricker (2009, p.148) in calling this an inequity in the distribution of “the shared resources of social interpretation” (p.15). Patel goes on to further discussion of human rights advocacy, and concludes by calling for “an epistemology that is not only faithful to the social world presented in the narratives of victims, but one that is framed to advance victims’ consciousness about and participation in the political meaning of their narratives” (p. 28).


Fricker, M. (2009). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Patel, Ian (2012) 'The Role of Testimony and Testimonial Analysis in Human Rights Advocacy and Research' in State Crime: Journal of the International State Crime Initiative, London, Pluto Press, 1.2, 2012.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony. Indigenous research methods. Black Point, Nova Scotia, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

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Testimony, 4 April 2013

A testimony to education, 5 April 2013

Testimonies of forced removal, 16 April 2013

Oral Testimony Project, Panos Institute, 17 May 2013

'Village Journey' - testimonies of assimilation by legislation, 10 August 2012