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Quantitative Human Rights  

Amanda M. Murdie and K. Anne Watson

Quantitative human rights scholarship is increasing. New data sets and methods have helped researchers examine a broad array of research questions concerning the many human rights laid out in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related documents. These innovations have enabled quantitative human rights scholarship to better connect to existing qualitative and theoretical literatures and have improved advocacy efforts. Quantitative scholars have primarily operationalized the concept of human rights through the use of four kinds of data: events data (such as counts of abuses or attacks), standards-based data (such as coded scores), survey data, and socioeconomic statistics (such as maternal mortality or malnutrition rates). Each type of data poses particular challenges and weaknesses for analyses, including the biased undercounts of events data and the potential for human error or biases in survey or standards-based data. The human rights field has also seen a systematic overrepresentation of analyses of physical integrity rights, which have fewer component parts to measure. Furthermore, qualitative scholars have pointed out that it is difficult for quantitative data to capture the process of human rights improvement over time. The creation of new technologies and methodologies has allowed quantitative researchers to lessen the impact of these data weaknesses: Latent variables allow scholars to create aggregate measures from a variety of classes of quantitative data, as well as understandings from qualitative scholars, leading to the creation of new measures for rights other than physical integrity rights. New machine learning techniques and algorithms are giving scholars access to greater amounts of data than ever before, improving event counts. Expert surveys are pulling new voices into the data-generating process and incorporating practitioners into data processes that are too often restricted to academics. Experimental studies are furthering the field’s understanding of the processes underlying advocacy. Drawing on the lessons of past work, future scholars can use quantitative methods to improve the field’s theoretical and practical understandings of human rights.