Faculty Spotlight: Dr. David Cingranelli, Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute

Dr. Cingranelli is a member of the Political Science department and also a co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Binghamton University. He has a passion for social justice and has spent years teaching and researching human rights-related issues, and has been recognized for pioneering the use of the scientific method in human rights study. In his Faculty Spotlight interview, he discusses his personal career journey and all the resources that Binghamton University has for students interested in human rights and social justice.

*Answers have been edited for length and clarity*

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your career journey and why you decided to pursue human rights?

Dr. Cingranelli: I must say that I stumbled into my interest in human rights. What I began with was a passion for social justice, and I began thinking that I wanted to be a lawyer when I was in college. I wanted to either be a constitutional lawyer or a criminal justice lawyer to work on social justice issues. So, I see the link between social justice and human rights as being very close. I think that most of the things people call social justice, like racial equality, are also human rights concerns. So, the first thing I would like to say to students, is if they come to their careers with the hope that they will do something with their lives that will make the lives of other people better, and make the world a more inclusive and more just place, they are already interested in human rights. I changed my mind when I was a junior and decided to go to graduate school and get a PhD, and once in graduate school I decided to study issues of social justice, and my first project was about race and class discrimination in American citites. It was right around the time I got tenure that Jimmy Carter was president, and he was the first President of the United States to say that human rights at home and around the world was going to be a major objective of the United States. And that attracted me to the human rights movement, and I changed my research focus from being a domestic US focus to looking at human rights around the world. Looking back on it, I think I was involved with human rights from the very beginning. I continue to teach almost exclusively about human rights and political science, and I am a co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Binghamton. 

Q: So you talked a little bit just now about how your interests evolved from only domestic to also international, but can you elaborate a little more on how your research evolved over time and talk about your current research?

Dr. Cingranelli: Sure. My interest in human rights is in building general theories of why some governments respect human rights more than others and what the societal consequences of having respect for human rights are. So, all of my research is designed to build general theories about why practices vary around the world. The particular theoretical arguments I am exploring now with my students involve the argument , to a large extent, the particular human rights protections countries offer reflect the particular human rights issues that citizens care about the most. If citizens don’t demand a lot of human rights protections, they don’t get it. And if we believe that’s true, then it says that if we care about human rights, we have to teach people what they are, what governments should be doing to fully respect them, and that they should care about them. In the last article I wrote with one of my doctoral students, we argued that a lot could be accomplished if we could just promote stronger demand for general equality around the world, because that would lead to more equal protection of men and women’s rights, and that would create a lot of good human rights consequences down the road. So, my career involves using the scientific method to demonstrate the truth of my arguments. I was one of the pioneers in applying science to the science of human rights, and now it is widely done. A lot of scholars also approach human rights from a philosophical perspective, and I respect them and get a lot of my ideas from them. 

Q: For students interested in pursuing careers related to human rights, what is your advice on getting into the field?

Dr. Cingranelli: I think that what we have today for students interested in the field is a curriculum that allows you to get your feet wet. My advice for students would be to choose some courses where you learn what the major international human rights treaties are and movements have been. There are three places in the university that have tried to organize a curriculum around various aspects of human rights. Those three are the Human Rights Institute, which I co-direct with Professor Alexandra Moore of English, the Institute of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (IGMAP), which is directed by Professor Max Pensky of Philosophy and Professor Nadia Rubaii of the College of Community and Public Affairs, and most recently the Kaschak Institute for Justice for Women and Girls. They have physical locations on campus, so IGMAP is located on the ground floor of Library North, and the Human Rights Institute and the Kaschak Institute are located together in new offices in Academic A. I would like students to be aware of those locations and visit them once we get back to normal student life. Binghamton University also has web resources that students can use as they develop their interest in human rights. 

  1. Student Resources and Course Offerings Page: We have undergraduate and graduate programs in human rights. The Masters of Science in Human Rights is pretty new. It is led by Dr. Suzy Lee in the College of Community and Public Affairs, and has a focus that is both international and domestic. Professor Lee’s own interests are in human trafficking and she gets students involved in her own research, and there are other faculty involved as well. For undergraduate students, the core courses in human rights allow students to choose among a menu of courses. We offer the core courses once a year and the electives are offered based on the research interests of our faculty. For example, Professor Joshua Price may offer a course on the rights of prisoners this year. These are not just for students in the human rights minor. Any interested students can take courses in human rights.
  2. Research Projects: The next thing I want to say to students is to look for opportunities to get involved in research and internships associated with their particular interests in human rights. If I was getting involved in human rights today, I would select a few areas of interest and develop expertise on those things. I am interested in worker rights, and there are a number of projects at this university for worker rights issues. In addition to my coursework, I would have found projects and faculty so I could write papers tailored to worker rights. Then, I would have looked for internships, maybe with a labor organization. You could be interested in health issues for people who are low income, or environmental racism. If you got involved in those issues, you could then seek internships where you could further develop your understanding of those issues, and the places you approach for an internship would realize how your experience and academic background could help them. On the site, there is a list of some of the research projects going on in the Human Rights Institute. Students should take a look at this list. For every project there are faculty leaders and student participants, and you can look at the site or contact Dr. Moore for more information. The Kaschak Institute has projects focused on improving the status of women and girls and IGMAP has projects relating to the prevention of mass atrocity.
  3. Summer Internships: We have an internship for working with the Human Rights Quarterly, which is a scholarly journal located at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. It is the oldest Human Rights Institute in the United States and their journal is very interesting. We have had students working with this group for the past two summers, either in-person or remote due to COVID-19. For anyone interested in writing, research, or human rights law, this is a terrific internship. The other one I want to mention is in England, at the Sheffield Hallam University at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice. That one is also really interesting, and those students work in a law clinic that helps refugees on family reunification and citizenship issues. The students that have come back from that internship have raved about it. In the city of Binghamton, the American Civic Association has an internship that allows students to work with recent immigrants and refugees who are in Binghamton. There is a housing rights internship program that recently got started that is offering a paid internship this summer. And that is just one organization on campus designed to draw students in, allow them the opportunity to develop expertise in human rights areas, and helps them find work opportunities. And this is not exhaustive. There are other organizations who deal with prisoner rights in Broome County, and Citizen Action of New York which deals with general poverty issues in Broome County, that students could easily get involved with. 
  4. Connect with Alumni: Students ought to learn about the alumni from Binghamton who are involved in human rights. Maybe the alumni office could help you identify them. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries is the majority whip in the US House of Representatives, who was a student of mine actually, and he is involved in a number of human rights issues. One is criminal justice reform. Another alumnus, Alexandra Kane, is working for the Auschwitz Institute for Genocide Prevention. Owen Pell is a lawyer working on trying to recover stolen art during the Haulocaust and return it to its rightful owners. He actually did a TED Talk on that issue. Students can also access Mentor Match to connect with alumni. 


Q: What do you think are the most important skills that are required to be successful in your field?

Dr. Cingranelli: I am a big supporter of liberal arts education because I believe that the most important skills are to think critically, to be imaginative and creative, to write really well, and to communicate well, particularly to be able to speak in front of groups. These are necessary to have a leadership role in society, and I hope that everyone who enters Binghamton will have such a role at some point in their lives. Now, if you wanted to get involved in a specialized area of human rights, other skills might be necessary, such as quantitative analysis, statistical skills, and research skills, but not every specialization requires that set of skills.

By Julia Sullivan
Julia Sullivan Marketing Graduate Assistant