Skip to main content

Social Anthropology:


Tobias Kelly

Tobias Kelly
Professor Tobias Kelly
Professor of Political and Legal Anthropology
3.23 18 Buccleuch Place Edinburgh UK EH8 9LN
+44 (131) 650 3986
Research Interests
Political and legal anthropology, Political violence, Pacifism, Human rights, Anthopology of Britain, Historical Anthropology, Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Currently on Research Leave

Biographical statement

Tobias Kelly's research interests include human rights, war and peace, and political and legal anthropology. He has carried out ethnographic and archival research in Israel/Palestine, the UK and at the UN. He received a PhD in Anthropology from the London School of Economics in 2003, and has worked at the Institute of Law of Birzeit University, the Crisis States Programme at the LSE, and the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University.

He is currently leading an ERC Consolidator Grant that looks at the practical and political issues raised by attempts to protect freedom of conscience. The research examines how claims of conscience are made culturally persuasive, at the meeting point of the apparently religious and secular, the intimate and the public. In doing so, it addresses questions of dissent and the politics of conviction. The wider project involves colleagues working on case studies from the UK, Sri Lanka and the former Soviet Union, as well as work on the role of conscience within the international human rights and humanitarian movement. His particular focus is on the history of claims of conscience in twentieth century Britain, starting with exemption from military service for socialist, anarchists and Christian pacifists, amongst others, and following through to examine the growth of modern human rights and humanitarianism, and the turn to legal claims of conscience by the religious right.

He is also continuing to work on issues related to torture and ill-treatment, with a particular interest in issues of evidence, as well as the relationships between human rights, poverty and inequality. Most recently, this has involved an ESRC/DfID funded project on the documentation of torture carried out in collaboration with researchers and practitioners in Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya and Denmark. More specifically, the Torture Documentation Project examined the issues involved in documenting torture and ill-treatment in countries marked by poverty and low institutional capacity. The work has sought to understand the ways in which the poor are often excluded from human rights work.  

He is editor of Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and International Development, and editor of the Ethnographies of Political Violence series with University of Pennsylvania Press.

For a full list of publications, including Open Access Versions, please see Edinburgh Research Explorer

Selected Publications


2012. This Side of Silence: Human Rights, Torture and the Recognition of Cruelty. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

2006. Law, Violence and Sovereignty among West Bank Palestinians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Selected Edited Collections

2018. Civility. Special Issue of Anthropological Theory (Co-edited with Sharika Thiranagama and Carlos Forment).

2015. The Clinic and the Court: Law, Medicine and Anthropology. Cambridge University Press. (Co-edited with Ian Harper and Akshay Khanna).

2010. Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy and the Ethics of State-Building. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (Co-edited with Sharika Thiranagama).

Selected Journal Articles

2018. 'A Divided Conscience: The Lost Convictions of Human Rights?', Public Culture 30(3).

2017. 'Torture and Ill-Treatment Under Perceived: Human Rights Documentation and the Poor', Human Rights Quarterly 39(2): 394-415 (co-authrored with S. Jensen, M. Andersen, C. Christiansen and J. Sharma).

2015. 'Citizenship, Cowardice and Freedom of Conscience: British Pacifists in the Second World War', Comparative Studies in Society and History 57(3): 694-722.

2012. 'Sympathy and Suspicion: Torture, Asylum and Humanity in the UK', (Malinowski Memorial Lecture). Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18(4): 253-268.

2011. 'What We Talk about When We Talk About Torture: A Review Essay', Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development 2(2): 327-343.

2011. 'The Cause of Human Rights: Doubts About Torture, Law and Ethics at the United Nations',  Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17(4): 728-744.

2009. 'The UN Commitee Against Torture: Human Rights Monitoring and the Legal Recognition of Torture', Human Rights Quarterly 31(3): 777-800.

2008. 'The Attractions of Accountancy: Living an Ordinary Life during the Second Palestinian Intifada', Ethnography 9(3): 351-376.

2006. 'Documented Lives: Fear and the Uncertainties of Law During the Second Palestinian Intifada', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11(1): 89-107.

2004. 'Returning Home: Law, Violence and Displacement Among West Bank Palestinians', PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 27(2): 95-112. 

Best Practice Guide

My colleague Anthony Good and I, with advice from a group of Immigration Judges, barristers and solicitors suggested by the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, have produced a guide for anthropologists and other 'country experts' who may be asked to write expert reports in connection with immigration and asylum appreals in the UK. Read and download it here.

(We welcome the reproduction of this publication for the purposes of representation, education and training, provided that no charge is made for use of the material and the source of the information is acknowledged.)

Topics interested in supervising

I am interested in supervising PhDs that look at human rights, political anthropology, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, political violence and pacifism.

If you are interested in being supervised by Tobias Kelly, please see the links below for more information:

PhD in Social Anthropology; PhD in International Development; MSc (R) Social Anthropology