Friday, October 6, 2017

Better Research? 2/6

Given the recognition that meaningful evidence on human trafficking is both sparse and prone to manipulation, and that the knowledge has largely been filled by wild claims emerging from the media, NGOs and governments, amongst others, much energy has consequently been spent on attempts to better design research so it produces more meaningful data: data that can be compared, that more deeply engages with individual experiences and that enables estimates to be made. In 2005 a special issue of the journal International Migration critically discussed the key challenges in conducting research with trafficked persons and other key stakeholders. Issues of ethics, access, context of disclosure, remuneration for research participants, and a range of related concerns emerged as impacting both the opportunity to conduct research and the rigour with which research can be conducted.5 Having attended several subsequent conferences and workshops on research in human trafficking, I have seen very little that is new emerge beyond the issues outlined in 2005, apart from the scholarly investment in more elaborate and thoughtful discussions of ethical issues in research and ‘evidence gathering’.6

One area that begs further attention in questions about evidence concerns how trafficking research can benefit from approaches in social sciences that take seriously notions of critical reflexivity, positionality and power relations that accompany research design, fieldwork and undoubtedly the analysis of data produced. Yet in the vast majority of research reports on human trafficking I have come across—which now number well in the hundreds—these concepts are all but vanquished. There appears no time (or perhaps value) to invest in processes that recognise our role as researchers in not only shaping research design but also outcomes. Critical, post-structuralist and feminist optics in the research process, in other words, seem to have a limited validity in many (particularly commissioned/ non-academic) studies of human trafficking, despite the increasingly prominent place of such concepts in the broader social sciences approaches to research. In the field of international development, for example, a large body of research on participatory, critical and feminist approaches has emerged over the past decade, offering to correct the self-assured objectivity of some foundational approaches to poverty and marginalisation in important ways.7 These approaches are valuable not only because of the methodological reflections they seek, but also because they take seriously different scales (the body/ the everyday) and subjects (migrants, victims and survivors) of human security that have been marginalised in traditional state-centric approaches to security.8 Such a perspective enables researchers to think about evidence in novel ways, raising hitherto neglected questions, such as what is the impact of heightened immigration restrictions on the vulnerability of migrant workers, including sexual labourers? And how do bureaucratic classifications of and responses to human trafficking affect the agency and voice of trafficked persons themselves?

Investment in all aspects of research is necessary to generate ethically and methodologically rigorous evidence where co-learning by different types of stakeholders conducting research on trafficking is encouraged and supported. Ethnographic studies should be particularly encouraged; a quick scope of the literature over the past fifteen years reveals only a handful of ethnographic, book-length treatments of human trafficking and anti-trafficking.9 There is no reason why qualitative, longer-term, ethnographic studies such as these should not be amenable to discussions about evidence in the same vein as quantitative research.

Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 8, PP 1-13 -

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