Sunday, October 8, 2017

Quantity or Quality? 3/6

Beyond the need for better evidence through research, important questions remain about what kind of evidence is valued amongst the anti-trafficking community. As the above discussion suggests, the questions to which evidence is brought to bear are undeniably oriented foremost to quantification, particularly through measurement of scale and the increasing reliance on indicators to inform measurements. Whether through the publication of accurate numbers or, more commonly, estimates, there now exists an almost obsessive tendency to know the scale, proportion, size, major sectors and geographical concentrations of human trafficking. One of the most common iterations emerging in recent years from the anti-trafficking community is the question of scale. In every context where I have conducted research I have been repeatedly asked by governments, NGOs and members of the public the following questions: How many trafficked people do you think there are in the country? Do you know where they come from? Is the problem mainly to do with the sex industry? If I respond that I do not know (as we are seeking understanding about ‘hidden populations’), my value as a researcher is diminished. The questions that make research valuable are, in other words, increasingly oriented to quantification and designing better methods to elicit reasonably accurate estimates. Hence, we now have organisations like Walk Free Foundation with their Global Slavery Index estimating that 45.8 million persons are held in slavery10 and the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s estimate of 21 million forced labourers worldwide. Many have cautioned against the value of such estimates,11 as does Anne Gallagher in this issue.

The usefulness of global estimates is taken up in the debate section of this special issue, with the question of whether global trafficking prevalence data indeed advances the fight against human trafficking. Two of the contributions argue in the positive (David and Robinson et al.) and two in the negative (Feingold and Dottridge). Beyond their arguments, we might also suggest that despite—or perhaps because of—the wholesale quantification of human trafficking evidence and the increasing invocation of indicators they are worthy of more critical introspection than they have generally been accorded to date. It is important to consider the arguments of recent critical work in the social sciences on the increasing role of measurement and use of indicators in understanding complex social phenomena, including in the arenas of poverty/ development and human rights. Merry summarised these concerns with the following: ‘The deployment of statistical measures tends to replace political debate with technical expertise. The growing reliance on indicators provides an example of the dissemination of the corporate form of thinking and governance into broader social spheres.’12 As she elaborates, ‘a key dimension of the power of indicators is their capacity to convert complicated, contextually variable phenomena into unambiguous, clear, and impersonal measures. They represent a technology of producing readily accessible and standardized forms of knowledge … Indicators submerge local particularities and idiosyncrasies into universal categories, thus generating knowledge that is standardized and comparable across nations and regions.’13 Indicators, in other words, can conceal as much as they reveal. Thus, as I argue elsewhere, indicators can have the effect of excluding important dimensions and experiences of, in this case, human trafficking or disciplining these dimensions. This occurs when indicators obscure the co-constitution of different elements of exploitative labour relations. What is often concealed by indicators, in other words, is how the elements that inform them can combine in ways that are productive to the emergence of unfreedom in labour situations.14

Critiques also centre on the key role of measurement and statistics as forms of governmentality,15 producing contexts for the biopolitical management of subjects, knowable to the anti-trafficking community as interventions for managing victims, vulnerable populations and perpetrators. For example, indicators of human trafficking enable migrants to be sorted into trafficked (underpinned by normative assumptions about gender, vulnerability, exploitation and the need for protection), and non-trafficked (conversely, underpinned by notions of indomitability and exclusion from protection). These concerns about the power of indicators to ‘sort’ migrants into categories of deserving and undeserving have been made by a number of commentators in relation to human trafficking and forced labour16 and migration more generally. Casas-Cortes, for example, suggests that the quantification of migration (where migrants settle, their mode of arrival and so on) can be understood as efforts to ‘render knowledge of migration as an object of governmentality’.17

In sum, the privileging of quantification in research with trafficked persons and indeed on any aspect of human trafficking is perhaps understandable as the discipline is increasingly fraught with demands from policy-makers, bureaucrats, donors, the media and even civil society to justify claims. However, these claims are often construed in narrow terms that direct researchers’ efforts in the ways they articulate their findings and the questions they ask. Where governments, and sometimes international organisations and NGOs carry out research themselves a healthy scepticism abounds as to the impartiality of the data produced. Efforts to look for better ways to estimate trafficking prevalence should not, of course, be abandoned but merely tempered in favour of a more balanced focus on different types of data, information and questions that move beyond the current preoccupation with prevalence.

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

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