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Human Trafficking Center

Weaknesses in the Current Counter-Trafficking Public Policy Literature


May 2014


By Andy Brienzo, HTC Research Fellow

As one of the Human Trafficking Center’s Research Fellows, I’ve been reviewing the existing academic literature on counter-trafficking public policy in an attempt to determine where it ought to head in the future. While the literature on this subject has certainly progressed in recent years, a few weaknesses remain.

First, definitional issues remain a persistent issue in the literature. Maggy Lee, Yvonne Zimmerman and Janie Chuang point out that some authors espouse an artificially narrow definition of human trafficking, equating it with the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation and ignoring forced labor, domestic servitude and other forms of trafficking. Others, according to Julia O’Connell Davidson and Elzbieta Gozdziak and Elizabeth Collett, have adopted a definition that is overly expansive, removing agency from sex workers and defining all forms of sex work as human trafficking. Gozdziak and Collett assert that others have defined human trafficking as nothing more than human smuggling, a form of irregular migration. While a relatively sophisticated understanding of human trafficking seems to have proliferated to a significant degree among scholars, getting the definition of human trafficking correct is the obvious first step toward doing rigorous and useful research on counter-trafficking public policy.

Next, as pointed out by Andrea Di Nicola, the same methodological approaches appear to be consistently utilized in both the counter-trafficking public policy literature and the broader human trafficking literature: surveys, such as those carried out by Amy Farrell et al.; life histories, as demonstrated by the work of Benjamin Perrin; and case studies, which have been produced by Kevin Bales and many others. Much of this work has been done on single cases, making it difficult to critically evaluate the generalizability of the results. Additionally, large-n quantitative studies, made difficult by the intentionally hidden nature of human trafficking, are rare. These things certainly do not preclude the completion of rigorous and useful research on human trafficking or counter-trafficking policy, but it may be time for researchers to begin employing more varied research designs to a greater degree, such as that which was utilized by Nancy Scheper-Hughes when examining the under-researched topic of organ trafficking.

In addition, the literature contains little research on subnational-level counter-trafficking public policy. National-level policy analyses, such as those carried out by Anthony DeStefano and Gunilla Ekberg, among others, dominate the literature at the expense of analyses of subnational jurisdictions such as US states. This is surprising because, as pointed out by Stephanie Mariconda, Shashi Irani Kara, Melynda Barnhart and Ellen L. Buckwalter et al., counter-trafficking efforts in a federal country cannot be effective if they rely almost exclusively on the national government. We could benefit greatly from a deeper understanding of the creation and effectiveness of subnational-level counter-trafficking policies.

Finally, authors writing on counter-trafficking public policy seem to constantly feel the need to convince their readers that human trafficking exists and that it is problematic. This means the same ground is repeatedly covered and that graphic, emotionally compelling stories that offer little in the way of the advancement of the field continue to fill the pages of the literature. The problematic nature of human trafficking is well-established and has been for some time. Efforts to demonstrate the general existence of human trafficking should therefore be left out of future scholarship. An exception to this lies in studies that attempt to establish the specific forms or extent of trafficking that exist in particular areas in an effort to craft more effective policy in those areas.

While the literature has grown in recent years, there is still room for improvement. After all, high-quality research on human trafficking and counter-trafficking public policy in particular is crucial for providing policymakers with the information that they need to implement policies capable of effectively fighting human trafficking.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC

What do you think? Have you noticed flaws in counter-trafficking academic literature or in counter-trafficking media coverage?




2 Responses to “Weaknesses in the Current Counter-Trafficking Public Policy Literature”

  1. A Year of Research-Blogging on Human Trafficking | Human Trafficking Center

    […] Weaknesses in the Current Counter-Trafficking Public Policy Literature  by Andy Brienzo […]

  2. Monthly Human Trafficking Links: May - Human Trafficking CenterHuman Trafficking Center

    […] research fellow Andy Brienzo analyzes the state of counter-trafficking literature. Andy notes definitional issues within human trafficking, as well as problematic methodological […]

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