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Follow the evidence: our series on 'research and representation'

BTS editors introduce the research methods stream of our ‘possible futures’ project, arguing that a stronger and more accurate knowledge base is necessary to advance advocacy efforts.

Excerpts from 'The Prospects and Perils of Quantification', held in October 2015 at the University of Sheffield.

Over the last year, we at Beyond Trafficking and Slavery (BTS) have published a string of critiques exposing the questionable research methods, phony ‘statistics’, and inaccurate analyses currently propping up misleading depictions of modern slavery, forced labour, and human trafficking. These articles have documented a widespread and fundamental problem: governments, activists, corporations and other actors routinely make claims and develop policies that, from a methodological and evidentiary standpoint, don’t stack up. In particular, the research and evidence base underpinning new national laws and policies remains dangerously thin.

News stories, NGO reports, and even academic papers too often simply recycle outdated, flawed facts and figures—such as there being “27 million slaves in the world today”—even though fact-checks routinely reveal these ‘facts’ to be false. The Global Slavery Index, for example, continues to be cited as accurate despite the “significant and critical weaknesses” in its methodology and widespread concern about its validity.

The ongoing use of this misinformation and bad data is frequently justified as being ‘better than nothing’. Specifically, apologists claim that bad data at least has the merit of raising public awareness. According to this argument, policymakers only want hard numbers while consumers need sensationalist stories to spur them into action. The awareness-raising potential of bad data is thus seen to outweigh the dangers pertaining to scientific inaccuracy.

Yet scholarship suggests that this argument is spurious at best. For one thing, there is no evidence whatsoever that raising awareness around the ‘wrong’ data leads to the ‘right’ emancipatory outcomes. For another, as myriad BTS contributors have shown, the spread of inaccurate information has the potential to negatively impact and endanger the very people targeted for ‘saving’ by interventions, policies, and projects. For example, one recent study of ‘rescued’ sex workers found that the NGOs ‘liberating’ them subsequently subjected them to more exploitative labour relations than they had previously been experiencing. Organisations ranging from the United Nations to the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women have been warning policymakers about these unintended consequences for over a decade. But little progress has been made.

Our selective and limited knowledge about severe exploitation and unfree labour creates a fragmented evidence base. This, in turn, fuels partial, inaccurate, or irresponsible representations of these phenomena in the media and in policy. As Julia O’Connell Davidson and Joel Quirk put it, “Popular representations of trafficking and slavery have too often hurt—rather than helped—efforts to both understand and combat global exploitation, discrimination, and vulnerability.” Representations of ‘victims’ need to be accurate and the people concerned need to be empowered to represent themselves, because how we represent people conditions how we think about them, see them, and engage them. Representation is power, and it is structured by gender, race, age, nationality, and class. All of this needs taking into account, especially if we are to stop the vigilante abolitionists from attempting to ‘liberate’ people who don’t want to be saved or do not want to be saved in those ways.

The need for better research and representation

Three interlocking problems must be placed front and centre throughout the forthcoming conversation. First, there is a serious shortage of independent, rigorous, and ethically conducted research on trafficking, forced labour, and the practices associated with ‘modern slavery’. Second, there is a tendency among opinion shapers to prefer dubious statistics and inaccurate information over openly acknowledging and addressing existing knowledge gaps. Third, when data is generated that contradicts dominant popular representations—particularly those mobilised by advocacy organisations or governments—it tends to be discarded from the evidence base. Individuals and organisations genuinely committed to eradicating contemporary trafficking, forced labour, and slavery must confront these three problems head-on. 

Launched today as part of BTS ‘possible futures’ project, this new series on research and representations will provide a public forum for discussion, debate, and practical advice on how to take things forward. Our authors will consider how to strengthen the evidence base on contemporary exploitation and unfree labour, as well as how to surmount institutional reluctance to dissenting ideas in order to successfully impact policy.

Key questions will include: How can we conduct reliable research on the exploitation and injustice understood as trafficking, slavery, or forced labour? How can we better enter the shadows of the illegal economy, or circumvent the barriers that powerful corporations or states place our way—especially within supply chains—to carry out this research? How can we collect evidence and conduct research that is ethical, ensuring that our work does no harm? How can we generate research that avoids the tropes and traps of the ‘white savoir industrial complex’? What cutting edge methods can be used to overcome the core challenges of forced labour research—namely that is it ethically complex, expensive, politically sensitive, and practically challenging to carry out? Last but certainly not least, how can we trace problematic practices back to the rich and powerful actors creating the conditions for vulnerability in the first place, and hold them to account?

In addition to advancing strategies towards innovative research on the causes, consequences, and experiences of exploitation and domination, the series will also offer some practical guidelines for NGOs, activists, journalists and others who represent exploitation and the exploited in the media.

The problems documented above will only be overcome through a combination of political will, radical and creative thinking, and the investment of substantial resources. We invite you to help us mobilise this energy and thinking by engaging with our series over the coming months.

About the authors

Genevieve LeBaron is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, Chair of the Yale University Working Group on Modern Slavery, and a UK ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow. You can follow her on twitter @glebaron

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research focuses upon slavery and abolition, human mobility and human rights, repairing historical wrongs, and the history and politics of sub-Saharan Africa. Joel is currently a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where he serves as Rapporteur. Your can follow him on twitter at @joelquirk.


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