Ethnography and Policy: What Do We Know About ‘Trafficking’?

Advanced Seminar

April 17–21, 2005

Ethnography ought to focus not on melodramatic renderings of “white slavery,” but on careful research and fact-gathering. Contending , however, with the complex and wide-ranging realities of today’s trafficked persons is a daunting task, said Carole S. Vance, chair of April’s advanced seminar on ethnography and policy. Although innocent victims may elicit sympathy, “their special innocence may make them poor representatives of the full range of women who suffer from abuse and exploitation in migration and sexual labor.”

Bringing together ethnographers and other experts who conducted research in Moldova, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia, India, the Philippines, and the U.S., seminar participants examined what is known about human “trafficking.” The word itself is controversial, Vance said, because it incorporates “elements of sexual and non-sexual labor, coercion, abusive conditions of work, migration, global inequality, gender, and sexuality.” With the emergence of human trafficking as a hot-button social issue, an overemphasis on the idea that women need protection diverts the attention of policy makers toward concerns with social purity, uncontrolled male lust, and women’s autonomy and away from driving forces like international labor markets and broader patterns of exploitation.

Ethnographers have tracked migrants, entertainers, sex workers, girls in debt bondage, mail-order brides, brothel workers, traders, and women working in near slavery. Other researchers interviewed legislators and administrators to find out how anti-trafficking laws are implemented.

The seminar participants included eight anthropologists, a political scientist, and an attorney, many of whom also work as human rights advocates. They argued for policy informed by ethnographic descriptions that reveal the complex relationship of human trafficking to globalization and inequality. They concluded that an accurate picture of “the flows of work, sex, money, and injustice that comprise ‘trafficking’ in the contemporary world” is needed before policy makers and humanitarian organizations can develop effective solutions.

Carole S. Vance, Chair Associate Clinical Professor and Director, Program for the Study of Sexuality, Gender, Health and Human Rights Hiss the Villain: Depicting Sex Trafficking
Alexia Bloch Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of British Columbia “Trafficking” and Labor Migration: Through the Lens of Moldovan Border-crossing
Denise Brennan Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Georgetown University Life After Trafficking to the United States
Sea Ling Cheng Assistant Professor, Women’s Studies, Wellesley College For Whose Good?: The “Successes” of Anti-trafficking Efforts in South Korea
Nicole Constable Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act: What Does It Have to Do with Trafficking?
David A. Feingold International Coordinator, HIV/AIDS and Trafficking Project, Culture Sector, UNESCO, Bangkok Virgin Territory: Ethnographic Insight, Public Policy, and the Trade in Minority Women in Southeast Asia
Alice M. Miller Assistant Professor, Department of Population and Family Health, Columbia University Trafficking Victims, Lost and Found
Penelope Saunders Executive Director, Different Avenues, Inc. Migrant Sex Workers Exposed! The Creation of Trafficking Policy in Australia
Svati Shah Assistant Professor, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, New York University Sex Work and Trafficking in India: Ethnography Illuminates Policy
Baerbel Uhl Researcher, Institute of Political Science, University of Leipzig Towards “Bad Habits” and Victimization: Trafficking and Its Production of Knowledge, State Responses and Legitimacy

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