Graduate Citings: DURAPS Edition with Leanne McCallum

Today we’re excited to share with you the research of DURAPS presenter Leanne McCallum. Leanne’s presentation will uncover the history of anti-trafficking efforts in the US to demonstrate how certain stakeholders and ideologies have (for better or for worse) driven the anti-trafficking narrative. Leanne’s goal is to have her scholarship aid State Department policy makers in reforming the Trafficking in Persons Report to reflect a more accurate representation of anti-trafficking efforts around the world.

Researcher: I am a 2nd year graduate student at the Korbel School of International Studies studying International Studies, with concentrations in human rights and human trafficking.

DURAPS Presentation: Title- Historical Analysis and Critique Of the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report

In undergrad I studied International Relations and had a vague interest in gender and refugees. I participated in a month-long study abroad course in Vietnam and Thailand to study political change and modern political issues facing Southeast Asia. While I was in Thailand, I saw firsthand the way that vulnerable populations like migrants and refugees can be exploited by human trafficking. Particularly, there was a night when we visited Soi Cowboy, a notorious street in Bangkok known for its prostitution and connection to sex traffickers, where we saw women and trans women (known as Kathoey or Ladyboys) being openly exploited in a commercial sex establishment. Though I realize now that my understanding of human trafficking during my first trip to Thailand was relatively shallow and misinformed, it was a catalyst for my subsequent anti-trafficking advocacy and research.

My research focus is on anti-human trafficking policy, both domestically and abroad. I generally focus on the US or Southeast Asia, while paying particular attention to Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). The specific project that I will be presenting at DURAPS analyzes the U.S. Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report– an annual report on global country-level anti-trafficking efforts that is conducted by the U.S. Department of State. The project includes an historical analysis of American anti-trafficking policy, the foundations of the TIP Report itself and how it has evolved since it was created, and the major critiques the TIP Report is facing today.

The intent of my research project is to unpack the history of anti-trafficking efforts in the US to demonstrate how certain stakeholders and ideologies have (for better or for worse) driven the anti-trafficking narrative. Although my research paper itself has not been published, I have published several academic blogs related to this topic on the Human Trafficking Center (HTC) blog. My ultimate goal is to have my research help the State Department reform the TIP Report to reflect a more accurate representation of anti-trafficking efforts around the world.

Biggest Challenges: There are two main challenges associated with my research.

  1. The first is that there is so little academically rigorous, methodologically sound information available about human trafficking. Since human trafficking is a hidden market- because it is an illicit market, and because the victims are generally legal vulnerable populations or hidden populations- there is little verifiable data available. This means that I often am faced with a difficult question: do I utilize flawed data to inform my conclusions, or do I attempt to do the research myself?
  2. The second challenge is overcoming the pervasive misunderstandings surrounding human trafficking. This human rights issue was not recognized until the late 1990s, so there isn’t a lot of information available. As such, there are many misunderstandings about what human trafficking is and who is affected by it. For example, people often talk about US domestic human trafficking using the “perfect victim” paradigm. This is the idea that there is a specific type of person (generally a white, American girl who is sex trafficked) that people associate with human trafficking. In reality, the people most vulnerable to human trafficking are people of color and people of marginalized identities such as LGBTQ+ or compromised migratory status. This is just one example of a misunderstanding that informs anti-trafficking policy and inadvertently causes further harm to trafficking victims.

Collaborators: I work with the Human Trafficking Center as the Human Trafficking Index Project Manager. I also am a Student Event Coordinator with the Korbel Office of Career and Professional Development.

Research Advice: My advice is simple and comes from the HTC’s Director, Professor Claude d’Estrée: match your passion with your academic rigor. Your passion and interest in a topic is an important component of your research, and will help carry you through the difficult times of the research process. However, academic rigor is crucial. We cannot accurately represent the populations that we seek to support if we are conducting research that is methodologically flawed. Question the sources that you use. Are you using it because it agrees with your opinion? Or are you using it because it has clear research design and has a sufficient literature review, research background, and/or a transparent bias? Also, if you are focused on a specific population or a human rights issue, I suggest that you utilize the voices of survivors to inform your conclusions. If you exclude their voices from your research you are missing a key component of holistically understanding the nature of the problem and the solutions.

I can’t wait to share more about my research with you all at DURAPS!

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