Tinkering [human rights, contemporary slaveholders, protest drones]

What fun to be asked about one’s own research! After finishing a PhD in sociology (Notre Dame, 2013) I took a job at a School of Public Policy in Europe. Best move ever. In what follows I sketch the three main veins of inquiry that have kept me busy recently.

A human rights approach to the contemporary anti-slavery movement
At present I am engaged in three primary lines of inquiry. The first involves the development of a human rights approach to contemporary slavery and human trafficking. A decade in the contemporary anti-slavery movement convinced me that current thinking within the movement was driven by Christian evangelical’s conceptualizations of salvation (here). But what’s the positive alternative? I initially sketched this out with one of my mentors (Alison Brysk) in a co-edited volume—From Human Trafficking to Human Rights (Penn 2012, here)—and developed more fully in two journal articles.

The first of these articles  (here) makes the argument that the contemporary anti-slavery movement is in fact the world’s first and oldest social movement effort, and that it is comprised of four distinct waves, troughs, and a unique abeyance structure (I hope to make Verta Taylor proud!). I then argue that there are six different ways the movement has framed trafficking. This is too many and I suggest cutting it down to one: a human rights approach to contemporary slavery. In a second article I argue that the contemporary anti-slavery movement has an impoverished notion of freedom. Across each of these pieces I have argued that an emphasis on rescue undermines our understanding resistance. Likewise, “rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration are critical, but so is representation in political, economic and cultural spaces.”

Taking social movement targets seriously
I have moved on from this initial line of inquiry to focus on social movement targets (here). My sense is that this is an important gap in our understanding of a critical actor in the movement process. Early funding from the National Science Foundation and the Kellogg School of International Studies (Notre Dame) allowed me to turn my attention to contemporary slaveholders in rural India. There I conducted interviews with 150 individuals and focus group discussions with an additional 150 individuals in 16 communities that had high levels of bonded labor. Human rights groups staged interventions, slaveholders were challenged, and I conducted interviews with relevant stakeholders.

This fieldwork has resulted in a book manuscript and article. In both pieces I argue that it is important to understand how movement targets experience collective action and demands for rights. Recent scholarship has broadened from a near-exclusive focus on challenges to the state to include a range of other institutions, yet collective challenges to private wrongs are often overlooked. There is reason to believe that structural factors and cultural practices limit targets’ ability to respond effectively with violence or appeals to the status quo. I also argue that scholarship on movement adversaries has disproportionately emphasized state repression and countermobilization while overlooking less confrontational responses. These include continuing the targeted practice, superficial adaptation to appear compliant, and resigning oneself to collective action and quitting. The ability to choose amongst these options is contingent on economic, social, and political resources. Rights violators lacking those resources quit. While the powerful do what they will, it is rarely under conditions of their own choosing.

This argument has found a receptive audience more generally. Movement targets will be the theme of the CBSM mini-conference in Chicago in 2015 as well as a future MobilizingIdeas forum with leading movement scholars weighing in on the topic. The Journal of Human Trafficking has invited me to guest-edit a special issue on traffickers and slaveholders (call for papers here). I hope these projects will cumulatively advance our understanding of a critical actor in the collective action process. Movement targets matter. It takes two to tango.

Drones for the greater good
The third and most recent line of research explores the opportunities new technology affords social movements. In early 2014 I started a drone lab (here) to focus on the ways “drones” are used by movement actors as they work to hold both businesses and governments accountable. Social Movement Drones. It turns out we know very little about how this technology will affect movements. In both the popular press (Slate) and more academic spaces (Columbia Journal of International Affairs, forthcoming) I have argued that sensible legislation will curb abuse while encouraging journalists, movements and citizens to use this new technology for the public good.

More practically, I am working with a team of graduate students at the School of Public Policy to use drone-based imagery to update the classic crowd estimation methods originally proposed in the late sixties (video). This early effort has expanded into more complex questions about swarm technology, crowd flow estimation and a host of related ethical conundrums. Recent large-scale protests here in Budapest have provided an opportunity to collaborate with local movement actors in documenting some of the largest collective action events in the country’s history (GoodDroneLab).

While it seems somewhat ridiculous to briefly run through three different projects in such a short space, my hope is that it highlights some of the rewards in being curious. I entered academia because I wanted to try to answer interesting questions alongside smart people. My hope is that ten years from now finds me in the same position: tinkering. Well, tinkering and a patent, I’ve always wanted a patent.

*featured photograph of drone and monument taken by Stefan Roch.

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Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

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