Methodological debates in Human Rights research: a case study of human trafficking in South Africa

by Darshan Vigneswaran

Working Papers WP 12-07
April 2012
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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Debates over human trafficking are riddled with methodological dilemmas. Agencies with vested interests in the anti-trafficking agenda advance claims about numbers of victims, level of organized trafficking and scale of exploitation, but with limited data and using questionable techniques. Skeptics, pour water on these claims, by subjecting them to basic social scientific tests of validity, reliability and representativity. Yet, the same critics proffer few ways of developing valid generalizations about the nature and scope of human trafficking. The result is a debate with few shared assumptions and little common ground. This paper attempts to generate points of agreement in this debate, through the rigorous application of qualitative methods. The study draws on a case study of human trafficking in South Africa, paying attention to both the nature of exploitation in the sex industry, and the manner in which the ‘rescue industry’ generates practical knowledge on the subject. Drawing on extensive fieldwork conducted in the sex industry, police stations, home affairs offices and international policy-making forums, the paper explores the emergence of an anti-trafficking initiative during the 2010 World Cup of Football, and how this initiative transformed the way state institutions defined and regulated the sex industry.

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