CNN is calling it the Slavery Report, unhelpfully muddying all possible distinctions between different sorts of human experience. The ever-questionable Trafficking in Persons Report has come out again, complete with photos of Hillary Clinton cuddling brown girls and other colonialist preening. Before anyone says anything, I don’t believe it makes a whit of difference that the US now includes itself in the rankings. I first wrote about this in an editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007 and haven’t changed my mind since then (see Well-meaning Interference.)
The TIP bureaucracy is big now: 52 people are mentioned as employees of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, including, of course, Luis CdeBaca, whose excesses I commented not long ago. However, office staff are just the tip of the human involvement in producing these reports, which brings me to a discussion of what the report pitifully calls methodology.
When I read reports on ‘research’, I first turn to the section where methodology is explained. It doesn’t have to be the first section of a report, but it is what I check first. Methodology means the methods used to find information that you present to readers as results – the facts, testimonies and other data your research uncovered. That means everything about how you do the research, whether you are doing a high school paper, a Guardian investigative report, ethnographic fieldwork or a community survey. In 2009 I called the TIP the No-Methodology Report, saying
I want to know how the data was gathered, which sources were consulted, who was allowed to give information, whose estimates were deemed authoritative and how data were confirmed. I want to know precisely how researchers handled the considerable international muddle over definitions, since the fact that people mean different things when they say the word trafficking is a notorious source of conflict and confusion, not to mention that a lot of the English keywords cannot be reliably translated into all other languages (for example, abuse, exploitation, force, coercion).
Methodology also covers how you chose your research questions, how you located sources of information (human and non-human), how you presented what you were doing to people you talked to and how you worded the questions you asked, as well as how much of everything you did and for how long and where, and how you analysed it all after gathering information (computer software for data analysis? mathematical calculations?). If, like the TIP, you are doing international research, I want to know how language issues were handled (interpreters? translation machines?). And not least I want to hear what sort of ethics guidelines and protections were in place, since the framework for all this is about law, crime, criminals and victims.
Yet this is the entirety of the TIP’s Methodology section:
The Department of State prepared this report using information from U.S. embassies, government officials, nongovernmental and international organizations, published reports, research trips to every region, and information submitted to email@example.com. This email address provides a means by which organizations and individuals can share information with the Department of State on government progress in addressing trafficking. U.S. diplomatic posts and domestic agencies reported on the trafficking situation and governmental action to fight trafficking based on thorough research that included meetings with a wide variety of government officials, local and international NGO representatives, officials of international organizations, journalists, academics, and survivors. U.S. missions overseas are dedicated to covering human trafficking issues.
In other words, no information at all. It’s nice that people are invited to ‘share’ information, only how do recipients of these emails know that the information is any good? They are awfully paranoid about loads of other people making Internet contacts – those they call pimps, pedophiles, traffickers, groomers and all the rest. The TIP office apparently wants us to believe the whole business is covert, a sort of spy operation. One is simply meant to feel awe that they are Doing So Much.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist