The Importance of Narrative in Understanding Human Trafficking

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    Post by: Matthew Abbey, freelance reporter and political analyst. You can contact him at

    One of the most recent buzzwords to hit the anti-trafficking lexicon is big data. Accordingly, advances in new technologies are going to provide researchers, advocates, and policy-makers with larger amounts of data, which in turn will allow for extremely large data sets known as big data to be analyzed computationally. But the buzz around big data has the potential to miss a crucial part of the story that personal narrative can provide.

    Narrative research is commonly understood to represent interviews through spoken, written, or visual representations, empowering the individual to tell their own story. Throughout the 1990s there was an increased use of personal narrative to advance human rights claims. In this period, qualitative studies using personal narrative were used to provide a certain depth of understanding to human rights abuses that quantitative studies could not. The same remains true today.

    Despite this, anti-trafficking efforts have been pushed towards quantitative approaches in recent years to highlight the scale of the problem, for monitoring purposes, to mark the undertaking of quantifiable research, and to meet the demands of donors.  Access to quantitative data is important and helps inform political, judicial, and humanitarian responses to human trafficking. In fact, there is little doubt that quantitative analysis using big data can alter anti-trafficking work for the better, but narrative research still plays an integral role in understanding human trafficking.

    There is no one-size-fits-all approach to collecting and analyzing data. Researchers must pose questions and find the answers using the appropriate method, which could be different in each context. Different methods provide different insights into the real experiences of a trafficked person.

    Quantitative methods such as big data analysis might be necessary, or qualitative methods such as narrative research might be necessary. In other cases, a mixed-method approach that draws on the advantages of both is most fitting. Instead of debating over the merits of quantitative and qualitative research, we must be focusing on which methodology will merit the appropriate results.

    Ultimately, however, analyzing the impact of egregious forms of abuse like human trafficking must be understood through the individual. This is particularly important because it is through the individual that human rights abuses can be understood through an intersectional lens.

    In the context of human trafficking, intersectionality refers to the recognition that experiences, such vulnerability and exploitation, are manifested in different but interconnected ways, while at the same time acknowledging that no single factor can be examined in isolation. Without adopting an intersectional approach to research, the experiences of a trafficked person will never be understood.  An intersectional approach recognizes the heterogeneity and diversity of vulnerability and exploitation that trafficked persons suffer.

    Thus, narrative allows for information to be obtained that may otherwise be missed in data collection. Familial factors, lost opportunities, psychosocial impacts, or community acceptance, amongst other factors, might be left unsaid if the trafficked person is not given the chance to describe their ordeal. Narrative enables individuals to play a stronger role in the research process through being recognized as an actor with agency.

    Using narrative as a form of research in anti-trafficking work therefore adopts a normative framework in which the agency and rights of the trafficked person are centerpiece. Such a method allows for the rights of the trafficked person to be respected by offering the opportunity to highlight what rights were lost in the first place. Some trafficked persons may want an experience placed in a broader context, but others prefer an experience to be personalized.

    Individuals who have experienced trauma must be given the agency to take ownership of the story, if desired. After all, it is the individual’s story to tell.

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