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The Traffic in Asian Women: Undercover Investigation, “Social Scientific Method” and Critical Interdisciplinarity

Fri, October 9, 12:00 to 1:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Pine


As one of the most hyperbolized and enduring figures of misery in journalistic exposés, academic scholarship, government investigations, and international relations, the “traffic in women” bears an immense and prolific archive of documentation and analysis. Asian women have occupied a special distinction and hypervisibility in anti-trafficking discourses and policies. However, as many observers have repeatedly pointed out, the phenomenon is extremely and especially resistant to documentation and proper representation. In what Paul Knepper has distinguished as “the first ever social scientific study of a global social problem,” the League of Nations initiated its own official investigation into the traffic in women in the 1920s, which proceeded in two stages and resulted in two separate publications: Report of the Special Body of Experts on Traffic in Women and Children: Enquiry Into the International Organisation of, and Certain Routes Followed by, the Traffic Between Various Countries of Europe, North Africa, North America, South America and Central America (1927) and Enquiry Into Traffic in Women and Children in the East (1932). The 1927 Report was notable for inaugurating the use of a Traveling Commission of specially trained “experts” who visited 112 cities and districts across twenty-eight countries to conduct “on the spot” inquiries. In addition to producing first-person observations of local conditions, the commission interviewed over 6,500 individuals, including government officials, law enforcement officers, and antitrafficking voluntary associations in these locations. The commission also relied on covert investigations by specially contracted agents in order to uncover “facts” that might be hidden or misrepresented by official statistics and national reports.

This paper scrutinizes the leading position of U.S. actors in instigating, funding, and overseeing and this two-part investigation. The use of “on the spot” and “undercover” investigations had been deployed earlier as part of the “social hygiene” movement in the United States. Both League investigations were made possible by donations from the American Bureau of Social Hygiene, which had been founded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and fellow “social purity” reformers in 1913 as a private philanthropic organization devoted to investigating and combating prostitution. The determining influence of a distinctly U.S. preoccupation with prostitution, immigration, and racial purity in shaping the 1927 enquiry was largely eclipsed by highlighting the incontrovertible rigor of direct observation of “facts” by trained experts. Thus, the emerging methods of the social sciences came to supplement and legitimate rather than to supplant older private and public modes of discipline and punishment. Rather than herald their innovation and scientific rigor, I argue that these League reports attest to the shared genealogy and porosity amongst undercover, state-sanctioned, and academic modes of knowledge production, and to how each served to prop up the factual aura of the others’ truth claims.

In the spirit “disorganizing knowledge” in and through the archive, which animates this panel, my paper ends by recounting my attempt to research the rationale behind the funding of these investigations at the Rockefeller Archive Center, which houses the documents of the Bureau of Social Hygiene. Enfolded into both banal account balances and revealing correspondences, I found a surprising and even moving figure of misery and alienated labor in one white male undercover investigator. Through narrating his miserable story as also a story of the archive’s resistance to disciplinary enclosures, I also argue for why and how it matters to my broader project of posing “Asian women” as a method for critical interdisciplinary thinking against their privileged legibility as bodies in pain and figures of misery.


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