I am interested in research that draws attention to the contexts in which individuals are situated. In better understanding these contexts, I believe we can begin to pull apart the complicated tangle of factors that influence social problems. I am particularly interested in contexts that contribute to or maintain injustice in our communities. The two major research projects below are aimed at doing just this.
Exploration of Homeless Service System
My dissertation research project was centered on exploring the homeless service system in Hawai'i. I created a typology of homeless service usage that accounts for the various different experiences individuals and families may have in the homeless service system. This exploration was aimed at understanding how to better target and tailor homeless services to meet people's needs so that they can quickly exit services into permanent housing and stay housed. The project was a mixed methods study with three interactive and overlapping phases.
Stage 1: Harnessing the knowledge of those with lived experience of the homeless service system. The project began with a preliminary stage of qualitative interviews with service providers who work in the homeless service system and with homeless individuals who have used services in the state. I asked these service providers and service users about their experience with the state homeless service system. I was interested in learning about how they see people moving through the homeless service system, who tends to be successful at exiting into permanent housing and why, and what might make it difficult to leave the homeless service system permanently.
Stage 2: Using administrative data to explore patterns of service usage across time. In stage 2, I used the insight gained from the stage 1 participants to analyze service data from a large statewide administrative database. The analytic approach used latent class growth analysis (LCGA), a statistical technique that can expose unexamined diversity among large populations. I used LCGA to group a sample of adult homeless services users into different classes according to their service patterns across a four to five year period (FY2010-FY2014). This type of analysis enabled me to create profiles for different types of service usage so that services can be better tailored and targeted to each group to be maximally effective.
Stage 3: Back to the real world. Finally, I took the LCGA profiles of different types of service usage back to participants and listened to their reflections and interpretations of the profiles. It was important to me that the typology created by this project made sense to those with experience using and working in the homeless service system. Therefore, I gave these participants the last word about how to best interpret the results.
Please take a look at the following stakeholder reports for more information about the findings of this project:
- Report to Stakeholders: Extended Executive Summary (brief overall description of the findings)
- Report to Stakeholders: Part I (more detailed results of the qualitative analysis)
- Report to Stakeholders: Part II (more detailed results of the LCGA statistical analysis)
Discourses on Human Trafficking
My Masters thesis project examined the discursive context of human trafficking in Hawai'i. The state has had several large cases of suspected labor trafficking and many smaller cases of suspected sex trafficking. However, my project revealed that at the local level human trafficking is a topic of much debate and confusion. Like many social issues, our understanding of trafficking is very much influenced and shaped by the ways in which we collectively talk about the problem. Often we are not aware of the influence language can have on our understanding of issues. My thesis project used critical discourse analysis (CDA), which is a method that explicit analyzes language use. Specifically, it takes a critical approach to exploring how power is reproduced and maintained through the ways language is used to construct an issue. I used CDA to examine the ways human trafficking was discussed at the local level in Hawai'i in order to explore both the complicated nature of the problem and to examine unrecognized ways that particular constructions may reproduce unjust understandings of the issue.
Human trafficking is a complicated phenomenon that sits at the intersection of a number of different issues, such as immigration, labor, gender, sex, children, and consent. In talking about human trafficking, we are often drawing on tangled discourses related to these various topical issues; in CDA sets of discourses within a given topic are called discourse strands. Several discourse strands can be tangled together to form discursive knots. Discursive knots are considered interesting and important in that they indicate tensions and complications in the ways we talk about issues. For instance, when talking about minors in the sex industry we are (often unconsciously) drawing on discourses related to children, gender, sex, and consent. Discussions of human trafficking in this context are tangled with discourses related to what it means to be child, what paid sex means, and the ability of minors to consent. When talking about labor trafficking, we are often drawing on discourses related to immigration and labor and all the myriad of past and present discussions had around these issues. In using critical discourse analysis to examine interviews with participants working in areas related to human trafficking, I found that there were many differences in the ways participants tended draw on and combine discursive strands to characterize the issue.
Depending on whether a participant tended to have more experience working with U.S. citizens or immigrants, women or men, or in areas related to sex or labor trafficking they would stress different discourse strands. For instance, a participant working mainly with women victims of sex trafficking might be more likely to stress discourses related to gender, sex, and children and to talk very little about issues related to immigration or labor. A participant with more experience related to immigrant victims of human trafficking might stress discourses related to immigration and labor and to speak less about gendered issues, sex, or children. Most participants used discourses of consent (what counts at consent, whether particular individuals consented to their labor arrangements or participation in the sex industry), but did so in very complicated ways. The fact that discourses on human trafficking are so varied and complicated even among those with expert experience adds to the confusion and disagreement around what "counts" as human trafficking. Becoming more aware of the ways in which we are engaging and deploying different discourse strands in our discussions of human trafficking can bring more clarity and intention to our discursive constructions of the issue.
In addition to providing a tool to conceptualize different characterizations of human trafficking, CDA was also used to explore whether various ways of discussing human trafficking were in line with the principles of social justice. For instance, some ways of talking about the issue encourage us to think about cases of human trafficking as the isolated behavior of corrupt individuals. However, this view of the problem as isolated bad behavior points us away from how systemic factors (such as immigration policies or labor practices) create an environment in which trafficking and other abuses can occur. In order to encourage more just understandings of human trafficking we need to consciously draw attention to the systemic and structural contexts that allow and sustain the exploitation of immigrants workers and individuals in the sex industry. We can do so by being mindful in the ways we talk about, write about, and research the issue.
Addressing Human Trafficking in Hawai'i
While the critical discourse analysis formed the backbone of my thesis project on human trafficking, I also used more traditional qualitative analysis strategies to examine local service providers' perspectives on the current state of efforts to address the issue in the islands. I asked service providers from three different islands in the State of Hawai'i (O'ahu, Maui, and Hawai'i) about their thoughts related to 1) challenges in addressing human trafficking; 2) the best ways to help victims of trafficking; 3) the strategies for preventing human trafficking; and 4) changes they have noticed related to how human trafficking has been addressed in the state in recent years.
In response to these four questions, participants returned again and again to themes of awareness and collaboration. Community awareness about human trafficking, as well as the targeted awareness of particular groups, such as law enforcement officers, employers, and social service agencies, was seen as central to efforts to both help victims and prevent future trafficking. Likewise, good collaborative relationships between service providers and with law enforcement and community members was seen as an necessary and important tool for addressing human trafficking in the islands. While it is clear that much progress has been made in the state with regards to addressing the issue, participants still identified a number of important difficulties they encounter in their trafficking-related work.
One of the most significant challenges discussed with regularity was related to faulty and competing understandings of human trafficking that make it difficult to increase awareness and collaboration. Another significant challenge was related to an impression that there was less institutional support for addressing human trafficking in Hawai'i than there seemed to be in other states. In several instances participants discussed concerns and observations that there was a certain level of acceptance of human trafficking-related practices (such as labor abuse and prostitution) within some segments of the community in Hawai'i, including among some authorities. One participant discussed how the definition of human trafficking covers a “range of activities [that] are broad and some would be more tolerated and some less tolerated.” These two concerns of confusion about what "counts" as human trafficking and a certain level of tolerance for trafficking-related practices, seemed more pronounced on neighbor islands. That is, at the time of this study, service providers the more rural and remote areas of the state which were geographically separated from the main program and policy hub of Honolulu seemed to have stronger concerns over institutional apathy and public confusion about the issue.
In a report to stakeholders, I made four recommendations for intentionally targeting awareness and collaboration efforts to better address the concerns described by participants: 1) Increase the clarity and specificity of awareness efforts in order provide targeted information to specific groups about what kinds of trafficking exist in the islands; 2) Continue to work towards collaboration, especially with regards to neighbor islands; 3) Focus collaborative efforts with community groups on the long-term adjustment of victims as an area for targeted improvement; 4) Use data to set trafficking in context by describing the range of exploitative practices vulnerable groups often face.