March 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 3

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Applied Sociology

Kevin Bales: Using Sociology to Fight Slavery

Jamie Panzarella, ASA Publications Department

Kevin Bales

Kevin Bales

Kevin Bales’ life’s work started with a pamphlet. The professor of sociology was in London in the early 1990s, and was astounded when he picked up a leaflet that stated there were millions of slaves in the world today. Bales is now an expert on modern slavery and President of Free the Slaves, a U.S. sister organization of Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights organization.

As a social scientist and a sociologist, I was thinking wow! There are millions of people in slavery, This is a very important thing to understand. This is an ancient form of social interaction and social control, which many believe had been eradicated. And, yet, if there are millions in the 21st century, then we really need to get a grip on this issue. So it was my curiosity and my sociological approach that drove me into the issue.

Slavery is illegal in every country in the world, yet, according to the Free the Slaves website, there are 27 million slaves worldwide today, more than any other time in human history. These are individuals who “are forced to work without pay, under threat of violence. You can find them in brothels, factories, mines, farm fields, restaurants, construction sites, and private homes.” The average cost of a human slave sold around the world today is $90. Slavery can be found in almost every country (except Iceland and Greenland), with the majority of slaves can be found in India and in African countries; however, thousands of slaves are trafficked into the United States each year.

Where to Begin?

While he always had an interest in human rights, often working on projects about this and with human rights groups during graduate student years, Bales did not begin researching the issue of slavery in depth until the 1990s. After learning about the current state of slavery, Bales saw it as a “classic challenge to a sociologist.” After performing a lit review of 3,000 articles on slavery, he found only two articles about contemporary slavery. Bales spent several years digging and searching for numbers, data, understanding, specialists, etc. He realized that no one had done research that was sufficiently methodologically sound on this topic. 

He next began a large field research project. He traveled to meet slaves and slaveholders. Since slavery in an economic crime, he focused a large potion of research on the slave-based businesses. “It had to be a qualitative research project as the crime was so hidden. I looked at the economics of slave-based businesses in different parts of the word. I tried to tease out the different dimensions of what was going on.”

Bales also looked to the discipline to see who had written about slavery in theoretical terms, but he found that virtually no one in the contemporary sociological world had done so.

Bales’ research eventually evolved into his first book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Published in 1999, Bales’ book has received numerous accolades, including a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. His work has been published in 10 other languages, including an Italian edition that won the Premio Viareggio award for services to humanity in 2000. Bales co-wrote a documentary based on his work, Slavery: A Global Investigation, which won the Peabody Award for 2000 and two Emmy Awards in 2002.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Disposable People a well researched, scholarly, and deeply disturbing expose of modern slavery. A new edition will be published in 2012.

Combining Policy and Practice

Bales was shocked by the response that the book generated; people wanted to work on this topic immediately. With the success of his book, Bales decided to embrace the response to his work and “join the world of policy and practice for awhile.” He decreased the workload of his academic appointment in the UK and returned to the United States.

In 2000, Bales, along with Jolene Smith and Peggy Callahan, founded Free the Slaves. Free the Slaves is a non-profit organization that works to “liberate slaves around the world, helps them rebuild their lives and researches real world solutions to eradicate slavery forever. We use world class research and compelling stories from the frontlines of slavery to convince the powerful and the powerless that we can end slavery.” ( While Free the Slaves works on policy initiatives to eliminate slavery worldwide, the organization also works on the ground to liberate individuals from slavery. 

Bales has traveled the world to make this happen. Free the Slaves does not buy people out of slavery, but works to liberate them. In his 2010 TED talk, Bales said “Liberation, and more importantly all the work that comes after liberation, it’s not an event, it’s a process. It is about helping people to build lives of dignity, stability, economic autonomy, citizenship.” The cost of liberation does vary by country, but “…sustainable freedom for the entire 27 million people on the planet in slavery is something like 10.8 billion dollars… It’s not a lot of money at the global level, in fact it’s peanuts. And the great thing about it is that it’s not money down a hole, there is a freedom dividend.”

Within the world of non-governmental organizations, Bales’ sociological toolkit has been essential to help him answer the questions put forth to him, such as how to operationally define slavery in a way that can be taken and written as law. “This is an area with some really fascinating methodological challenges. When you call it a hidden crime, it is hidden in a way no other crime is. The victimization is not an event, but a process.”

For individuals looking to work in this field, the options are essentially endless. Since this is a new field, it needs people with myriad skills. “It needs lawyers, and it needs accountants, and it needs social scientists, especially sociologists. It also needs people who understand social psychology, particularly in the area of psychological trauma,” Bales said. “Almost anything someone can imagine applying to this field, there is a need.”

However, since it is a rapidly growing field, for those looking to follow an academic path to this work, there is no formal education process. This has not stopped a demand, by students and graduates, for a program to study this topic. To address this demand, Bales is currently working to develop a master’s degree that would allow students to study this issue in depth. “There is a whole pedagogical array of subject matter that is now ready to be taught to someone who wants to become a specialist in this area, but it is not available yet in any one place.”

Bales understands that he is working in a new and untested area. Nevertheless, he admits his excitement at getting to be the person operating on the frontier of a sub-discipline. “It is literally about saying, ‘What is the relationship between the nature of human conflict and the nature of human enslavement,’” said Bales. Individuals in this field are often the first to ask the questions, working to figure out fundamental definitions, and finding linkages and causal relationships.

We have to ask ourselves, are we willing to live in a world with slavery? If we dont take action we just leave ourselves open to having someone else jerk the strings that tie us to slavery in the products we buy and in our government policies. And yet, if there is one thing that every human being can agree on, I think its that slavery should end. 


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