Impact in Action: Kevin Bales

In the next few days Social Science Space will hear from five winners of Britain’s Economic and Social Science Research Council’s 2018 Impact Prize to learn how they built meaningfulness into their own research and how they measure impact more broadly. We continue today with Kevin Bales of the University of Nottingham, winner of the Outstanding International Impact prize.

Could you briefly describe your research? When designing your research study, what did impact look like to you?

All my work addresses modern slavery (with some occasional forays into historical slavery as well). The work that won the Impact Prize was a relatively small piece of research with two distinct aims – one methodological and one definitional, though the aims do overlap.

Both research and active responses to modern slavery suffer from two problems. The first is that measuring the incidence of slavery is very difficult. This is a crime that doesn’t behave like most crimes: it is not an event but a process, the victims of this crime can’t be reached to be counted unless they have come to freedom and even then are very hard to find.

Trying to find the size of the problem so that reasonable and appropriate law enforcement or social policy can occur has been held up because of the lack of reliable numbers. We’ve found we can use random sample surveys in countries with relatively high levels of slavery, but not in the rich countries where the prevalence of slavery is small. In 2015, however, we imported a technique called Multiple Systems Estimation from the fields of observing populations in nature and from measuring mass atrocities in wars and applied it, for the first time, to measuring slavery in the UK.

This led to the Home Office and government changing some policies and using the resulting figures to guide response to this crime. The project that received the Impact Prize was an extension of this work as we refined and disseminated the MSE technique in order to provide a better way to get more accurate measures of slavery crime. The second problem is that there are many different existing definitions of ‘slavery’ today in laws and in the social sciences. When different laws define a crimes differently it is a recipe for confusion and argument. When the social sciences has no agreed operational definition, then no two studies are comparable.

Our key contribution to a solution to this conundrum was to bring in those people who knew the most about slavery but had never been asked how we might define and understand slavery – the survivors of slavery. Remarkably, no survivors of slavery have even been included in the formulation of legal or operational definitions and we were keen to get that specialist knowledge. The results set out new ways to understand slavery gleaned from the lived experience of being enslaved, and while it will be a longer project to inform, improve, and change existing definitions we are now on the way to clearer and hopefully unified operational definitions so that research can be compared. Social science and policy and crime reduction can hardly move forward without people agreeing on what it is they are talking about and studying and addressing.

What advice would you offer to researchers seeking to generate impact through their own research?

Researchers have the enormous advantage in generating impact because they are not caught up within existing systems of thinking or analysis. Government workers have to act within the existing framework of laws and policies – but often the answer to a serious problem doesn’t exist within that framework.

But the key question researchers should be asking themselves is what fundamental challenge or problem is potentially understood better or might be resolved through their research? Is there a group of people whose work might be aided by knowledge generated by your research? Historians can ask, are there problems today that have been grappled with in the past? Is there a usable past that can be brought to bear on modern problems? And, even though academic researchers aren’t usually as constrained by ‘mental boxes’ – it’s worth brainstorming across seemingly far-fetched issues, problems, and challenges and asking, ‘how could our work be used in that situation’? Our now highly developed work in the Rights Lab using satellites to find likely sites of slavery and exploitation came from just such slightly crazy speculation.

Should impact be the ultimate goal of research?

Absolutely not. Impact is an important outcome of research, and it is right that we often begin research wanting to address a problem or situation that needs changing, whether large (climate change) or small (why people jump queues). But research should never be judged only by its potential impact or only supported if there is obvious and demonstrable impact. The greatest impact usually comes from research that is exploring new areas, with no fixed or known outcomes, and that generates truly new knowledge. I think that, at the moment, we lack enough support for ‘blue sky’ research, work that takes us to the edge of knowledge where it’s impossible to know whether research will have impact or even succeed. The unknown will always be larger than what we know, but cracking the unknowable is the way into first new knowledge and then significant impact.

Where next for your research? 

I’m keen to explore the use of MRI and epigenetics to better understand the impact of slavery on the minds and health of those who have been enslaved – an area for which there is no known, but several speculated, possible impacts. I want to unlock and understand the different ways that conflict and slavery are linked together. With colleagues in other disciplines, I’m looking at the impact of the Anthropocene on global slavery, and how reductions in slavery could alter the speed and intensity of climate change. As you can see by the spread of this research, human rights, and contemporary slavery studies in particular, are fields that are wide open full of unanswered questions and new avenues of inquiry waiting to be opened – it’s exciting! 


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