Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader

By Kevin Bales | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Challenge
of Measuring Slavery

We worry that the study of contemporary slavery is more of a proto-
science than a science. Its data are uncorroborated, its methodology
unsystematic. Few researchers work in the area, so the field lacks
the give and take that would filter out subjectivity. Bales himself
acknowledges all this. As we debated his definitions of slavery, he
told us, “There is a part of me that looks forward to being attacked
by other researchers for my interpretations, because then a viable
field of inquiry will have developed.”

Scientific American


The Challenges

Social science data is notoriously loose and slippery. It primarily concerns the behaviors and attitudes of human beings, who are, as a species, often unreliable, confused, mercurial, and dynamic. As researchers we benefit from the fact that people act out their erratic ways within remarkably stable patterns—the most stable of which are the universal social institutions: government, religion, economics, education, and family. Slavery itself is not a universal social institution, as it has not been found in all societies, but it nearly made the list. In the very recent history of our species (meaning the last five thousand years), it has been a constant. For much of that history, slavery was far easier to measure than it is today. When slavery was commonly accepted as a “natural” social and economic relationship, even governments kept detailed records of slaves and their treatment, an activity later neglected

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