First Rice Seminar is under way: International group of scholars to explore human trafficking past and present

One of the most troubling global human rights crises of the day is the focus of the inaugural 2012-13 Rice Seminar, “Human Trafficking Past and Present: Crossing Borders, Crossing Discipline.” 

Co-directed by history professors James Sidbury and Kerry Ward, the seminar has convened a distinguished group of four faculty fellows from outside of Rice, one Rice faculty member, one Rice postdoctoral fellow and two Rice graduate students to study the theme from several disciplinary perspectives, from public health to women’s studies to political science and others.

Sidbury and Ward, scholars of the history of slavery, were inspired to create the seminar by what they perceived as a lack of connections between past and present. “The historiography of slavery is one of the richest bodies of historical literature that has been produced in the last three to five decades,” Sidbury said. “However, when considering the work of activists and scholars who are working on contemporary issues surrounding bonded labor, we often felt the connections to what had happened previously, in the Americas and around the world, weren’t being made.”

Ward said the seminar aims to bridge this gap. “We wanted to get together a group of people whose research expertise is in contemporary forms of modern human trafficking and modern un-free labor and ask each other, ‘How are you constructing your knowledge around this field? What can we share and tell each other and how can that produce new forms of knowledge and push new debates?'”

The United Nations defines human trafficking as “a crime against humanity. It involves an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.” It has been identified as the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, second only to drug trafficking as the world’s most profitable industry. According to the latest United Nations estimates, nearly 2.5 million people from 127 different countries are being trafficked into 137 countries around the world.

The seminar’s studies and discussions will begin with the history of slavery and slave trading, considering both United States-based and global histories of slavery through the 19th century. With these as a starting point, the course will turn to modern forms of human trafficking, exploring how 20th-century political initiatives sought to globalize the suppression of slavery through human-rights discourses.

To Ward and Sidbury, the local realities of this issue are clear and present. Houston is a major hub for human trafficking, unfortunately, they said.  However, Houston also has one of the most extensive anti-trafficking networks in the United States, bringing together law enforcement, civic institutions and public and private philanthropic organizations that are all focused on this issue and cooperating to help victims of trafficking, Ward said.

The seminar aims to make connections with these individuals and organizations that fight human trafficking. In addition, it will help increase public awareness by staging open events on the Rice campus. The seminar is intended to expand research on how Houston has developed ways to combat new forms of slave trading and labor exploitation. By examining these local and global histories and discourses across a long-ranging historical period and through interdisciplinary approaches, the seminar will strive to produce work that shows the intersection between local and global cultures of human trafficking, Ward said. The most tangible product of the seminar will be scholarly publications by the participants, including a book to which all will contribute. But the most visible goal is to further Rice’s involvement in a vital social issue for Houston, Ward said.

The Rice Seminars program is an initiative of the Dean of Humanities, funded by the School of Humanities and the Humanities Research Center, and is designed to promote humanistic research.

Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway said the seminars have three distinct advantages. “We need better mechanisms for creating discussions across disciplines,” he said. “The seminars will do this. Secondly, we don’t have mechanisms that allow humanities scholars to actually participate in highly visible ways in interdisciplinary discussions. The third advantage is that the Rice Seminars are conceived as a yearlong think tank to address and have impact on a particular problem.” 

This fall the seminar plans to bring local and international experts on human trafficking to campus to share their insights and perspectives.

For more information about the current and upcoming Rice Seminars, the topics and participants, visit


About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.