Elena Shih

Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies
Elena Shih
Assistant Professor of American Studies
Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Work experience at agencies assisting victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, and labor exploitation informed Elena Shih’s graduate study and research interests. Experiential learning, she observes, is part of the Brown academic culture.

As an undergraduate student in Asian studies and women’s studies at Pomona College, Elena Shih saw firsthand how she benefited from experiential learning.

One of her first internships was at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, where Shih, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, worked with Chinese victims of domestic violence, as well as trafficking victims trying to obtain U.S. visas.

The work inspired her senior thesis, which examined the visa process and how accessible eligibility requirements were to immigrants.

“In particular it was difficult for those who had experienced trauma, like those at the Center, to testify in the way that legal transcripts demanded them to so that they could check all the boxes that they needed to get this visa,” Shih said.

After graduation, Shih was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study at Beijing University’s Center for Women’s Law Studies. There, she continued her work in legal aid for three years, including a year at the China-Burma border, where she co-founded a rural arts center for ethnic minority and migrant youth.

Returning from China, Shih attended the University of California–Los Angeles, where she earned a Ph.D. in sociology, with a focus on human trafficking, migration, labor, gender, and sexuality studies. It was in graduate school that Shih says she was able to take the knowledge gained from her various work experiences and learned “to channel those experiences into different theoretical lenses.” And it’s an approach that she brought to the students she taught at Brown last year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute and now brings as an assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies, a position she begins this fall.

Shih’s dissertation was titled The Price of Freedom: Moral and Political Economies of the Anti-Human Trafficking Movement in China, Thailand and the U.S. and was based on 40 months of enthnographic participant observation with both faith-based and secular anti-trafficking organizations in all three countries.

Shih split her time between working with the organizations that teach former sex workers to make jewelry and other items known as “slave-free goods,” which are marketed and sold as such, and the workers themselves. What she observed was a disconnect between the two.

“I found that more often than not most of the people in these programs don’t consider themselves victims of human trafficking, but very dignified migrants who made an informed, yet difficult decision to do sex work because of limited opportunities, but definitely see that as a choice. So there is a tension there in how the people in these programs self-identify and how the programs market the products to a global ethical consumer base.”

Further complicating matters, many of these organizations require participants to sign agreements that they will no longer engage in sex work or associate with those who do, Shih found.

Through her research, Shih concluded that aiding the anti-trafficking movement requires a broader lens.

“We need to focus on labor rights more comprehensively. When you focus too narrowly on sex work or the sensationalism of the exploitation of sex work, we ignore broader and more systemic forms of labor exploitation that exist everywhere. If interventions could shift and care a little more about labor in addition to forced sex, this movement would go a lot farther.”

Shih says she doesn’t have to look far to find a captive audience that cares as much about these topics as she does.

“Brown students are very mindful, public interest-driven students. So it’s a wonderful population to work with. To bring a layer of critical analysis to passion and care is something I’m really excited about.”

Shih will be able to channel that compassion not only in the classes she’s teaching, but in her role as the faculty fellow in charge of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice’s new human trafficking research program.

She’s currently working with two undergraduate students completing UTRAs over the summer. One is studying rehabilitative labor at a Rhode Island women’s prison, and the other is looking at the links between the legacies of slavery, racism, and migration and the contemporary anti-trafficking movement in Brazil. Both are topics that Shih is interested in for future work.

This year, Shih will also teach “Research in Transnational Communities,” a qualitative research methods course in American studies that prepares juniors for a summer research project that they can then continue in their senior year. It’s the type of hands-on learning that Shih enjoyed as a student and one she’s certain her students will take to as well.

“The way that I love to learn — by doing things and being involved and doing direct service — are ways that are very natural in this community and I think that’s absolutely the unique Brown experience. Our students are very lucky because they have access to amazing opportunities and it allows them to learn more.”