Faculty Publications

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick

What Slaveholders Think

When most people think of contemporary slavery, the popular imagination leaps to a desperate brothel, one pulled straight from the pages of a newspaper article or activist brochure. The scene is sordid; the victim, pure; and the perpetrator of this human rights violation, an animal of the worst sort. Reality is nowhere near this simple. Contemporary slaveholders, like contemporary slavery, come in many forms. Of course, these men have other terms for their socioeconomic roles and relationships, including “employer,” “boss,” “landlord,” “farmer,” “contractor,” “master,” and “landowner.” The evil villain surely exists, but more frequently, contemporary slaveholders are respected members of their community, violating human rights but not social norms.

This is exactly how I would describe most of the rights violators I met in the course of this study. Ahmed, a middle-class slaveholder in Uttar Pradesh, India, was eager to show me around the village where he was a member of the ruling elite. While I was grateful for the warm reception, I was visiting Ahmed’s community because of the prevalence of gross human rights violations—bonded labor, child exploitation, and outbound human trafficking. Fathers pleaded for help in finding missing children, long gone, lured away by the promises of traffickers. Mothers who had recently and reluctantly formed a fragile women’s group waited nervously to meet and discuss their progress in negotiating higher wages. Behind the weeping men and the expectant mothers sat the children lucky enough to remain in the community, hand-rolling local cigarettes.

These scenes are common throughout rural India and are repeated across the global South, where the intertwined pressures of poverty and hope have been more likely to terminate in rights violations than a better life. Individuals exploited in slavery deserve safer lives, smarter laws, and greater opportunities. There is a near- global consensus about victims’ needs. But who are the perpetrators? Do Aanan and Ahmed not see the scene—debt bondage, child labor, trafficking —as I do? Conversations with contemporary slave- holders suggest that they do not.


Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, and teaches courses related to sociology, technology, and research methods. He is a political sociologist with an additional appointment at the School of Public Policy at Central European University. Choi-Fitzpatrick is currently engaged in three projects:

promoting a human rights approach to anti-slavery efforts
how human rights violators respond to targeting by social movements
how social movements use new technology such as drones
Scholarly Work
Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin. Forthcoming. Ties that Bind: Contemporary Slavery, Social Movements, and the Slaveholder’s Dilemma. Columbia University Press.

Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin. 2016. Guest Editor, Special Issue of the Journal of Human Trafficking on ‘Slaveholders and Traffickers.’ 2(1).

Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin. 2016. “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly: Human Rights Violators in Comparative Perspective.” Journal of Human Trafficking 2(1).

Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin. 2016. “From Rescue to Representation: A Human Rights Approach to the Contemporary Anti-Slavery Movement.” Journal of Human Rights. (doi: 10.1080/14754835.2015.1032222)

Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin and Tautvydas Juskauskas. 2015. “Up in the Air: Applying the Jacobs Crowd Formula to Drone Imagery.” Procedia Engineering 107: 273-281. (doi:10.1016/j.proeng.2015.06.082)

Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin. 2015. “Democracy and its Appearances: Staging and Scripting the Iron Law.” Social Movement Studies. 14(2): 123-141 (doi 10.1080/14742837.2014.945158).

Vaidyanathan Brandon, Michael Strand, Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, Thomas Buschman, Meghan Davis, and Amanda Varela. 2015. “Causality in Contemporary American Sociology: An Empirical Assessment and Critique.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. (doi: 10.1111/jtsb.12081)

Choi-Fitzpatrick, Austin. 2014. “Drones for Good: Technological Innovation, Social Movements and the State. Journal of International Affairs. Volume 68; Number 1. 1-18.

Brysk, Alison and Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick (eds). 2012. From Human Trafficking to Human Rights: Rethinking Contemporary Slavery. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press (Series on Human Rights).

McVeigh, Rory, Josh Dinsman, Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, and Priyamvada Trivedi. 2011. “Obama vs. Clinton: Categorical Boundaries and Intra-Party Electoral Outcomes.” Social Problems 58(1): 47-68.

Full list of publications.

Areas of Interest
Human rights
Social movements
Social change


A stellar work of scholarship
- Zoe Trodd, University of Nottingham

Such a study has always been seen as the
Holy Grail
- Kevin Bales, Co-founder, Free The Slaves

Hard to imagine a more original or
significant contribution
- Doug McAdam, Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor, Stanford University

Contact Information


Melissa Olesen