Faculty Profile: Judith Kelley

Judith Kelley is the Kevin D. Gorter Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University. She will be moderating a workshop on human trafficking in Spring 2014 as part of the Conversations in Human Rights series.

Growing up, Judith Kelley didn’t come from a privileged background. “In Denmark, that’s all relative,” she says, “because we have a very good social network and so nobody goes hungry or anything like this. We don’t have a lot of inequality, but my family never had a car and my parents didn’t go to high school.” The first in her family to graduate high school, she spent five years traveling the world as part of an L.A.-based nonprofit theater troupe. That experience, including two years performing and promoting democracy in China (before and after Tiananmen Square), planted the seed of the question that has defined her research career: Who has leverage and how can they exercise it?

Yet Kelley’s path to answering this question was not the traditional one. After meeting her husband through theater, she decided to remain in the U.S. and enrolled in community college at age 23. After two years, she transferred to Stanford, where she went on to graduate with honors. She laughingly remarks that she chose to pursue graduate studies in order to delay paying back student loans, but more seriously, she wanted to understand and address the global problems she’d seen while working in nonprofit theater. “I realized how naïve I was, as a young person, thinking I could help. I needed better tools to think about and understand the problems and figure out what the heck I might be able to contribute. ” She was admitted to the Master in Public Policy program, and afterward the Ph.D. program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She hoped to work for an international organization after finishing her degrees, interviewing with the U.N., but realized that academia was a better fit.

From Harvard, Kelley joined the Duke faculty in 2002. While at Duke, Kelley has demonstrated the rare ability to move between projects in very different issue areas, all united by the question of how “external actors [can] promote political or human rights reforms in other countries.” Her first project looked at how East European countries in the post-Cold War era agreed to adopt reforms to protect minority rights. Her most recent project identified the downfalls in election monitoring and suggested changes to better support democracy worldwide.

Kelley’s current research uses the issue of human trafficking to ask how and why political actors initiate reform. In 2000, Congress passed legislation requiring the State Department to grade nations on their records in combating human trafficking. Kelley realized that this data could allow her to examine directly whether this “naming and shaming” strategy actually works to effect change.

“It makes the report so much more an act of potential shaming of different countries,” she says. “Of course from the perspective of somebody who’s interested in understanding the tools of international actors, it’s a goldmine because you can actually compare the level at which different countries are being shamed.”

However, the data from the State Department reports don’t give the whole story about how leaders in other countries are thinking about human trafficking: “We can see behavior changes, but we don’t know if we can attribute it to the shaming, because there are so many other things going on,” she says. However, the release of the WikiLeaks cables provided an unexpected wealth of information that could address that very question. “It’s not a perfect record,” says Kelley, “but we have some record for a substantial number of countries where we get to see an inside conversation about the shaming process.” The cables between foreign government officials and US embassy personnel show that many leaders are not just concerned about their absolute score on human trafficking, but also how their country compares to others. “There’s definitely evidence that there are a lot of countries out there who take great pride in making sure they maintain some reputation and who take great offense when that reputation is being potentially threatened,” Kelley states. “And they are willing to take concrete actions to change that reputation.”

Kelley also sees this project as a good opportunity to engage her students in the research process. She worked with a computer science student to find all of the WikiLeaks documents relating to human trafficking, while student researchers help her trace the narratives of each case. The cases have also been the focus of classroom discussion in one of her courses, allowing students to analyze which policies take effect and when. She currently has a team of undergraduates working with her on the project. “When I work with research assistants I work hard to make sure it is a meaningful experience for them,” she says. “On the trafficking project it is interesting to really see their eyes opening to how diplomacy works and also to just how cruel the world of trafficking is.” Ultimately, Kelley expects to learn when and under what conditions the State Department is successful at spurring legal and policy changes to combat human trafficking.

This article was first published by the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.