Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Elena Shih

Elena Shih

Postdoctoral Fellow in International and Public Affairs


Elena Shih received her MA and PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and BA in Asian Studies and Women’s Studies from Pomona College. Beginning July 2014, she will be a Postdoctoral Fellow in International Studies at the Watson Institute, and in Fall 2015 will join the faculty in the Department of American Studies as an Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies. 

Her research on transnational social movement and market responses to human trafficking in China, Thailand, and the United States, has received funding from the Social Science Research Council, American Sociological Association, Ford Foundation, Freeman Asia Foundation, and U.S. Department of Education. Shih’s dedication to community-based and participatory ethnographic research methods has been recognized by numerous grants and awards from the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Japanese American Community Services, the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, and the UCLA Center for the Study of Women Constance Coiner Award for commitment to working-class, feminist issues and social change. She is a former Fulbright Fellow to the Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling and Service Center (formerly Beijing University Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Aid), and researcher for the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) China Office.


Shih is currently working on her first book manuscript, adapted from her dissertation, "Freedom Markets: Moral and Political Economies of the Human Trafficking Movement in China, Thailand, and the U.S.," a multi-sited and global ethnography based off 40 months of fieldwork on efforts to combat human trafficking in Beijing, Bangkok, and Los Angeles. Drawing on fieldwork as a participant action researcher with faith-based and secular social movement organizations--ranging from grassroots evangelical Christian missionary projects, to sex worker rights cooperatives, to the United Nations--her dissertation explores the mobilization of rights and morality in between the state and the market in the contemporary movement against human trafficking.

An ongoing secondary project is based on longstanding community work with the Song Zha Art Project (formerly BorderStatements Collective), a community arts center on that Shih co-founded in 2006. Working on the China-Burma border, where the nexus of social issues related to labor migration and public health cause communities to be politically, socially, and culturally disenfranchised, the program offers no-cost art education and harm reduction to engage at-risk youth. An article, “Health and Rights at the Margins: Policing Human Trafficking and HIV/AIDS Amongst Jingpo Ethnic Communities in Ruili City,” which investigates the intersections of inequality related to gender, ethnicity, public health, and human trafficking policy was recently published in The Anti- Trafficking Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

Future research projects plan to explore variants of market-based humanitarianism in various contexts ranging from vocational training programs for sex workers, ethnic minority women, and workers with disability or chronic illness, to humanitarian commodity chains that link consumer activists in the Global North with “victim producers” in the Global South. 


Shih, Elena. 2014. “The Anti-Trafficking Rehabilitation Complex." Contexts. Volume 13, Number 1:15-25, Winter 2014.  http://contexts.org/articles/winter-2014/selling-people/#shih

Shih, Elena and Elizabeth Bernstein (equal co-authorship). 2014. “The Erotics of Authenticity: Sex Trafficking and ‘Reality Tourism’ in Thailand.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society.

Shih, Elena. Forthcoming 2014. “‘Not in My Backyard’: Genders of Vigilantism in the American Human Trafficking Rescue.” Sociological Perspectives. (Conditional Acceptance).

Shih, Elena. 2013. “Globalising Rehabilitation Regimes: The Moral Economy of Vocational Training in After-Trafficking Work.” In Forcing Issues: Rethinking and Rescaling Human Trafficking in the Asia-Pacific Region, edited by Sallie Yea, Routledge, 64-78.

Shih, Elena. 2013. “Health and Rights at the Margins: Human Trafficking and HIV/AIDS Amongst Jingpo Ethnic Communities in Ruili City, China.” The Anti-Trafficking Review, vol. 2. http://www.antitraffickingreview.org/index.php/atrjournal/article/view/35/56

Shih, Elena. “The High Price of Freedom: Moral Economies of Low Wage Women’s Work in the Transnational Anti-Trafficking Movement.” (Under Review at Social Problems).

Shih, Elena. “Free Market Evangelism: Political Economies of Religion and Secularism in Modern Day Abolition.” (Gender & Society, Revise and Resubmit).


Development Studies 1500: “Seminar in Research Methods and Design”