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Julia O'Connell Davidson

Professor of Sociology, University of Nottingham

Julia O'Connell Davidson has been Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham since September 2001. She studied Sociology with Psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Bath (1982-86) and for her PhD in the Department of Sociology at the University of Bristol (1987-90).

Julia has a longstanding research interest in work and economic life that started from a concern with the variability of capitalist employment relations which she explored in her 1993 book, Privatization and Employment Relations: The Case of the Water Industry (Cassell) and a number of journal articles and book chapters on the restructuring of work and employment in privatised utilities and the use of franchising in milk distribution. In the mid 1990s, she started to research prostitution as a form of non-standard work and to address questions about what, precisely, is exchanged in the prostitution contract and the diversity of prostitution in terms of its social organisation and the power relations it involves (both globally and nationally). She conducted ethnographic and interview work with sex workers and their clients in the UK, and then a series of studies of the tourism-related sex trade in developing countries, including Thailand, Cuba, Costa Rica, Venezuela, India, and South Africa. This work, as well as later ESRC funded research in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, and research in Russia and China commissioned by Save the Children Sweden, allowed her to engage critically with feminist debates on prostitution (Prostitution, Power and Freedom, 1998, Polity) as well as to explore theoretical and policy debates surrounding child prostitution (Children in the Global Sex Trade, 2005, Polity).

In 2001, she and Bridget Anderson (COMPAS, University of Oxford) were commissioned by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct multi-country pilot research on 'the demand side of trafficking'. They were asked to focus on two sectors - prostitution and domestic work - and they subsequently developed this research through an ESRC funded project examining the markets for migrant sex and domestic workers in the UK and Spain. This research has informed a number of publications that explore that definitional problems associated with the term 'trafficking', critique dominant discourse on 'trafficking as modern slavery' and challenge the framing of 'trafficking' as a problem of transnational crime as opposed to a migrants' rights issue. Julia has also been involved in research on child migration, child 'trafficking' and child rights.

This research has had significant impact, informing debate on 'trafficking' amongst international agencies and NGOs, and empowering them to campaign and lobby for anti-trafficking measures that respect and promote the rights of migrants, sex workers, and children. It has redefined the focus of international policy onto the 'demand side of trafficking' away from a narrow concern with prostitution and towards all contexts in which migrants are vulnerable to exploitation. It has impacted on prostitution policy in the UK; and has also encouraged children's NGOs to adopt new approaches to child migration and 'trafficking'.

At a theoretical level, Julia has been concerned to link her research on prostitution, sex tourism, and 'trafficking' to critiques of dominant liberal fictions about contract, freedom, citizenship and human rights, as well as to questions of power, especially the question of how we can critique those theoretical traditions that approach power as domination without slipping into the relativism and subjectivism of much post-modern and post-structuralist theory.

Julia currently holds a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for a project titled 'Modern slavery and the margins of freedom: Debtors, detainees and children'


  • –present
    Professor of Sociology, University of Nottingham