Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Margaret Boittin

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Margaret Boittin, professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Her research focuses on the areas of criminal law, international and comparative law, human rights, China, empirical methods, prostitution, and human trafficking.

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

Margaret Boittin
Margaret Boittin

A. I use empirical methods to study comparative and international law and politics. Substantively, I study prostitution, human trafficking, policing, and bureaucracy, with a geographic focus on China and Nepal. My projects draw on both qualitative (ethnographic and interview) and quantitative (randomized controlled trials) research methods.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. I became interested in studying Chinese law and politics after working in China as an English teacher for two years after I graduated from college. The school where I taught was surrounded by brothels, which sparked my interest in prostitution.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. My first project explores what is distinctive about the regulation of the market for sex in China. It shows how enforcement of China’s laws concerning prostitution actually works, how it interacts with the implementation of laws concerning public health and HIV/AIDS prevention, and how the Chinese state’s overriding emphasis on economic vitality and political stability affects these two regulatory concerns. It is based on almost two years of fieldwork, and presents a unique on-the-ground view of legal implementation in China.

My second project evaluates the effects of different types of anti-trafficking mass media campaigns on attitudes and behaviors around human trafficking, in Nepal and China. State agencies and non-governmental organizations rely heavily on such campaigns (for example posters, movies, graphic novels, radio shows) to raise awareness about human trafficking – yet there is very limited research on the effectiveness of such campaigns. Our research allows us to answer questions about overall impacts of such efforts, and also provides a nuanced understanding about the effects of different types of messages (fear-based vs. empowerment-based), and message formats (posters vs. graphic novels vs. radio shows vs. audio-visual).

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. Scholarship in law and political science tends not to use ethnographic methods, an approach I use because I am specifically interested in how various state laws and policies affect the daily lives of sex workers in China.

Margaret Boittin
Margaret Boittin

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. In order to explore legal issues in China, it is important to understand how laws are actually implemented, in addition to analyzing their content. My research on how health, policing and commercial regulatory concerns interact on the ground contributes to our understanding of legal implementation in China, which often differs from what our expectations might be based on the content of the law.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. I am constantly surprised and excited by my findings. For example, in my research on the policing of prostitution, I was surprised at how the police in China act in ways that are very similar to police officers in democratic countries. In that project, I was also pleasantly surprised at the access I was able to get, and the willingness of a variety of different actors in the sex industry to share their experiences with me.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. I have encountered so many roadblocks and challenges while carrying out my research. Fieldwork for my project on prostitution in China was difficult both because research in an authoritarian country such as China is often challenging, and also because prostitution is illegal in China, so it is a particularly sensitive topic. I overcame these barriers with patience and persistence.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. My research on anti-trafficking media campaigns opens up possibilities for better designing such awareness programs in the future, in order to increase awareness understanding of the phenomenon and hopefully contribute to reducing its occurrence.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

My research is very interdisciplinary. I have a law degree, as well as a PhD in political science, and the research questions I ask are often at the intersection of law and politics. I also combine a variety of different quantitative and qualitative research methods in my projects.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. I did both a JD and a PhD in political science because of research interests that touched on both disciplines.

Osgoode Hall Law School photograph of the building interior
Osgoode Hall Law School

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. In fall 2015, I taught a course in Chinese Law, and in winter 2016, I’m teaching a research methods course in the graduate program in law. In my Chinese Law course, I regularly bring in my fieldwork experiences, as they shed insight into many of the differences between “law on the books” and “law in action” in countries with weak rule-of-law such as China. My research methods course also draws on many of my own experiences with designing and implementing research projects.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

Choose a topic about which you are passionate.  Be extremely persistent when you encounter obstacles in the research process.  Failure is part of the experience: don’t let it discourage you, and focus instead on how it can make you a better researcher in the future.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. I started graduate school in 2004, and before starting my position at Osgoode a few months ago, I was a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford for two years.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. I’m a faithful reader of The New Yorker.  I’m a fan of the podcast Serial, as well as Ira Glass’s radio show This American Life.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I enjoy running and cooking.