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Talking to Snakeheads: Methodological Considerations for Research on Chinese Human Smuggling (From Offenders on Offending: Learning About Crime From Criminals, P 184-204, 2010, Wim Bernasco, ed. - See NCJ-232627)

NCJ Number
Sheldon X. Zhang
Date Published
21 pages
This chapter discusses the field strategies used by the author to gain access to the secretive world of Chinese human smuggling groups ("snakeheads"), strategies that seem to have been effective for the author over the years.
The author first reviews the origin of the term "snakehead" as used to refer to organizing or coordinating the transportation of people into another country without going through legal immigration channels. This is coupled with an overview of where human smuggling fits in the realm of organized crime. The author then provides a chronology of his venture into research on the snakeheads. From the mid-1990s, he began exploring the topic by approaching a few of his friends who were apparently snakeheads. It was not difficult to find snakeheads in Fuzhou and its adjacent counties in the 1990s, despite the criminal nature of the business. The most concentrated field work on Chinese human smuggling occurred between 1999 and 2001, when the author and Ko-lin Chin of Rutgers University received a grant from the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Justice Department. A variety of strategies were used in the research, including face-to-face interviews, social conversations and field observation, and the use of secondary sources such as government documents and news media stories. A total of 129 snakeheads were interviewed in the United States and China. These people were directly involved in recruiting, organizing, and transporting Chinese nationals illegally into the United States or other countries. This chapter describes how snakeheads were found, the structure and content of the interviews, and strategies used to improve validity and reliability of field data. Other issues discussed are methodological limitations, the hazards of doing prolonged fieldwork, and issues in protecting human subjects. 34 references