Learning Each Other’s Language and Building Trust: Community-Engaged Transdisciplinary Team Building for Research on Human Trafficking Operations and Disruption

Lauren Martin, Mahima Gupta, Kayse L. Maass, Christina Melander, Emily Singerhouse, Kelle Barrick, Tariq Samad, Thomas C. Sharkey, Tonique Ayler, Teresa Forliti, Joy Friedman, Christine Nelson, Drea Sortillion

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Background: Human trafficking for sexual exploitation (referred to as sex trafficking) is a complex global challenge that causes harm and violates human rights. Most research has focused on victim-level harms and experiences, with limited understanding of the networks and business functions of trafficking operations. Empirical evidence is lacking on how to disrupt trafficking operations because it is difficult to study; it is hidden and dangerous, spans academic disciplinary boundaries, and necessitates ways of knowing that include lived experience. Collaborative approaches are needed, but there is limited research on methods to best build transdisciplinary teams. Aim: The aim of this study was to understand how to form a community-engaged transdisciplinary research team that combines qualitative and operations research with a survivor-centered advisory group. Methods: We conducted a qualitative meta-study of our team that is seeking to mathematically model sex trafficking operations. Data were collected from the minutes of 16 team meetings and a survey of 13 team members. Results: Analysis of meeting minutes surfaced four themes related to content and style of communication, one related to value statements, and one capturing intentional team building efforts. Survey results highlighted respect, trust, integrity, openness and asking and answering questions as key aspects of team building. Results show that an action research approach to team building, focused on trust and communication, fostered effective collaboration among social scientists, operations researchers, and survivors of trafficking. Conclusion: Team building, shared language, and trust are essential, yet often neglected, elements of team science. This meta-study provides important methodological insights on community engaged transdisciplinary team formation to tackle vexing social challenges.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalInternational Journal of Qualitative Methods
StatePublished - May 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1838315. The opinions, views, and findings are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.

Funding Information:
The Principal Investigators (PI) of MOST met in 2017 at an invited workshop (); which led to a successful funding application to the National Science Foundation for a multi-site team. The prime award was to a PI at the University of Minnesota who also led the qualitative research in collaboration with a co-PI from RTI International. The operations research was led by co-PIs with sub-awards to Northeastern University and Clemson University. To guide the project, identify ethical issues, and address gaps in knowledge, the project convened a sex trafficking survivor-centered advisory group with survivor-leaders. The MOST team had 15 members across these different areas of expertise during the meta-study time period.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2022.


  • communication
  • human trafficking
  • public engagement
  • sex trafficking
  • team science
  • transdisciplinary
  • trust


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