Julia O'Connell Davidson 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). From 1990 to 2001, she was Lecturer and then Reader in Sociology at the University of Leicester, from 2001 - 2015, she was Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. She has held ESRC awards for projects investigating sex tourism in the Caribbean, and the markets for migrant domestic and sex workers in the UK and Spain, and currently holds a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for a project titled "Modern Slavery and the Margins of Freedom: Debtors, Detainees and Children".
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 has also undertaken research on sex tourism, and on child prostitution(Prostitution, Power and Freedom, 1998, Polity; 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.
At a theoretical level, Julia has been concerned to link her research on prostitution, sex tourism, 'trafficking' and 'modern slavery' to critiques of dominant liberal fictions about contract, freedom, citizenship, human rights, and childhood, 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. These themes are further developed in her most recent book, 'Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedom', Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.