A business empire and its migrants: Royal Dutch Shell and the management of racial capitalism

Sarah Kunz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


This paper traces the category “expatriate” in the Royal Dutch Shell Group of Companies, focusing on two key moments of corporate structural change in the 1950s and 1990s. The paper examines how the “expatriate” was materially and narratively produced by the corporation, by employees labelled expatriate and by spouses. It interrogates continuities and transformations, and their power effects, inquiring who became an expatriate, for what purposes, what meaning the category was inscribed with, and how it was lived. The central argument of the paper is that the Shell “expatriate” has a postcolonial genealogy: its constitution, functions, and lived experience cannot be understood without accounting for histories of European imperialism. The category initially reified imperial power relations – indeed, was instrumental to their racialised production. The mid‐century “racial break” prompted changes, yet did not result in the wholesale decolonisation of corporate mobilities and managerial hierarchies as imperial differentiations and logics continued to work in the postcolonial corporation, if in adapted and ambiguous ways. Similarly, the Shell “expatriate” was a gendered construct that not only denoted husbands’ corporate control but increasingly depended on women's organisational, emotional, and social labour, until its gendered destabilisation in the 1990s. The shifting and fragmented category “expatriate” thus reflects how racialised and gendered logics were (re)worked, by and for corporate management, in contested and ambiguous ways. More generally, the paper historicises contemporary managerial arrangements of multinational firms, which depend squarely on migration, and shows them to be central to the postcolonial production of racial capitalism. It thereby contributes to furthering the dialogue between postcolonial and economic approaches in geography.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)377-391
Number of pages15
JournalTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Issue number2
Early online date28 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - 14 May 2020


  • expatriate
  • migration
  • multinational business
  • postcolonialism
  • racial capitalism


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