In Conversation – Sarah Kunz on the Migrant Category “Expat”

Modernity, Management, and Whiteness

Sarah Kunz is a Leverhulme Early Career Scholar at University of Bristol. Her research looks at privileged migration, the category expatriate, and the investment migration industry, centring issues of unequal citizenship, coloniality and race in relation to transnational mobility. Her work has been published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies,Geography Compass and Ethnic and Racial Studies. Her work addresses the colonial contexts of resource extraction and globalized networks of accumulation through which categories of movement such as “expat” and “migrant” come to be defined.

Matthew: Your work looks at this category of expat and there’s been some attention in the literature recently about what expat means, but your work goes to the heart of how this category was developed. What led you to an interest in the genealogy of the expat?

Sarah: I realized there was a real bias in how we think about migration, including in migration studies. When I came across the term “expat”, I found it fascinating because it seemed to epitomize the whole story of how some people are taken out of that category ‘migrant’ and put in this more glamorous category, this seemingly more valuable form of mobility. Then I realized, the term ‘expatriate’ actually has all of these different histories. So, if you follow the term expatriate, you read, for example, about the Lost Generation [after World War I], including African American artists and intellectuals living in Paris, but you also read about both exploited and privileged South Asian workers in the Gulf States. I became interested in seeing how people apply the term, and how that changed over time, and with what social and political effects. I really like Ann Laura Stoler’s work on colonial archives, looking at how racial categories are formed and how they are so fragile, and blurry, and yet so powerful. I thought maybe I could do something similar with these migration categories, which are not explicitly racial but still so often racialized and doing racist work

Matthew: Can you tell us about working in the archives? How did you use the archive and what light did it shed on how expat is used? 

Sarah: One archive I came across is the Expatriate Archive Center, which is located in The Hague. They are a lovely institution with lots of amazing collections. Their aim is to collect the life stories of expatriates worldwide. Beside doing research in the archive, I was also interested in whose stories they collect, who actually makes it into the archive? The archive was started by self-styled “Shell wives”—the wives of Shell executives who worked abroad – and suddenly, I was reading all of these memory documents from the wives of, you know, high up Shell managers and there was a whole different story about migration here. This also led me to questions about how institutions like archives, through archival work like collecting, indexing and curating source materials, shape categories like “expatriate”.

Academic literature is its own kind of archive. I started reading international human resource management literature from the nineteen fifties to now as an archive of how the expatriate has been constructed in management theory. Academic literature of course participates in constructing migration categories. And the way that this literature constructs the expatriate is very much entangled with business practice and the inequalities of the global economy and so on. So, each archive gave a slightly different picture of who or what is an expatriate. And these different expatriates spoke on their broader social contexts and inequalities, too.

Matthew: One of the things that you do in your Transactions article on Shell is you talk about how Shell workers’ identity as “expats” is built around this notion that their lives transcend context. Can you say a little bit more about that? 

Sarah Kunz

Sarah: I started reading Shell wives’ memoirs, and those of former Shell managers and a key narrative trope was “living in mobility.” So, for example one anthology published by the ‘Shell Ladies’ is called ‘Life on the Move’, and it was centred on this notion of living in mobility under the “Shell umbrella.” So, the “Shell umbrella” was a term that came up, or “living in a Shell world”, you know, and then the “Shell family.” Their lives were incredibly cosmopolitan but also highly circumscribed: very particular social protocols, very homogeneous, and that’s partly because the whole corporate management system was built on homogeneity, loyalty, and identification with the corporation. At the same time, they were geographically very mobile. Especially in the post-war era, people were moved every couple of years and this constant movement was part of this explicit policy to foster loyalty to the company, and foster loyalty to each other, and prevent loyalty to any particular place of residence. So, out of this very particular form of movement later arose an identity of “the global citizen”, or “global nomad”, the “global village” – all of these terms crop up in that writing. It was really interesting to me how initially, in the 1990s, when these self-styled ‘Shell Ladies’ started publishing their own anthologies, they very clearly situated themselves within Shell: they wrote for the Shell community, they were aiming to represent the experiences of Shell wives to the Shell community, to the Shell company, and so on. But then out of that, over the years, emerged this general “expat” identity. Suddenly they were not just Shell wives, or Shell men, or Shell families, they were “expats,” “global citizens.” But this general “expat” identity still always had a tinge of entitlement, “we own the globe,” in a sense, or at least “we obviously have access to the globe” that reflects the privileges that come with being upper echelon Shell staff. And my analysis here of course echoes so many arguments that have been made about how the global is constructed, how it is imagined from often a very particular position.

Matthew: You mentioned how the category expat is associated with whiteness, but you also discuss how it signals global modernity. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that? 

Sarah: It was important for me to recognize and study the ‘normative whiteness’ of the term ‘expatriate’, meaning its habitual association with whiteness. But at the same time there are many people who identify as expats, who aren’t white. I think it’s really important to recognize and to study those experiences of being an expat, too. The literature has not always done this. The term expat is habitually applied to white migrants, and so we only study white migrants as expats, if that makes sense. So to some extent I have tried not to do that. Another dominant reading of expatriate is that of the highly skilled worker, associated with multinational business. And it’s no historical accident that the category expatriate tethers whiteness, management, and modernity. This of course speaks to on-going histories of Euro-American empire, colonialism, and white supremacy. Expatriate was adopted by corporations as a category to describe professionals and managers that were sent abroad to set up and manage subsidiaries or fill particular posts that needed a particular skill set or were seen as business critical. These migrants were never framed as migrants, actually, some management theory still tries to define expatriates against migrants, and define expatriate’s valuable mobility against migrants’ more or less problematic mobility. The inter-linkage of whiteness and corporate management and multinational business and neoliberal globalization, and the framing of that whole complex as modernity, tethers these particular identities. 

Matthew: It seems that people narrate their lives and experiences as being very “modern” or very “advanced”. 

Sarah: Exactly. There’s a definite value judgment there, and then obviously, it’s also the idea of modernity in the sense of progress. Expatriate mobilities are framed as valuable mobilities that, you know, further development, further global integration. So, you have humanitarian aid workers, or development personnel, you have corporate managers, those are your expats, and they are often seen as bringing progress and modernity to those places that apparently “don’t have it yet.”

Matthew: How do you think your exploration of Shell expatriates might inform migration studies more broadly? 

Sarah: Migration studies often focuses on the disadvantaged, and I’m obviously not the only one who has argued that it might be fruitful to broaden the focus. Basically, public and political discourse, and scholarship, often imagine the migrant as non-white, marginal, disempowered, and potentially exploited subjects who move from “the Rest to the West,” to put it in simplistic terms. 

But if we look at the migrant as a category that underwrites a lot of today’s racist politics that are supposedly about migration, but are really about racism, and sexism, then reproducing that reified category, migrant, plays into the hands of those ethno-nationalist, racist politics that are played out on the discursive site of migration. That’s what I’ve tried to argue in the JEMS article.

So I think we have to be careful to not reify that category, and not pretend that all migrants are always, have always been disempowered. That too easily leads to assumptions that obviously, if you’re a migrant, you’re disempowered because, you know, supposedly that’s what migrants are. But, of course, if you look at privileged migrants like many colonial settlers or Shell executives, these are very different stories and experiences of being a migrant that I think we have to take them into account. They destabilize our understanding of the migrant and, ultimately, I think, allow us to challenge inequality and injustice more effectively. They also allow us to see which aspects of the experience of less privileged migrants are actually due to their migrant status, and which are really down to broader racialized, classed and gendered forms of inequality. Understanding the structures and workings of social inequality better in this way will allow challenging them more effectively, I think.

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