Scholar in Residence

Scholars in Residence are known for their outstanding academic achievements and pursue a particular research project that coincides with the research conducted at the MPIfG.

Prof.  Karen Shire, PhD

Prof. Karen Shire, PhD

Scholar in Residence 2021/22

Karen Shire is Professor of Comparative Sociology and Japanese Society at the University of Duisburg-Essen, where she is also a member of the Institute of East Asian Studies and director of the Essen College for Gender Research. She is the MPIfG Scholar in Residence in the winter semester 2021/2022. Her research engages in national, transnational, and inter-regional comparisons of employment changes and their impact on social inequalities in the global economy. Her recent research examines the emergence of cross-border labor markets in Europe and the Asia Pacific, the origins and transformation of gender regimes in conservative welfare states, and the political economy of informal and forced labor. She will be offering a lectures series during her stay at the MPIfG.


Scholar in Residence Lectures “Regulating Transnational Labor”

In her lecture series Karen Shire develops an economic sociological approach to the making and regu­lation of transnational labor markets in the global economy. What makes the cross-border mobility of migrant labor possible is the subject of migration infrastructures research, while labor market scholars have restricted their analyses to migrants in the context of national labor market institutions. In their approaches to regulation, migration scholars often advocate for free movement, while labor scholars focus on how cross-border labor threatens hard-won labor protections. Karen Shire’s three lectures seek to gain leverage on the contradictions between liberalizing labor mobility and regulating employment across territorial jurisdictions by drawing on research exploring the organization and coordination of cross-border labor markets, and the interface between legal and illegal market exchanges. Empirically the talks draw on historical research on the emergence of modern labor markets, contemporary research on labor governance, and her own empirical studies of cross-border labor mobility in the Asia Pacific and the European Union. The lectures will be on June 7, 14, and 21, 2022, 5 p.m., at the MPIfG, Paulstr. 3, 50676 Köln. Please register by email to

Selected Publications

Tuesday, June 7, 2022 | Theorizing Regulatory Challenges of Transnational Labor
An increasing share of migration no longer results in immigration and settlement, but takes the form of temporary and circular exchanges of labor across borders. Examples include posted work, labor subcontracting, cross-border temporary staffing, illegal forms of forced and trafficked labor, but also “medium-skilled” industrial and service work. Building on theoretical discussions in the economic sociology of markets and labor sociology, Shire proposes a reconceptualization of migration as the organization of cross-border labor markets. The lecture focuses on the multiplicity of market-making actors, the coordination problems specific to the transnational exchange of labor power, and regulatory challenges and solutions in a comparative transnational perspective. Recent research has focused mainly on the private governance of labor in the global economy. The talk explores the evidence of an expanding role for public governance and the extension of associational capacities for labor representation across national borders.

Recommended for preparatory reading:

Tuesday, June 14, 2022 | Cross-Border Labor Market Intermediaries

In this second lecture Shire draws on global historical research to show how the creation and maintenance of an industrial labor force was rooted in forms of indentured migrant labor, recruited and transported by profit-taking intermediaries. The historical record, and a global perspective, challenges the association made between the emergence of “free” wage labor and direct employment with the rise of industrial capitalism. These historical insights into the origins of modern labor markets are important for two reasons. First, debt is shown to play a central role in understanding how migration creates vulnerabilities, becomes a source of profit, and is used as a mechanism of control. Second, where intermediaries are in play, labor power is not exchanged by those who embody it; rather, labor power is being sold.  International conventions from the interwar period in part recognized the key role of private intermediaries in the commodification and control of migrant labor, with solutions rooted in establishing a monopoly for public labor exchanges. This course was reversed in the 1990s, when the ILO nullified previous conventions and enacted a new one legitimating private fee-charging employment services. The lecture examines how private intermediaries have become dominant actors again in cross-border labor markets, the multiplicity of forms now taken by cross-border intermediation, and the struggles to protect workers who “use the services” of intermediaries. While most studies of regulatory efforts have been situated on destination countries and enterprise-level interventions, recent research on intermediaries in the Asia Pacific and cross-border labor subcontracting in the European Union points to the regulatory agency of sending states and the importance of licensing and monitoring commercial labor businesses for improving labor protections.

Recommended for preparatory reading:

  • Shire, Karen, Steffen Heinrich, Jun Imai, Hannelore Mottweiler, Markus Tünte, and Chih-Chieh Wang. 2018. "Private Labor Market Intermediaries in Cross-Border Labor Markets in Europe and Asia: International Norms, Regional Actors and Patterns of Cross-Border Labor Mobility." In Transnationale Arbeit, edited by Sigrid Quack, Ingo Schulz-Schaeffer, Karen Shire, and Anja Weiss, 155–83. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022 | Trafficked, Forced, and Informalized Labor
The extreme exploitation of labor in the form of trafficked, forced, or informalized employment has pervaded the labor-intensive, low-wage segments of labor markets across the global economy. While the discussion of regulatory pathways in this series of lectures so far has attributed challenges to gaps in international conventions and national/sectoral regulations, in this domain, international rules and normative principles are extensive and widely shared. Moreover, extreme exploitation is not confined to the institutionally thinner labor market contexts of the developing world. The available statistics suggest that a large share of trafficked labor is situated in Europe and occurs between the EU member states. Why, then, does extreme exploitation persist, even where conventions are ratified, norms become guiding principles, and employment is heavily regulated at the national level? In this last lecture the persistence of forced and informalized labor in the advanced economies is explained in reference to an intersectional understanding of social inequalities that involves an analysis of gender and global inequalities as well as post-industrial capitalism in the constitution of the global economy. The relative weight given to regulations designed for protecting the class-based vulnerabilities of dependent wage laborers in the postwar settlements and institutions of industrial citizenship in part accounts for why states with strong regulatory capacities have been caught off guard in addressing contemporary forms of triangular and indebted labor, both of which exploit vulnerabilities based as much on inequalities rooted in gender and citizenship as on the inequalities fundamental to the fictional commodification of labor power. The dynamics of forced and informalized labor are discussed in reference to Shire’s recent research on the regulation of prostitution and welfare markets for domestic/care labor in Europe.

Recommended for preparatory reading:

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