Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Karen Strassler

Committee Members

Mandana Limbert

Angela Reyes

Elisabeth Schober

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maritime transportation, economic globalization, critical mobilities, technocapitalism and labor, supply chain dynamics and politics, social infrastructures and social logistics


This dissertation discusses the mobility politics of container shipping and argues that technological development, political-economic order, and social infrastructure co-produce one another. Containerization, the use of standardized containers to carry cargo across modes of transportation that is said to have revolutionized and globalized international trade since the late 1950s, has served to expand and extend the power of international coalitions of states and corporations to control the movements of commodities (shipments) and labor (seafarers). The advent and development of containerization was driven by a sociotechnical imaginary and international social contract of seamless shipping and cargo flows. In practice, this liberal, “level” system depends on asymmetrical power relations and uneven geographies, legalities, and mobilities to operationalize, as well as multiscalar motivation and negotiation to iron out its sociotechnical chokepoints. Logistics imperatives and technical governance of container shipping end up imposing forms of structural and symbolic violence on international seafarers as its hands-on operators, with the supply chain and crew change crises during the COVID-19 global pandemic being an exacerbation of longstanding systemic instabilities and injustices.

Through long-term ethnographic fieldwork conducted at ports in Asia and North America, on board, and online, I adopt a more-than-nonhuman approach to foreground the social embeddedness of so-called streamline shipping, an industry hailed as highly mechanized and technologized. I open the black box of containerization and shed light on the often-invisibilized “human element” of the industry, revealing the social costs, politics, and dynamics involved in the shipping system. In addition to understanding the mechanics of shipping operation, I investigate neoliberal trade policies, security paradigms and protocols, managerialist international conventions, circulationist business models, rationality of civil engineering, and other industrial discourses and practices that constitute containerization. I delineate the ontology of the container ship with its working seafarers by examining its Taylorist scientific management that, through disconnection, danger, and discipline, attempts to run the ship as a total institution across and beyond national jurisdictions. At the same time, I situate the ship in a sea of international social choreography, relations, and expectations, and scrutinize the role of various social infrastructures and social logistics in mitigating and facilitating labor exploitation.

Overall, this dissertation highlights that both the operational efficiencies that drive container shipping and the periodic crises that destabilize it are significantly borne on the backs of seafarers toiling out of sight, out of mind. The dissertation brings to the fore these marginalized maritime subjects – nowadays mostly men from the global south regions of Asia – by studying their ethnonationality, masculinist familism, shore-oriented aspirations for socioeconomic mobility, and intercrew and interport networks of constrained mobilization. I argue that these sociocultural rationales and processes are integral to the technical operation of international supply chains that sustain societies and economies around the world.

Included in

Admiralty Commons, Asian Studies Commons, Business Law, Public Responsibility, and Ethics Commons, Christianity Commons, Civic and Community Engagement Commons, Civil Engineering Commons, Collective Bargaining Commons, Commercial Space Operations Commons, Community-Based Research Commons, East Asian Languages and Societies Commons, Ethics in Religion Commons, Family, Life Course, and Society Commons, Gender and Sexuality Commons, History of Christianity Commons, History of Religion Commons, History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Commons, Human Geography Commons, Human Resources Management Commons, Human Rights Law Commons, Hydraulic Engineering Commons, Industrial Engineering Commons, Industrial Organization Commons, Industrial Technology Commons, Inequality and Stratification Commons, Infrastructure Commons, International and Comparative Labor Relations Commons, International and Intercultural Communication Commons, International Business Commons, International Law Commons, Interpersonal and Small Group Communication Commons, Jurisdiction Commons, Labor Economics Commons, Law and Economics Commons, Law and Politics Commons, Law of the Sea Commons, Leadership Commons, Leadership Studies Commons, Legal Studies Commons, Migration Studies Commons, Missions and World Christianity Commons, Nonprofit Administration and Management Commons, Nonprofit Studies Commons, Ocean Engineering Commons, Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology Commons, Operational Research Commons, Operations and Supply Chain Management Commons, Organizational Behavior and Theory Commons, Organization Development Commons, Other Anthropology Commons, Other International and Area Studies Commons, Policy Design, Analysis, and Evaluation Commons, Political Economy Commons, Political Science Commons, Politics and Social Change Commons, Practical Theology Commons, Race and Ethnicity Commons, Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies Commons, Risk Analysis Commons, Science and Technology Policy Commons, Science and Technology Studies Commons, Social and Cultural Anthropology Commons, Social Justice Commons, Social Policy Commons, Social Work Commons, Sociology of Religion Commons, South and Southeast Asian Languages and Societies Commons, Systems Engineering Commons, Systems Science Commons, Technology and Innovation Commons, Transportation Commons, Transportation Engineering Commons, Unions Commons, Urban, Community and Regional Planning Commons, Urban Studies Commons, Urban Studies and Planning Commons, Work, Economy and Organizations Commons