Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Accounting, Economics and Finance, Faculty of Business


Purpose: This thesis examines environmental narrative disclosures of Royal Dutch Shell plc (hereafter Shell) of oil spills in Nigeria to explore accountability for social and environmental disasters in a developing-country context. Shell has been under intense public scrutiny over its oil operations in the Niger Delta, especially following the activities of anti-oil activists in the late 1990s. This thesis highlights the discursive construction of oil spills and explores issues of responsibility where multinational corporations exist alongside extreme poverty.

Design/Methodology/Approach: In order to interrogate the discourse and explore power relations in the production of public documents, this thesis adopts a critical approach to analyse Shell’s sustainability reports, annual reports of the operating subsidiary for the period 2000-2010 and a response letter to major shareholders. Elite theory (Etzioni, 1993; Bottomore 1993; 1991) was developed for this research as an integration of Mills’s (1956) conception of power elites, and applied to Shell as a corporate elite in Nigeria to expose and explain how power and dominance are enacted. Since discourse is produced in a socio-political context, Fairclough’s (1989, 1992, 1995, 2001) Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which recognises the inequality and power dimension in the production of text, is used to explore this context through three levels of analysis: discourse as text, discourse as discursive practice and discourse as social practice. In combination, CDA and the concept of corporate elites expose and challenge the corporate rhetoric and meaning ascribed to oil spills, as well as the power relationship operating via public discourse.

Findings: The key findings illustrate that Shell is in a position to dominate and shape the discourse of oil spills via corporate public discourse. While oil spills are considered ‘external’ phenomena, Shell encompasses both accidental and intentional oil spills within their public discourse and effectively circumscribes a boundary of responsibility for oil spills. In other words, Shell interprets the nature and subsequent responsibility for what is considered an ‘environmental disaster’. This is enabled by several factors, including a weak regulatory environment, the relationship between Shell and the Nigerian government, the production and dissemination of corporate accountability reports (such as mandated annual reports and voluntary sustainability reports) and the power inequality from the coexistence of the poor in a resource-rich country.

Research Contributions: This research makes three contributions to the literature. First, it contributes to accounting studies of corporate narrative disclosures of a multinational corporation (MNC) operating as an elite in a developing country, in this case Nigeria, and explicitly demonstrates how corporate narrative disclosures depend on the socio-political context in the country of operation. Second, the application of CDA makes visible the conditions that facilitate elite discourse in corporate narrative disclosures. Third, it departs from traditional accounting studies of disclosures by using an interdisciplinary focus on words and meaning from within the text. The application of elite theory in an accounting context allows an understanding of how public elite discourse is crucially involved in the reproduction of dominance and inequality in corporate narrative disclosures. This is of great importance, given that the current global society faces severe environmental issues, inequality and poverty, especially in developing countries.

Research Limitations: As this research is based on the availability of public discourse, one of the limitations encountered was the limited access to the public discourse of Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary SPDC and the Nigerian government. While 10 years of Shell’s sustainability reports were available, the SPDC annual reports were only publicly available for a period of six years from 2000-2006.

Future Research: There are a number of research opportunities arising from this thesis. The example of Shell as a corporate elite in Nigeria is fundamental in understanding the role of multinational corporations (MNCs) and their operations in developing countries. Therefore, there is an opportunity to study Nigeria and other MNCs given that other major oil companies operate in the country. This work can also be applied to Shell’s operations in other developing countries, such as Somalia, where the context of the company’s operations is very similar. This thesis also provides an example of public/private partnership between an MNC and a developing country which can be contrasted to public/private partnerships in developed countries. Further studies could explore partnerships in a similar context and in different locations.