AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 190

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Session 190: The Laboring Body in the Global Economy of Services

Organizer: Akhil Gupta, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Chair: Shehzad Nadeem, City University of New York, Herbert H. Lehman College, USA

Discussants: Inderpal Grewal, Yale University, USA; Raka Ray, University of California, Berkeley, USA

The outsourcing of call center work to India has been the most visible aspect of the global service economy. Call centers have become the most important employment source for “ordinary” college graduates, and now employ approximately 1 million people in cities of all sizes in India. How do the mostly young employees of call centers experience their conditions of work? While global outsourcing is justified in terms of increased efficiency and cost-savings, workers face long hours, an intense work pace, and temporal displacement. Since so much of the work is at night, employees are faced with novel problems pertaining to health and safety, and especially to social alienation. The fact that middle-class youth, and young women in particular, are working at night has led to moral panics and consternation about the loss of values. In particular, media concerns often focus on the allegedly promiscuous lifestyles led by call center workers. Call center agents are involved most of all in the management of emotion, as they are instructed to greet customers with a “smile” in their voices, and to listen patiently to frustrated consumers. In this panel, we take up the two issues of night work and affective labor to understand some important aspects of globalization in contemporary India. What effects does this form of employment have on the laboring body, on the formation of subjects and subjectivities, and on the spatial patterns and temporal rhythms of social life?

Nocturnal Labor, Diurnal Body, and Global Markets
A. Aneesh, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA

Based on a yearlong ethnographic study of call centers located in Gurgaon, India in 2004-05, this studies focuses on three basic questions: Why do we work at night? Why is there no resistance against night work? And, how is night work being globalized? Exploring the globalization of nightwork and the gradual lifting of legal barriers against the nocturnal shift in the last decade, this paper pursues a larger theoretical inquiry into the increasing neutrality of the global techno-economy to diurnal-nocturnal differences as well as felt differences of social, cultural, and bodily rhythms. The likelihood of resistance against nightwork is shown to be low for a reason not often taken into account: there is no single laboring body left around which a movement could be organized, for the body has been splintered across many domains, and its understandings, cares and cures have been assigned to so many different worlds that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to talk about it from a single vantage point.

The Management of Sleep: Becoming Proper Subjects of the Indian Call Center
Mathangi Krishnamurthy, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Regimes of late capital seem to demand increasingly more flexible life practices from its worker subjects. For example, the foray of call center work among young urban populations in India has led to an entire economy of sleeplessness. Based on two years of ethnographic research among a set of such workers in the university town of Pune, India this paper looks at sleep as one among the varied properties of the body sought to be managed within the realm of global work. While there are extensive and direct ramifications of loss of sleep, and inversion of diurnal rhythms on health and lifestyle, this paper will track through ethnography, montage, film, legislation, and event, the individual, societal and cultural practices that are both essential to and arise out of this maintenance of sleeplessness.

The Fugue of Globalization: Notes Toward a Theory of Cultural Change
Shehzad Nadeem, City University of New York, Herbert H. Lehman College, USA

Too often, globalization is conceived of as a singular and inexorable process. We are constantly beset by provocative but simplistic questions about its effects: Is it flattening the world or producing new inequalities? Homogenizing it or intensifying difference? It is exceedingly difficult to study globalization in general because it is not a unitary phenomenon. It is possible, however, to study its particular figurations, such as the Indian call center industry, which frequently requires employees to don Western identities in providing telemarketing and customer service. Workers also undergo training in Western accents and popular culture and are discouraged from disclosing their geographical location on the phone. To all outward appearances, the names and neutered accents, the workplace cultures and structures, the identities and lifestyles resemble those of their country of origin. Upon closer inspection, however, you see how they diverge from the mold. Mimicry, I shall argue, is not a crude caricature of other ways of being, nor is it the unproblematic transplantation of foreign norms; it signifies their appropriation and transformation as they are anchored in different terrain. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with workers, managers, and executives in India and the United States, this paper examines the complexities of this cultural and economic engagement.

Labor and Love in South Asia: Negotiating Courtship, Marriage, and Divorce at an Indian Call Center
Cari Costanzo Kapur, Stanford University, USA

Indian call center employees work within spaces marked by social values that are often quite different from those governing their own families, and their wider communities. In this paper, I look at the convergence of multiple cultural and social norms at two call centers in Hyderabad staffed by young Indian professionals serving American, British, and Australian clients. What is the impact on Indian call center employees of working in spaces influenced by multiple social norms, particularly those of their overseas clients? What are the ramifications for young, unmarried Indian men and women of working night hours in a mixed-gendered environment? How has opposite-sex fraternizing on and off the job influenced the social subjectivity of call center employees? Focusing on personal accounts of the social terrain that call center employees navigate inside and outside of work, I explore the ways in which multiple cultural norms, gender ideologies, socioeconomic class, and cultural capital intersect to shape ideas about romance, marriage, and family life. In particular, I ask how the cultural, temporal, and social landscape of new, global sites for labor are shaping ideas about, and options for, courtship, marriage, and divorce among young Indian professionals. Instead of seeing globalization as having symmetrical effects on the lives of employees, I suggest that gender, socioeconomic class, cultural capital, and extended family predicaments shape emerging ideas about romantic unions, marriage, divorce, and independent living among employees of global communication centers located in India.

Authenticity Work in the Transnational Service Economy
Kiran Mirchandani, University of Toronto, Canada

In recent years, there has been a dramatic shift in the nature of service work as global processes have facilitated the exchange of services across national boundaries. With the growth of telecommunications technology, the service economy no longer requires the co-location of customer and worker. As a result, customer service has become mobile, operationalized through the growth of call centres around the world. Reports indicate that India appears first on the list of most desirable locations for offshore service work. This paper is based on a project which explores the work experiences of customer service agents in India. 100 interviews with workers at call centres in Bangalore, Delhi and Pune were conducted between 2002 and 2009. The paper explores two sets of processes which structure these new global service workers' jobs - first, a set of relations through which they are distanced from the West and seen as physically remote speakers of a strange version of English who pose little danger to Western economic and national sovereignty. Second, workers are "just like" their customers in the West with the familiarity and ability to connect with clients which is necessary for successful customer service. In reconciling these two demands, workers enter into a complex interplay of colonial histories, gender relations, class enactments and national interests, which are embedded within their “authenticity work”. The paper focuses on the nature of this thus far largely invisible activity - authenticity work - which, I argue, forms the bedrock of transnational service work. This is the work of being authentic and simultaneously being a clone.

Intimate Encounters: Immaterial Labor in Call Centers
Purnima Mankekar, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

In this paper, we draw on our ethnographic research in call centers in Bangalore to examine how immaterial labor has created new affective regimes and, in the process, has reconfigured laboring subjects. Eschewing clichéd accounts of call center “agents” as unequivocally alienated, we examine the intimacies generated by these forms of labor. Even as the labor performed by call center agents is “immaterial,” it is deeply corporeal such that agents must learn to inhabit the body and navigate space in particular ways. The regimes of affect thus produced extend far beyond “the office” and extend into other domains of social life such as the family, the malls and bars where they engage in leisure activities, and the cabs that transport them between “home” and “office.” Thus, drawing on Spinoza’s conception of affect in terms of its capacity to generate action, we trace the (deeply-compromised) agentive capacities of call center agents as they navigate the entangled domains of work, family, and leisure.