Answer the Call

Answer the Call: Virtual Migration in Indian Call Centers

Aimee Carrillo Rowe
Sheena Malhotra
Kimberlee Pérez
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 280
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt5hjjs7
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  • Book Info
    Answer the Call
    Book Description:

    What happens over time to Indians who spend their working hours answering phone calls from Americans-and acting like Americans themselves? To find out, the authors ofAnswer the Callconducted long-term interviews with forty-five agents, trainers, managers, and CEOs at call centers in Bangalore and Mumbai from 2003 to 2012. For nine or ten hours every day, workers in call centers are not quite in India or America but rather in a state of "virtual migration." Encouraged to steep themselves in American culture from afar, over time the agents come to internalize and indeed perform Americanness for Americans-and for each other.

    Call center agents "migrate" through time and through the virtual spaces generated by voice and information sharing. Drawing from their rich interviews, the authors show that the virtual migration agents undergo has no geographically distant point of arrival, yet their perception of moving is not merely abstract. Over the duration of the job, agents' sense of place and time changes: agents migrate but still remain, leaving them somewhere in between-between India and America, experience and imagination, class mobility and consumption, tradition and modernity, here and there, then and now, past and future.

    However tangible and elastic their virtual mobility might seem in these relatively lucrative jobs, it is also suspended within the confines of the very boundaries they migrate across. Having engaged with these vivid and often poignant interviews, readers will never again be indifferent to an Indian agent's greeting at the other end of a toll-free call: "Hello, my name is Roxanne. How may I help you?"

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4038-0
    Subjects: Political Science, Population Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface: On the Ground
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Answering the Call
    (pp. 1-32)

    Sunita has worked at I2U for about a year, and like a good ethnographer, she has observed call center life carefully. She sits across from us at a small table in a quiet office, sharing thoughtful insights in a soft, clear voice: call center labor is changing India’s values; call center life takes its toll; there are costs to modernizing India. Agents are becoming Westernized, she explains, her tone and gaze remaining steady, as though she’s accustomed to the upheavals she describes. Sunita maintains an embodied sense of tradition: full-bodied, with long, straight hair, she dresses in muted colors and...

  6. 1 The Rhythm of Ambition: Power Temporalities and the Production of the Call Center Agent in U.S. Popular Culture
    (pp. 33-66)

    “Welcome to customer care. Welcome to customer care.” Indian call center agents sound out each syllable in careful U.S. American accents to greet their customers with a well-honed professionalism. So the 2006 PBS WideAngle film1-800-INDIAintroduces the Western viewer, perhaps for the first time through a visual medium, to the Indian worker at the other end of the line. The verbal “welcome” repeats as a disembodied voice-over against a barrage of disparate images: headset-wearing Indian agents sit in sleek office cubicles and nod conversationally; a crowded, narrow street market is peopled with cycle rickshaws, pedestrians, scooters, and vendors; women...

  7. 2 “I Used to Call Myself Elvis”: Suspended Mobilities in Indian Call Centers
    (pp. 67-100)

    This chapter draws on phenomenology and theories of governmentality to account for the politics of experience that shape Indian call center agents’ subject formation. We explore how agents negotiate disparate time and space locations as their identities are pulled and tugged by virtual migration. Ekaraj’s claim, “I used to call myself Elvis,” demonstrates how agents resist, deploy, and internalize the pressure of call center labor like taking pseudonyms. The use of pseudonyms, accent training, and displays of cultural proficiency in the daily experiences of American callers are all necessary practices that agents perform in their jobs. In the basis of...

  8. 3 “I Interact with People from All Over the World”: The Politics of Virtual Citizenship
    (pp. 101-134)

    Contemporary citizenship is caught somewhere between the national and the transnational. A host of forces have rewritten conventional notions of citizenship: the emergence of transnational economies, global flows, outsourcing, and the internationalization of human rights.¹ As free market systems become increasingly transnational, the sources through which individuals imagine themselves as part of a collectivity become dispersed, as do the resources through which they gain the benefits of citizenship. Such processes, in some cases, undermine the capacity of the nation-state to protect and provide for its citizens. Multinational corporations are mobilized not by traditional notions of national belonging but through the...

  9. 4 “I’m Going to Sing It the Way Eminem Sings It”: India’s Network Geography
    (pp. 135-173)

    This chapter explores how network geographies reterritorialize the material spaces and practices of call center agents. Virtual migration animates agents’ subjectivities beyond the telecommunication spaces of their work lives. They live out these transnationalized subject positions in their daily lives as well. As we argue in previous chapters, their labor reconstitutes class boundaries, spatial, and temporal relations. It generates new conditions of possibility for call center agents to virtually migrate across class, national, and temporal boundaries. But this virtual production is also coconstitutive of a host of material and affective adjustments, shifts, and anxieties. As agent Kapil asserts, “So when...

  10. Conclusion: Returning the Call
    (pp. 174-196)

    The Indian call center industry, as Yadav suggests, is a vexed site of possibility and constraint, of increased access to modern subjectivities and of inverted temporal lives. For agents like Yadav, call center life is both the “coolest thing” (it provides the infrastructure, cultural capital, and labor practices, giving them “access to everything over here”) and the “toughest thing” (the health issues caused by the “on and off timing”). Yadav is an agent on whom the long hours have taken a toll. He complains about his health even as he enjoys the material benefits of his job. The center is...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 197-228)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 229-238)
  13. Index
    (pp. 239-243)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 244-244)