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Phone Clones

Phone Clones: Authenticity Work in the Transnational Service Economy

Kiran Mirchandani
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Phone Clones
    Book Description:

    Transnational customer service workers are an emerging touchstone of globalization given their location at the intersecting borders of identity, class, nation, and production. Unlike outsourced manufacturing jobs, call center work requires voice-to-voice conversation with distant customers; part of the product being exchanged in these interactions is a responsive, caring, connected self. In Phone Clones, Kiran Mirchandani explores the experiences of the men and women who work in Indian call centers through one hundred interviews with workers in Bangalore, Delhi, and Pune.

    As capital crosses national borders, colonial histories and racial hierarchies become inextricably intertwined. As a result, call center workers in India need to imagine themselves in the eyes of their Western clients-to represent themselves both as foreign workers who do not threaten Western jobs and as being "just like" their customers in the West. In order to become these imagined ideal workers, they must be believable and authentic in their emulation of this ideal. In conversation with Western clients, Indian customer service agents proclaim their legitimacy, an effort Mirchandani calls "authenticity work," which involves establishing familiarity in light of expectations of difference. In their daily interactions with customers, managers and trainers, Indian call center workers reflect and reenact a complex interplay of colonial histories, gender practices, class relations, and national interests.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6414-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: The Authentic Clone
    (pp. 1-15)

    What happens when you need to be yourself and like someone else at the same time? This is the central demand placed on transnational service workers, who form a large and growing part of the global economy. In response, workers perform an elaborate set of largely invisible activities, which I term authenticity work. Based on interviews with one hundred transnational call center workers in India this book describes their authenticity work as they refashion themselves into ideal Indian workers who can expertly provide synchronous, voice-to-voice customer service for clients in the West. The experiences of Indian call center workers sheds...

  6. 1 Transnational Customer Service: A New Touchstone of Globalization
    (pp. 16-35)

    The globalization of customer service work provides a unique opportunity to explore contemporary transnational economic processes. Unlike many other forms of service work where workers and customers interact face-to-face, call center agents are embodied through voice. There are three dynamics that occur in the voice-embodied interactions between Western customers and Indian agents. First, workers enter into a complex set of class politics in relation to their employers, customers, and coworkers. Second, part of their work involves servicing citizenship and negotiating the borders of nations. Third, call center workers engage simultaneously in production and social reproduction through their emotional and aesthetic...

  7. 2 Language Training: The Making of the Deficient Worker
    (pp. 36-53)

    In the minute-long conversations that Indian workers have with customers in the West, lifelong identities and century-long histories are evoked. Sara Ahmed observes that identities are constantly constituted and reconstituted in daily meetings with others. In encounters that arise out of colonial histories, as is the case with transnational service work, the connections between those involved in the dialogue is necessarily unequal.¹ The worker quoted above knows himself as deficient in his English language only because he is paid to provide customer service to customers in the West. In this chapter, I explore the extensive language training that prospective customer...

  8. 3 Hate Nationalism and the Outsourcing Backlash
    (pp. 54-71)

    While telephone lines are crystal clear, call center workers are at the front line of the static-filled cross-connections arising from the opposing rhetoric of global capitalism and nationalism. Free trade agreements idealize the unfettered transfer of capital according to the demands of the market. At the same time, national governments are elected on platforms that promise access to jobs for residents.¹ The jousting between protectionism and free trade occurs on a daily basis on the calls between Indian customer service agents in India and customers in the West. This chapter explores the ways in which, through these conversations, national interests...

  9. 4 Surveillance Schooling for Professional Clones
    (pp. 72-100)

    The image of the Indian customer service worker is produced not only by workers themselves but also through a massive coalition of media, government, and business-allied interests within India. The construction of Indian workers as permanently deficient in English (Chapter 2) and as faraway strangers and job thieves (Chapter 3) is juxtaposed with prolific well-crafted statements on Indians as knowledgeable, entrepreneurial, broad-minded, and trainable. This chapter explores the ways in which an economy of familiarity runs through constructions of Indian customer service workers. Like the economy of difference, this is when familiarity is put to work by “involving circuits of...

  10. 5 “Don’t Take Calls, Make Contact!”: Legitimizing Racist Abuse
    (pp. 101-118)

    In an article published in the Harvard Business Review a leading consultant provides the following advice to call center operators: “Don’t take calls, make contact.”¹ This is exactly the requirement placed on Indian customer service agents who are required to make “contact” despite their construction as strange and distant job thieves (as discussed in Chapters 2 and 3). This contact is achieved through an elaborate output of emotional labor that is an integral part of all service work. Both male and female Indian customer service workers are required to perform acts traditionally associated with femininity as a routine part of...

  11. 6 Being Nowhere in the World: Synchronous Work and Gendered Time
    (pp. 119-132)

    Such images of spatial and temporal loneliness pepper customer service agents’ reflections on their work. Despite their daily virtual migrations, workers feel deeply embedded in their local, immediate, physical contexts. One of the widely cited advantages of the outsourcing of software programming to India is that work can occur around the clock. Work done at head offices in the West can be continued in offshore locations during their day so that organizations can operate continuously. Call center workers, however, do not work when their counterparts in the West are asleep. Due to the synchronous nature of customer service work and...

  12. Conclusion: Authenticity Work in the Transnational Service Economy
    (pp. 133-142)

    The focus on authenticity work highlights the proactive, conscious, and continual negotiation of sameness and difference that is the bedrock of the transnational service economy. This work is largely invisible and rarely spoken about. It is closely related to dimensions of work that theorists have referred to as invisible work, emotion work, tailoring work, immaterial labor, bodywork, interpretive work, caring work, and aesthetic labor.¹ I argue, however, that the term authenticity work highlights an important dimension that is thus far underexplored—the work of establishing legitimacy in the context of colonial histories and transnational economic relations. As the chapters in...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 143-168)
  14. Index
    (pp. 169-174)