- Phone Clones: Authenticity Work in the Transnational Service Economy by Kiran Mirchandani
The rapid growth of transnationally outsourced call centre work in India during the first decade of the 21st century has, in the public imagination as it has for scholars, offered a rich symbol of the broader transformations of labour within global capitalism. University of Toronto scholar Kiran Mirchandani’s book on call centre labour in India offers us a compelling view of the labour processes and workforce subjectivities being forged at the heart of this shift. Bolstered by a strong command of the burgeoning literature on call centres and the workers driving them, the author’s approach is especially attuned to how the experiences of Indian call centre [End Page 225] workers are shaped by a “complex interplay of colonial histories, class relations, and national interests” (3).
Mirchandani’s book draws on a hundred interviews (mostly with workers, but also with managers, team leaders, and trainers) conducted on five separate research visits to New Delhi, Bangalore and Pune between 2002 and 2009—seven crucial years in the expansion of this highly communicative economic sector. Throughout the text, Mirchandani seeks to make frontline workers’ experiences the “bedrock” (27) of the study. Her extensive quoting from the interviews—which were conducted independently of call centre management and thus, for workers, beyond the reach of a gaze that would inhibit openness—enables the reader to access workers’ “off-the-phone selves” (30). In the process, we are offered a glimpse of what anthropologist James C. Scott might call the “hidden transcript” of the Indian call centre labour force that daily tends to the communicative requirements of global capitalism. The worker-focused nature of Mirchandani’s research project and its meticulous attention to the production of subjectivity occurring within this profession as it plays out in the Indian context give the book its distinct character.
The ambiguous nature of call centre labour has been widely noted by researchers. As Mirchandani points out, call centre employees “are neither traditional blue-collar workers, even though they work in highly repetitive and controlled jobs, nor are they white collar workers engaged in creative knowledge production” (23). Inside the call centre, language, culture and subjectivity are both the raw materials and the end product of the production process, one that is shaped by both old and new forms of domination. In the case of India, its late-twentieth century emergence as a destination for transnational info-service work is a legacy deriving from its genealogy of colonial exploitation. Mirchandani’s chapter on language training meticulously recounts the methods through which a “deficient” Indian worker is constructed, one that must be reshaped by Western nationalism, professionalism, and consumerism. The ideologies of transnational capital, gleaned from the training materials promoting “global equality and interconnectedness” (44) or the managerial focus on “teamwork” depicting call centres as spaces of equal opportunity (92), are nonetheless belied by the rigid hierarchies operating within these workspaces. In this way, colonial and class inequities become enmeshed in the “collusion of employers, placement services and trainers in an environment unfettered by enforced regulation” (79).
Phone Clones adds itself to at least three recent books which have explored the dynamics animating call centre work in India: Shehzad Nadeem’s Dead Ringers (2011), Reena Patel’s Working the Night Shift (2010), and Bob Russell’s Smiling Down the Line (2010). This notwithstanding, Mirchandani’s effort still manages to make a unique contribution to our understanding of the subjective dimensions and experiential [End Page 226] processes at work in Indian call factories. The longitudinal nature of the study, conducted during a key period in the evolution of the industry, offers a valuable view of changes within its labour process, including the move away from scripting and the changing methods for measuring workers’ labour adopted by call centre management.
The key conceptual contribution made by the text is its theorization of the performance of “authenticity work” by Indian employees in the transnational service economy. This labour of being authentic, or “establishing legitimacy in...