AbstractThe growth and development of call centres in the UK has been one of the most significant economic trends to emerge following protracted de-industrialisation and the associated decline of the manufacturing base. In the period of this thesis for example (1999-2004), the call centre sector was the fastest growing industrial sector and employment within the industry is now considered to be macro-economically significant. Call centres are characterised by the organisation of business activity conducted via the telephone, typically call centre employees are engaged in one-to-one telephone interactions with customers and are required either to make outgoing calls, thus contacting the customer to promote business, or receive incoming calls thus servicing customers. The nature of call centre employment presupposes a high level of technical sophistication; call centres have been made possible by advances in technology that allow for the simultaneous integration of telephone and computer based systems. The necessity of the complex and integrated technological systems that make possible individual one-to-one telephone interactions also mean that surreptitious, and even, in most cases, overt surveillance of that interaction is possible. In common with much service-based organisational activity, the one-to-one interaction between the worker and the customer forms the basis of production and hence the way in which business and ultimately profit is realised. Significantly therefore, and possibly for the first time in the history of mass production, the call centre offers the opportunity to monitor every aspect of the production process. Previously for example the extensive scale of production meant that total managerial surveillance was not feasible, therefore managerial strategies such as `quality control' were used as a surrogate, or proxy way of attaining, or attempting to attain, some degree of managerial control over the point of production. The possibility of complete surveillance of the point of production has led some authors to argue that call centres amount to control made perfect and as a direct consequence, workers under such regimes are effectively denied the possibility to engage in acts of workplace resistance. This thesis explores the possibility of worker resistance within a call centre environment. In order to understand and observe possible resistant practices in a naturally occurring and historically specific context an ethnographic research method is adopted. This involved the researcher gaining employment as a call centre worker for a period of 13 months, with the specific aim of investigating workplace resistance within the Call Centre. A detailed ethnographic account of the experience of being a call centre worker at the point of production forms a crucial part of this thesis. In order to produce a fully theoretically informed account however, this ethnography is augmented with critical realism. Critical realism is a recent development in the philosophy of social research. It argues for a refocusing of attention onto ontological (that which exits) issues as opposed to epistemological (that which is known) concerns. In pursuit of this objective, critical realist research takes its starting point as empirical observation, but crucially makes explanatory claims on the basis of a movement from an empirical to a causal level which may be obscured from view in terms of initial empirical investigation. In making this movement (through a process of retroductive logic) critical realist research claims to render empirical investigation theoretically sensitive. Utilising the combination of ethnography and critical realism, it is argued that Braverman's deskilling thesis can be partially revived to provide an explanatory account of the historical development of call centres. The ethnographic investigation reveals that opportunities for workers to engage in what we can think of a `classical' forms of resistance were indeed effectively denied through structural control such as the deployment of surveillance technology, but significantly, also through cultural control which involved the subtle manipulation of workplace subjectivities, the deployment of competition between workers, companybased training programmes, team-working, career progression and social activities away from the point of production. Crucially it is found that these cultural factors amount to the operation of an hegemonic ideology that pervaded call centre life and that effectively countered any capacity on behalf of call centre workers to engage in collective forms of resistance. The thesis goes on to argue, however, that the use of the term `resistance' has often been limited to the search for empirical examples of non-compliance and defiance. It is argued that resistance thus conceptualised is philosophically shallow. The thesis goes onto reconceptualise resistance as a process rather than an outcome, thus, through the theoretical resource of critical realism, presupposing a rich ontology of workplace relations which sensitises the ethnographer to the potential for the `production of resistance practices' which whilst falling short of overt defiance do continue to provide resources for divergent formations of worker identity within the call centre. Strategies of control cannot exert complete control over worker identity which opens up spaces of resistant practices manifest in the `production of differential subjectivities' which help to constitute what I term `semi-resistance' and the maintenance, at least, of zones of non-productive activity.
PublisherUniversity of Wolverhampton
TypeThesis or dissertation
DescriptionA thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University of Wolverhampton for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
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