1-800 worlds : embodiment and experience in the Indian call center economy



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This dissertation is concerned with the everyday lives of transnational Indian call center workers when situated within the global politics of voice-based outsourcing. The call center economy gained impetus in early 2000-2001, when multinational corporations began to train young men and women in India to mask their spatial and temporal location, in order that they could serve customers in the US and the UK. Taking calls through the night to serve the work day of Western consumers, these customer service agents were asked to assume a different name, location, and cultural and language markers, as part of the requirements of work. I explore the ways in which these young, middle-class workers located themselves within practices, contentious representations, and material outcomes of this transnational outsourcing economy. Through ethnographic research in Pune, a prominent university town and call center hub in western India, I investigate (1) everyday life in and out of the call center, (2) labor management practices within call centers, and (3) the socio-economic and cultural transformations that accompanied and framed the development of the urban Indian call center economy. This research engages with the machinations of multinational corporations as they incorporate large number of labor forces worldwide into transnational work. It builds on three main bodies of theory - flexible or late capital and flexibility, the South Asian postcolonial nation-state, and affective labor. Through these, I provide a thick description of the history, construction, maintenance and disruption of this site, as also the ways in which this particular story of capital was stabilized. I engage with questions such as, what complex negotiations underlie the ostensible success of new service economies in India? What are its cultural, political and economic determinants and ramifications? What grounds are the claims of state, capital and culture being contested or reified upon, and what do such negotiations mean for service workers within the landscape of urban India? This dissertation shows how the practice of everyday life in this transnational milieu is best explained as the collusion and tension between the contested socio-economic spaces of the new Indian middle-classes and middle-class-ness, and an ungrounded discourse of mobile and flexible capital. The stories of call center workers in this analysis are the stories of particular subjects called upon and striving to be constantly flexible in order to successfully become middle-class and global in the same breath, one often seamlessly overlapping the other.