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Study suggests the body is central to identity manipulation in call center work

November 14, 2017

New research highlights the politics of 'identity work' where Indian call centre workers manipulate their cultural identities to sell a global service.

The study, by sociologist and social worker Dr Sweta Rajan-Rankin of the University of Kent, examines the way workers in call centres are required to take on new identities but also make assumptions about the identity of the people they are calling.

Dr Rajan-Rankin suggests that there is a two-way process, with western clients making assumptions about call workers, and Indian call workers using visualisation techniques to 'imagine' the client, who is invisible to them during the voice call.

The study, entitled Invisible Bodies and Disembodied Voices? Identity Work, the Body and Embodiment in Transnational Service Work, is based on ethnographic research with two global outsourcing firms operating call centres in India from 2010-12.

Findings from the study suggest that, far from the accepted notion that this process is disembodied for all those involved, the body is central to global service work.

Call agents undergo elaborate training programmes where their bodies are targets of discipline; for instance by working on their own bodies (including posture, dress, voice modulation); by working on the bodies of others (through voice-based interactions) and by using embodied images of Americans to contextualise the service provided.

One of the Indian call centre agents, for instance, recounts that while her voice remains an embodied part of her work, the lack of visibility to the client makes the female call agent feel invisible. To counter this 'corporeal disappearance', she dresses and paints her nails in aesthetically pleasing ways to make her 'absent-present' body resurface in her own gaze.

The study found that the adoption of western pseudonyms provides another layer in identity work as there is an implicit assumption that the Indian identity would be problematic to western clients. Narratives around identity masking of call agents are rooted in attempts to stem racial abuse from western clients who may perceive them as 'job thieves'. However, this study reveals complex layers in which race, ethnicity and nation intersect within these encounters.

In one instance, an Indian call agent (pretending to be American) calls an American client (who is actually an Indian immigrant). The client challenges the Indian call agents' identity performance and becomes abusive. The call agent experiences customer abuse and alienation of his identity performance at several levels, as an Indian who is trying to be an American, but has failed to be American enough for an Indian living in America.
Invisible Bodies and Disembodied Voices? Identity Work, the Body and Embodiment in Transnational Service Work is published in the journal Gender, Work and Organisation. See:

For more information or interview requests contact Martin Herrema at the University of Kent Press Office.

Tel: 01227 823581/01634 888879


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Note to editors

Established in 1965, the University of Kent - the UK's European university - now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.

It has been ranked 22nd in the Guardian University Guide 2018 and 25th in the Complete University Guide 2018, and in June 2017 was awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government's Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).In the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2015-16, it is in the top 10% of the world's leading universities for international outlook and 66th in its table of the most international universities in the world. The THE also ranked the University as 20th in its 'Table of Tables' 2016.

Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014). It has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.

In the National Student Survey 2016, Kent achieved the fourth highest score for overall student satisfaction, out of all publicly funded, multi-faculty universities. Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium.

The University is worth £0.7 billion to the economy of the south east and supports more than 7,800 jobs in the region. Student off-campus spend contributes £293.3m and 2,532 full-time-equivalent jobs to those totals.

Kent has received two Queen's Anniversary prizes for Higher and Further Education.

University of Kent

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