Sunday, July 10, 2011

An Ethnography of Outsourcing

Maybe some of you have seen the NBC comedy show Outsourced about a group of Indians who work at a call center for an American company peddling tchotchkes. As I mentioned in class, Anthropology insists on actually going to a place and experiencing it as the local people do before we reach any conclusions about the place or the people who live there. Though not an anthropologist, this is exactly what Andrew Marantz, a freelance journalist did when he went to Delhi and took a job in the BPO (business process outsourcing) industry. It turns out that what he found was not that funny.

Every month, thousands of Indians leave their Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns to seek work in business process outsourcing, which includes customer service, sales, and anything else foreign corporations hire Indians to do. The competition is fierce. No one keeps a reliable count, but each year there are possibly millions of applicants vying for BPO positions. A good many of them are bright recent college grads, but their knowledge of econometrics and Soviet history won't help them in interviews. Instead, they pore over flashcards and accent tapes, intoning the shibboleths of English pronunciation—"wherever" and "pleasure" and "socialization"—that recruiters use to distinguish the employable candidates from those still suffering from MTI, or "mother tongue influence."Monica Joshi, 22, kills some time before her graveyard shift at a Gurgaon call center.Monica Joshi, 22, kills some time before her graveyard shift at a Gurgaon call center.

In the end, most of the applicants will fail and return home deeper in debt. The lucky ones will secure Spartan lodgings and spend their nights (thanks to time differences) in air-conditioned white-collar sweatshops. They will earn as much as 20,000 rupees per month—around $2 per hour, or $5,000 per year if they last that long, which most will not. In a country where per-capita income is about $900 per year, a BPO salary qualifies as middle-class. Most call-center agents, however, will opt to sleep in threadbare hostels, eat like monks, and send their paychecks home. Taken together, the millions of calls they make and receive constitute one of the largest intercultural exchanges in history.

Indian BPOs work with firms from dozens of countries, but most call-center jobs involve talking to Americans. New hires must be fluent in English, but many have never spoken to a foreigner. So to earn their headsets, they must complete classroom training lasting from one week to three months. First comes voice training, an attempt to "neutralize" pronunciation and diction by eliminating the round vowels of Indian English. Speaking Hindi on company premises is often a fireable offense.

To read the entire article, CLICK HERE.

We will be talking about globalization and its impacts on and off throughout the session, but I thought that this observation was a really succinct way of explaining the phenomenon without ever calling it such.
Trainers aim to impart something they call "international culture"—which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one.
(PS Of course the producers of the show Outsourced could not resist the urge to include a cow in the photo above. This is not only part of a Western trope a signifier for "India" but almost interchangeable with the Indians who are all behind the prominently featured American manager, who is clearly confident and in charge. If I were really cynical, I might even say that there is more than a little ethnicentrism here - with the Westerner represented as the focus/ideal, the Indians somewhere behind him and hardly a step away from the cow/animals.)

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