Accepted paper:

A regime of disciplined agency?: value, language and call centre labour


Patrícia Alves de Matos (University of Lisbon)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the nature of value-creation within call centres through an examination of the computer-based techniques of labour quantification and surveillance enacted in the labour process, and the critical role of workers’ deployment of language and communicative skills in terms of productive output leading to profit creation.

Paper long abstract:

Since the 1990s call centre work became representative of the increased relevance of emotional labour in the neoliberal knowledge-based economy, as well as a symbol of the deployment of Taylorist methods for disciplining and controlling labour with the aid of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Drawing on fieldwork conducted in a call centre belonging to a private telecommunications company in Lisbon, this paper explores how discipline, quantification and surveillance are enacted within the labour process in order to clarify the main distinguishable characteristic of the nature of value-creation within call centres. Such examination aims to contribute to the growing anthropological literature on knowledge work and the intricate relations between the nature of value-creation and the constitution of subjectivity and consciousness. I argue that the call centre regime of labour is best defined as a regime of disciplined agency. That is, call centres present the most advanced system for the exploitation of a rarefied form of human labour: linguistic engagement or human communicative competence. In order for call centres to subsist as a rentable economic activity they need specific human intervention for which no kind of machine can substitute. Thus, my paper reveals a core paradox of call centre work, not by describing the robotization of human beings, but by bringing to light the (usually neglected) unique human species-being quality which is exploited in the call centre regime of labour - human communicative competence - and which makes call centres such a profitable business in several parts of the world.

panel PE35
Current challenges of anthropology of work