Neutral Accent: How Language, Labour, and Life Became Global, by A. Aneesh

International call centres require workers to erase their personal and cultural identities, learns Lalita Murty

July 16, 2015
Book review: Neutral Accent: How Language, Labour, and Life Became Global, by A. Aneesh

This insightful look at the underbelly of globalisation reveals a workplace that is sustained by the painful “differentiations” that have been imposed on its workers. While globalisation may appear to be a force that serves to integrate the world, a closer look often reveals that its processes splinter the world into convenient, discrete units that serve economic purposes.

Call centres in India serve as the ideal sites to observe such processes played out in full along four key dimensions – labour, language, identity and the body. Here, sociologist A. Aneesh draws on his observation and interviews with 50 call centre agents and managers, in addition to his own experience of work in an Indian call centre, in arguing that globalisation requires “indifference to difference”, where the differences among its participants must be ironed out through the mechanisms of neutralisation and mimesis.

Neutralisation, in this context, is the removal or minimisation of all features of individual identity. Workers’ social, cultural and linguistic identities – and even their biological identities, in the case of working at night, when bodies are supposed to be resting – are erased or consciously set aside. Call centre workers in India are expected to speak, behave and even live just as their customers in the US or the UK do.

The second mechanism, mimesis, requires workers to mimic or take up features that bring them closer to their customers, such as intonation patterns, idioms and discourse patterns, references to objects and events that constitute the daily lives of their customers, irrespective of how different and alien these are to the workers’ own ways of speaking and behaving. This situation is made more painful by the fact that these call centre agents are unlikely ever to visit the places the callers ring from or to personally experience the worlds of their customers.

Nor do customers remain unaffected by the “indifferent” forces of globalisation, wherein algorithms can splinter and reconfigure individuals’ identity on the basis of their age, gender, credit history or religion to enable the market to target them more efficiently.

This deliberate redrawing of individual identities, Aneesh passionately argues, comes at a great cost in terms of its impact on the emotional and physical well-being of call centre workers. Similarly, customers, whose identities are reshaped, often without their even being aware of it, are left powerless in the hands of a faceless technology for whom they are merely entities that exist to serve global economic purposes.

These facts are not new, of course, but Aneesh probes deeper in his quest to forge a theoretical framework that explains the inner workings of these global processes.

The prologue of Neutral Accent states clearly that the call centre data are a peg on which Aneesh can hang his main arguments. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting to see what else his data reveal about call centres as a global workplace. Of the substantial amount of data he will have collected, only a fraction have been presented here.

By the end of the book, the reader may still be unsure if Aneesh’s main aim is to make a fervent plea for the rights of call centre workers or to theorise the less savoury aspects of global work. Where his critique of globalisation succeeds best is in creating a convincing framework that exposes the “disintegration of the self from its place of socialization and meaning” brought about by the mechanisms of globalisation, in which both global workers and consumers become entities targeted for profit. That a functional globalisation creates dysfunctions cannot be contested; now begins the task of creating an equitable global workplace.

Lalita Murty is lecturer in applied linguistics, Norwegian Study Centre, University of York.


Neutral Accent: How Language, Labor, and Life Became Global
By A. Aneesh
Duke University Press, 168pp, £55.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780822358466 and 8534
Published 15 May 2015

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