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Workplace selves, interactive service work and outsourcing: labour in Kenya’s call centres

Free, Alex (2015) Workplace selves, interactive service work and outsourcing: labour in Kenya’s call centres. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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The consequences for workers of the expansion of interactive service work in Nairobi, Kenya, are explored in this thesis. I investigate workplace power relations as forms of control that are implicated in managerial strategies by examining workers' experiences in the call centre sector. The Foucauldian-inspired conceptual framework for this study privileges workplace selves, enabling a focus on how call centre agent conduct is problematized by management. The empirical part of the study uses a multimethod approach that includes interviews, workplace observations and a questionnaire. The empirical analysis demonstrates that while management tends to approach in-house or captive agents as low-status subordinate selves, business process outsourcing (BPO) agents are best regarded as flexible selves, owing to their selectively autonomous working roles and the relative insecurity of their work. As a ‘development’ project, the BPO sector is shown to have a mixed record with respect to agent livelihoods. It has given rise to new opportunities for workers but without providing stable employment. Examining the rationalities underpinning workplace control, my analysis indicates that captive agents can be understood as being subject to a rationality of directed conduct, while their BPO counterparts are more likely to be managed according to a rationality of strategic egalitarianism. Consequently, BPO agents are shown to be implicated in a relatively more complex configuration of workplace power relations than captive agents, with the result that they tend to speak more favourably about work that they also depict as onerous. The empirical analysis provides a basis for advancing theoretical understanding achieved by introducing novel concepts, the most important of which concern modes of workplace 'subjectification': comprehensive observation, selfproblematization and recognizing individualism. These help to position the analysis of managerial strategies in a way that neither regards agents as fully empowered nor assumes worker exploitation as the main outcome. The study demonstrates how management endeavours to oversee the intensive monitoring of conduct while also securing agents' commitment to their roles by providing fulfilling workplace experiences.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2015 Alex Free
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
Sets: Departments > Media and Communications
Supervisor: Mansell, Robin

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