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LIFE IN A NORTHERN TOWN: CALL CENTRES, LABOUR MARKETS & IDENTITY IN POST-INDUSTRIAL MIDDLESBROUGH ANTHONY LLOYD PhD SOCIOLOGY OCTOBER 2010 ABSTRACT ***** Since the late 1970s, many towns and cities across the UK have faced processes of deindustrialisation thoroughly transforming the social and cultural landscape for the local population. Middlesbrough, in the North East of England, underwent transformation from labour markets dominated by iron, steel and chemical industries to a reliance on new forms of insecure, flexible service sector employment, typified in this study by call centres. Call centres emerged in the 1990s as a cost-saving efficient delivery system for companies to handle customer contact through the marriage of telecommunications and new information technologies. As a new form of employment, call centres have become popular among academics and journalists. This study aims to explore how the changing nature of capital accumulation, prompted by an ideological shift towards neoliberalism, served to change the fabric of society by placing value on competition, consumer culture and individualisation whilst shifting Britain from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. In specific locales such as Middlesbrough this radically altered the social landscape. Call centres emerged as a lifeline for those seeking employment in a town with historically high levels of unemployment. This study, based on covert ethnographic work as a call centre worker and in-depth interviews with call centre employees, will show what call centre work is like; how management strategies work towards efficiency, productivity and targets, how employees feel working in often stressful and difficult circumstances, and how technology dictates the work process thus preventing employees from controlling the pace of work. Furthermore, this study will investigate how social change central to the emergence of the call centre also created a culture which traps young people into a cycle of earning and consumption limits their options for future betterment and alters the very nature of their identity and perceptions of social class. i Abstract List of Contents List of Tables Acknowledgements LIST OF CONTENTS ***** i ii v vi Text Introduction p. 1 Objectives p. 2 The Study p. 3 The Times They Are A-Changin p. 4 Methodology p. 17 Methods: Why This Methodology? p. 17 Theory: Why This Methodology? p. 22 Concluding Remarks p. 23 Chapter One p. 25 The Industrial Revolution and the Infant Hercules p. 26 Neoliberalism, Social Change, and from boom to bust p. 34 Chapter Two p.52 Unemployment, Labour Markets, Social Disintegration and Regeneration p.52 The Research Location p. 63 Chapter Three p. 71 Staff Turnover p. 80 Training p. 86 Company Values: A Contradiction in Terms? p. 93 Chapter Four p. 98 Call Monitoring p. 109 ii Team Work and Shift Patterns p. 113 Discipline p. 116 The Modern Organisation Man? p. 119 Chapter Five p. 123 The Labour Movement: The Rise and Fall of Trade Unions p. 129 Forms of Resistance within the Call Centre p. 136 Taking Back Time: Individualised Resistance p. 144 Resistance within Liberal Sociology p. 152 Chapter Six p. 156 Darren and Zoe p. 156 Ben and Sarah p. 170 Chapter Seven p. 183 Working to live, not living to work p. 185 Real careers vs. call centre work p. 188 Working towards the weekend p. 195 No shame in my game? p. 199 Chapter Eight p. 203 Jameson on postmodernism p. 205 Zizek s postmodern subject p. 207 A Working Class Habitus? p. 210 The End of Class? p. 218 Conclusion p. 225 Enough is Enough: Withdrawing from the Field p. 229 Final Remarks on the Call Centre p. 232 The Future s Bright... p. 239 Appendix 1 p. 248 Appendix 2 p. 250 iii Bibliography p. 251 iv LIST OF TABLES ***** Table Weekly earnings comparison across UK p. 54 Table 6.1 Male weekly earnings comparison across UK p. 158 v ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ***** I want to thank: All of the men and women I worked with at Call Direct. The six months I spent there would ve seemed even longer had I not been fortunate enough to work alongside some really nice people. Hopefully you ve all moved on to better things. Everyone generous enough to give up his or her time for an interview. Whilst I argue in these pages about hard-edged self interest among young people, I am grateful that so many took the time to talk to me given there was nothing for them to gain from doing so. Simon, for his constructive feedback, encouragement, and support. Most of all, his faith in my academic ability, often when I ve not been able to see it myself. Without the continual support and encouragement over the last 6 years or so I can safely say I wouldn t be writing the acknowledgements on my finished PhD thesis. Everyone at the University of York for their support over the last few years. I ve been lucky enough to meet some really good people who ve helped me enormously. In particular Roger Burrows and Dave Beer for reading through various drafts and offering their opinions and encouragement. Brian Loader and Colin Webster for agreeing to mark my thesis, their fairness in the viva, and constructive comments that helped to improve the final draft. The Economic and Social Research Council for providing invaluable funding and consequently the freedom to concentrate on this thesis without any outside demands on my time. Janice for taking the time to proof read the final draft. My friends you know who you are for being there and often providing much needed relief from my studies over the years even if the following morning s hangover often didn t help get this written any faster! My family Mam, Dad, Ste and Laura for their continued support as always, particularly during the initial fieldwork where the stresses and strains of call centre work often turned me into a short-tempered, miserable sod. I d like to think this proves that I have been working all this time! vi INTRODUCTION ***** Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant. - Benjamin Disraeli This study considers the tight relationship between capitalism, labour and identity. Essentially, I will investigate how contemporary forms of capital and capital accumulation are reshaping labour markets and the forms of governance that exist in the field of paid labour. I am particularly interested in workplace identities and work cultures in low-level service employment, and I will attempt to make a theoretical connection between the subject of this new economy and its meta-organisation, its global flows and its naturalised ideological content (Jameson, 1991). Specifically, this study takes place in Middlesbrough, a small town of around 135,000 people in the North East of England. A traditionally working class town, built on iron and steel and petrochemical industries, Middlesbrough has been beset by myriad problems since the onset of deindustrialisation in the late 1970s. High unemployment and few job opportunities were compounded by social problems including rising crime levels, drug dependency, teenage pregnancy, low educational achievement and poor standards of health (MacDonald and Marsh, 2005; MacDonald et al, 2008; also Murray, 1990). In many respects it would appear that Middlesbrough is the perfect site for an investigation of the current state of western liberal capitalism for several reasons. Firstly, deindustrialisation ripped apart the fabric of the town and forced Middlesbrough into rapid change in order to survive (Beynon et al, 1994). Secondly, the social problems associated with rising levels of social exclusion in the wake of widespread upheaval make Middlesbrough an interesting site of analysis (Webster et al, 2004; MacDonald and Marsh, 2005). Finally, Middlesbrough is perfect for this task because there is nothing unique about the place. Middlesbrough is representative of many other post-industrial towns and cities with nothing to offer, it has no great historical past, no special place in the fabric of British social life. This everyman characteristic makes possible an analysis of wider social trends. The reasons for choosing Middlesbrough have been demonstrated publicly in recent years; the social problems associated with deindustrialisation and the declining fortunes of the town contributed to Middlesbrough being voted the worst place to live in the UK in In 2010, Middlesbrough was also rated the town least equipped to deal with public sector spending cuts deemed necessary to overcome the recession. When we talk about declining fortunes of 1 former industrial centres, Middlesbrough serves as a good example of a town struggling to come to terms with the conditions created by the changing global economy. Like many other places in the UK, in the wake of deindustrialisation, Middlesbrough s economic survival came at least partly as a result of the growth in low paid service sector jobs, particularly call centre work. Representative of a new economy increasingly dependent on the service sector, call centres have become a hot topic in both academic and journalistic circles over the last few years (Ellis and Taylor, 2006; Kinnie, 2008; Richardson and Belt, 2001; Taylor and Bain, 1999; 2005). Combining new technology and telecommunications, call centres offer efficient delivery systems for customer care. In the last two decades, companies have turned to call centres in order to consolidate business, enhance productivity and thus increase profit. In many depressed areas of the country, outsourced call centres emerged offering companies the staff and facilities necessary to handle customer enquiries (Richardson, Belt and Marshall, 2000; also Kinnie, 2008). Outsourced firms battle for contracts by offering efficiency and productivity at reasonable costs. Given their reliance on efficiency and productivity, many early analyses of call centres made claims about electronic sweatshops or an electronic panoptican of close supervision and surveillance (Bain and Taylor, 2000; Fernie and Metcalf, 1998). However, few studies or articles on call centres benefit from prolonged exposure to the daily routine of life on the call centre floor. Objectives With this in mind, it would be appropriate to state some of the aims and objectives of this research and the reasons and justifications for these questions. Initially, this study aimed to describe and understand the everyday life in a call centre in Middlesbrough. I had become aware of the plethora of call centre jobs springing up in my hometown and I was interested in uncovering the reality of life inside this truly postmodern occupation. What is it like taking calls all day? What is it like on the call centre floor? I had engaged in a primitive form of call centre work in the late 1990s, cold-calling for a double-glazing company whilst at college and had not enjoyed the experience. At that time, large call centre operations were uncommon in Middlesbrough but the sector had blossomed in the years since my early exposure to telephone-based operations. At this point, I was interested in finding out what these large call centre operations were like and what the people working there thought of it. 2 Did they enjoy the job? What were the managers like? What kind of management practices were in place? My earlier studies had opened me up to discourses surrounding the nature of market capitalism, consumer culture and the impact on individual identity. Call centre work had the added bonus of acting as a lens through which these issues could be analysed and discussed. What conclusions could be drawn about the nature of market capitalism in its consumer phase when local labour markets such as Middlesbrough are dominated by low-paid service sector jobs? I already held to a structural view of the world, that the economy moulded the social, that the global affected the local, therefore by focusing on the particularities of my hometown labour market, I felt an analysis of the universal, the state of market society and consumer capitalism was possible. Although I knew that the daily realities of the call centre floor, the management attitudes and working practices, would play a central role in this thesis, the opportunity was there to produce something much broader than a small-scale study concerned with interaction in the workplace. By looking at the lives of my co-workers and their attitudes towards work, I could draw conclusions about identity; what do the young men and women living in postindustrial Britain, engaged in low-paid, insecure service work, identify with? How do they define themselves? At the outset, these were the main objectives of the thesis. As time went on, these aims opened up other issues that I had not initially considered, specifically the continuing debate surrounding class, or the death of class. By the end of the project, call centres had come to play a small part in a much broader analysis of the big issues of our time; the nature of identity and subjectivity, the death of class consciousness, the restructuring of the labour market, the centrality of work to everyday life, the nature of capitalism and liberal democracy. While I set out to uncover the reality of the call centre floor, through the course of this study I was able to uncover much, much more. However, much of that comes later. The Study This is an ethnographic study of Middlesbrough, of the local labour market and the call centre work central to the local economy. I spent six months working full time for an outsourced call centre named Call Direct, dealing with broadband enquiries for their client Internet Plus. The rest of the data is drawn from discussions and semi-structured interviews with co- 3 workers and other call centre agents I was put in contact with. Their attitudes and opinions on their work and lives in Middlesbrough form the bulk of the data. From this base we can begin to look at the people engaged in this new form of employment and begin to draw conclusions regarding the nature of identity and subjectivity in a postmodern world. How do the young men and women engaged in call centre work define themselves? From what is their identity shaped and created? How do they view the local labour market, the world at large, and their place in it? The answers to these questions allow the opportunity to reveal fundamental issues at the heart of the class system in contemporary British society; can we still talk about class in the same way we traditionally did? What does the working class look like in the face of an economy no longer functioning around industrial labour and manufacturing? First of all, it is crucial to note that the world has changed. At the heart of this thesis lies the contention that processes of deindustrialisation throughout the late 1970s and 1980s fundamentally altered the social, cultural and political landscape of the country, and Middlesbrough specifically. Without these changes and upheavals, this study would not have taken place. In order to understand the contemporary landscape, we need to look to the recent past. First, we must consider the idea of change and determine exactly what we mean when we say the world has changed. Is it fundamental change or cosmetic change? Is it progressive or regressive? By examining some of the core issues behind the social change of the last three decades, we can begin to get a picture of how these changes specifically impact upon the location and the people in this study. The Times They Are A-Changin The social world, over the last three decades, has changed on every level (Gray, 1998). The progressiveness of social change will reappear later in the chapter yet the notion of social change is not a new phenomenon. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus mused 2,500 years ago that everything flows and nothing stays. However, over recent years, it is the pace of change which has surprised, delighted, and frightened many observers (Friedman, 2000; Castells, 2000; Bauman, 2007a). Bauman (2005a) describes a liquid society whereby everything we previously held as concrete and self-evident has been eroded and undercut in favour of the fluid, ephemeral hyper-real world of contemporary market society. Previous generations followed the traditional, well-worn paths of their predecessors with little 4 variation, however in our global, hyper-individualised world, the opportunity is there for everyone to break free from the bonds of tradition and be whomever they choose to be (Bauman, 2001). Or so we are led to believe. Not only has the social world changed, the landscape of contemporary society has been altered in such a way that many have considered this epochal shift to be both evolutionary and revolutionary (Angell, 2000; Zizek, 2000; also see Savage, 2009 for a discussion on epochalism within sociology). The global changes that have taken place over the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century have had an impact upon every aspect of social life (Beck and Beck- Gernsheim, 2002). The aim of this thesis is to map these changes onto a specific locale, the former industrial working-class town of Middlesbrough, situated in the North East of England. As a consequence of the social upheaval faced by Middlesbrough over the last thirty years, the local labour market has seen a fundamental shift from manufacturing and heavy industry towards service based employment, typified in this study by the rise of call centre work. However, in order to focus on the particularities of call centre work in Middlesbrough, wider social change needs addressing, starting with the rise and dominance of a neoliberal system of governance. The post-war consensus, built around full employment and inclusivity and often referred to as Keynesianism, had dominated the social and political landscape for thirty years. By the late 1970s, this consensus had begun to break apart and a new set of ideas emerged as the dominant configuration in British (and American) society. The ascendancy of neoliberal ideology is central to this change therefore a definition of neoliberalism is useful at this point, Most generally, neoliberalism is a philosophy viewing market exchange as a guide for all human action. Redefining social and ethical life in accordance with economic criteria and expectations, neoliberalism holds that human freedom is best achieved through the operation of markets. Freedom (rather than justice or equality) is the fundamental political value. The primary role of the state is to provide an institutional framework for markets, establishing rights of property and contract, for example, and creating markets in domains where they may not have existed previously. Consequently, neoliberalism accords to the state an active role in securing markets, in producing the subjects of and conditions for markets, although it does not think the state should at least ideally intervene in the activities of markets. (Dean, 2009: 51). 5 This chapter will aim to outline the changes brought about by the neoliberal defeat of traditional Keynesian economics and the next chapter will demonstrate how they have impacted upon a specific locale, Middlesbrough, in the north east corner of England. When we talk about change, it is important to understand what we mean by the term. Contemporary cultural studies routinely ascribe the verb change to a range of social phenomena without taking the time to examine whether the things they cite as examples of change is actually fundamental alterations to the social structure or simply surface change, the appearance of change and cultural fluidity. As Jameson (1991) argues, this fixation on change is indicative of a postmodernism that undermines historical continuity thus making us ignorant of the past. Postmodernity, for many, is a new era in which grand narratives and overarching theories no longer apply (Lyotard, 1974). As many postmodernists argue, the social world is too complex and diverse to be reduced to grand narratives,
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