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Accounting for 'Us' and 'Them'

What are the implications of globalisation on constructions of identity. This paper is based on an in-depth case study of a financial services company operating in the United Kingdom and Mumbai. It explores how ideas about British and Indian employees were constructed in our data, and how respondents accounted for the ways in which relationships between Indian and UK employees were enacted in this organisational context.

Accounting for ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

Indian and UK Customer Service Workers’ Reflections on Offshoring

What are the implications of globalisation on constructions of identity. This paper is based on an in-depth case study of a financial services company operating in the United Kingdom and Mumbai. It explores how ideas about British and Indian employees were constructed in our data, and how respondents accounted for the ways in which relationships between Indian and UK employees were enacted in this organisational context.


ver the last two years we have had the opportunity to conduct an extensive case study of employees working in a financial services company operating in the United Kingdom and in Mumbai. This paper reports on our findings. The growth of business outsourcing in the last five years has generated fierce debate. On a macro level, while some commentators have described such arrangements as providing hitherto unknown opportunities for economic and social prosperity, security and freedom [Friedman 2005], others see India as a source of cheap labour, and this form of modernisation as ultimately leading to even greater inequality [Mishra 2006]. On a more micro level, with some notable examples [e g, Mirchandani 2005], commentators are similarly divided, with arguments that the technology enabled sector is offering high wages and unprecedented career prospects to aspirational young people [NASSCOM 2006; Dossani and Kenney 2003] set against a view of Indian customer service workers as “insecure” and “vulnerable” casualties of the new economic order [Ramesh 2004].

Our study does not aim to take a position in this highly polarised debate, but to examine a different question which, although underpinning these discussions, has to date received very little academic attention. In our research in customer service centres in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Mumbai, respondents spoke at length about one another and about the extent to which they manage, or fail, to work together to get their jobs done. In our initial data analysis we noted that these views did not appear to be idiosyncratic or individualistic, but rather seemed collective, systematic and politicised. We would argue that these deeply embedded ideas could have a significant impact on individuals’ experiences of outsourcing and offshoring, and indeed on more macro questions about the potential benefits of these emerging arrangements, and yet we have found that they have rarely been subjected to critical scrutiny. Our intention here is to examine how British and Indian employees talked about themselves and each other, and how they saw relationships between Indian and British employees as being played out and managed in this organisational context.

Perspectives on Indian Offshoring Globalisation and Transformation of Identity

There is a growing body of literature, in both western and Indian academic journals, into the labour processes involved in Indian business process outsourcing [Taylor and Bain 2005; Mirchandani 2005; Ramesh 2004; McMillan 2006]. Discussing triggers for offshoring business processes to developing countries, commentators agree that there are two key, inter-related reasons: cost savings and the promise of “acceptable or better” quality [Dossani and Kenney 2003; Taylor and Bain 2003]. Here the Indian labour market, with its high levels of English language competence, expertise in mathematics, science and engineering, and its unique demographic profile (with over 50 per cent of the population being under 25 years of age) [NASSCOM 2006] is seen as offering particular advantages in terms of levels of skill, knowledge, aptitude and attitude.

This literature depicts a stark distinction between this emerging class of workers and those in more traditional Indian employment sectors. Likewise, it is in striking contrast to the three UK labour markets in which our case study organisation operates, which are broadly characterised by lower levels of educational attainment, older age profiles and concomitant differences in perceptions of opportunity and aspiration. Given our interest in exploring relationships between UK and Indian employees, and especially the ways in which they make sense of one another, these differences in labour market characteristics are highly pertinent.

While these demographic issues help us to contextualise our research, more salient to our interests here, however, are emerging debates on the cultural dimensions of offshoring, and particularly implications for workers’ sense of cultural identity. Somewhat paradoxically, given their elite status in India and greater cultural capital in relation to their UK counterparts, Ramesh (2004) sees the new economy as precarious, linking it to what he sees as the increasing instability of workers’ sense of who they are: “Agents, especially those who work on voice processes, are forced to live as Indian by day and westerner after sundown” (2004, p 11). Thus the workers in Ramesh’s analysis appear to lead a double life – an “authentic”, Indian, daytime life, and a phoney, western, night-time one.

Ramesh’s perspective is echoed by McMillan (2006) in her description of Indian call centre workers as “the global proletariat”. McMillan points to the routinisation of work, the emotional labour that dealing with customers inevitably involves, and most particularly the “cultural transformations” that Indian agents need to undergo to get their jobs done. Whilst dramatic and compelling, we would argue that the arguments put forward by both Ramesh and McMillan strike of an essentialism which could serve to gloss over more complex processes of identity construction, connoting a sense of Indian culture which is coherent and stable, and fundamentally distinct from the west. In this way, they could be seen as ignoring aspects of western culture which have long historical roots and are deeply embedded in, and inextricable from contemporary Indian society [Chakrabarty 2005]. The implication would be that that new, western forms of organisation seemed to have landed on a cultural landscape that was previously untouched by such influences. Furthermore, from this perspective the individual appears to have no free will as to which of these identities she or he takes on. Notable in McMillan’s data, however, are employees’ diverse responses to these normative imperatives. While some agents acknowledged the impact of such practices on their sense of cultural identity, others talked about it as a necessary requirement of the job, and still others appeared to really enjoy it – describing it as part of the fun of working in a modern organisation.

From this less than unitary perspective, McMillan takes issue with the argument that globalisation is heralding a kind of economic and cultural homogenisation [Schiller 1991] in Indian metropolitan areas. She draws on the work of Homi Bhabha, and particularly his concept of “hybridisation”, to describe the increasing interplay between local and global meaning systems in third world cities, and the destabilisation and transformation of identity which is at the heart of such “creolisation”. In Bhabha’s words: “This interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (1994: 4). In our view hybridity, together with associated notions of ambivalence and mimicry, help to shed light on the politicised nature of social processes, while acknowledging their fluidity and potential for resistance and change. As such, they could be powerful concepts for moving beyond reductionist analyses.

Looking more specifically at the processes through which identities and relationships are constructed and enacted, the analysis put forward by Gopal, Willis and Gopal (2003) is potentially useful. In their view, globalisation is the most recent manifestation of colonialism, based on a contradiction between practices that are seen as “good for” the colonised, but which ultimately compromise its integrity. Focusing on the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in processes of globalisation, Gopal and his colleagues argue that far from delivering greater freedoms and opportunities to developing economies, such technologies could ultimately work to sustain existing patterns of domination and subordination. Gopal et al identify three key characteristics of ICTs (and of colonialism): standardisation, invisibility and conditioning effects. It is the latter two that most concern us here. In the BPO sector it could be argued that Indians are effectively rendered invisible through taking on western pseudonyms, accents and home addresses [Lall 2006; Deb 2004]. However, in the case of captive units, where the Indian site is an acknowledged partner in the organisation, questions of exposure and invisibility are potentially more subtle, and their consequences more complex. Also, it is worth noting that much of the literature assumes the US, not the UK as the source country. In UK, relationships with India clearly have a different history, movement between the countries is more commonplace and Indian names are very familiar, thus we must not assume that these processes will be played out in the same ways.

The third feature identified by Gopal et al is conditioning effects. Central here are the hegemonic processes through which particular ways of working, thinking and being, and the systems of values embedded within them, come to be experienced, not as social constructs, but as social facts – as “common sense” [Gramsci 1971]. Gopal and his colleagues identify the development of a group of “translators” between the colonisers and the colonised as a key aspect of the machinery of colonialism. They quote from a speech made by Lord Thomas Macaulay (frequently cited by postcolonial writers), legal member of the Council of Indian Education in 1785: “We must at present do our best to form a class of interpreters between us and the natives we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” (1972: 249). Over 200 years later, this sounds very much like the description of young people described in reports of offshoring [Tailor and Bain 2005; Ramesh 2004; Mirchandani 2005; McMillan 2006]. For us, an important issue here is the extent to which conditioning effects, and notions of “common sense” are apparent in employees’ accounts of themselves and “the other”, and with what implications.


This paper is based on ethnographic, case study research [Bryman 2004] into the customer service division of a multinational financial services company. The organisation operates three customer service centres in the UK and one in Mumbai. As a captive unit, the Indian operation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the parent company. Indian employees work in the same regulatory environment as their UK counterparts, within the same overall structural context, and are managed with reference to very similar human resources policies and practices, opportunities and constraints (with minor differences reflecting aspects of the local environment). In contrast to the image depicted in some of the literature, Indian employees are not expected to hide their Indianness by taking on pseudonyms or false addresses. It is also significant that although the Mumbai site does operate on source country time, because this is the UK rather than the US, employees do not work through the night. Notably, whereas turnover rates within the BPO sector can be upwards of 65 per cent (sometimes reaching as high as 80 per cent), here in spring of 2006 it was calculated at 25 per cent.

Our fieldwork, based in all four customer service centres, was conducted between autumn 2004 and spring 2006 and had several components. The bulk of the data was generated through semistructured interviews [Kvale 1996] with employees, ranging from entry level agents through to the director of customer services and the managing director of the Mumbai subsidiary. In total we conducted 59 interviews with employees: eight in England, 11 in Scotland, nine in Northern Ireland and 30 in Mumbai.1 Respondents were split evenly in terms of gender. The majority of the UK respondents were between 30 and 40 years old, while all of the Indian agents and consultants were in their 20s. The senior managers were in their late 30s and early 40s. Significantly, all of the Indian respondents had completed their first degrees and several had masters, while the majority of UK respondents had no higher educational qualifications. Interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim and managed through NVivo software.

In addition to these interviews, we generated extensive data through non-participant and participant observation. In all four sites we were given rooms to work, with access to the open-plan offices of the agents and consultants. We had lunch in the employee canteens, joined employees for coffee and tea in the staff rooms. In India we were also able to observe a training session. During our time in Mumbai we stayed in a nearby hotel which visitors and people on secondment to the centre regularly use. This meant that we spent social time with the company staff at the hotel, and travelled between the hotel and the offices with them in the company cars. We used feedback workshops

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

and seminars in all four sites as opportunities for further data collection.

As noted, our Mumbai study was conducted in two stages. In the first phase, we conducted most of the interviews and undertook the most extensive observation. A year later we went back for a seminar which we jointly ran with the organisation. Academics from Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and the UK attended and participated, and presentations were also made by two of the organisation’s senior managers. The response to this seminar depended on close collaboration with contacts in the organisation. This process, together with the seminar itself, was an opportunity for us to engage in participant observation, providing insights into organisational processes and practices that otherwise might not have been available. Fieldnotes were compiled throughout the observations and later transcribed.


In the sections that follow we examine how British and Indian employees “constructed” themselves and one another in their accounts. We explore these issues through a consideration of three themes emerging in respondents’ transcripts: accounts of the migration to Mumbai, “cultural difference”, and notions of competence.

Migration to Mumbai

In their accounts, respondents from all four sites spoke at length about the move to Mumbai. Permeating the UK data, however, was a sense of ambivalence, and descriptions of resentment by respondents towards new Indian colleagues at the time of the migration. In some cases this was very personal – people explained how it had led to job cuts in their sites. In other instances, though, India was described as posing a more general “threat” to British life and society. The following extracts illustrate both:

When all the jobs were going and Mumbai opened, that was huge. I mean people really didn’t like that. People in the UK were feeling resentful about people taking UK jobs... A lot of people couldn’t handle that. It was a nationalism thing.

At the outset, customers were likewise very antagonistic and respondents spoke at length about their refusal to speak to Indian representatives, an issue which has been well documented in the UK and Indian press. Acutely aware of this antipathy, Indian respondents spoke of the tension they experienced at the time, as they attempted to assuage their colleagues and deal with customers wariness and animosity. The striking thing about this data is the level of empathy expressed in these accounts, Indian respondents’ denial that these attitudes were racist, and a view that dealing with this emotional fallout was part of their job:

Initially we had some problems because of jobs coming to India.I mean obviously if my job was going to somebody else I wouldn’t be too good to that person… because when it comes to your life, when it comes to your job and when you know you are supporting a family or probably something which you need, and somebody else is getting it, at some point you have to vent it. Unfortunately it comes out on that person who’s getting the job. It is completelyhuman and natural.

Throughout the UK and Indian data there was the sense, reminiscent of the conditioning effects highlighted by Gopal and his colleagues (2003), that the UK employees had a right to behave this way, that it was utterly understandable for them to treat their Indian colleagues badly and that the Indians had to understand, and accept it.

Significantly, there was a consensus that things had improved greatly in the three years since the Mumbai site had opened, as people from the two countries worked together and developed relationships:

A lot of people have had opportunities to work out there and that has been the biggest benefit … actually seeing that the officesin our Mumbai operation are very similar to the offices here. They’re not in little shacks, you know! It’s like real high tech … I think they’re a lot more western than people think.

In her article, McMillan (2006) highlights the importance of interconnectivity, and we see this as a case in point. Through regular secondments, excellent communications and similar working environments, respondents said that the distance between the UK and India had diminished, and spoke of a growing collegiality and identification. It is significant though, that in spite of these developing relationships, the onus was nevertheless on Indian colleagues to “blend in”. In this sense, these employees could be seen as a contemporary example of a Macaulay’s “translators” noted earlier. Also, while respondents noted that employees and most policyholder customers had largely accepted the situation, at the time of the fieldwork, independent financial advisors were still refusing to speak to Indian agents, and it was the organisation’s policy to transfer these calls back to the UK. We will return to this point below.

Accounts of ‘Cultural Difference’

Permeating respondents’ descriptions of their organisation and one another were references to “cultural difference”. Looking closely at the data, it became apparent that respondents were using this term to explain, and sometimes to legitimise attitudes towards work and in particular organisational arrangements. For example, there was a consensus across the dataset that Indian and British employees embraced very different work ethics. As a respondent from Scotland explained:

I think the whole work ethic is fantastic in India. I think if I need something done, someone in India will do it. In the UK you’ve got to jump through hoops sometimes to get people to accept changes to processes, changes to procedures. They can see it as a bit of a hassle whereas in India they’re enthusiastic about itbecause it’s something different and they’re so willing to demonstrate that they can do things well… I know we can get all the training material all done, roll it out in India, great, they’ll really embrace it and think “this is great” and get on with it. In the UK, we’ll have to negotiate with them, they’ll push back the timescales.

This idea is echoed in the following quote in which the speaker, also from the Scottish site, describes the very different role that work plays in her Indian colleagues’ life than in her own:

But I think it’s a whole different culture over there. The whole work ethic from Mumbai is completely different. They love their work. They take their whole families into work… They’re there all night because they love going to work.

This belief that Indian and UK employees held very different attitudes to work was likewise endorsed by the majority of Indian respondents. For example, several respondents noted that while their UK counterparts worked to strict timings, Indian employees regularly (and indeed willingly) stay late and work until the job is done:

Work-wise there’s a very rigid timing they follow (in the UK). It’s 9 to 5. “I’m not going to sit a minute above 5 o’clock”, which is not the case over here. If you look at anyone over here, people happily stretch the hours they have, happily knowing they’re not going toget anything out of it. In spite of that, they’re happily doing this.

In our data it was seen as unproblematic that because of the Indians’ “different” work ethic it was appropriate for them to take on activities and work to schedules that were deemed unacceptable to their British colleagues. From another perspective, of course, it could be argued that this cultural explanation was being used as a justification for exploitation. This is a vivid illustration of Gopal et al’s (2003) point about the conditioning effects of colonial practices noted above, whereby certain sets of arrangements come to be experienced as commonsense. However, it must be noted that not all the Indian employees simply accepted such practices as natural or inevitable. On the contrary, many felt that they had something real to gain in working harder and demonstrating greater commitment than their UK colleagues. Permeating the Indian data was the feeling that respondents saw themselves as part of a rapidly changing Indian economy, an economy that brought with it significant opportunities and rewards for those who actively pursued them.

Notably, Indian respondents were much keener to identify similarities with their UK counterparts than differences. Many highlighted the extensive training they received which enabled them to “come up to the expectations of counterparts and colleagues in the UK” in order to “bridge the credibility gap” which seemingly was inevitable in the offshoring process. Indeed, many respondents talked enthusiastically about how the language and cultural training helped them to blend in, how it made them seem “less Indian”. Although not expected to deny that they are Indian, a sure sign of success is when customers do not recognise agents as such, and employees are willing to undergo extra training to achieve this. As an English employee with a responsibility for training and development explained:

When we were doing this originally Mumbai wanted particular things, protocols, around accent and nuance and so on. Now Ididn’t want that because really why should we be auditing the Mumbai guys on a different level from us. You know, we’ve got accents, and they do in Scotland and they can be bloody difficult to understand, but this was something that Mumbai particularly wanted. They wanted it big time. They still do, yeah.

What is fascinating here is that it is not the UK operation imposing this imperative on the Mumbai site, but something that is being driven by Mumbai itself. Here we have an example of both the invisibility and conditioning effects identified by Gopal and his colleagues (2003) as a characteristic of colonialism. Through extensive training, the hope is that Mumbai employees can make their foreignness disappear, a goal which in this context is seen as normal and appropriate – yet another example of customer service workers as “cultural interpreters”, translating between Indian and British contexts and rendering themselves invisible in the process. Here it is important to look at these comments not simply as conforming to the expectations of this western organisation, but in the wider Indian educational and social context, where speaking excellent English continues to be a potent status symbol.

As noted, attributions of “cultural difference” were made much more frequently by UK than by Indian respondents. Looking closely at the UK data, it became clear that such attributions frequently had little if anything to do with culture. Rather, “cultural difference” appeared to be used as a short-hand for something else. For example, in the following quote a Scottish customer service representative was talking about the problems of cultural difference in relation to language:

It’s just the language barrier that’s the problem. …it wasn’t just

the language barrier. It was, these people are taking our jobs.

Here it appears that the “language barrier” was at first used as an excuse – it wasn’t the cultural difference or the language barrier that was the problem, but the perception that jobs were being lost to India. It could be that while expressing resentment about this was not seen as legitimate, complaining about the “language barrier” was. In another interview, a respondent was talking about the challenges of offshoring which again were at first attributed to “cultural difference”:

Challenges, there’s culture for a start. It’s completely different, so that would be a big challenge. [Interviewer] When you say “culture”, what do you mean? Hmm. I wonder if it was a challenge actually. It was probably more of a benefit because they’re very, very enthusiastic, very hardworking, very, very motivated.

This is another example of using cultural difference, a term that people accept unproblematically, to foreclose discussion. “Cultural difference” was the obvious answer, an answer with a commonsense value that few people would take issue with. In this sense, it works to dispel the need for deeper, more critical reflection. Here, the cultural difference between India and Britain was taken as a social fact.


Underpinning our analysis thus far is the dichotomisation of the UK and India. This was likewise apparent in their discussions of competence. Although Indian representatives were generally far better educated than their UK counterparts, there was a feeling in much of the UK data that the Indians were “really nice” and “so willing”, but lacking in competence.

In Mumbai they’re very sort of professional, but when we, if wehave to ring them or we get hold of them, you know, as if westill don’t believe they know what they’re talking about. You justdon’t have the confidence that they know it.They’re very keen to please, but when it comes to actually doing,it doesn’t necessarily happen.Mumbai? As much as I don’t like to say it, but they’re quiteannoying. They’re just constantly messing things up and stuff. Ihave spoken to a few people, I mean they do try very hard.

Here and elsewhere in the data, the Mumbai representatives are described rather like children. This is further illustrated in the extract below, where a manager describes the need to closely monitor the Indians’ work:

You have to keep at them all the time to make sure they do whatyou’re expecting. Once it’s ingrained into them, “you’ve got todo this and you’ve got to do it forever until I say you don’t doit anymore”, then once that’s in, it’s fine, but I think if you takeyour eye off the ball then things slip up a wee bit and they goback to whatever the old way was of doing things.

One of these routines was redirecting calls from independent financial advisors back to the UK, a policy which was developed as a response to advisors’ hostility to the Mumbai operations. However, it appeared that although they were habitually told not to, sometimes Indian employees broke the rules and took the calls themselves. The whole issue of resistance is important, and merits further consideration. However, given our concerns here, we have chosen another quote to illustrate this tendency by the British to infantilise their Indian colleagues, and to question their competence. As the discussion continued, the respondent explained that talking to independent financial advisors (IFAs) was a complex matter that required further training. Her response to a question about providing this was:

Well, we’re running a pilot to train up some of the higher skilledpeople to see if they’re capable of doing it. I mean they probablythink that we just want to give them easy work and keep all thecomplicated stuff here.

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

There was recognition amongst some UK managers and many Indian respondents that this was indeed the case and that, more insidiously, the Indian operation was often used as a scapegoat. This was illustrated vividly during one of our visits to the Mumbai site. Preparing for the seminar described above, we arrived at the office one day to find the senior managers in a state of anxiety because the entire telephone system in the Mumbai site had gone down, with all calls being diverted to the UK. This was causing tension, anger and confusion amongst their British colleagues who had to manage the huge increase in call volume at the end of their shift. Although the problem was the introduction of a new telephone system in the UK, India was being blamed – it was seen as yet another example of Indian incompetence. The managing director of the Indian operation did not appear to be at all surprised by this response, and knew that India would be held accountable for the telephone failure. This, he said, was quite simply a feature of the “outsourcing space” that the Indians had to accept. In his eyes, all they could do was to work even harder and even better to prove their added value.

The following month, we had the opportunity to chat about

this with a Scottish manager: Do they actually do (the work) well? I would say probably ninetimes out of 10 yes, but the one time out of 10 gets exposed rightacross the organisation type thing, you know, and I think that’swhere it gets hard.

In the feedback workshop held with Scottish managers later we discussed this issue further. Participants talked about how India was often blamed for whatever went wrong, and used words like “safety valve” and “emotional release” to describe this function. They spoke of how right across the organisation India was seen as a legitimate target, whereas it would not have been appropriate to complain about their Northern Irish or English colleagues, it was perfectly acceptable to criticise Mumbai. Earlier we suggested that “cultural difference” was used as a justification for seemingly unfair working arrangements. Likewise, using Mumbai as a safety value appeared to reduce tension amongst the UK employees, and make them feel more positive about their own abilities and status.

Importantly, with regard to this issue of competence, the majority of Indian respondents did not accept the charge that they were in any way less able than their British colleagues. On the contrary, they discussed at some length the ways in which their own performance often far exceeded that of their UK counterparts:

I think the quality that we deliver on the phone is much, muchsuperior to the quality they deliver. I’m sorry. When we went tothe UK for the process migration we heard calls. Our process,you know, we deal with death and bereavement calls, and in abereavement call you really, really have to be very polite, verysympathetic and so on and so forth, but when we heard the callsover there it was, there was no sympathy, there was nothing.[India] does things better. There are times when we go out of the wayto look at certain things, a certain case coming to a conclusion. The people in the UK would not do that. They just throw the case back atus and say, “something’s amiss here. Why don’t you look at it?”.

And from the managing director: I don’t want to demean the quality that’s there in the UK, it’sjust that there is the quality that is delivered here because the basicunderlying qualification is different. Believe me, we hire onlyminimum graduates whereas in the UK that’s not the case… so

there is a difference in intellect and that shows in the quality ofthe work we do. In spite of their confidence in their abilities, though, one

respondent explained how they frequently had to disguise this if it was seen to undermine UK colleagues. In particular, he resented the way in which Indian managers ingratiated themselves with their UK counterparts, and recast UK failings as developmental opportunities for Indian staff:

We disagree at times and we put forward our disagreements in front of them, but most of the time they don’t listen. (He goeson to describe a complex process which ultimately falls to a senior manager to resolve.) I have told my team leader and even my operations manager to, you know, fight these kind of things. Why do we take it ourselves? I don’t know why. It beats me hollow as to why we have to take this on. But they say, you know, they say why don’t we derive learning from it, and why don’t we sharpenour processes… That’s something which I asked them to fight for which unfortunately – they don’t fight.

With respect to the concept of conditioning effects, these are interesting, contradictory data. On one hand, in their accounts Indian respondents are standing up to the criticisms levelled against them, and thus do not appear to be conditioned in the way Gopal and his colleagues describe. They believe that they are competent, and in terms of their educational backgrounds and the quality of service they provide, see themselves as outpacing their British colleagues. However, when it comes to defending their positions in public, the data suggest far more reticence. Rather than insisting on what they think is right, this respondent suggests that Indian managers recommend what we have seen elsewhere in the data – that employees use the experience as an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment, effort and good will.

This feeling that Indian employees had to be very careful when questioning the work of their British colleagues is in stark contrast to the barrage of criticisms regularly and freely levelled against Mumbai – from UK employees at every level. Underpinning this data, then, is a sense of the UK being in charge, with Mumbai depicted as a bright and friendly, yet somewhat muddled and childlike subordinate, in need of close monitoring and on-going control.


In this paper we have examined the ways in which UK and Indian employees working in customer service centres in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Mumbai account for themselves, and one another. The aim was to deepen existing understandings of individuals’ lived experiences of these newly emergent forms of organisation. Our findings lead to two broad contributions.

Our first contribution concerns the interplay between material circumstances and cultural explanations throughout our dataset, and the implications of this ongoing dialogue for people’s lived experience of work in this organisation. As discussed, notions of India as threatening cultural difference and Indian incompetence permeated our UK data, and appeared to be mobilised to explain or justify particular organisational arrangements, or patterns of behaviour. With respect to the former, we showed how the opening of the Mumbai site was constructed as a challenge to the British way of life. Regarding cultural difference, our data depicted how this attribution, specifically relating to the Indians’ superior work ethic, was used to provide a rationale for why Indian employees habitually worked overtime while the British did not, to justify giving Indian staff extra work, or to explain why the Mumbai site was frequently selected to pilot new training materials. On the other hand, the idea of Indians as incompetent was used as a justification for additional monitoring of Indian representatives, for limiting their discretion and more insidiously for legitimating their use as a scapegoat when things went wrong.

In some ways, these polarities: us/them, competent/incompetent, adult/child could be seen as examples of Edward Said’s (1978) concept of Orientalism, central to which is the notion of East and West as cultural rather than material artefacts, and of the East as a construction of the West. In Said’s words:

Since the middle of the 18th century there had been two principalelements in the relation between East and West. … The essential relationship, on political, cultural, and even religious grounds wasseen – in the West, which is what concerns us here – to be one between a strong and a weak partner.Many terms were used to express the relation… The Oriental isirrational, depraved, (fallen), childlike, “different”, thus theEuropean is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal”… Yet what gavethe Oriental’s world its intelligibility and identity was not the resultof his own efforts but rather the whole complex series of knowledgeable manipulations by which the Orient was identified by theWest (1978, pp 39-40).

Certainly there are elements, even in this short quotation, which appear to be echoed in our dataset: references to India as exotic, at once childlike and dangerous; and of the UK as powerful and in charge, though also frightened. While highly influential, Orientalism has been extensively criticised [Jasanoff 2006], in part for what is seen as its reductive, dualistic perspective. While we accept this criticism and acknowledge the problems of dualistic analyses, we would argue that binary opposites remain a powerful framework through which individuals make sense of and account for their experiences [Duberley, Cohen and Mallon 2006], as evidenced in our respondents’ accounts. Both McMillan (2006) and Ramesh (2004) argue that the introduction of the BPO sector in India, though its imposition of western norms and values, is serving to destabilise Indian identities. Thus, central to both their analyses is a strong sense of East and West, of “us” and “them”. The case we are making here is different. Our data does not reveal this kind of cultural takeover. Rather, we are highlighting the use of these cultural ascriptions not as a window into respondents’ feelings about cultural identity, but as rhetorical devices used to justify certain patterns of thought and behaviour. We found that attributing aspects of organisational life to cultural fact served to naturalise these patterns of thought and action such that they assumed a kind of inevitability, and thus were accepted without question as “how things are”. In this sense they worked, as Barthes “cultural mythologies” (1975), to sustain existing arrangements, foreclosing discussion that could potentially disturb this (precarious) status quo.

Here a few interesting issues arise. First, we noted that whilst these explanations were most widely used in the UK data, Indian employees nevertheless colluded in them. In this sense, the latter respondents could be seen as participating in the kind of invisibility and conditioning effects Gopal and his colleagues (2003) described as part and parcel of the process of colonialism (and its most recent expression in globalisation). Why they might do this is a vexing question which we can only answer in a speculative way. It could be that the Indian respondents genuinely believe that these processes are fair and appropriate. Indeed, several did suggest that as the newest recruits in an established UK company, their role was to fit in, do the job well, and not rock the boat. On the other hand, as suggested by other employees, it could be that people feel that they ultimately have something to gain by appearing acquiescent at this stage. As noted, there was a strong sense amongst Indian respondents at all levels that the Indian employees had to prove themselves to their UK counterparts, and that once they did so, they could begin to create opportunities for themselves. In this sense, conforming at this stage could be a strategy that Indians were deploying so as to reap greater career rewards in the future.

Second, notwithstanding their appropriation of the default cultural position (and the associated idea that Indians need to blend into this UK-defined environment to be successful), there is nevertheless a strong sense of uncertainty in the UK data, and a concomitant self-confidence in the Indian accounts, that we need to take seriously. Indeed, this ambivalence raises questions about Said’s view of the West as inevitably assuming a position of strength. This creeping insecurity in the UK accounts could be partly a result of the increasing importance and steady growth of the Mumbai operation, and with this an awareness amongst British and Indian respondents that the majority of Indian employees have accrued valued career capital [Iellatchitch et al 2003] which could be valuable in an organisation which prides itself on its transparent, meritocratic practices. Indeed, this sense of nervousness could help to explain the pervasive reliance on cultural justifications. On one hand, it could be argued that such ascriptions were disarming. At the same time, by legitimating existing ways of thinking and acting, these rhetorical devices served to exclude the possibility of question or challenge, providing instead a fragile sense of security in a turbulent organisational environment.

Our second contribution relates to the issue of ambivalence noted above. Although many of our respondents mobilised notions of “us” and “them” to make sense of and justify how things were, there was at the same time significant contradictions within respondents’ accounts, and ambiguity in how people were positioning themselves within their social networks. Regarding contradictions, while on one hand, people used the kind of binarisms noted above in seemingly totalising ways, a close analysis reveals that these ascriptions were actually full of inconsistencies. For example, reminiscent of Said’s quote above, within the UK data Indians were constructed as both infantile and threatening. Likewise Indians spoke of their UK colleagues in a way that was at once deferential and patronising. While in some cases these examples highlighted the impact of contextual factors such as organisational as opposed to wider labour market issues, at other times they elucidated more complex tensions. For example, many UK respondents expressed a certain confidence with respect to their seemingly superior position vis-à-vis their Indian colleagues, but at the same time evinced their fears about the potential threat posed by their Indian colleagues’ superior, educational backgrounds, their higher levels of motivation and lofty career aspirations. Whilst of course it is not surprising to find this kind of contradiction in qualitative accounts, such examples do warn us against reductionist explanations.

On a more abstract level, the mobilisation of the kind of inconsistencies noted above points to what Bhabha sees as the “destabilisation of boundaries” between the self and other. While Said hints at these lines of fracture and discontinuity, Bhabha in The Location of Culture (1994) further develops these ideas in his concepts of fixity and ambivalence:

An important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence onthe concept of “fixity” in the ideological construction ofotherness. a paradoxical mode of representation: itconnotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder,degeneracy and demonaic repetition. Likewise the stereotype,which is its major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge andidentification that vacillates between what is always “in place”,already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated…It is the force of ambivalence that gives the colonial stereotypeits currency (1994, p 95).

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

For our purposes, the important points here are Bhabha’s emphasis on the precariousness of order, the need for repetition, and the possibility of resistance. In the section on competence we discussed the Scottish manager’s view that Indian representatives needed to be constantly reminded of the right way to do things. In Bhabha’s terms, such ongoing reminders might also serve to fix this idea of Indian incompetence in the minds of staff. Indeed, throughout the data we have examples of such reminders, all of which could be seen as illustrating the fragility of the existing order, and the continual repetition of certain cultural rituals (like forbidding Indian representatives from speaking to independent financial advisors, Indian managers not allowing their subordinates to question UK judgment, etc) to keep it intact.

Regarding resistance, the data on language and the Indian respondents’ desire to perfect their language skills provide some interesting food for thought. As noted in that section, it could be of course that this ambition to speak perfect English is something which is embedded in the educational system that staff members had participated in for many years, and is likewise expressed in wider cultural artefacts such as the prolific English language media and India’s huge English language publishing industry. In this sense, it is an aspiration that employees bring to the organisation from outside, and is fuelled by the organisation’s performance criteria. On the other hand, it could also be related to the widespread feeling amongst Indian staff that they had to perform at the highest possible levels to achieve credibility and recognition in this UK dominated organisational environment. However, taking account of Bhabha’s work on mimicry, an alternative interpretation is that there is a certain irony, and with it a certain sense of resistance, implicit in this desire to “blend in”. Bhabha suggests that:

…mimicry represents ironic compromise… Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slip page, its excess, its difference… The effect of mimicry on the authorityof colonial discourse is profound and disturbing (1994, pp 122-23).

Indeed, several of our UK respondents expressed their unease not only with what they saw as some of their Indian colleagues’ excessive desire to perfect their English, but with the results of these efforts, described by some as “strange” and “artificial”. There are likewise examples of Indian staff taking on aspects of the cultural training, in particular with regard to their handling some of the company’s older customers, in ways that their UK colleagues find odd. UK staff spoke of these behaviours as disturbing because they were at once very familiar, and at the same time exotic and different. Most intriguing about these instances was that UK respondents could not pinpoint the problem. All they could really talk about was their sense of discomfort. For their part, when discussing aspects of their work, Indian respondents talked above all about following the rules, conforming to company expectations, and performing to the best of their ability. Whilst there is no scope within this paper to further develop ideas about irony, mimicry and resistance, we feel that it is an area which merits further investigation.

Focusing on the ways in which UK and Indian respondents in this financial services organisation construct themselves and one another, our analysis reveals above all paradoxes and ambivalences. On one hand, it demonstrates respondents’ use of binary understandings: the Indians and the British; their work ethic and ours; competence and incompetence, to justify particular patterns of thinking and acting, and ultimately to legitimate the persistence of existing arrangements. However, at the same time it highlights a deep sense of contradiction and doubt that underpins these dichotomies: expressed as inconsistencies within these prescriptions, as rules and patterns of thought and behaviour which are reiterated on a daily basis, and as ironic conformity. We would argue that this ambivalence can be seen to elucidate the fragility of the existing order, the possibility of resistance and potentially of change.




1 The discrepancy here was due to resourcing. The first part of the Indiabased work was funded by the British Academy (which is why we were able to conduct more interviews there). The second phase was supportedby the Economic and Social Research Council.


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