For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Entrapped by the ‘electronic panopticon’? Worker resistance in the call centre"

by Bain, Peter; Taylor, Phil (2000)


This article presents a thoroughgoing critique of Fernie and Metcalf’s perspective, that the call centre is characterised by the operation of an ‘electronic panopticon’ in which supervisory power has been ‘rendered perfect’. Drawing on evidence from a telecommunications call centre the authors analyse the significance of emerging forms of employee resistance.

Key Passage

The blithe acceptance of the panopticon metaphor, and its uncritical application to the contemporary workplace, requires explanation. Why is it that such a perspective, which so palpably fails any serious theoretical and empirical examination, has been adopted so readily? For some it would seem to explain reality. Here are workplaces and workforces which appear to be so dominated by overpowering technology, that there is no room for escape. If Winston Smith cannot evade Big Brother, then the call centre agent in her electronic penitentiary is similarly entrapped. Those ensnared by the panopticon perspective, following a superficial reading of Foucault, are expressing other influences. It can be suggested that they have fallen for an old-fashioned dose of technological determinism. They make the mistake of believing that because the software claims to be able to perform miracles of monitoring, then complete managerial control will inevitably result. It is a superficial view which ignores the complexities of managerial practice and the contested nature of the employment relationship. It also eliminates subjectivity. In treating call centre agents as passive, active only in so far as they internalise the supervisor’s exercise of discipline and control, these latter-day Foucauldians are reflecting a much wider disillusionment about the potentiality for worker self-activity. To these influences we should add the baleful current of postmodernism. For Foucauldians, subjectivity is synonymous with identity, and identity with individualism. To the extent that resistance is acknowledged, as possible or actual, it is understood to be highly circumscribed and individualised. Such is the pervasive influence of the panopticon and the internalisation of surveillance that the only possibility is for individuals to seek ‘the spaces for escape’. Subjectivity as collective activity does not feature as a possibility in this world view, although this is the form of resistance capable of breaching what is taken to be the panopticon. The Telcorp case study is a powerful repudiation of the crude transfer of the panopticon metaphor to the capitalist workplace. To put the argument bluntly—if worker resistance, union recruitment and a serious challenge to managerial power can occur at Telcorp, then they can happen anywhere. (p.16)


Foucault, Panopticon, Call Centre Work, Work Supervision, Surveillance, Telecommunications, Employee Resistance


On Foucault, Foucault, Call Centres

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