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

Those who see workplace regimes as characterised by the existence of the ‘electronic panopticon’ typically employ a Foucauldian framework. In Jeremy Bentham’s late- eighteenth century design for a prison, later adapted by Foucault (1977) as a metaphor for societal surveillance, the central observation tower is constructed in such a way that isolated, individual inmates could never be sure when they were being watched. From the vantage point in the tower, the observer could see the inmates in their peripheral cells at any time without being seen. Thus, the prisoners come to act as though they are under the carceral gaze at all times and so ‘internalise’ the gaolers’ objective of exercising discipline and control. Foucault summarised the effects thus, ‘the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action’ (1977: 201). Although the ‘panoptic gaze’ was but one element in Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power in modern society, it is this aspect of his work which has been the subject of renewed attention, particularly in relation to the monitoring and surveillance of workers’ activities. In the early 1990s, the panopticon increasingly was perceived to be electronic in its workplace application, and a control device habitually utilised by management as an essential component of just-in-time/total quality management (JIT/TQM) production systems. Sewell and Wilkinson, for example, declared that in any discussion ‘centring on (em)power(ment) and discipline, it is inconceivable’ that they would not be drawn to Foucault’s work (1992: 111). In the context of the contemporaneous general shift in management organisational practice towards teamworking, they say, ‘the solitary confinement of Taylorism has been superseded by the electronic tagging of the Information Panopticon’. Work has been organised in such a way that employees consent ‘to be subject to a system of surveillance which they know will immediately identify their divergence from norms and automatically trigger sanction or approval’. In such circumstances, worker resistance, whether expressed individually or collectively, has all but disappeared, and . . . even if collective action were to take place, it would have to face the possible challenge of being undermined by the quality monitoring system’s ability to identify even the smallest possible divergencies from the norm made by individuals, who could then be singled out by management for dismissal. (Sewell and Wilkinson, 1992: 110) In the absence of worker resistance, what remains, not surprisingly, is ‘the institutionalised acceptance of management prerogatives’, and a situation in which any changes to work organisation are regarded by employees as ‘an inevitable extension of the managerially imposed control system to be accepted along with all other terms and conditions’. (p.4)


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


On Foucault, Foucault, Call Centres

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