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

Thompson and Ackroyd observe that ‘the panopticon is the favourite in this armoury’ when the Foucauldian perspective is adopted to new management practices (1995: 622). Whether electronic or informational in application, the panopticon is central to the Foucauldian emphasis on ‘the increased and successful use of monitoring and surveillance of workers’ activities’. They identify a distinct tendency amongst those claiming to utilise Foucault’s theories to give no account of resistance, and that this (mistaken) position can be located in the way in which power is perceived. The belief that management’s monopoly of knowledge marginalises other groups, leads self-declared Foucauldians to a series of assertions. For example, ‘the disciplined member of the corporation wants on his or her own what the corporation wants’ (Deetz, 1992). Worker resistance poses no threat to managerial power since ‘it means that discipline can grow stronger knowing where its next efforts must be directed’ (Burrell, 1988). As Thompson and Ackroyd (1995: 625) argue, If we take all these factors into account, it is hardly surprising that, fragmented, insubstantial and counter-productive, resistance simply disappears from view. While other followers of Foucault do admit to the possibilities of resistance, it is always conceived of as individualistic and fragmentary, never collective, where workers can only seek ‘spaces for escape’ (Knights and McCabe, 1998). The point is also forcibly made that the Foucauldian framework is inherently flawed as a way of explaining workplace relations, since the factory or office are not simply ‘paler versions of carceral institutions’. The organisation of the labour process reflects the very nature of the employment relationship under capitalism and cannot simply be treated as ‘a site of disciplinary power’ as Sakolsy (1992) would have it. Similarly, control in the workplace is not ‘functionally oriented towards the creation of obedient bodies’ per se, but is geared towards the attainment of profit. The problem with looking at the workplace from a surveillance perspective lies in a narrowness which reduces the range and complexities of management control strategies to Foucauldian notions of discipline. Many of these critical themes have been elaborated to equal effect in later essays from the same labour process tradition (Smith and Thompson, 1998). (p.5)


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


On Foucault, Foucault, Call Centres

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