A book review of Johanna Woydack's Linguistic Ethnography of a Multilingual Call Center: London Calling
Linguistic Ethnography of a Multilingual Call Center: London Calling by Johanna Woydack is an insider’s look into multilingual call centers in the United Kingdom. The chapters in the text draw on the methods and approaches of anthropology, including participant-observation, linguistic ethnography, fieldwork, and recontextualization analysis. More specifically, this book is a case study of a call center located in London, and the author focuses on two main processes constituting its activities: entextualization, which involves selecting, designing, and inscribing prose for a script; and recontextualization, which shows how scripts are adapted, construed, and altered via interpretation by the text’s recipient (p. 18). In addition, and crucially, Woydack becomes a call-center worker herself, which results in her providing a deep account of how call centers function.
The focus of this text is on how call centers operate in terms of “conditions of employment, recruitment, standardization practices, global reach and communication, and surveillance” (p. 4). The contested term “standardization,” as it pertains to call centers, has been defined as a process of “constructing uniformities across time and space, through the generation of agreed-upon rules as well as guidelines” (p. 7). This text provides a critique to the Marxian belief that the “agency inherent in humanity resists standardization attempts that turn workers into machines” (p. 2). Woydack argues that scripts work like a thread between corporate managers and their employees, and they bring efficiency into the workplace. The workers are not duped and exploited by the system as they understand that sprits connect “call center workers across the organizational hierarchy” (p. 2).
The text’s introduction provides the basics of how call centers operate via standardization and scripts, and it also spells out the theoretical and methodological approach for the book’s remaining chapters. Chapter 2, “Getting to Know CallCentral: A First Encounter,” examines the employees as well as the operating principles of call centers, while explaining the “centrality and importance of calling scripts” (p. 27). Furthermore, she comments on “relaxation in the organization,” as many workers believe the call center to be a relaxed place; they are free to talk to their peers, read magazines and books, eat, drink coffee, and play with their smartphones as long as it does not affect their “work performance and productivity” (p. 45). An interesting anecdote reveals a secret solution reached between a team leader and their “agents” or underlings, when the latter group agreed to “spice up the script a bit under the radar to improve the call-rate statistics,” (p. 3). They did this in a discreet manner so that no one from management would know about it, which is illustrative of employees ably dealing with the pressure that typically accompanies call-center work.
Chapter 3, “The First Stage of the Script’s Career: Production of the Master Script,” details the formulation of the scripts that will eventually be read by the call center’s employees. The author demonstrates how a so-called “strict script” transforms itself by going through three main stages, which reflect the call center’s organizational hierarchy: clients, corporate managers, and the campaign managers. The clients and managers expect “the master script to be read word for word by its [users] and not to be altered” (p. 93). Regardless, they also know that the master script will likely require some transformations at the level of text before it is actually used by call-center employees.
Chapter 4, “The Second Stage in the Script’s Career: Adaptation of the Master Script,” addresses the transformation of a script as it is operationalized by workers on the “shop floor” of the call center. The clients provide the master scripts and expect complete fidelity with the text, but the “team leaders are pragmatic in their orientation and adaptation of the master script” (p. 121). They personalize the script into a dialogue in which the customer reacts to their partner on the phone. Further, agents annotate their typed copies of the script based on discussions with customers and briefings with the team leaders. These transformations indicate that “communication will be most successful when [workers] personalize” the script (p. 121).
Chapter 5, “The Final Stage of the Script’s Career: Enactment and Use of the Master Script,” examines the final phase in which “agents translate a script into other languages and work with it on the phone” (p. 141). At this stage, workers log details of their interactions with customers and record their calls, such that these data can be sent to managers for post-facto analysis. Campaign managers and team leaders then summarize the data into reports for the clients. If the reported data are unsatisfactory, clients and managers may suggest a rewrite of the script. Sometimes the workers themselves may also modify the annotated scripts if their statistics are poor due to monotonous readings of master scripts.
Chapter 6, “Standardization and Agency Intertwined,” sums up the labor performed by call-center workers and discusses the implications of their labor. Woydack admits that her case study will likely “evoke a negative image of call centers as digital communication factories of the post-industrial service economy,” (p. 179). She also suggests that new insights on call centers can be achieved through qualitative methods, most importantly long-term ethnography, combined with a focus on the discourse found in scripts. She also justifies why ethnographic fieldwork is essential to “[unravel] the role of standardization practices through the textual tools required by call center service work” (p. 179). Woydack concludes the text with a note of caution that her analysis should not stand for a generalized account of how call centers around the world operate.
In Linguistic Ethnography of a Multilingual Call Center, Johanna Woydack provides a clear ethnographic account, supported by a sophisticated analysis, of the inner workings of a call center in the United Kingdom. The text provides new insights on the roles of standardization and scripts as dynamics of the workplace, and not – pace Marx – as something necessarily leading to homogeneity, deskilling, and dehumanization. This text will be a useful tool for researchers studying labor markets, capitalist modes of production, customer relations, sales, and telemarketing in service economies throughout the world.
Dr. Amitabh Vikram Dwivedi is a university faculty member, specializing in linguistics and literature, in the School of Languages & Literature at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University in India. His research interests include language documentation, descriptive grammars, and the preservation of rare and endangered languages in South Asia.