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‘women, wine, and water’

On Fabio’s claim that sociology “needs more…” As a qualitative sociologist, I think the discipline stands to gain from a closer engagement with forms of literary non-fiction. At times, it seems we lose a lot of rich detail by cramming things into the stylistic straightjacket of academic journals.  (And also by converting narratives into “anecdotes” and “data”). What’s more, sociology can actually go beyond journalism in that it methods allow for a more sustained treatment of subject matter. So, here’s my best attempt. The following is an edited passage from Dead Ringers in which I describe some of the more bizarre ways that corporations are fostering cultural change in India.

***

South Delhi is a dense settlement of middle-class homes and shopping markets, pitted with occasional slums, gardens, and Mughal landmarks. Its ethos is largely consumerist. The banner headline of a community newspaper during the Hindu festival of Diwali asks, “Want to Get Wealthy?” The question is material but the speculations are airily religious. “What pleases Goddess Lakshmi [the goddess of wealth]? When does she bless us with all the riches and comforts of the world? Different people have different answers: some say, it is the gem that you wear, the goddess that you worship, the colour that you paint your walls in or how big is your wealth vase [sic].”

The dance floor of an area night club is occupied by tight clusters of young men and women in designer clothes, all of whom, one presumes, have rather large wealth vases. Rita, a twenty-two-year-old call center worker, has drunk five cocktails priced at 250 rupees a piece, approximately $25 in total—a large sum in a country where 35 percent of the people live on less than $1 a day. Although city regulations require bars to stop serving alcohol at midnight, the club simply locks the front door and allows the intoxicating flow to continue. After a night of dancing, Rita’s head is beginning to spin. Her growing dizziness and fatigue are amplified by the kaleidoscopic whirl of strobe lights and a dance floor that undulates “boombonically” to a Bhangra remix of rapper 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.

Rita is out with her team of six call center workers—the excursion is sponsored by their company to foster camaraderie within the group. Her long swaying hair cannot hide her pale face, which is a knot of exhaustion and sickness. Noticing her obvious discomfort, Deepak, her junior manager, gathers the rest of the team that is gyrating to the hybrid beats. They board a black Toyota Qualis with tinted windows, one of hundreds hired by the company to transport workers to and from work. When they arrive at Rita’s house, Deepak steps out of the vehicle, walks confidently up the dimly lit driveway, and rings the doorbell. He is followed by Rita, who is being assisted clumsily by another inebriated worker. Rita’s mother answers the door.

“Hello, Auntie, here is your daughter,” says Deepak, drawing out the last rolling syllable sinisterly, barely able to contain his mirth. We may picture her, a housewife dressed in a nightgown with a diaphanous shawl draped over her frail shoulders (for it is late and a bit cool) standing in the doorway, one hand clutching the doorknob, the other on the jamb to support her weight, gazing over Deepak’s shoulder and around his smile. What thoughts pass through her mind as she catches sight of her only daughter, her hair bunched into a loose ball by a supportive coworker, leaning awkwardly over an outer hedgerow thick with the first spring growth? Is she shocked and dismayed by the sight? Is she afraid of calling out and waking the neighbors? One thing is certain: her daughter’s behavior has proved the alarmists right. The outsourcing industry is a den of sin and immorality, tempting the young and chaste with refulgent, air-conditioned offices in chrome and glass towers, with therapists and destressing rooms, and, of course, parties.

While outsourcing has provided welcome foreign investment and employment, the resulting cultural change is not easily reconcilable with certain aspects of Indian social life. Though not yet fully articulated as such, as in Raymond Williams’s notion of “structures of feeling,” what the clash supposes is two different moral worlds.  The first is one in which marriage is arranged by family, gratification is delayed, and the individual is engulfed and defined by a dense web of family and social obligations. The second posits an autonomous, pleasure-seeking self that no doubt derives succor from family, but is defined more by the voluntary choices it makes. At a remove from the traditional sources and enforcers of societal values—extended families, lifelong neighbors, religious authorities—workers construct their own, but not from scratch.

The identities and aspirations of the outsourcing workforce are defined increasingly with reference to the West. Outsourcing has emboldened a class of cultural emulators and made their protest visible. Radical in their rejection of old values, conspicuous in their consumption, workers construct an image of the West that is used to benchmark India’s progress towards modernity. The infusion of new money and jobs, however, feeds popular anxieties that stretch virtue into vice: too much personal freedom, too much consumerism. In this chapter, I argue that globalization does not herald an era of unprecedented personal or consumer freedom, a belated “modernity,” nor does it signify a crisis of the “traditional” Indian family. Rather, it gives rise to an Indian morality play where the pleasure principle clashes with the demands of custom and obligation, where kama (pleasure) and dharma (duty) meet in uneasy suspension.

***

Some days later, I scheduled a meeting with Deepak at Café Coffee Day, the largest retail café chain in the country. It is a favorite of middle-class youth, and most of the gossiping and whispered backstabbing takes place in a mix of Hindi and the former colonial tongue, which is ever a mark of distinction. Even if you place your order in flawless Hindi, the smiling cashier will respond in thickly accented English.

Deepak arrives 15 minutes late. Clad in faded jeans, leather jacket, and black patent shoes that reflect the ceiling lights in bright flashes, he walks to the table with a swagger. The rings and creases about his tired eyes mar an otherwise clear and youthful complexion. Because of the necessity of working the night shift, BPO employees, more often than not, are exhausted, however much they are able to recalibrate their internal biological clocks to the intent rhythms of the global economy. Deepak has recently been promoted to junior manager, and the small salary increase has been accompanied by a haughty boost in status. Deepak the manager consorts not with other workers but with the likes of the company vice president. He evinces a casual disdain for those beneath him, the poor souls like Rita that remind him of his former, easily duped self.

Monetary incentives alone, he explains, are no longer effective in retaining people in an industry with extremely high turnover—on the order of 25–40 percent annually. “No matter how much you give them in salary and bonuses, it’s never enough. One guy uses his money to buy a dress for his girlfriend. She’s happy. But then she wants something more, like a necklace or flowers. It never ends. Now we’re trying nonmonetary incentives like, you know, packets of cigarettes, taking them out drinking,” Deepak carps in the manner of an exasperated parent. Then, leaning closer, he says in a tone of conspiratorial bonhomie, “My VP has a philosophy [to reduce turnover]. Women . . . wine . . . and water.” (Why ‘water’?)

However nonsensical and off-putting the alliterative “philosophy,” it illustrates the lengths companies will go to retain (at least male) workers. Because of a labor market in which demand outpaces supply, they make gestures toward indulging workers’ perceived bacchanalian instincts. The CEO of a call center firm says that parties are a necessary “motivational tool in BPO culture. Everyone has to do it.” Even a new union that is trying to organize BPO workers initially threw large parties to attract workers. Little organizing was actually accomplished, as workers were more interested in alcohol than the union charter. And much to the chagrin of employers, the industry’s reputation for promiscuity has even earned it visits from the government health ministry’s AIDS awareness program. But aside from such ethically questionable “perks,” there are more routine ways that companies shape the identities and behavior of the employees within the workplace….

Written by shehzadnadeem

March 2, 2011 at 5:35 am

4 Responses

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  1. In 1990, I took two college classes in “Japanese for Business” and then worked for a Japanese MNC. The salaryman culture was iconic. Last month, my wife and I suffered through a fraction of one “Mad Men” episode, which to me was like the backstory for Death of a Salesman. Yet, Benjamin Franklin’s “Way to Wealth” taught a different ethos. It is not so much a matter of “business” or “money” or “the global economy” as it is people. After all, absent them, can organizations exist? Perhaps integrating other examples across cultures, would illuminate the need for recreation as a function of work. Getting and giving tickets to major league sporting events would be included. Arch-capitalist T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor pays his engineers to design and build large sculptures with cans of food which are then donated to local charities. Entertainment is a form of self-actualization which itself is a strong motive for seeking wages. How you tell that story depends on how you see it.

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    Michael E. Marotta

    March 2, 2011 at 10:19 am

  2. “How you tell that story depends on how you see it.”
    A very good point, and I’ve reintroduced the analytic bit above as a result. Without it, the narrative is rather decontextualized.

    Also, I hadn’t made the connection to the salary man culture. For some reason, many of these companies, particularly the call centers, have it in their minds that parties are the best way to retain workers and these sorts of episodes are the result. The lack of experienced managers in the industry may have a lot to do with this. (Interestingly, many Indian IT companies go the way of less sensational entertainment and good works).

    But again, thanks for the insights.

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    shehzadnadeem

    March 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm

  3. lovely passage! thanks.

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    sean

    March 2, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  4. Being able to drink (or more importantly, being able to hold your liquor without appearing visibly drunk) may now be a job requirement in highly competitive markets. See photos of job applicants in China who had tried to impress their prospective boss. Hint: click on the gray bar below the photos to see the sequence of events:
    http://news.163.com/photoview/00AP0001/11760.html#p=6L6P1LE000AP0001

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    KatherineKChen

    March 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm


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