Scholars researching the area of the sociology of professions had earlier predicted that as occupations seek to improve their public image, professionalism would embrace all their incumbents. It is therefore no revelation that call centre agents in India identify themselves as professionals. Using van Manen’s hermeneutic phenomenological approach, we explored this dimension with 59 call centre agents located in Mumbai and Bangalore, India. The findings demonstrate that neither the trait nor the power approaches drawn from the traditional literature on the sociology of professions explain call centre agents’ identification with professional work. Instead, agents’ experiences validate the contemporary explanation that emphasises the appeal of professionalism used by employer organisations as a means to convince, cajole, and persuade their employees to perform and behave in ways which the employer organisation deems appropriate, effective and efficient. It is in this context that agents accept stringent work systems and job design elements, techno-bureaucratic controls and the primacy of the customer in return for the privileges bestowed upon them by way of being professionals. While professional identity thus serves as a means of socio-ideological control facilitating the realisation of the organisation agenda, it is not all-encompassing as agents simultaneously show signs of resistance.
Professions And Professionalism: Understanding The Phenomena
Traditionally, there have been two approaches in the sociology of professions: the trait or attribute approach and the power approach. Until the early 1970’s, the trait approach dominated the academic literature. Numerous efforts along functionalist lines (See, for example, Barber, 1963; Carr-Saunders & Wilson, 1933; Goode, 1969; Greenwood, 1962; Harris-Jenkins, 1970; Kornhauser, 1962; Marshall, 1962; Moore, 1970; Parsons, 1951; Wilensky, 1964) were devoted to isolating and listing attributes that served to distinguish professions from nonprofessional occupations. This school of thought believed that the sociological task was to list the characteristics of an ideal-typical profession against which actual examples of occupational groups could then be assessed as more or less professional (MacDonald, 1995). The trait model of professions included two core characteristics – a body of theoretical and technical knowledge and a service orientation. On the basis of these characteristics, the profession claimed and acquired other properties. This included professional autonomy which was the right accorded by society to members of a profession to determine the nature of problems with which they were concerned, the appropriate procedures by which these would be solved, and the evaluation of professional performance. In addition, the professions were characterised by control over recruitment and licensing of new members, a long period of training and socialisation, monopoly over the performance of certain tasks, authority recognised by clients and the public, a belief in the importance of their function, a sense of community, formal associations and a code of ethics (Latham, 2002; Leicht & Fennell, 2001; Toren, 1975;).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Socio-Ideological Control: Socio-ideological control can be defined as efforts to persuade employees to adapt to certain values, norms and ideas about what is good, important, praiseworthy, etc., in terms of work and organisational life (Alvesson & Karreman, 2004).
Techno-Bureaucratic Control: Technical control is embedded in the technology of work, moving the direction and pace of work from the control of the supervisor to the production line. Bureaucratic control is carried out through rules, policies, formal incentives and other impersonal devices. Thus, techno-bureaucratic control is institutionalised through technology and this is strengthened and deepened by bureaucratic control in shaping the social and organisational structure of the workplace (Callaghan & Thompson, 2001).
Professionals: Those who perform the tasks associated with the professions are called professionals. They also display the characteristics expected of the members of specific professions (Middlehurst & Kennie, 1999).
Call Centre: A call centre is a specialised office where employees (also known as call centre agents) remotely provide information, deliver services, and/or conduct sales, using some combination of integrated telephone and information technologies, typically with an aim to enhancing customer service while reducing organisational costs (McPhail, 2002).
Professionalism: Professionalism not only embraces the belief that certain work is so specialised as to be inaccessible to those lacking the required training and experience and the belief that such work cannot be standardised, rationalised and commodified, but also represents the occupational control of work where workers enjoy the autonomy to organise and control their own work as against customer or managerial control where customers or employers choose who is to perform what tasks and how much will be paid, on what terms, for performing them (Freidson, 2001).
Professions: Occupations that perform tasks of great social value because those enacting them possess knowledge and skill that in some way set them apart from other kinds of workers and that entail a self-regulating form of social control are known as professions (Freidson, 1984).
Organisational Control: Organisation control has been defined in numerous ways but most definitions seem to agree that organisational control includes the exercise of power (influence) in order to secure sufficient resources, and mobilise and orchestrate individual and collective action towards (more or less) given ends. Organisational control typically includes an apparatus for specifying, monitoring and evaluating individual and collective action. It focuses on worker behaviour, output and/or the minds of the employees. Sometimes it attempts to focus on all three. Managerial activity that attempts to control behaviour typically includes designing and supervising work processes. This is usually carried out in a way that attempts to make work processes as simple and transparent as possible, thereby lowering knowledge thresholds (and the price of labour) (adapted from Alvesson & Karreman, 2004). Socio-ideological and techno-bureaucratic controls (defined below) are two forms of organisational control.
Professionalisation: Professionalisation captures the process whereby work groups attempt to actually change their position on one or more dimensions of the occupation-profession continuum, moving towards the professional pole (Pavalko, 1971).