Rethinking call centers

From stigma to productive experience


  • Johanna Tovar WU Vienna (Vienna University of Economics and Business) Author



stigma, call centers, resistance, ethnography, Goffmann, passing


Call centers have been critiqued in academia and the media for widespread standardization. This paper argues that although this critique of working conditions is well-intended, it has led to unwanted stigmatization of not just call center work but also of call center agents. Much has been published on call centers, but the stigma this work entails and the effect this has on agents on and off the phone has been overlooked. This paper applies Goffman’s notion of stigma to data collected through long-term ethnography and interviews with over seventy call center agents in a London call center. I show how agents experience, manage, and resist stigma. The analysis reveals that agents attempt to hide where they work by adopting different accents and avoiding specific lexis associated with call center language. I conclude by suggesting potential avenues for reducing the stigma of working in a call center, e.g. shifting the dominant discussion in academia beyond debates surrounding standardization.

Author Biography

  • Johanna Tovar, WU Vienna (Vienna University of Economics and Business)

    Johanna Tovar is Assistant Professor at WU Vienna (Vienna University of Economics and Business), Austria. She has done ethnographic fieldwork in a variety of workplaces, including call centers in Europe and Asia, pertaining to issues such as migration, standardization, text trajectories, invisible work, resistance, and compliance. She is the author of Linguistic ethnography of a multilingual call center (2019), and co-edited The research companion to language and country branding (2020).


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How to Cite

Tovar, J. (2022). Rethinking call centers: From stigma to productive experience. Sociolinguistic Studies, 16(1), 87–107.