New perspectives on language and gender: From 'indexicality' to 'materiality' in call centres

Hultgren, Anna Kristina (2018). New perspectives on language and gender: From 'indexicality' to 'materiality' in call centres. In: Sociolinguistics Symposium 22, 27-30 Jun.


Since the 1990s, language and gender studies have taken a well-motivated turn away from generalizations about the ways in which males and females speak. Instead, the preference has been for qualitative, social constructionist approaches in which 'agency' and (gendered) 'indexicality' are foregrounded (Eckert 2016; Silverstein 2003; Ochs 1992). This study departs from currently favoured approaches in language and gender by comparing quantitatively and qualitatively the linguistic behaviour of male and female call centre agents. Drawing on 187 call centre service interactions, institutional documents, interviews, and observations from call centres in two national contexts, the study employs an innovative combination of quantitative and qualitative discourse analytic techniques to compare rule compliance of male and female workers. Call centres are highly target-driven environments in which the linguistic interaction with the customer is prescribed, at least partially, top down (Hultgren 2008; Cameron 2008). The findings suggest that female agents in both national contexts comply more with the linguistic prescriptions than their male colleagues despite managers and agents fervently denying the relevance of gender. The study offers a new perspective on language and gender, pointing to a need to expand the methodologies and theories currently favoured as well as to research a wider range of workplaces than has predominantly been the case (Holmes 2006; Holmes & Stubbe 2003; Holmes & Marra 2011; Baxter 2006; Mullany 2010; Angouri 2011). This is necessary in order to be able to account for the shift to a globalized service economy in which highly regimented, female-dominated and low-status workplaces have grown exponentially. By launching the concept of 'materiality' alongside 'indexicality', the study echoes calls to ‘reinvigorate the political basis of earlier work on language and gender’ (Ehrlich & Meyerhoff 2014: 14; see also McElhinny 2007) in order to understand how language may perpetuate occupational segregation in 21st-century workplaces.

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