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Subterranean worksick blues: humour as subversion in two call centres

Taylor, P. and Bain, P.M. (2003) Subterranean worksick blues: humour as subversion in two call centres. Organization Studies, 24 (9). pp. 1487-1509. ISSN 0170-8406

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Abstract

This article engages in debates stimulated by previous work published in Organization Studies, and more widely, on the purpose and effects of workers' humour and joking practices. The authors emphasize the subversive character of humour in the workplace, rejecting perspectives which see humour as inevitably contributing to organizational harmony. Drawing on methodologies, including ethnography, which permitted the authors to penetrate the organizational surface of two call centres, rich evidence of satire and joking practices were uncovered. While long-acknowledged motives were revealed, particularly relief from boredom and routine, workers' use of humour took novel, call centre specific forms. Overwhelmingly, though, humour contributed to the development of vigorous countercultures in both locations, which conflicted with corporate aims and priorities. However, the particular combinations of managerial culture, attitudes to trade unionism and dissent, and the nature of oppositional groupings helped impart a different character to humour between the two call centres. At Excell, the presence of a group of activists seeking to build workplace trade unionism in circumstances of employer hostility was a crucial contrast. These activists were instrumental in their use of humour, aware that it helped make the union popular and served to weaken managerial authority. This evidence, that subversive satire can be allied to a wider collective union organizing campaign at workplace level, makes a distinctive contribution to the recent literature on organizational humour.