The 2017 Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures

Future Tense: Capital, Labor, and Technology in a Service Industry

The Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Series
University of Rochester, 2017

Akhil Gupta and Purnima Mankekar

2017 Morgan Lecture Poster

Since its beginning in 2000, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry has grown to employ 700,000 young people in India. Future Tense is an anthropological study of call center workers in the outsourcing hub of Bengaluru. These young workers spend their nights interacting by phone and online with consumers in the US, UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The study focuses on the affective dimensions of work in the BPO industry, asking: How does the experience of work produce particular understandings of time, embodiment, and sociality? The research explores the complex interplay between work, personal aspirations, social futures, and transformations in global capitalism. This industry has had contradictory effects that lead both to upward mobility but also to precarity.

Challenging superficial accounts of predatory corporations in the Global North using “coolie labor” in the Global South to enhance profits through off-shoring and outsourcing, we draw on long-term fieldwork to argue that such simplistic narratives fail to capture the complexity and density of interactions between imagination, aspiration, technology, and work for upwardly-mobile classes in the Global South. New technologies such as artificial intelligence, chat, and the digitization of work constantly transform the experiences of workers in this industry. Their experiences provide us with critical insights into capital, labor, and information technology in our rapidly changing world.

The fifth installment of the multimedia feature of the HAU-Morgan Lectures Initiative brings you Professor Gupta and Mankekar’s 2017 Morgan Lectures in video format. See links below the video for the transcript of the lectures.


Akhil Gupta is a sociocultural anthropologist currently working on questions of transnational capitalism, infrastructure, and corruption. Gupta has been doing research on call centers in India since 2009. His research projects have led him from studying agriculture to state development agencies to multinational corporations. Gupta is interested in the themes of contemporary capitalism, development, postcoloniality, globalization, and the state. His empirical research interrogates anthropological and social theory from its margins by paying attention to the experience of peasants and other groups of poor people in India. Combining cultural and sociological analyses of institutions and social life with questions raised by postcolonial theory, he uses rigorous and intensive ethnographic research as a basis to rethink some major questions in social theory dealing with space, place, and temporality. Gupta employs anthropology’s traditional emphasis on a deep understanding of a place or people as a vantage point from which to critique and expand received ideas in social theory. His interest in these themes is complemented by sustained attention to the rethinking and renewal of anthropological methods.

Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Purnima Mankekar has conducted interdisciplinary research on media and publics/public cultures with a focus on the politics of affect. She is currently completing a book on affective labor and the production of futurities in the Business Process Outsourcing industry in Bengaluru, India titled Future Tense: Affective Labor and Disjunctive Temporalities (co-authored with Akhil Gupta). She is the initiator and convener of an international and interdisciplinary consortium of scholars working on a collective project, Publics on Edge, that seeks to examine how transnational regimes of affect shape politics in Asia, Australia, and Europe. Her first book, Screening Culture, Viewing Politics (Duke; 1999) examined the role of state-run television in the affective construction of “Indian Womanhood.” Her most recent book, Unsettling India: Affect, Temporality, Transnationality (Duke; 2015) was on how transnational public cultures constitute India as an archive of affect and temporality. Her co-edited books include Caste and Outcast (co-edited with Gordon Chang and Akhil Gupta; Stanford University Press; 2002) and Media, Erotics, and Transnational Asia (co-edited with Louisa Schein; Duke; 2013). She has received numerous awards and fellowships for her research including a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Duke University (1997–98), a Bunting Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (2000–01), a Stanford University Humanities Center fellowship (2005–06), and was a senior research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (2013).