Xiang Biao’s Global Body Shopping Spree.

So over the years that I have been trying to become more of an anthropologist (not having been through any of those anthropology cauldrons so lovingly described in the pages of SM), I have often found myself looking for articles and books that I can give to undergraduates. Books that will “speak for themselves.” The obvious elusiveness of what makes an ethnography good, or what makes for good ethnographic writing, make it hard to find such works. I sigh every time I have to recommend the Cockfight again–especially since I don’t think Geertz is (god rest his soul) any longer a very good guide to what anthropology can do today. This year however, I have found two books that I feel confident using in just this way: as sterling exemplars of what anthropology is and can be today.

Xiang Biao Global Bodyshopping, Princeton, 2007.

The first of these is Xiang Biao’s Global Body Shopping: An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007 (I’ll tell you the other one in the next post). Xiang’s book is phenomenal in the way that Chauncey Gardener was phenomenal in Being There; it has that naive charisma and perfect timing born of simpleness. Of course the genius behind Gardener was Peter Sellers, and I think Xiang might have some of the same going on: it is an honest book, and the introduction (which is worth the price of the book alone) lays out the author’s own tortured attempt to make concepts like “diaspora” and globalization work before realizing that a bizarre, un-explored phenomenon was right under his nose.

I’ve been waiting for a good book on bodyshopping since I did my own work in India in 2000-1; at the time the word was relatively unknown outside of the IT industry. There were a few good journalistic articles here and there (Wired, especially, in its heyday, occasionally paid people to do creative international investigation) and over time a few cultural studies critiques of the inherent racism and colonial blabla of the system. But no one had really spent anytime figuring it out and explaining it (which in my opinion is infinitely more damning than the sharpest toungued accusation of neo-this or that). Xiang’s book is, at base, an explanation of the phenomenon. Why is this so important? Well, in a world of anthropologists never-ending anxiety over the loss of cultures, the loss of their own ability to explain cultures, and the problem of finding new things to study, Xiang’s book offers a way out: it shows how one can study a structure within a larger system and explain both how that structure works and how it illuminates the function of the larger system. In this case the structure is the bodyshopping system, with all of its peculiarities, and the system is the Global IT market as it is embedded in the US, EU and Indian contexts.

Because bodyshopping takes unfamiliar forms–more complicated than simple models of digital divides or global/local would allow one to see–it necessitates an unfamiliar form of analysis. Xiang’s book matches the difficult-to-track details of bodyshopping on the ground (with fieldwork in both Coastal Andra Pradeshi villages and Urban Sydney IT neighborhoods, including the stopover in Kuala Lumpur that represents a standard IT worker’s peregrination) with a theorization of the transformation of the IT economy through the social relations of south Indians. Perhaps the most shocking and fascinating aspect of the book is its explanation of how the bodyshopping system is complexly intertwined with the system of dowry in India (a system that is itself a creature of colonialism). Given the complicated practices of investing in the education abroad of young grooms-to-be, their solitary lives living together in urban locales, and the politics of social nicety, the betrayals and lies, it has all the elements of a latter-day Henry James novel. One might not expect this in a book about the IT industry.

Although many readers might not see this feature of it, Xiang’s book is in fact one of the best examples of “reflexive ethnography” in the last twenty years of experimentation in anthropology. It is not theory-saturated, carefully self-regarding or textually clever (as refelxivity is often interpereted), but reflexive in the precise sense that his understanding of his involvement in the lives of South Indian IT workers, as a Chinese-born, Oxford-trained anthropologist is on view precisely where it matters. He recognizes how being Chinese and male provides certain kinds of access that being white and female would forbid (e.g. sleeping five to a room with “benched” IT workers in Sydney), or how his Oxford credentials are mobilized by his friends to improve their own status amongst family in India.

Xiang’s reflexivity helps him understand, with a partially distanced eye, how it is that the practice of bodyshopping is a “uniquely Indian practice” (4). “Ethnicization” is thus a key aspect of Xiang’s analysis, but he resists the rush to cultural explanations that are such a common feature of journalistic accounts (e.g. that Indian society is naturally suited to mathematical and computational thinking or that the combination of English language training and poverty makes them the easiest for transnational firms to exploit). The “ethnic” component of IT labor is less about distinctions of background or religion, and more about a kind of national solidarity that can be mobilized in particular ways in the Indian IT market itself.

Ironically the “ethnic” character of bodyshopping leads not to enhanced or transformed perceptions of collectivity (and most certainly not to self perception as a working class) but to enhanced “individualization” which Biang nicely describes as “less about ‘self’ and essentially about the perception of society–particularly how one should apprehend uncertainty.(9)” Uncertainty in the marketplace turns individual “merit” into the key to success, rather than being seen as the failure of the bodyshoppers themselves, or problems inherent in the global labor market at large. A result of this combination of ethnicization and individualization is that workers were encouraged to move up– such successes worked in favor of bodyshoppers who gained prestige by marketing “talented” individuals, and against the “collective” identity of workers as having shared interests. The final piece of the puzzle is the “transnationalization” of bodyshopping: the hierarchical ordering of particular nations into a chain of possible movements (e.g. from Andhra Pradesh to Malaysia to Australia to Canada to the US). Transnationalization keeps IT workers on the move, is perceived as the confirmation of “individual merit” and in turn reflects success at home in India–both for families connected to the circulating workers and to the reproduction of IT workers through training institutes.

The combination of a simple explanation (hard-won through fieldwork) of a complex technical and economic system, with the exploration of its effects on social and personal lives of an extended network of families, villages, and corporations scattered around the globe is what makes this the perfect “Intro to Cultural Anthropology” book in my estimation… I’d be very interested to hear where others think it might fit in their own map of the discipline.

(A longer version of this review, along with the book Virtual Migration is slated to appear in Political and Legal Anthropology ).


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

7 thoughts on “Xiang Biao’s Global Body Shopping Spree.

  1. Great review, except one thing: what’s bodyshopping? I’m an ex-marketing employee for an IT staffing firm, so the word has some familiarity, but for the average reader?

  2. oh. sorry about that. Well, in a way that’s what the book is for… but a short answer would be that it is distinctive labor market practice, and a sketchy one at that, in which a usually Indian intermediary firm hires a bunch of “qualified” Indian IT employees, deals with immigration and visa issues, and in turn sends them off to work for EU,Aus or US IT firms. Often the intermediary can be taking up to half (or more) of the Employee’s wages, but they also take all the risk in terms of immigration and labor-market surpluses. It leads to lots of unemployed Indian IT workers (“benched”) milling about places like Central New Jersey and Southern Silicon Valley waiting for IT firms to take up the slack. There are all kinds of horrible results, but it has been central to making Indian labor so globally visible and accessible in the IT industry…

  3. Yes, good review; I just ordered Xiang’s book for my college’s library, and ILL’d it for myself! I know I should wait and read it for myself, but how is “body shopping” different from other kinds of labor contracting services? I’m thinking about the labor contractor who goes from village to village in China to hire teenage girls for the factories in Shenzhen, for example. I understand that clearly the transnational aspect makes it different, at least in scale.
    You guys are a great resource in finding good things to read. I’m at a small liberal arts college in a department of 4 (and only two of whom are sociocultural), so your postings are invaluable in my avoiding brain death.

  4. fuji… so great to hear that these missives are useful… sometimes I (we) wonder 🙂

    as to your question, Xiang’s view seems to be that bodyshopping is distinctively Indian (and he’s from PRC.. for what that’s worth) and I think I agree. The transnational part certainly makes a difference– although in my review in PoLar I think I suggested that a comparison with Coyotes who move immigrants across the US border and the sex trade from SE Asia would make for great comparisons… but the other part is that IT work draws from particular segments of Indian society, and returns wealth to them in particular ways (e.g. especially through dowry) and that this creates a distinctive system. More importantly, I think that Xiang’s book is clear and well ordered enough that it could serve as an excellent starting point for a new generation of comparative ethnography of quasi-formal labor systems, something that I don’t think is really happening yet.

  5. Thanks very much for these two reviews. I’m always asking my anthropologist friends “what’s hot?” and “what can be assigned in undergraduate classes?” so it’s great to get new input here. Just bought both books online and looking forward to reading them. In your next review, though, I would love to see you bring to our attention an example or two of “what’s not hot,” (even if new) “what is a terrible example of what anthropology today,” and “what simply wouldn’t work for undergraduates.” It would be fun to see that, although I understand that you might wish to convey such public sentiments in more delicate terms.

  6. LLWynn: I actually used Masco’s monograph in my contemporary anthropology course this spring, although we didn’t read the whole book. Students really liked it and found it compelling. I remember distinctly one student saying that he thought ‘nuclear bombs, what will the anthropologists think of next?’ in a dismissive fashion, but then found Masco’s arguments stimulating, especially the sections on ‘eco-nationalism.’ I am inclined to think that undergraduates in the US will encounter this book with the fascination that comes from reading about aspects of their own childhood, and so the arguments about the uncanny or the return of the repressed may work especially well for kids who may have dim memories of The Day After or of the weird presence of ‘fall out shelter’ signs in their hometowns. The week we read this actually I also had students over to my place for a viewing of Dr. Strangelove. So we did this whole week on Cold War culture and power in the 20th century basically. Amazingly, then, when Martha Kaplan gave a talk here recently about public water supplies in the U.S. and elsewhere, and in particular, about the controversies surrounding fluoridation, there was this moment of recognition that was quite funny for the Finnish students!

  7. funny. next fall, entering freshmen will have been born in or after 1989. For them, Masco’s book is the key to understanding every previous generation…

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