Why good social workers do bad things: An institutional ethnography of social work with children and families Jessica Louise Langston Submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of Sociological Studies August 2021 iii Dedication Rosemary “Val” Mulvany 1945-2020 This thesis is dedicated to my wonderful Aunty Val who sadly died weeks before its submission. Born in Waterford, Ireland, Val had an instrumental role in the lives of her ‘many’ siblings, both in Ireland and later in Birmingham where she settled down to start her own family. My father followed her here shortly afterwards, with just a rucksack of clothes he arrived unannounced to start his life in England. Just as she helped him, some 30 years later it would be me who turned up on her doorstep with nowhere to go. The combination of her unconditional love and no-nonsense approach enabled me to build my life and have a safety net to try (and fail), never doubting her love for me. i Abstract This thesis explores how the activities of social workers in a children and families department of a UK local authority are organised, to understand the contradictions and tensions in the social work role, specifically in relation to the work undertaken that results in care proceedings. Taking an institutional ethnographic frame, the study adopted the standpoint of social workers, illuminating through observation and conversation the actualities of their day-today activities. This framework enabled the study to explicate the vast web of ruling relations that organised and coordinated their activities across various locations and points in time, and to situate the findings in relation to the underlying ideologies shaping the construction of “normal” childhood and “good” parenting. The research findings identified a bifurcation of consciousness, a dissonance between social work as it was imagined and social work as it was performed. In communicating an understanding of their everyday activities social workers drew on authoritative accounts, framed by theorised concepts of social work as it appears in literature. However, the study found that the activities undertaken by social workers in their day-to-day role bore little resemblance to the theorised notions of social work they had communicated. Social workers’ daily activities were organised as a series of disconnected tasks designed to serve the organisation’s need to demonstrate compliance with targets. The study identified that the opportunities in which social workers have to exercise professional discretion are reducing as a result of the near-constant surveillance of their activities along with a range of mechanisms of control and compliance deployed by the local authority to restrict professional judgement. This study shows that an exploration of social work activities through an institutional ethnography can highlight the systemic and multifaceted ways in which good social workers are compelled to do bad things. ii Acknowledgements First and foremost, I would like to thank the staff at Middleshire. I was in awe on a daily basis at how eager social workers were in sharing the highs and lows of their practice, engaging enthusiastically with what were at times some difficult questions, and their commitment; with many keeping in touch once the fieldwork had been completed. And to the children and families who allowed me to observe their interactions with social workers at what I appreciate was a challenging time. I consider myself fortunate to have been supervised by Professors Sue White and Kate Morris. I recognise that supervising PhD students requires a significant commitment; the time and patience required to nurture and guide a student through not only the process of their research but in the journey of becoming a researcher, is no small undertaking. Their patience, commitment, and intellectual generosity has been invaluable, and I cannot thank them enough. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study with Professor Dorothy Smith at the University of Toronto, alongside her colleague Dr Susan Turner. I am forever grateful not only for the learning and tutelage during this time, but for the warmth of their welcome. To my colleagues in the sociology department at Sheffield, thank you so much for welcoming me and making me feel part of the department despite the 100 miles between us. In particular, Calum Webb whose intellectual conversation, feedback, and warm friendship have been inv

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