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Researching documents as active texts in social work

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  1. Researching documents as active texts in social work Jo Warner University of Kent 10th UK Joint Social Work Education Conference with 2nd UK Social Work Research Conference Homerton College, Cambridge 9th July 2008

  2. Methodological approach based (loosely) on Dorothy Smith’s institutional ethnography but more specifically the idea of ‘textually mediated social relations’ “That is, how a text has the power to coordinate and concert – to hold people to acting in particular ways” (Campbell & Gregor 2002:32)

  3. The data • Documents in the form of inquiry reports; policy documents and legislation linked to inquiries; media accounts of inquiries How are such texts ‘activated’ in everyday practice? • Transcripts of semi-structured interviews with practitioners

  4. Predictably, the subject of inquiries came up at an early stage in interviews, before explicit questions were asked • Towards the end of their interviews, respondents were asked which, if any, inquiry reports they had actually read • They were then asked detailed questions about the impact of inquiries and/or the so-called ‘culture of inquiry’

  5. Analysis • Analysis of texts in the form of inquiry reports, media accounts of events, and policy documents • Mapping the ‘activation’ of these texts through analysis of themes in interview data with professionals

  6. Findings • Communication within teams – both informally and formally, through in-service training – meant that practitioners felt the impact of inquiry reports even if they had not read them directly:

  7. “I think there is a trickle down effect so that, even if they haven’t read the reports, but people doing training have or their managers might go on training courses that allude to the reports, so there is a slow trickle down…” (Interview 10, female ASW with 4 years experience)

  8. The format of inquiry reports clearly had a direct impact on practitioner’s ‘reading’ of them and their likely impact on practice. Their intertextuality with policy documents was also indicated:

  9. Interviewer: “Do you think these [inquiry] reports have any effect on the way you practice as an ASW care manager?” • Manager: “I think the Clunis report has. I think that was a very well written report and also a very interesting report. I recommended it to my student.

  10. I was thinking that it balances out very well with material that has been written on working together with the health service, the Building Bridges document [government guidance on inter-agency working, Department of Health 1995] and I think because it is written in what I would call an entertaining way, it brought it to life more, in a dramatic way. It read like a thriller to me.” (Interview 27, female ASW with 7 years experience)

  11. There is an acknowledgement that the nature of media reporting affects professional attitudes as well as public opinion:

  12. JW: “Is that your experience…? That there is an increase in disturbed people?” • “That is my opinion, but there again, it is a vicious circle because it is also partly media-based as well. I am looking at the sort of people I see passed through our system and am also reading some of the literature, including some of the hysteria-tinged reports that you see in the newspaper, etc.” .” (Interview 30, male with 7 years ASW experience

  13. Anxiety about being the subject of an inquiry was a relevant factor in instituting a changed approach to practice with documents such as case records receiving explicit attention:

  14. “I think the key thing that really exercises everyone about inquiries is that when you start to think about if an inquiry happens here with me; have I covered myself in a way that makes it quite clear that I have done my job? Which is rather different from doing the job.” (Interview 26, male ASW with 8 years experience)

  15. Interviewer: “An extra emphasis then on keeping clear records?” ASW: “Yes, keeping clear records, not from the point of view of recording the data that is needed in order to manage it [the risk], it may even add an extra tier because you know if something goes wrong, someone is going to ask you to evidence what you did do and your documentary evidence is the way in which you protect yourself in an Inquiry.” (Interview 26, male ASW with 8 years experience)

  16. Conclusions - The organising power of inquiry reports as active texts is realised through: • Their intertextuality with media accounts, policy documents and other inquiry reports • Their format in terms of • the description of events in a linear sequence and a dramatic narrative • the allegorical power of the inquiry report in socio-cultural terms – they are ‘good stories’ (hence their media appeal)

  17. The outcome of their ‘activity’ as texts is: • ‘success’ (from an institutional viewpoint) in focusing attention on individual failings rather than the broader context for service delivery in services • The creation of a culture of inquiry and blame characterised by heightened levels of anxiety among professionals • The promotion of specific forms of defensive practice as ‘good practice’

  18. Warner, J. (2006) Inquiry reports as active texts and their function in relation to professional practice in mental health. Health, Risk and Society, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 223-237 • Further research that focuses on how these issues might be addressed is currently at the planning stage