By Dr Faten Khazaei
“Situated Norms” is a postdoctoral research project at Goldsmiths which looks at State’s child protection mission through the lens of social difference.
The need to protect children from neglect and abuse is one of the most accepted missions of the welfare state. Despite the extensive consensus on the need for public action regarding child protection, however, little attention has been paid to what concretely is being problematised by this public action. Moreover, the concrete practices involved in the professional assessments of children’s situations, such as the home visits central to the practice of contemporary children and family social work, have rarely been studied, and what research has been done remains very much embedded within the applied science produced in social work. The above research primarily seeks to improve child protection, help social-welfare agents assess cases more effectively and identify necessary protection measures more accurately.
My two-year postdoctoral research project funded through Postdoc.Mobility scheme of Swiss National Science Foundation, investigates instead, this state intervention into the familial private sphere as a specific site for the production and enforcement of a social, ethno-racial/national and gendered order. The project investigates the positionality of the norms promoted in relation to child protection and the ways they are applied by social workers in order to understand how in treating social problems, state institutions and actors, participate in the fabrication of difference between social groups. Furthermore, the practice of home visits is an understudied and relevant object of study through which to investigate and question the social, gender, class and ethno-racial order promoted by state agents in the context and in the name of child protection. Through an ethnographic study of those home visits and the encounters between London social workers responsible for child protection and their beneficiaries, this research investigates the problematic figures identified by child-protection policies and the measures taken to address them. More precisely, the research explores how institutional agents name, frame and treat problems related to child protection differently depending on how they perceive their beneficiaries, and how this framing and treatment ultimately creates the very differences between social groups they purport to address.
First, the project investigates the positionality of the norms and standards against which women’s and men’s performance as parents are evaluated and children’s situations are assessed. Investigating who has access to state disciplining powers and who is subjected to surveillance is necessary for the second step of this inquiry, which involves analysing the figures of deviant parenthood. The project investigates home visits as a means through which institutional agents produce categories of nation, ethnicity/race, gender and class. Third and last, while I will be attentive to inductively identifying the categories that emerge as most salient in each institutional encounter, I will also devote specific attention to the ways in which social workers monitor and advise ethno-racial minorities, fathers and mothers and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups differently.
By critically engaging with the field of social difference, this study of social workers’ home-visiting practices makes it possible to show how categories based on race/ethnicity, nationality, gender, class and migration take sense in concrete social situations and in the face of specific social problems and attempted solutions to them. By applying an intersectional perspective to the study of a population-wide social problem, namely child protection, this research project makes it possible to articulate questions that distinct theoretical fields, including studies of nationalism, critical race studies, the sociology of migration, gender studies and feminist theory, usually ask about pre-selected and pre-identified social groups, such as racialised minorities, women or migrants. This research design makes it possible to study the multiplicity of logics that intervene in the process of othering not by looking at the ‘other’, but by investigating processes of norm production and categorisation embedded in a specific institutional context, social work, and in the face of a specific social problem, protecting at-risk children. Methodologically, in the face of the increasing use of the concept of intersectionality as merely a buzzword or in highly theoretical work, this project contributes to a new body of work that focuses on intersectionality in practice. It makes it possible to detect and retrace multiple logics of differentiation that contribute to the legitimation and naturalisation of an unequal social order and demonstrate their links to a sociohistorical context and specific representations at the moment of their operationalisation. In a context in which the majority of research in the field of child protection focuses on children’s developmental needs, the importance of detecting those in need and changing the problematic behaviour of caregivers, this project instead presents the ways in which this perceived problematic situation is conceptualised in articulation with other power relations. Finally, I hope that the findings of this work will be helpful for social workers and policymakers outside the academic community: they will help them counter the highly individualising measures and practices inherent in social work and better assess the needs of the population they serve, in relation to the structural power relations that determine public policies and their underlying norms.