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Karen, an experienced social worker, made this exclamation during the weekly team meeting at a Danish child welfare agency. At the time, I was conducting an ethnographic study of the decision-making process in child protection. Five other social workers also were present, together with a family counsellor and the team manager. Over the course of three months of fieldwork, during which I participated in all the social workers’ weekly meetings, I had encountered numerous situations involving emotional expressions of this kind—of frustration, anger, worries, guilt and blame. While expressions of joy, pride, happiness and competence also were evident, the more negative and dramatic ones dominated my field notes. If such expressions provided insider knowledge about the practices of a child welfare agency, the negative ones especially could be viewed ethnographically as playing a defensive role in the practice of regulation and control.

In this chapter, I use my own emotional experiences as a starting point for arguing that both the emotional expressions and their regulation in the field spring from an inherent paradox in human service organizations, which, to a large extent, defines the practice of social work in child welfare. The paradox is formed on one side by the expected rationality of bureaucratic structures mediated by law and their associated economic-rationalistic demands. It is formed on the other side by a (sometimes frustratingly raging) humanistic care ethos built on taking responsibility for the care of human beings and related demands for flexibility, personal engagement and constant availability (Davies, 1994; Daly and Lewis, 2000; Deery, 2008; Mol, 2008).

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Although around the world Brazil’s image is of a youthful nation, population aging is happening there in a highly accelerated way: currently there are more than 28 million older Brazilians (IBGE, 2020). The soaring number of people with dementia has become a major public health problem: Brazil has one of the highest prevalence rates of dementia in the world, reaching a mean of 7.6 percent (Prince et al, 2015). Dementia care is extremely challenging, especially considering that in Brazil care happens mostly at home, making families responsible for their older family members’ well-being. Care resources (home care, medications, housing infrastructure, and so forth) are widely lacking (Burlá et al, 2013), except for richer as opposed to poor people. Without a well-functioning social net, most Brazilians rely on a ‘patchwork of care’—a notion that describes uncertain and ongoing negotiations required of people so as to be able to provide care—the tinkering of individuals mobilizing multiple sources of help, on which they cannot always rely (see Leibing et al, 2016).

How can this complex landscape of care be captured methodologically? Based on ethnographies carried out in a Brazilian metropolis—the Federal District—we propose focusing on ‘logics of care’ in order to get closer to what is at stake in care work. Here we follow Annemarie Mol (2008), who claims that processes that involve care have their internal logics and that we can approach them by observing—from concrete situations—what is done in the way of care. Alternatively, as proposed by Pols (2015), we look at the intra-normativity of these practices, what is considered good care and what is understood as a challenge, dilemma or as negative practices.

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EPDF and EPUB available Open Access under CC-BY-NC-ND licence. Human service work is performed in many places – hospitals, shelters, households, prisons, schools, clinics – and is characterised by a complex mixture of organising principles, relations and rules. Using ethnographic methods, researchers can investigate these site-specific complexities, providing multi-dimensional and compelling analyses.

Bringing together both theoretical and practical material, this book shows researchers how ethnography can be carried out within human service settings. It provides an invaluable guide on how to apply ethnographic creativeness and offers a more humanistic and context-sensitive approach in the field of health and social care to generating valid knowledge about today’s service work.

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Is prison life mundane, dreary, monotonous and exhausting? Or is prison life dangerous, dramatic and unpredictable? The brief answer to both these questions is yes. Prison life, like life in general, can be both under- and over-stimulating. It can be deathly tedious and deadly dangerous. In this respect, the experience of prison life differs to non-prison life in degree and intensity rather than substance, notwithstanding its involuntariness and punitiveness. But the differences in degree and the amplification of intensity do matter and they matter also for the researcher.

This chapter illustrates the value of applying an ethnographic sensibility to sites of confinement and control. With reference to experiences of fieldwork in prisons in Nigeria and ongoing research projects in Myanmar and Tunisia, the chapter explores the dilemma-filled practice of conducting ethnographic research on and in prisons and calls for increased interaction between researchers and practitioners in the quest to put knowledge to work. The chapter takes its point of departure from three examples from different times in my research career. The first is a description of the mistakes of a novice in the field; the second a discussion of the lessons learned from boundary negotiations with prison officials; the third an account of doing fieldwork from a distance as part of a team. In each case, the ‘how to’ of ethnographically inspired research practice is implicit, if not explicit. Following the three examples, I present some reflections on the status of the knowledge such research generates and the possibilities that collaborative work might engender.

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Child protection—as with many other types of human services nowadays—takes place in many locations: public administration buildings, family homes, children’s homes and courts, just to mention some. Such locations have provided the context for many well-known, child protection ethnographies (for example Pithouse, 1998; Dingwall et al, 2014). More recent ethnographies examine movements between these different locations: moving from an agency to the family home or to the court, or having discussions with children while driving from one location to another (Ferguson, 2016). As more and more social work is done virtually and different forms of online technologies influence social work practices and interaction therein (Boddy and Dominelli, 2017), even virtual spaces have become a research interest.

As a result, ethnographic research in human services should not take for granted that the choice of location as the field of study is straightforward. Increasingly, the idea of the field in ethnography as concretely sited does not coincide well with the variety and dynamics of the fields where human services function. Fieldwork carried out in a child protection office provides a different view on the legitimacy of decision-making than ethnographic work on social media sites where service users advocate for their rights in child protection. Nevertheless, both sites could be interesting for a researcher studying decision-making.

From the point of view of fields and locations, the fragmentation of child protection is an important contextual factor to take into consideration.

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The cultivation of ethnographic discovery is not only about being insightful in the field by paying attention to unexpected events and unforeseen social processes. We should also search for potentially surprising or disturbing findings after the fieldwork. This can provide additional ways to create an original and sustainable understanding of research material. In this chapter, we discuss a study of a public youth care project in Sweden to exemplify post-fieldwork ethnographic discovery. While attentively processing field notes, transcripts and documents and bracketing conventional social problems in the settings, it was possible to discover an unexpected but striking emphasis on meetings and administrative work among the service professionals, which the fieldworkers, unbeknownst to them, had inadvertently documented but not reflected upon analytically. This provided an empirical platform for post-fieldwork creativity, eventually generating a number of publications and new research ideas. The chapter ends with an attempt to turn our experiences from the youth project into proposed guidelines for how to discover unanticipated topics in ethnographic data after fieldwork has ended by way of key readings.

In an extensive evaluation of a Swedish youth care project, titled ‘Fighting Violence and Gangs’ (Motverka våld och gang), we ended up with a large cache of ethnographic field notes and qualitative interviews. We had interviewed young people in detention homes, parents and treatment assistants, as well as administrators, coordinators, social service staff and managers. And we had observed a range of meetings and other work-related situations. Altogether, we had collected more than 145 interviews and field observations from more than 80 occasions (Basic et al, 2009, p 13).

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The chapter explores the processes and practices involved in what I refer to as ‘facting’ in a social work case. Facting refers to the ‘doing’ of facts, that is, the discovery and use in practice of what are referred to and taken to be the facts for all practical purposes by those concerned (see Garfinkel, 1967; Holstein, 1993; Liberman, 2018).1 Using work shadowing as an ethnographic method and the unique exploratory mobility it facilitates, data from the case presented allows us to attend to the processes involved in finding, accepting and losing facts across different domains of child protection social work practice. The institutional and analytic mobility described here may be instructive for those engaging in human service ethnography across settings.

Following the story of baby Parker or, more accurately, his social worker Stella as she works with his parents and other professionals to make a plan to care for him safely, I draw upon ethnographic data to illustrate how key facts are situationally organized.2 I consider the practical organization and utilization of court-centred ‘findings of fact’—the term for when a judge determines the facts of a case through trial of evidence—in shaping interactions relating to Parker. In the process, the unique and individual nature of each case, the professional mandate of those involved, the weight given to types of knowledge and expertise in different settings and the role of categories in accomplishing specific work in a given context are made apparent. This gestures towards the need to understand the processual basis of knowledge claims in social work practice, with special attention to the moral and practical work that accompanies them.

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