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Emotions and the search for humane practice
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What role does emotion play in child and family social work practice?

In this book, researcher Matthew Gibson reviews the role of shame and pride in social work, providing invaluable new insights from the first study undertaken into the role of these emotions within professional practice. The author demonstrates how these emotions, which are embedded within the very structures of society but experienced as individual phenomena, are used as mechanism of control in relation to both professionals themselves and service users.

Examining the implications of these emotional experiences in the context of professional practice and the relationship between the individual, the family and the state, the book calls for a more humane form of practice, rooted in more informed policies that take in to consideration the realities and frailties of the human experience.

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Given that research identifies parental experiences of shame and humiliation in the child protection process, this article reports on a qualitative study that investigated how and why parents experienced such emotions within the English system. This is the first study to investigate such experiences by using participant observation, which enabled the collection of data of real-time emotional experiences and practices. These experiences are analysed within the context of wider reforms of the English child protection system, and identify not only the structural and systemic reasons that embed parental experiences of shame into the process, but also the societal processes that support practitioners to shame, and even humiliate, parents. These processes are detailed and the shaming of parents illustrated. Rather than such experiences being seen as outcomes of poor practice, social workers can be considered to be doing a good job at the same time as shaming a parent.

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Matthew Gibson, author of this chapter, considers how those invested in an organisation seek to regulate feelings of shame in employees to generate compliance and conformity to organisational rules, standards, and expectations. This chapter outlines a framework for understanding how leaders and managers seek to contain or divert feelings of shame as a result of doing tasks the organisation expects them to do while ensuring they evoke shame in employees as a result of any transgressions. This perspective extends and deepens themes developed within shame in professional practice, both within social work and in other professions. Finally, the author states that ensuring that social workers are not shamed for taking time to work with people or trying new things they genuinely believed would help and would facilitate innovation and creativity.

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This chapter outlines the importance of pride and shame as emotions for understanding and analysing social, cultural, and psychological processes in interpersonal interactions. It makes the case for the relevance of pride and shame in professional practice, while outlining the research that has been undertaken to date on these emotions in the field of social work. This provides details of the ethnographic case study that was used in constructivist grounded theory research to investigate the role of pride and shame in child and family social work. This chapter then outlines the details of the study that is used as the foundation for the book and summarises the following chapters.

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This chapter critically reviews the field of emotion theory and locates the different ideas relating to pride, shame and other self-conscious emotions within this. It is argued that a constructionist approach to emotions offers the most useful way of conceptualising emotions generally, and the self-conscious emotions more specifically, yet it also identifies that there is no agreement within the broad field of constructionism on what these self-conscious emotions are and how to research them. This chapter, therefore, synthesises a range of constructionist ideas to outline a new framework for theorising and researching the self-conscious emotions in professional practice.

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This chapter considers the role of pride and shame in creating, maintaining and disrupting practices that have resulted in child and family social work. As people sought to develop ways of addressing social issues related to children and families, different discourses on children, families and social issues provided competing and conflicting messages about what was praiseworthy and shameful behaviour. Different representations of social work practice can, therefore, be seen to have been constructed within these competing discourses. This chapter outlines these representations as social administration, social policing, activism, therapy and practical help, demonstrating how pride and shame were central components in how these practices were institutionalised. This chapter then analyses how a discourse of neoliberalism has sought to change the boundaries for praiseworthy and shameful behaviour to reconfigure professional practice.

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This chapter outlines how the different representations for social work practice provide conflicting sets of standards, ideals and goals for social work organisations. Some ‘institutional logics’ are imposed on social work services by politicians and through the media, which set the boundaries for public praise and shame for an organisation, thereby directing and shaping its identity. Within this context, this chapter introduces the idea of organisational emotional safety, in which organisations are constructed to avoid organisational shaming and rejection, on the one hand, and attract pride and acceptance, on the other. In an attempt to manage its image and reputation, organisational leaders engage in this form of emotion work to create and maintain a consistent set of organisational actions which ensures that it is safe from episodic shaming, while evoking pride within the organisation and acceptance without. A case example is provided to illustrate this argument that pride and shame are strategically used to create ‘appropriate’ organisations as defined by those with the power of definition.

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This chapter extends the theory of pride and shame in professional practice by considering how pride, shame and other self-conscious emotions are strategically used to regulate the emotions of the social workers to alter not just what they do and how they do it, but also who they are. It develops the idea of organisational control by conceptualising pride and shame as central to this process. It is argued that it is through the regulation of employee emotions, and specifically through self-conscious emotions, that what people do, how they do it and how they define themselves can be shaped, influenced and manipulated. Organisational leaders and managers can be seen to regulate the emotions of the social workers directly, and therefore their identities indirectly, so that they perform the ‘appropriate’ tasks, in the ‘appropriate’ way, at the ‘appropriate’ time. After considering the theory of regulating the emotions of social workers, this chapter returns to the case example used throughout the book to take a deeper look at these processes in practice.

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This chapter provides a conceptual framework to understand the processes, relevant to self-conscious emotions, through which social workers come to acquiesce or resist organisational attempts at control. It first outlines the research on compliance and resistance in social work practice before developing and extending these ideas through the analysis of pride and shame in professional practice. Drawing on Oliver’s (1991) analysis of strategic responses within organisations to wider institutional processes, how social workers perform professional practice in the context of organisational attempts at control, and the strategies that social workers employ to manage the organisational pressures, expectations and demands, are outlined. While some social workers can actively identify with the organisational representation in the moment, motivating them to enact its meanings and expectations, some reluctantly identify with it as a defensive strategy to avoid being shamed and humiliated, motivating them to comply despite reservation. However, some social workers, in some contexts, resist the organisational representation, feeling unable to comply, and, therefore, seek to compromise what they are expected to do, conceal their acts of resistance or influence the source of organisational attempts at control.

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This chapter uses the case example, used throughout this book, to demonstrate how pride and shame were constructed to manufacture identification in the social workers to the organisational representation for social work within the organisation. Those who enacted the organisational representation felt safe from being shamed and humiliated as a result of focusing on meeting the pressures, expectations and demands placed on them. The focus on the organisational needs reduced their capacity for empathy with the family, protecting them from any feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment as a result of organisationally sanctioned actions and could, therefore, feel proud of what they were doing. Those who complied with the organisational representation, meanwhile, did not accept the organisational representation for social work. Consequently, social workers felt unsure as to what they should do but prioritised shame avoidance, while, at the same time, seeking to alleviate any subsequent feelings of shame and guilt. Despite the differences in experience for the social workers, practising in the ‘appropriate’ manner often resulted in shaming and humiliating experiences for the parents.

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