Beyond the Childcatchers: International perspectives on the representation of social work

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April 14, 2014 by socialworkmmu

Beyond the Childcatchers: International perspectives on the representation of social work in film and television

4th European Conference for Social Work Research 2014 in Bozen-Bolzano, Italy

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SWIFT (Social Work in Film and Television) has been invited to present a Special Interest Group at this year’s conference. If you are this year’s conference, come along, have some popcorn and watch some films with us!

Presenters

Dr. Martin King (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Professor Emilio José Gómez Ciriano (Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha)
David Edmondson (Manchester Metropolitan University)

The group session seeks to introduce the work of SWIFT (Social Work in Film and Television) and promote the further development SWIFT as an international research network.

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Aims of SWIFT:
 – Identify, explore, evaluate and compare international portrayals and representations of social work in film and television drama.
 – Develop an innovative and shared methodological approach to analysing social work in film and television.
 – Inform, synthesise and critically analyse contemporary global narratives and discourses about social work and welfare; informing international debates about the purpose and future of social work, welfare and community wellbeing.

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SWIFT: Background and introduction

Commentaries on public perceptions of social work, particularly in the UK, have consistently evidenced the difficult relationship between social work, the media and the public (Tickle, 2012). Social work is closely identified, in media and dramatic portrayals, in relation to child protection failures and often as complicit in undermining families and communities.

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Social workers are an increasing presence in contemporary film and television drama, frequently portrayed in relation to narratives about child protection, the removal of children from families and located in relation to boundaries between public/private spheres of family life. Dramas also typically locate those in need/at risk or using welfare services, within discourses about ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’; about poverty, welfare and the ‘choice’ to be poor; debates about the purpose of the state in welfare. SWIFT argues, such representations serve to encourage and reinforce increasingly hostile and negative impressions of social workers and endorse particular neo-liberal ideologies and discourses about welfare, family life and communities (Carey and Foster, 2012). They also reflect, endorse and reinforce judgements about service users, and carers which demonise and stigmatise those who are vulnerable or in need.

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The SWIFT research network seeks to explore national and international representations of social work in film and television drama in order to raise awareness of the impact of these on social work and public responses to social workers and welfare. SWIFT originated from examination of the impact on social work of emerging negative discourses/representations of social work and communities in film and television texts, locating these in their social-historical context.

SWIFT’s significance lies in exploration of arguments posited by Dyer (1993) and Hall (1997) that media representations of groups or issues significantly impacts on how these are viewed in wider society. Reporting of high profile child protection cases has tended to characterise social work interventions as typically disproportionate/premature or insufficient/too late (Tickle, 2012). In film and television, such issues are often interweaved with dramatic constructions reflecting discourses about welfare, the family and marginalised communities; locating social work in relation to interconnected spheres of public/private, insider/outsider, carer/controller and as arbiters of deserving/undeserving need. These fuel contemporary debates of the purpose of social work and are recognised for their negative impact on morale, recruitment and retention (Munro, 2011). This original research seeks to transgress traditional academic disciplines and national boundaries, identifying local, regional and international responses to current representations and discourses of social work.

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Although, social work has been described as society’s safety net (Moynihan, 2012), social workers have been routinely vilified in sections of the national press (Brody, 2009) and frequently characterised negatively in the media generally as either lazy incompetent bureaucrats, who are culpable in most welfare cases where things go wrong or, at best, well-meaning do-gooders. In the UK, social work has typically been negatively portrayed in drama and social workers represented as ‘childcatchers’ or childsnatchers’ (Edmondson and King, 2013). In an international context, social work has been less negatively defined but this is now changing in response to increasingly contested transnational debates and discourses about welfare, welfare provision, poverty and need (Ciriano, Edmondson and King, 2013).

Previous research has been limited in scope (singular/occasional, national studies) and analysis (literature based). SWIFT takes this further, by moving beyond limited data collection using a documentary approach, to also include views and reflections of a case study/focus group of practising social workers. The pilot (Edmondson and King, 2013) demonstrated the value of using the lens of film and television fiction as not only a ‘window on the world’, but also as a mirror for reflection which can be used and shared to consult how different ‘stakeholders’ (e.g. social workers, service users, carers) reflect on how they are characterised and represented in film and television.

The research to date has utilised a multi-method approach combining documentary and visual research methods with primary data collection via the use of focus discussion groups. This approach is informed by documentary analysis (May, 2003, Pérez Cosin 2005), visual analysis (Bell, 2001; van Leeuwen and Jewitt, 2001; Prosser, 2009) and textual analysis within discourse analysis (van Dijk, 1993; Fairclough, 1995; McKee, 2003). It also draws on work on representation (Foucault, 1972; Dyer, 1993; Hall, 1997) and identities Dyer,1993; Gripsrud, 2002; Pérez Corsin and Bueno Abad (2006).

Contacts:

d.edmondson@mmu.ac.uk
emilioJose.Gomez@uclm.es
m.king@mmu.ac.uk

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