Ambiguous Ethics of Care: Anthropological Engagements with Social Work

Tessa Bonduelle, Susanne Bregnbæk

Publikation: Konferencebidrag uden forlag/tidsskriftPaper/skriftligt oplægForskningpeer review


This panel explores the ambiguous nature of care in social work in the context of retreating or changing welfare states. Social work is positioned in an intermediary space between the public sphere and the private/intimate lives of citizens and families. This panel seeks to explore the ways in which the state enters into the intimate lives of citizens in a variety of contexts, conditioning relationships of care, discretion and trust. It explores concrete examples of the dilemmatic nature of social work with vulnerable groups across different sectors, including refugee programs, human trafficking and early childhood interventions in marginalized areas. The papers take social work as a node to reflect upon larger politico-economic developments, as well as on the anthropology of the state in times of neoliberalism and the commodification of care. We ask: What kinds of ethics of care and responsibility crystalize within precarious social work contexts? Under what conditions is trust established, maintained or violated? How do social work practices relate to the power dynamics that are often central to the governmental tasks of social work? When is social work experienced as coercive or unethical? And under what conditions is social work experienced as genuinely caring—by social workers and those they work with?
Brennan examines the US post-trafficking care regime, in particular focusing on the work of “off stage experts”, which contrasts with the often pathologizing language of recovery used by more conventional anti-trafficking governmental and non-governmental actors. Bonduelle explores the French state’s practice of outsourcing refugee resettlement and asylum seeker accommodation in neoliberal France and its production of precarious personhood: for the social workers at the tail end of the neoliberal state and the refugees and asylum seekers they work with. Eiró analyses the paradox of social work in the Brazilian Bolsa Familia Program, which provides conditional cash transfers, and the ethical quandaries in which social workers find themselves when separating “deserving” and “non-deserving” poor citizens, giving voice to conservative worldviews. Valenzuela focuses on how parenting is legislated through the discretionary decision-making of institutions invested in the ambiguous ethics of children’s “best interests.” Finally, through the conceptual lens of “states of intimacy”, Bregnbæk discusses the ethical ambiguity of the Danish state’s “early intervention programs” that often enter deep into family life in an attempt to identify potential concerns before they materialize as actual social problems.
Publikationsdato26 jul. 2019
StatusUdgivet - 26 jul. 2019
BegivenhedChanging Climates, Changer D'Air - Vancouver, Vancouver, Canada
Varighed: 20 nov. 201924 nov. 2019


KonferenceChanging Climates, Changer D'Air


  • Socialt arbejde og sociale forhold


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