In work and outside work: social work students’ identities

Wiles, Fran (2010). In work and outside work: social work students’ identities. In: Dilemmas for Human Services: papers from the 12th International Research Conference, 2008, 11-12 Sep 2008, University of East London, UK.


Since 2005, students embarking on qualifying courses for social work have had to register with the General Social Care Council and ‘sign up to’ the Codes of Practice. The Codes specify that social workers must not ‘behave in a way, in work or outside work, which would call into question [their] suitability to work in social care services’ (GSCC 2002). It has been suggested (Clark 2006) that the recent changes in social work regulation have extended expectations about social workers’ personal standards, values and ways of life beyond their contractual obligations in the workplace. It has also been argued that social care regulation is shaped by discourses of ‘failure’ (Langan 2000) and ‘risk’, which place social workers under increased scrutiny - in their personal as well as professional lives – by colleagues, employers, service users and members of the public (McLaughlin 2007).

My doctoral research is concerned with how social work students perceive professional regulation and whether it affects their sense of themselves as people. I am exploring the idea that the processes of regulation – which are designed to confirm that social workers are ‘suitable’ to practise – depend on individuals establishing a reliable and consistent identity, demonstrating good character and physical and mental fitness. This fixed-ness presents a contrast with the contemporary conceptualisation of identities as multiple and fluid (Hall 2000). People’s lives and identities are complex. It has been noted that social work students are more likely than other students to have personal histories involving difficulties, and that these may even have precipitated their choice of profession (Furness and Gilligan 2004; Sellers and Hunter 2005; Stanley et al 2007). The need to establish a fixed identity for registration purposes, therefore, may create tensions for certain students.

Using focus groups, I have begun to explore the discourses which social work students draw on to talk about professional regulation. I have been examining some of the documentation which defines social work conduct and suitability. I hope to go on to consider the effect on students’ personal identities when their professional suitability is called into question. At this stage, I can only share initial and incomplete findings. However, I would like to discuss some of the practical, personal and ethical dilemmas – especially for an insider researcher – which have arisen in researching these issues.

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