Professional registration and the discursive construction of social work students' identities

Wiles, Frances (2011). Professional registration and the discursive construction of social work students' identities. EdD thesis The Open University.



My research is concerned with the development of social work students’ personal and professional identities in the light of policy changes introduced into social work education. Since April 2005, social work students 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’. The research is of particular interest because the participants were among the first social work students to be registered; I hope that it will contribute to academic and professional debates.

The study is informed by a poststructuralist approach to identity and discourse. I argue that social work education and professional registration are part of a regulatory discourse. The research questions explore some of the discursive resources that social work students draw on to construct their personal and professional identities. I begin by locating the study within contemporary debates in higher and professional education, and then review the literature about social work registration and its implications for students and social work education. These policy and educational developments are considered through the lens of poststructuralist concepts: discourse, power and subject positions; governmentality and resistance. Finally, my literature review explores some concepts of identity and professional identity.

The empirical data is derived from seven semi-structured interviews with social work students. The transcripts were interrogated using a form of discourse analysis developed from the work of Potter and Wetherell (1987). The research findings suggest that this group of students see professional registration as an integral part of social work education and becoming qualified. Their talk indicates that registration brings students’ private lives into a more public domain than previously. However, the data suggests that social work education itself challenges and de-stabilises identity as students negotiate the boundary between being ‘unqualified’ and ‘professional’. So while registration does impact on how students behave and how they see themselves, this must be placed in the broader context of learning to be a professional social worker. The study concludes by considering the practical implications for social work education.

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