Writing in contemporary social work: texts, technologies and trajectories

Lillis, Theresa; Leedham, Maria and Twiner, Alison (2017). Writing in contemporary social work: texts, technologies and trajectories. In: BAAL2017: British Association for Applied Linguistics Conference, 31 Aug - 02 Sep 2017, University of Leeds, UK.


The production of written texts is a high-stakes activity in professional social work, playing a central role in all decisions about services and simultaneously used to evaluate social workers’ professional competence. Social work writing (often referred to as ‘recording’ or ‘paperwork’) is frequently the target of criticism in reviews and public media reporting. Despite the many criticisms made and its significance in social work practice, little empirical research has been carried out on the nature of writing in professional practice. This paper will draw on findings from a 2-year, ESRC-funded ethnographically framed study ‘Writing in professional social work practice in a changing communicative landscape’ (WiSP http://www.writinginsocialwork.com) to characterise writing in contemporary social work.

Drawing on a range of data including texts (3900) which constitute a 1 million word corpus, individual interviews (58) and observations of social work practice (10 weeks), we will offer a characterisation of contemporary social work writing in terms of texts (types of texts and entextualised discourses), technologies (the range of technologies used and for which purposes) and trajectories (empirical tracking of text production and uptake across time and institutional space). The paper will foreground the diversity of texts produced and the challenges in everyday practice of meeting prescribed timescales. The paper will also problematise the boundaries governing conventional frames for approaching writing (notably ‘text’ and ‘genre’) and consider implications for the ways in which researchers approach the study of written discourse.

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