Imagined, prescribed and actual text trajectories: the ‘problem’ with case notes in contemporary social work

Lillis, Theresa (2017). Imagined, prescribed and actual text trajectories: the ‘problem’ with case notes in contemporary social work. Text and Talk, 37(4) pp. 485–508.



Drawing on a text-oriented action research ethnography of the writing practices of UK-based social workers, this paper focuses on a key but problematic aspect of everyday, professional textual practice – the production of “case notes.” Using data drawn from interviews, workshops, texts and observation, the paper locates case notes within social work everyday practice and explores the entextualization of three distinct case notes. The heuristic of imagined, prescribed and actual trajectories is used to track specific instances of entextualization and to illustrate why the production of case notes is a particularly complex activity. A key argument is that in the institutional imaginary, and reflected in the institutionally prescribed trajectory, case notes are construed as a comprehensive record of all actions, events and interactions, prior to and providing warrants for all other documentation. However, they are in actual practice produced as parts of clusters of a range of different text types which, together, provide accounts of, and for, actions and decisions. This finding explains why case notes are often viewed as incomplete and raises fundamental questions about how they should be evaluated. The complexity of case notes as an everyday professional practice is underscored in relation to professional voice, addressivity and textual temporality.

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  • Item ORO ID
  • 53750
  • Item Type
  • Journal Item
  • ISSN
  • 1860-7330
  • Project Funding Details
  • Funded Project NameProject IDFunding Body
    WiSP Writing in professional social work practice in a changing communicative landscapeWiSP ESRC ES/M008703/1ESRC Economic and Social Research Council
  • Keywords
  • bureaucracy; technologies of writing; professional writing; recording; adult services; social work case notes
  • Academic Unit or School
  • Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS)
  • Research Group
  • Language & Literacies
  • Depositing User
  • Theresa Lillis