Exploring the core ‘preoccupation’ of social work writing: A corpus-assisted discourse study

Leedham, Maria; Lillis, Theresa and Twiner, Alison (2020). Exploring the core ‘preoccupation’ of social work writing: A corpus-assisted discourse study. Journal of Corpora and Discourse Studies, 3 pp. 1–26.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.18573/jcads.v3i1


The profession of social work has become increasingly ‘writing intensive’ in recent decades, yet little empirical research has been carried out on the nature of this writing. This paper describes and explores the 1 million word corpus compiled as part of the ESRC-funded study ‘Writing in professional social work practice in a changing communicative landscape’ (WiSP http://www.writinginsocialwork.com), outlining the challenges involved in collecting and anonymising hard-to-reach texts from social workers (n=38) across three UK Local Authorities. Using the methodology of corpus-assisted discourse analysis alongside ethnographic insights and in consultation with expert insiders, the paper focuses on what a keyword analysis reveals about the core focus or ‘preoccupation’ (Baker, 2010) of social work writing. Attention is paid to the three main text categories of writing in social work – casenotes, emails and assessment reports – and to the three social work domains of children’s, adult generic and adult mental health services. Findings include confirmation of the extensive recording of communication exchanges, differences in the ways social workers refer to their own and service users’ views, and the considerable extent to which evaluation is threaded through all social work writing via the use of lexis. We also discuss how keyword analysis can provide a set of ‘candidate professional lexis’ and further examine selected items. The paper concludes by reflecting on aspects of methodology, in particular considering the subjectivity around keyword calculation, the equal treatment of all items in a corpus, and the usefulness of combining keyness analysis with additional data sources.

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