Labour Studies Index

Activist Social Workers in Neoliberal Times: Who are We Becoming Now?

Document type Thesis
Author Smith, Kristin
Degree Ph.D., Sociology and Equity Studies in Education
Publisher University of Toronto; Toronto
Date 2011-08-31
Pages 247


My thesis explores the knowledge, subjectivities and work performances that activist social workers bring to their practice in Ontario, Canada during a period of workplace restructuring that includes cuts to services, work intensification, increased surveillance and the evolving discourses of neoliberalism. A key aspect of my dissertation is the exploration of tensions between the attachments, desires and aspirations of the activist social work self and what that self must do every day to get by. I am interested in how it is that social workers produce and maintain their sense of identities – their integrity, ethics and responsibilities as activists – while also managing to navigate the contradictions of restructured workplaces. My aim is to understand not how power in the form of restructuring policies is imposed on people, but rather, how power acts through subjects who find themselves both implicated in, and struggling to resist neoliberal restructuring. My research lens draws on Michel Foucault’s ideas about governmentality and on feminist poststructural, critical race, and postcolonial theories. I use these theories to see neoliberal strategies of rule as working in diffuse ways through social and health service workplaces, encouraging service providers to see themselves as individualized and active subjects responsible for particular performances that enact specific types of change. My research findings reveal that activist social workers respond to neoliberal strategies of rule in multiple ways while constituting themselves through a variety of competing discourses that exist in their lives. Social workers subjectivities appear to be produced through a range of discourses drawn from their family histories, unique biographies and the intersections of socially produced distinctions that are based on gender, race, class, sexuality, age and nationalism. My dissertation traces some of the many ways that social workers position themselves within and beyond the changing context of neoliberalism. In doing so, my research reveals tentative pathways for building critical resistance practices and suggests future social welfare measures that are based on social justice and equity.