Social workers' experience of work under changing administrative forms: an empirical and theoretical critique of Braverman

Davies, Linda (1985) Social workers' experience of work under changing administrative forms: an empirical and theoretical critique of Braverman. Doctoral thesis, Polytechnic of North London.


The first part of this study is an application of Braverman's thesis about the deskilling of labour to a social work context. Braverman claims a process of increasing managerial control over the labour process - a process of proletarianization is inevitable for workers in capitalist societies, whether in private or in state enterprises.

My study investigates whether this thesis successfully explains the experience of state social workers in a local authority social service department in London. The highly prescribed area of child abuse practice was chosen to test the Braverman hypothesis.

This research found that social workers' experience of management structures was not congruent with the Braverman thesis of labour process domination. His thesis contains a priori assumptions about the nature of the capital accumulation process, and thus about capital and labour. The Braverman approach thus could not explain the contradictions inherent in the organization and practice of state social work.

The empirical data thus required an explanation which went beyond simply disproving Braverman to develop an alternative approach to explain social workers' experience of their labour process. Although social workers may wish to reduce the uncertainty surrounding child abuse practice, and despite management's desire to limit practitioner discretion, there remains an inevitable core of uncertainty in the nature of the work which generates the requirement for judgment on the part of the front-line worker. Braverman's approach proved too deterministic to cope with these questions. I therefore develop the concept of "defensive social work practice" to explain the ability of state social workers to retain and exercise considerable autonomy within their labour process in a social and political climate of some hostility to the aims and practices of their profession.

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