Journal Article

Labelling Clients ‘Risky’: Social Work and the Neo-liberal Welfare State

Shoshana Pollack

in The British Journal of Social Work

Published on behalf of British Association of Social Workers

Volume 40, issue 4, pages 1263-1278
Published in print June 2010 | ISSN: 0045-3102
Published online May 2008 | e-ISSN: 1468-263X | DOI:
Labelling Clients ‘Risky’: Social Work and the Neo-liberal Welfare State

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The literature on neo-liberal transformations of the welfare state and forms of governance—inspired by Foucault's concept of governmentality—has much to offer theorizations of the role of social work in contemporary society. Rather than assuming a top/down analysis in which power is located within individuals or institutions, power is ‘not a matter of imposing a sovereign will, but instead a process of enlisting the cooperation of chains of actors who “translate” power from one locale to another’ ( Garland, 1997, p. 182). The profession of social work occupies an intermediary space, charged with ‘translating’ state power to individuals, families, groups and communities. In this paper, I use the experience of criminalized women to bring to life the theoretical understandings offered by neo-liberal analyses of the regulation of social marginality. I focus particularly on one key feature of neo-liberal governance—'risk thinking'—and examine the gendered nature of risk as a neo-liberal regulatory strategy across the penal–welfare complex. I conclude with a discussion of lessons learned from criminalized women about social work and risk assessment.

Keywords: Female offenders; women's prisons; risk; neo-liberal; welfare

Journal Article.  6558 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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