Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Abstract: This panel explores new avenues in anthropological studies of social work beyond the more usual focus on how social workers combine empowerment and governance, care and control. We propose to envisage social workers as experts who assemble social worlds and help create forms of personhood. Social work practices provide us with access points to the configuration of social worlds in locally embedded, material ways that are conversant with transnationally circulating forms of social work and therapeutic knowledge and practice. Through concrete case studies, the panelists elaborate social work as world making, not only in the European and the US contexts in which the profession originated, but also in diverse sites around the globe. We ask: How do social workers conceive of the social world on which they act? How do they understand their ability to act on it? What notions of personhood do social work practices help create? On what kinds of understanding of individuals and society do these conceptions of personhood draw? Moreover, what technologies, including documentation and infrastructure, do social workers use to create and enact these social worlds and forms of personhood?
De Koning draws on examples from fieldwork in Amsterdam to illustrate the analytical purchase of examining up close the social worlds that social workers enact in their everyday work lives. Lammer discusses how the proclaimed sinification of social work in the context of a rural program developed to deal with ‘left-behind’ children reproduces globalizing middle-class ideals. Kowalski explores how current work in counseling centers in Jaipur echoes longstanding concerns in Indian social work with the need to communicate across deep social divides, while James analyzes the kinds of public goods, such as “life” and “health literacy,” which are constituted in and promoted through charitable social work in Boston. Finally, Leshkowich’s study traces the genealogical relationship between conceptions of personhood and class in Vietnam to show that contemporary social work in Ho Chi Minh City is simultaneously part of a global rise in therapeutic technologies of the self and a particularly situated project to craft appropriately Vietnamese personhoods.