Emotions as Practice
: An Ethnographic Study of How Children and Families Social Workers Construct and Use Their Emotions in Practice

  • Louise L O'Connor

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Emotions matter in the relational, situated and complex interactions of social work. This thesis aims to provide a detailed account of how social workers construct and use their emotions, and the factors which appeared to influence this. The study was conducted in an English Local Authority Children and Families Referral and Assessment Service which used a systemic practice model. The research aims were to explore how practitioners’ emotions were constructed and worked with in practice; to consider some of the factors influencing how emotions were regulated or expressed, and how the organisational context informed these experiences.

Emotions were theorised as relational phenomena which include conscious and unconscious elements. Drawing on ethnographic principles the study looks beyond subjective emotions as abstract concepts to analyse these in the social and institutional relations of child protection practice (Smith, 2005). A combined psychosocial and social constructionist theoretical framework was used. Data collection took place over 11 months (April 2016 - March 2017), comprising extensive observations, field interviews and participant diaries. Data were thematically analysed (Braun and Clarke, 2019).

Data analysis illuminated paradoxical constructions: practitioners’ emotions were perceived as both problematic and the keystone of practice. Theorising emotions as practices enabled analysis of factors that impacted on these processes. Four analytic outputs were generated: a) agile emotion practices in relational and systemic practice, b) practitioners’ position in complex emotion systems, c) professional and organisational double binds and d) accommodating destabilising change. The analysis revealed complex intersubjective emotion practices through which practitioners processed and constructed meanings in systemic group supervision and in relationship-based practice.

By looking closely at practitioners’ emotions in practice this study contributes new insights and a tentative language for the micro-interactions of agile emotion practices - how social workers ‘do’ emotions. It concludes with suggestions for a reframing of emotions in social work and further research.
Date of Award26 Nov 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorDanielle Turney (Supervisor) & Elaine Farmer (Supervisor)

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