Genealogy as a Tool for Analyzing Child Welfare Discourses and Practices at Moments of Transformation:

A Methodological Discussion

Caroline McGregor and Susanna Hoikkala


As asserted in the introduction to this book, social work is facing challenges on a global scale wherein 'the operation environment in social work has changed significantly in the last few decades' and that 'in times of rapid change, understanding the interconnections between social change and social work is an important issue'. In this chapter, we aim to contribute to the understanding of these interconnections by providing a commentary on one approach, Michel Foucault's genealogy. We intend to illustrate how genealogy can be a useful method for analyzing key moments of transformation in child welfare. We do so by referring to specific challenging examples from our respective jurisdictions – Ireland and Finland. It is important from the outset to say that in considering Ireland and Finland, we are not attempting to compare, contrast or indeed explore a common problem beyond problematization of transformative moments in child welfare. The main commonality is a combined interest in using genealogy as an effective method to raise questions especially at times of change and transformation.

We write this chapter to further the ongoing discussion about this articulated in the work of Satka and Skehill (2012) as well as Skehill, Satka and Hoikkala (2013). We have chosen two different examples of what appear to be major changes in our systems and we are using genealogy to problematize them. For Ireland, one major change happening at the moment relates to the development of a new agency to deliver child protection and welfare services as a result of a major political and public outcry about child abuse and neglect of children in the past. The major change chosen to focus on in the Finnish context is the rather remarkable turn away from substitute care in child welfare, once a dominant form of care and now one to avoid, it seems, if at all possible. Before presenting these examples, we outline our argument for why we have chosen this focus on genealogy.

Why Focus on Genealogy?

When we talk about discourses, we mean Foucault's interpretation as summarized in Satka and Skehill (2012, 196); 'the term discourse can be defined as a group of statements that belong to a single system of formation'. Regarding child welfare discourses, we mean the range of ideas, theories, policies, strategies, concepts and laws which inform a single system of formation of taken-for-granted practices such as 'child's best interest', 'early intervention', 'prevention' and so on. Importantly, genealogy, which considers a range of social relations taking into account relations of power help to distinguish those discourses which are dominant (proliferate) and most to the fore. Genealogy also helps to locate discontinuities, for example, in the forms of reasoning and to open up the taken-for-granted understandings, explanations and practices (see Dean 1994; Chambon 1999; Manius and Street 2000; Saurama 2002; Skehill 2007; Satka and Harrikari, 2008; Kaisto, Pyykkönen and Selin 2009; Garrity 2010; Schmid 2010;). The ability to track continuity alongside discontinuity serves as a powerful force against simplistic, linear and generalized interpretations. In our opinion, it is the special contribution of this approach that is needed in problematizing child welfare policy and practice, as we illustrate below.

It is well known that child welfare and protection is a complex domain and to seek to understand the nature of discourses and their relations to practices, effective and innovative research methodologies are crucial. Genealogy is only one option but we think a valuable and to date under-utilized one.1 In Skehill, Satka and Hoikkala (2013), we were interested in how we could apply methods in child welfare study that 'help to develop deeper understandings of transformations that are neither the result of discursive or practice changes alone but rather the outcome of a complex interplay of organizations, regulations and discourses between various actors and at a number of levels' (Skehill, Satka and Hoikkala 2013, 60). While focused specifically on the question of method in relation to historical case file analysis, as authors, we came to some general conclusions about genealogy as a specific 'tool' for analysis which seems an appropriate starting point for this chapter (see Garrity 2010) and detailed below.

It must be acknowledged from the outset that genealogy is not easily defined (see Dean 1994; Foucault 1984; 2000) and an in-depth reading of Foucault's own work and selected secondary's is recommended for those interested and new to this field (Skehill 2007). In this chapter, we attempt to explain our interpretation by illustration and illumination (see Dean 1994).

To clarify the point from which the illustrations are written, it is worthwhile summarizing some key points from our recent article with Satka (Skehill, Satka and Hoikkala 2013) concerning the application of Foucault's and Smith's methods

1 A Socio-Legal Study of the Change in the Institutional Practices that Regulate Generational Relationships, Academy of Finland 110593/2005–2010; History as a Resource for Understanding the Present: Child Welfare in Finland and Northern Ireland 2008–2013. and methodologies in analyzing various historical child welfare sources. The article explored whether methods inspired by Michel Foucault's genealogy and Dorothy Smith's institutional ethnography can offer innovative ways to capture the abovementioned question. Four steps were outlined with a view to developing a derived method that could capture both the objective nature of discourses and the subjective practices within child welfare and protection systems. The first three steps of the derived method were focused on in-depth study of selected problems relating to the practices of child welfare at certain moments of time. These steps are described as: deciding the problematic; organizing the data and; analyzing the points of transformation. We argued that Smith's Institutional Ethnography (2005) is very useful for this kind of in-depth analysis due to her focus on a multitude of practices that go 'beyond' discourses, whereas Foucault's genealogy offers a way to link the findings from this with the wider issues; a limitation in Smith's approach generally (see Skehill, Satka and Hoikkala 2013). This fourth step considered genealogy as a tool 'to make history speak back to the present'. We interpreted genealogy as a way of linking back the in-depth findings and analysis to the wider legal, organizational, political, social and intellectual context as set out by David Garland (1992). In this chapter, we are interested to develop Step 4 in particular. Our focus is thus on the capacity for genealogy to be used as a way to integrate local dilemmas with wider social influences and illustrate why history must speak back to the present.

Some progress has already been made in this regard. In Skehill, Satka and Hoikkala 2013, it was argued that 'genealogical analysis avoids presenting transcendental truth' and relies instead on 'a specific empirically based focus to derive understanding and illumination on context'. We also argued that genealogy allowed for the detailed scrutiny of power relations, which help understand how certain 'practices become discourses and discourses become practices'. And genealogy provided for a detailed mapping of relations between the subject, the organization, policy, theory and so on. This led us to conclude that 'if one wishes to fully understand the nature of power relations in transformation, while maintaining a focus on the specific rather than the general, it is Foucault's genealogy – Step Four – which is most constructive' (Skehill, Satka and Hoikkala 2013, 70–71).

From the outset, we recognize one of the main limitations of genealogical approaches is that it confines the analysis within a discourse constrained context although Foucault's interest in resistance and agency does open up some space in this regard; the History of Sexuality trilogy is perhaps the best example of this (Foucault 1979; 1985; 1988). Notwithstanding this, our position is that, for certain questions, a concrete focus on genealogy and Foucault's discourse analysis provides an ideal method for in-depth interrogation of the discursive formations and relations to practice during periods of change. And by its very nature, it is an approach that is best explained through illustration than abstract generalization.

The Irish example is presented first. It relates to the present reform of the Irish child welfare system from a reactive, residual child protection model to a proactive family support ethos delivered independent from the health service
executive (formerly the health boards) for the first time in the history of statutory social work. The example from Finland follows. This section considers the current formation of child welfare and practice with specific reference to the new Child Welfare Act in 2007 (Act 2007/417) and its' revision in 2011 (Act 2011/316) where a significant shift from an emphasis on institutional to foster care has come about. This moment of transformation is illustrated by using the specific example of the restrictive measurements as a dividing practice/strategy.

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