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Moral panics – whose tune is being played?

March 18, 2013

I recently came across the very interesting and rather brave stuff that Mark Smith, Viv Cree and Gary Clapton are writing on moral panics and child protection. I must confess this was not quite by accident because I was intrigued to see if anyone had ever looked at something I wrote about residential child care a few years ago,* and I found (rather pleasingly) that you had indeed done so. Mark Smith’s article, in particular, prompted me to heave my mind out of its comfortable and rather slothful retirement in order to chip in a few comments.

Of course, it’s the particular orchestration of moral panics and their players the folk devils that’s the interesting question – and even if you can’t see the hand of the conductor at play it is still worth asking the question about whose tune is being played. And – depending on your social location – the curious, concerned or downright outraged gaze that leads us to the individual who is the exceptional embodiment of evil distracts us from our own existential proximity to why children suffer, and our part in failures to protect them. This, in turn, takes us to the ‘difficult’ domain of the political economy of safeguarding children, and it’s to this that Mark Smith refers at the close of his blog, entitled ‘A Panic for our times?’. At work are the mechanisms through which distributional justice bears on the life chances of children. We – all of us – feature in giving this shape even if only through the periodic decisions we make at the ballot box. The list includes the obvious ways in which child welfare is nurtured or denied: public and primary health; early years’ education and child care; housing quality and sufficiency; road safety; the everyday burdens of parenting on meagre and erratic resources.

It is understandable that social workers — troubled with all this sociological knowledge – fret at their part in reproducing social definitions of ‘abuse’ that are ‘partial’. They augment the folk devil narrative. The argument is familiar and well-rehearsed: social workers contribute to an ideological practice that casts wrongdoing in a particular way – and in a way that is significant in what it does not – and cannot – say. The ‘cannot’ is tied to the logic of place – the ‘discourse’ within which social work operates as part of the state apparatus of regulating the moral conduct of individualised child care and welfare. To require of social workers that they step outside this frame must inevitably challenge social work educators to guide their students between the truth of child welfare’s political economy and the daily obligations to ensure the safeguarding of a particular child whose circumstances are truly awful.

David Webb, Emeritus Professor of Social Science at Nottingham Trent University

18th March 2013


*Further reading by David Webb, ‘A Certain Moment: Some Personal Reflections on Aspects of Residential Childcare in the 1950s’, British Journal of  Social Work (2010) 40 (5): 1387-1401. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcp062



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