Performing Social Work: Competence, orderings, spaces, and objects

Torben Elgaard Jensen

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis


This thesis investigates the development of competence in a cross-professional team of social workers during a large-scale organisational change project in the Family and Labour Market Administration in the Municipality of Copenhagen. Through this empirical analysis and through the preceding theoretical discussion, a decentred conception of competence is developed. Chapter one introduces the thesis and outlines a number of different strategies in the study of competence; At one end of the spectrum, competence is taken to be an individual underlying capacity, which can be isolated and optimised. At the other end, competence is conceptualised in terms of a texture of productive social and material relations. The thesis chooses the latter ‘complexifying’ or ‘decentering’ strategy. Chapter two is a reflection on the methods by which social science constructs ‘facts’ and the methods by which facts are constructed in the thesis. Principles for a constructionist methodology are tentatively formulated. Chapter three is a critical discussion of learning theories in psychology and social psychology. It is argued, that all learning theories depend on some notion of a bounded learning system, which adapts to its surroundings. These learning systems may be delineated by a particular content, agent, place or some combination thereof. Through a number of examples it is argued, that the boundaries of these learning systems tend to ‘leak’. This indicates that learning theories build on the untenable assumption that the ‘entities’ that learn can be theoretically determined beforehand. As an alternative the network metaphor in actor-network theory is explored. This theory leaves open the size and the nature of the actors and for this reason, it is argued, that the notion of network is better equipped to study evolving change processes. Chapter four explores a recent version of post actor-network theory, known as the performative turn. Performances are broadly defined as unbounded, materially heterogeneous, recursive processes that can be imputed to the social. Three different conceptualisations of performance are presented. One conceptualisation of performance describes the patterns of the social as a number of interdependent minidiscourses or modes of ordering. A second conceptualisation describes the patterns of the social as the performance of different types of space. Thirdly, the patterns of the social have been conceptualised through the notion of multiple objects. In this mode of analysis, an object is analysed as an assemblage of practices, that is a set of ways in which the object is ‘done’ or performed. The three different conceptualisations of performance are the primary theoretical tools, which are used in the analysis of the empirical material. Chapter five presents four empirical cases gathered from an observation study of a cross-professional team of social workers, which was formed as a part of a largescale team project in the social administration. The four cases form a chronological story that trace the initial discussions about the team project, the work of subdividing the team into three smaller units, and the subsequent fate of this arrangement. In a running commentary, patterns or performances are imputed to the empirical material. The articulated patterns are akin to performance-as-modes-ofordering. At the end of chapter five, it is argued that the modes of ordering in each of the four cases combine into the performance of a particular kind of space. The argument is thus that a different kind of space is performed in each of the four cases. In continuation of this, an account is developed of the kinds of work that maintain each of the spatial configurations as well as the kinds of work that produces a shift from one configuration to the next. Chapter six continues the empirical analysis of performances and extends it to include performance-as-multiple-objects. Objects which are quintessential to the spatial configurations are identified and the translation of these objects from one kind of space to another is followed. This analysis explicates a number of interdependencies as well as antagonistic relations between the spatial configurations. Chapter seven summarises the previous argument and discusses the implications. In continuation of the previous analyses of interdependencies between the spatial configurations, it is argued, that the obduracy of these ‘blocks’ in part depend the development of temporary techno-social arrangements. A crucial aspect of the development of competence in the team project is thus the construction of a series of short-lived arrangements that prevent ‘blocks’ such as managerial rights and professional authority from colliding catastrophically. The assertion that temporary arrangements are crucial to the performance of ‘blocks’ suggests a supplement to the research agenda of science and technology studies; previously this field has focused almost exclusively on objects that are (or aspire to be) durable. Finally, two methodological procedures are outlined, which may guide the proposed investigation of temporary techno-social arrangements.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages217
Publication statusPublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


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