Playing the Games of the Child Welfare Field: Towards a Bourdieusian Interpretation
In this section, we employ some of Pierre Bourdieu's conceptual tools to make greater sense of our empirical findings. We also take these tools as our anchor in suggesting a tentative answer to the question of why so much trust is placed on the effectiveness of PSP as an open care method in child welfare, given the next to total absence of practical knowledge, statistical information or scientific investigation on this issue. As the analysis will show, our empirical findings testify to a series of ambiguities among the actors in the field, especially the volunteers, on the meaning, relevance and effects of the practice.
At the foundation of Bourdieu's sociology is the conceptual triad of field, capital and habitus. All three concepts are constructed against the most visible, taken-for-granted units that immediately invite our attention individuals, social groups, organizations and their transactions (Swartz 2013, 26). A field, in short, is a domain of action, a social space structured by positions that are defined in and by struggles, and the specific interests mobilized in these struggles, by a broad ensemble of actors, groups and institutions (or organizations), often following divergent logics. The key struggles in any field concern what defines the species of capital specific to the field, and who are best positioned to define and have their definition accepted as legitimate, i.e. as the field's symbolic capital (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992; Swartz 2013).
For the present analysis, Bourdieu's consistently relational approach implies the following view: PSP has evolved and is changing through and out of struggles between the agents that occupy interrelated positions in the broader child welfare field for the field's legitimate value (symbolic capital) and logic (rules) and for the autonomy of the field in relation to other fields. The child welfare field itself needs to be seen as embedded within broader social fields extending from the field of social work to the 'field of power', which in modern societies is the field in which 'struggles for the monopoly of legitimate symbolic power are fought' (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 17–18, 76–7).
Clearly, PSP is a minor component in the child welfare field. It is moreover a practice that, as our empirical study shows, is not confined to this one field alone. The recruitment of non-professional volunteers as support persons in the professional child welfare field is a practice that is also located in the field of civic action; and, further, by modeling it on family-oriented notions of (adult) responsibility and caring, it is also located in the field of the family (Alanen 2011; Atkinson, forthcoming; Lenoir 2003). However, like every field, the subfield of PSP also has a degree of autonomy and therefore impacts on the broader field of social work and helps to reproduce it as a relational field. In our local case, the two main agents in the subfield, involved in setting up and maintaining support relationships, are the municipal child welfare agency (Agency) and the non-governmental child welfare organization (Organization). The Organization recruits, trains and supervises volunteers, meaning that PSP relies to a great extent on the interest and commitment of individual volunteers. The Agency has a statutory duty to provide support person services when needed; it therefore has a stake in how the practice is organized. The Agency also monitors the operation of the practice and oversees the rights of children and parents. Thus the Agency has considerable power resources – political and legal authority or political and juridical capital – in relation to the Organization and how the service is delivered. There are however limits to the use of this capital by the Agency as it is dependent on the municipal budget (decided upon by the local instance of the field of power) for social and health care services which, ultimately, determines to what extent PSP can be utilized.
The Organization, as currently the sole local service provider, in turn renders the Agency dependent upon it. Therefore the Organization also holds considerable power resources – we might call them administrational capital – in its relation to the Agency, which also influences the nature of the support work accomplished by the volunteers.
It is however the relations of the volunteer support persons to the Agency and the Organization, as the two main actors in the child welfare field, that our empirical findings mainly address. We found evidence of a broad consensus on the specific cultural (and social) resources needed by volunteers for a successful support relationship: s/he needs to be 'just his/her ordinary self', unburdened by the duties and obligations of a child welfare professional. Thus 'ordinariness' was believed to be effective in supporting children in their various needs (cf. Ward 2004, 211–12). Even the volunteers with a professional background in education, social care or health care, or were studying to become a professional, had internalized the norms of behavior and values of 'ordinariness'. By so doing, both the volunteers and the professionals in the Agency and the Organization define what is normal in PSP and what is not. Both our data sets show that the definition of normality is unanimous, as is also the goal of the practice: bringing 'normality' and 'ordinariness' into children's (often troubled) family relations.
The ordinariness is part of a family-oriented interpretation of what being a support person involves and what makes a good support person (cf. Regner and Johnsson 2007, 331). The resources valued in PSP can be seen as an attempt to emulate close familial relations and nourish (familially defined) values, such as commitment, continuity, caring and loyalty, and proper education of the child (cf. Webb et al. 2002, 22; Kendrick 2013). These resources – a species of family capital – can be seen as the 'admission fee' (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 107) to the subfield but also as a stake in the contestation of what constitutes legitimate capital in the child welfare field – in Bourdieu's terms: symbolic capital. The need
and search for male support persons is one concrete example of this interpretation. This surely reflects the privileged position that the nuclear model of family relations occupies in our everyday culture (cf. Uhlmann 2006, 47; Alanen 2011) and which drives the 'ordinary', 'normal' (nuclear) family to be a key interest (or, in Bourdieu's terms, 'illusio') behind PSP (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992, 98, 115). Nevertheless, although describing themselves as 'ordinary people', the interviewed volunteers also used the professional discourse of 'risks', 'prevention' and 'cost-effectiveness'. PSP is greatly influenced by professional notions of education and children's well-being, administrative protocols and legal obligations mediated to the field as an established part of the child welfare institution. This makes the volunteers into actors in the social games of two distinct but interrelated fields: the child welfare field and the family field, and to some extent also a third
field: the civic sphere (cf. Hogg and Baines 2011, 348).
The games in which volunteers are involved are in many ways different and distinct from municipal child welfare work. This becomes even more obvious when clarifying the actual effects of the practice as experienced by the volunteers. While expressing a strong belief that the support work accomplishes its stated objectives, skepticism as to the real effects of the supporting activities was also present. We assume here that this skepticism is related to the shifting values of capital in different fields. Volunteers might question that their cultural and symbolic capital is somehow undervalued in the symbolic economy of child welfare. Professional social workers enjoy greater symbolic capital in the field of child welfare, since the symbolic capital gained, such as via university social work qualifications, has also been objectified and bureaucratized in law. However, 'ordinariness' as cultural capital and as embodied in family capital are not usable resources in the professional field, at least not in the same sense as allowed, and even expected, of volunteers as 'ordinary citizens'. Regardless of that also volunteers face ambiguities when using this resource (cf. Halliday et al. 2009, 420–21).