1.6 Difficult situations
1.6.1 Working in ambiguous situations
So far the focus has been on discussing scenes played out in the highly structured settings of hospitals and doctors’ surgeries. However, a lot of care takes place in settings where structures are much less clear – where the meaning of a scene can be highly ambiguous, and where any working consensus between participants is fragile.
When a social worker goes into a family home, for example, the members of the household may not agree at all with the social worker’s definition of what the visit is about, or what should take place during it. Far from co-operating, they may vigorously resist the ‘script’ the social worker is trying to work to. In fact, a frequent requirement of a social worker’s job is to work with clients to try to arrive at a redefinition of their situation.
For example, where parents’ beliefs and practices regarding child rearing appear to be damaging to their children, the social worker cannot simply play along with the parents’ definition of their behaviour as ‘normal’ and ‘proper’. Instead, the social worker has the very difficult task of entering into a relationship with the parents in which their presentation of themselves is open to question – where their claims to competence as parents are not taken for granted. Since this is potentially undermining of the parents, an obvious tactic for them is to try to undermine the social worker first – to shore up their own definition of the situation by discrediting the social worker’s claims to understanding and authority.
Working with ‘definitions of situations’ and ‘self-presentations’ is critically important aspect of a social worker’s job, but it is a far cry from the clear role structures and well-established ‘scripts’ of the medical world. Coping with ambiguity, with contested definitions, and wit weakly established ‘scripts’ is in the nature of the work.