Story-building and narrative in social workers' case-talk: A model of social work sensemaking

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Despite the importance of decision-making in child and family social work, how social workers make sense of information in undertaking assessments and making decisions has received limited attention. Drawing on an ethnographic study of four child and family social work teams across two English local authorities, this article demonstrates how social workers make sense of the lives of children and families through a story-building process. Data comprise interviews with social workers and supervisors (n = 22), recordings of one-to-one supervision (n = 17) and observations of everyday case-talk (n = 21). A model of social work sensemaking is offered, consisting of three stages: (1) initial formulations, (2) developing the narrative and (3) adopted account. Across these stages, social workers engage in different forms of sensemaking activity, such as case framing, testing and weighing information, and generating hypotheses. Collegial and supervisory case-talk provide opportunities for social workers to scrutinize their developing narratives; however, some forms of case-talk can limit or shortcut sensemaking. This model has applications for practitioners and organizations as a tool to promote reflection on how social workers make sense of their cases. Further recommendations include social workers having access to formal and informal reflective spaces where sensemaking case-talk can take place.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)949-959
Number of pages11
JournalChild & Family Social Work
Issue number4
Early online date23 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023

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