Session: Constructing Boundaries: Using Ethnography to Study the Organization-Environment Dialectic (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

164 Constructing Boundaries: Using Ethnography to Study the Organization-Environment Dialectic

Friday, January 18, 2019: 5:15 PM-6:45 PM
Golden Gate 6, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
Cluster: Organizations & Management (O&M)
Symposium Organizer:
Matthew Spitzmueller, PhD, Syracuse University
Yvonne Smith, PhD, Syracuse University
Social work scholarship has long observed a dialectic between organizations and their environments. On the one hand, for example, organizational evaluation typically begins with assessment of the task environment, which includes population characteristics, government regulations, and the broader political economy. On the other, organizations adopt community-building strategies to create environments that are more just and equitable for their clients. Previous scholarship thus tends to theorize a mutually reinforcing and co-constitutive relationship between organizations and their environments. Yet, there is little scholarship that investigates how situated actors themselves formulate the distinction. As opposed to assuming a pre-existing distinction, how are boundaries between organizations and environments produced, managed, and contested in social work practice?

This panel is designed to reflect on the usefulness of ethnographic methods for studying social work practice in real-world contexts. It consists of four ethnographic studies, each of which analyzes a case from social work practice that unsettles or troubles the distinction between organizations and environments. Together, these studies ask: How is the distinction between organizations and environments drawn? Under what conditions is this boundary challenged? And, what are the implications of this distinction for social work practice and the socially and economically vulnerable individuals practitioners serve?

The first study investigates Medicaid redesign in New York State. It analyzes how policy environments and organizational alignments are remade and contested through political processes. The second study examines a web of organizations that aid people migrating without documentation through Mexico. It investigates how organizations use material signs instead of verbal markers to mediate the line between "safe spaces" and risky social environments. The third study explores how political discourse about moral freedom influences the organizational forms of community organizers in India. The paper demonstrates how the "ideological environment" shapes organizations, while at the same time confounding the distinction between what is internal to an organization and what is external in the environment. The fourth study examines how community health clinics in Caracas, Venezuela adapt their practices to meet elder care needs amid profound economic instability, violent crime, and food insecurity of the current crisis. It investigates how organizations navigate mounting environmental pressures, analyzing how practitioners and elderly patients strive to meet care needs with severely limited resources, safety risks, and growing malnutrition and destitution.

The purpose of this panel is twofold. First, the papers shed on light on how competing interests struggle to define and control organizational and environmental boundaries. This question is vital to social work, since boundary struggle has important implications for social work practice and the individuals and communities it aims to serve. Second, the four papers demonstrate how ethnography can be used to track how social work's key conceptual categories are given meaning and contested over time. The insights generated from this panel will be of interest to scholars who use qualitative methods to study social work practice in real-world sites of practice.

* noted as presenting author
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