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.