Abstract: Professional Discretion and Resistance Among Rural, Direct-Line Social Workers Under Neoliberal Managerialism (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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299P Professional Discretion and Resistance Among Rural, Direct-Line Social Workers Under Neoliberal Managerialism

Friday, January 13, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Jessica Mendel, MSW, PhD Student, University of Minnesota
Jacob Otix, MSW, PhD Student, University of Minnesota
Ruti Soffer-Elnekave, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Minnesota
Jessica Toft, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota
Molly Calhoun, Associate Professor, California State University
Mingyang Zheng, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota

Rural communities receive little attention in social work research, despite being frequently classified as underserved areas.

Neoliberal managerialism applies business management to human services. It emphasizes worker productivity and efficiency, monitoring, incentives, sanctions, and practice standardization (Levy et al, 2012). Managerialism contradicts professional discretion, wherein society grants professions autonomy due to the complex nature of the work, need for specialized knowledge, established ethics, and licensed supervision. Ideally, professional social workers have discretion to engage their knowledge, values, and skills to promote the common good, defending against market or state interests. Managerialism may also limit professional discretion by compelling social workers to compromise their ethics, choose between agency rules and client interests, and decrease their commitment to reform (Zelnick & Abramovitz, 2020). Resistance research finds social workers may bend the rules, alter reports, and do unpaid work (Horton, 2006).

Although much of the state of Minnesota is considered rural, very little scholarship exists which examines the particular experiences of rural social workers under neoliberal managerialism. Rural areas are often considered underserved, and rural social workers may carry higher caseloads and cover vast county areas. Therefore, it is possible rural social workers are uniquely impacted by neoliberal managerialism. There is much to be learned about how rural direct line social workers experience professional discretion within the neoliberalized workplace, and resist the pressures of managerialism.

Our study asks:

  1. To what extent are rural, direct-line social workers able to exercise professional discretion?
  2. To what extent are rural, direct-line workers resisting neoliberal managerialism in their workplace?


All licensed Minnesota social workers were invited to complete an online survey about their working conditions via Qualtrics. Among respondents (n=3,662), 220 self-described as rural and direct-line. Participants were asked to respond to questions about their practice, extent of managerialism, breadth of professional discretion, and acts of resistance. Measures were sourced from a literature scoping review, prior workforce studies, team’s professional experience, and expert consultation (scale validation ongoing).


Professional discretion: 88.9% of respondents felt their ability to address client issues at the macro level was limited to a problematic extent, while 83% felt their ability to shape practice according to client social/economic/political history was limited to a problematic extent. Sixty-four percent of respondents felt their ability to incorporate the ecological framework was limited to a problematic extent, and 54.8% felt their ability to engage with other agencies in support of clients was limited to a problematic extent.

Resistance: Fifty-two percent of respondents reported loosely interpreting eligibility and assessment guidelines, while 32% reported practicing outside of management-approved interventions. Fifty-three percent of respondents reported organizing with coworkers against management policies.


Given the increasing presence of neoliberal managerialism in social work, an understanding of how this phenomenon specifically impacts rural social work is essential. Most notable in this study are the reportedly prevalent limitations to professional discretion, coupled with notably lower levels of resistance. More research is needed to understand how these phenomena operate in rural social work, and how it may impact direct practice.