The field of migration research has long theorized about processes of blending, crossing, and bridging social boundaries. Massey and Sanchez (2010) describe two processes by which these boundaries are established and challenged. First, members of the host society use the social psychological process of framing to socially locate immigrants as more or less favorable, either emphasizing irreconcilable differences which render them outsiders (a bright boundary) or focusing on attributes of an immigrant group that are perceived as desirable additions to society (a blurred boundary). The second process is boundary work (2010). Boundary work is the social process of creating mechanisms that facilitate or inhibit interactions between native-born and immigrant groups, thereby generating conditions which further their inclusion or exclusion. In a stratified society, the in-group generally has the power to control framing and boundary work, the goal and result of which maintains and justifies ongoing exploitation and exclusion (2010). Our study examines how school social workers (SSWs) engage in boundary work—specifically, how SSWs influence the meaning and content of the social categories defined by boundaries which structure the lives of immigrant students—and how this boundary work is shaped by the racialized organizations (schools) in which they are embedded.
This paper is based on data collected from in-depth interviews with SSWs in immigrant-serving schools (n=55). The phone-based interviews ranged from 30 – 90 minutes and were audio-recorded and professionally transcribed. The theory-informed interview guide examines how SSWs assess the needs of immigrant students, make decisions about referrals, and choose who should receive which types of resources. We used nVivo to thematically code the transcribed interviews and used boundary work as our framework.
We find that boundaries are brightened or blurred in the daily interactions SSWs have with immigrant students. These interactions are informed by SSW’s positionalities and meaning derived from these interactions. SSWs operate within the constraints of the schools where they work and, at times, in opposition to those bureaucratic structures. These constraints include structural features, such as policies and administrative leadership style, rules (formal and informal), and resources (material and social) that govern who gets what within schools. In the case of immigrant-serving schools, these structures and actions are shaped by the racialization of immigrant students.
Conclusion and Implications
Building on Ray’s (2019) theory of organizational racialization, we locate the boundary-blurring actions of SSWs within organizational contexts (schools) where racialized relations are often constitutive of daily operations. As meso-level racial structures, schools reproduce racial inequality by distributing resources in ways that often brighten social boundaries, thereby becoming the engines which replicate and, ultimately, institutionalize larger racial structures (Ray, 2009). Even within these contexts, SSWs can take actions which blur rather than brighten social boundaries for immigrant students. We provide practice and policy recommendations that support SSWs as innovative actors whose boundary blurring interventions can directly challenge these racial structures in immigrant-serving schools.