- Tales of Wayward Girls and Immoral Women: Case Records and the Professionalization of Social Work
Karen W. Tice provides an extremely thought-provoking and theoretically sophisticated work that will prove invaluable to anyone doing research in social history. The voluminous case records of social service agencies have provided the primary sources for many recent studies in social welfare, criminal justice, and women’s history. Tice argues that while some historians have expressed [End Page 472] “methodological uneasiness” over such sources, recognizing that they may express as much about their authors as their subjects, no historian has focused on the case records themselves or sought to analyze the shifting conventions employed by front-line social workers in their construction. This is precisely the goal that Tice sets for herself, and one which she achieves with great clarity, skill, and insight.
Tice employs a sophisticated Foucauldian perspective. She sees casework as embodying the emergence of the modern disciplinary “gaze.” This gaze was based on the “detailed observation of individuals, their habits and histories, and the redefinition of persons as cases, objects, sights, and appearances...whereby they are controlled and arranged.” (25) However, this Progressive-era lust for knowledge of the other also brought front-line social workers into a much more intimate relationship with their clients than that experienced by more detached and esteemed professionals. Female social workers probed women’s kitchen pots, went shopping with their young clients for intimate personal items, and knew first-hand poverty’s misery and degradation. Moreover, the fact that social work lacked “theoretical rigidity” meant that their narratives, as well as their relationships, offered “truths” that differed significantly from those of other disciplines. Unlike psychiatry and psychology, the narratives produced by social workers were characterized by considerable diversity and rarely yielded “tidy resolutions.”
The book is divided into six chapters. In the first, “‘I’ll Be Watching You’: The Advent of the Case Record,” Tice traces the origins of the case record to the scientific charity organization movement of the 1870s. Under the slogan “charitable efficiency,” philanthropists championed a modern, scientific approach to charity work, one which emphasized data collection, investigation, and documentation. By 1890 charity organization societies were established in over a hundred cities. Many organized central registration bureaus where case files from many different agencies were stored. These central bureaus, championed as a means for facilitating interagency cooperation, greatly extended the police powers of social welfare agencies. For example, by the mid-1890s the New York Charity Organization Society had files on 170,000 individuals and Chicago’s had over half a million names. Yet until the 1920s these case records remained “meager, terse, and haphazard,” often consisting of little more than ledger-book entries and one-word descriptions.
In Chapter Two, “Case Records and Professional Legitimization,” Tice analyzes the published writings, textbooks, and debates between leaders in the emerging, female-dominated field of social work and their predominantly male critics in psychiatry and psychology. Gender was central to how social work was perceived. Social work leaders opposed the ideal of “maternal benevolence” and argued against traditional beliefs that women were uniquely suited for charity, reform, or professional social work. The creation of seemingly “scientific” and “objective” case records played a central role in the professionalization of the discipline and the construction of social work authority.
The next three chapters focus on the actual practice of “front-line” social workers. Because fears of hereditary degeneracy informed much of the Progressive-era social welfare practices, women and girls became the primary objects of investigation, classification, and documentation. In “The Rescue of Juvenile [End Page 473] Fragments: The Case of ‘Hazel,’” Tice offers an extremely thoughtful analysis of a single case study. She then develops a broader analysis based on 150 case files gathered from child protective societies, child-placing agencies, and family casework-relief agencies in Massachusetts and Minnesota. In the next two chapters Tice identifies two major typologies of case reports...