The Nation's Gardeners: Social Work Professionalization and Interpretation Work in Scientific Adoption Practice, 1930-1960
Phillips, Patricia Ellen
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This dissertation examines the relationship between scientific knowledge, social work and the social practice of adoption in Ontario, from 1930-1960. It focuses on the role of social workers in public agencies, specifically the Protestant Childrens Aid Societies in Ontario, and voluntary relinquishments by unmarried mothers, within social welfare history. The study uses adoption as a site to explore the professionalization of social work and maintains that adoption was important as a professionalizing project of social workers. Existing scholarship on the growth of scientific expertise and the professions often overlooks the co-operative work required to make science work. By contrast, this study shows how social workers strengthened their own position by integrating developments in science, psychology and medicine in the management and assessment of adoptions. The dissertation interrogates the processes through which professional adoptions became the norm, by focusing on the processes of translation, interpretation work and boundary work in adoption. These are analyzed as strategies that social workers used to improve their position within the system of professions and make adoption governable. The scientific approaches that came to shape social work practice and adoption were shaped by and contributed to nature-nurture debates, challenging narrow hereditarianism. Psychology and child development theories were used by social workers to assess the potential adoptability of children, the fitness of mothers and suitability of adoptive parents, leading to the creation of a new social category--the unadoptable child. This study contributes to sociological research in science studies and forms of governance that structured the development of social services. The rise of scientific adoption practice in the post war period coincided with changing notions of the family and the rise of the therapeutic state. The strategies of professionalization used by social workers helped to popularize new forms of knowledge and strengthen the link between the state and bio-medical authority in family making. The study of adoption raises important questions about the extent to which scientific knowledge and techniques can be used as a basis for discerning social obligations and collective responsibilities for those defined as strangers or kin.