The carceral existence of social work academics: a Foucauldian analysis of social work education in English universities

  • Diane Simpson
  • Sarah Amsler


Applying Foucault’s concepts of disciplinary power and technologies of the self to the ex-periences of social work academics in English universities, this articles reveals their carceral existences, arguing that social work academics and their students exist within a “carceral network” which controls and normalises behaviour by simultaneously trapping them with-in and excluding them from succeeding in academic practices. While social work academics become “docile bodies” as they are shaped and trained by competing norms of neoliberal higher education and professional social practice, their position as insiders and outsiders to both can also enable them to resist certain disciplinary expectations. The findings of the qualitative study discussed in this article support Foucault’s analysis of powerful institu-tions but problematise binary positions of docility or resistance to disciplinary power with-in them. Lived experiences of ‘becoming academic’ in English social work education reveal how normalising judgements and hierarchical observation intersect with neoliberal forms of responsibilisation to create a carcerality rooted in “incompetence”; how “technologies of relationships” are used to mediate individual forms of responsibilisation, and how having to negotiate multiple disciplinary regimes can create opportunities for resistance to each.

Author Biographies

Diane Simpson
Diane Simpson is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland, UK.  Diane has been involved in social work higher education since 2006 and previously worked for Teesside University and the University of Lincoln.  Diane continues to be a registered social worker with Social Work England.  Diane’s research interests are varied.  Her doctorate examined the experiences of social workers who become social work academics, examined through a Foucauldian theoretical framework.  Diane is also interested in co-production of research with students and has recently been the academic lead for a student as researcher project at Teesside University evaluating an undergraduate student buddying scheme. Increasingly, Diane has become involved in public health related research projects.
Sarah Amsler
Sarah Amsler is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, UK. Her work focuses on learning at the limits of the possible and with the 'otherwise', ontological politics in projects for systemic social change, pedagogies of possibility and hope, and problems of coloniality in educational practice. She has an interest in critical approaches to higher education policy studies.


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