Emotions and social work practice

  • Richard David Ingram

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis examines the role that emotions have within social work practice. The key tenets of the literature relating to emotions are considered and a conceptual framework is proposed which will provide a conceptual and definitional underpinning to the thesis. Emotions and emotional intelligence are located within wider social work literature, and links are established with reflective practice, relationships with service users, social work skills, policy, legislation and supervision.

    Social workers across a Scottish local authority were asked to respond to a survey questionnaire and a selected cohort from this sample participated in semi-structured interviews based on the emerging themes from the survey. The data reported a complex picture of the role of emotions with a key challenge being the place of emotions within constructs of ‘being professional’. There was strong evidence that the relationship based aspects of practice were felt to be important and that emotions often were a key element and a useful tool, but this was counterbalanced by a strong view that the emotional content of practice should be removed from the written articulation of practice and in some cases from supervision. The value of informal support from colleagues was highlighted in terms of ‘safety’ and accessibility.

    The discussion of the results examines the impact of competing contextual factors such as professional narratives and organisational culture on how social workers experience and report the emotional content of their practice, and an ‘emotional gap’ is identified whereby social workers adopt a dramaturgical response to how they present aspects of their practice. The conceptual framework is considered in relation to the findings, and it is concluded that emotions are an inescapable aspect of the individual and collective experience of social work, in spite of the aforementioned contextual issues. Conclusions and implications for practice are drawn, and a model is developed which identifies the cultural and organisational shift required to reduce the perceived disjuncture between emotions and social work as a profession.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorJennifer Harris (Supervisor) & Sharon Jackson (Supervisor)


    • Emotions
    • Social work
    • Supervision
    • Relationships
    • Professionalism
    • Organisational culture

    Cite this