How do social work professionals construct asylum seekers as objects of knowledge and targets for intervention

  • Shepard Masocha

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Over the years, the issue of migrants seeking asylum in the United Kingdom has been the subject of increasing media and political attention. The need to provide asylum seekers with culturally sensitive services is widely acknowledged within social work. However, the social work profession continues to draw heavily on outdated views and definitions of racism mainly based on skin colour and biological categorisation. This is in spite of the fact that the late 20th century has witnessed the emergence of “new racism” (Barker, 1981) and xenoracism (Sivanandan, 2001). This thesis uses the concept of xenoracism as a framework for understanding the ever-shifting parameters of exclusionary discourses, and seeks to provide a more in-depth understanding of current social policy for asylum seekers. It achieves this through an analysis of media, governmental and parliamentary discourses on the issues of immigration and asylum. This approach is based on an understanding of how asylum seekers as a social group are constructed and how this process – underpinned by xenoracism – plays a pivotal role in influencing the ways in which social policies relating to asylum seekers are formulated. The study argues that the construction of social policies relating to asylum seekers is inherently racist and as such is in direct conflict with social work’s value system.

    The study utilises discursive social psychology (Taylor, 2001, Potter and Wetherell, 1987)), as a methodology for understanding the various ways in which asylum seekers are constructed. This strand of discourse analysis is employed to examine the ways in which society talks and writes about asylum seekers, the social cognition that is the basis of the existing discourses, the socio-political and cultural functions of such discourses and their specific roles in the reproduction of social inequalities.

    The thesis explores the ways in which asylum seekers are constructed in social work professionals’ discourses. The study identifies a number of interpretative repertoires and linguistic resources that are deployed by social work professionals in their attempts to construct asylum seekers as objects of knowledge. The study illustrates that in addition to their professional discourses and repertoires social work professionals also draw on media and parliamentary discourses as discursive resources in their constructions of asylum seekers. These social work professionals’ discourses are shown to be argumentatively organised and oriented to these macro discourses. In this respect, this thesis establishes an understanding of how asylum seekers are constructed by social work professionals as it pays particular attention to the ideological basis of such constructs.

    The thesis also explores the everyday practices of social work professionals with asylum seeking service users and the specific ways in which these professionals explain and legitimate their practice with asylum seekers. Through paying attention to practitioners’ accounting practices, this study provides an insight into some of the ways in which social work professionals produce accounts of competent social work practice and how this is an integral part of a defensive social work discourse.

    This thesis highlights the fact that language is one of the central vehicles through which social work takes place. As such, the analysis of social work discourse in its own right as a topic of analysis is a legitimate area of social work research which can lead to an in-depth and enhanced understanding of social work practice. By using discourse analysis as a methodology, this thesis provides a new perspective for understanding not only social work practice with asylum seekers but also some of the concerns regarding the profession’s complicity in racist and oppressive practice.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMurray Simpson (Supervisor), Fernando Lannes Fernandes (Supervisor) & Sharon Jackson (Supervisor)


    • Asylum seekers
    • Language use
    • Discourse
    • Social work

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