European Conference of Social Work Research

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventConference participation


Positive and negative risk aversion: exploring blame, shame and practitioner agency in precautionary practice

Risk aversion – the tendency to err on the side of caution – is evident in social work, though our understanding of both its causes and effects is less clear. Although critics point to the role played by actuarial logic, actually risk aversion cannot be reductively attributed to actuarial knowledge strategies but instead is better theorized as a function of practice in an environment in which social worker concerns regarding blame and shame are very real. In this paper I draw on empirical data to explore two related questions. Firstly, how do blame and shame intersect with individual practitioner subjectivities in actual incidents of precautionary practice? Secondly, should risk aversion necessarily be regarded as a negative phenomenon? The key argument of the paper is that practitioners themselves specify ‘varieties’ of risk aversion, discernible by reference to their own agentic motivations. In some instances, practitioners recognise precautionary practices as driven by fear of the consequences for themselves of ‘failure’, usually potential ‘false negatives’ and the attendant attribution and inculcation of blame and shame. Here, exclusionary or inhibitory judgments are justified by reference to concerns regarding safety or harmful behaviour. They also, however, specify instances in which, on the basis of considered deliberation, they quite intentionally impose such measures on service users because they believe this is the right thing to do. Here, collective well-being is privileged ahead of the service users right to self-determination, and risk aversion reconstituted as necessary and reasonable. These findings raise questions regarding the assumptions that underpin discourses of risk, safety and partnership, and I conclude the paper with some discussion of their implications for these ongoing debates.
Period11 Apr 2019
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational